Expanding Our Definition of American History


Robert Kelly When I first heard about a class called “American Civilizations,” I was immediately intrigued. I imagined learning about the origins of civilization through the Olmec, Norte Chico and the complex cultures that inhabited ancient Illinois, maybe even learning about my own ethnic ancestry through the Inca. But, I was disappointed when I found out I had just misread the title of a class called “American Civilization” (no S), and by “American,” they meant the U.S.A. I was complaining to a friend about how this mistake made me realize that we didn’t learn enough about Native American Civilizations in school, when they responded with something that shocked me: “What do you mean civilizations? Are there even any civilizations that we could learn about?” I was confused. “What do you mean?” “Like, weren’t they just a bunch of tribes and stuff? It’s not like they had actual nations or anything.” This response both astonished and saddened me, while also reaffirming my prior belief that we did not learn nearly enough about Native Americans in school; however, it could just be this one person that doesn’t know much about Native American culture, so I turned and asked the other person next to me: “You know that Native Americans had, like, nations with actual borders and things, right?” “Yes, but only the “Five Civilized Tribes,” was their response. Things had only gotten worse. Not only were both people completely unaware of most if not all the Native American civilizations that existed prior to the U.S., but they also were affected by misinformation and biases that occur when examining Amerindian cultures through a Western lens. Before I wrote anything, I wanted to survey both the student body’s opinion on learning about indigenous American cultures as well as their general knowledge on the subject, so made a Google poll that asked questions categorized into four subgroups: past learning of Amerindian civilizations, opinion on education of Amerindian civilizations, knowledge on Amerindian civilizations, and knowledge about Amerindian civilizations in the context of colonization. These were the most important findings from the survey: Most people had learned the Maya and Aztec (92% of people), and the Iroquois and Inca were in second (64%). The cultures least learned about in school were Inuit, Mapuche, and Norte Chico (0% of people surveyed) along with Olmec (7%). Most cultures indigenous to the U.S, such as Cherokee, Sioux, and Cahokian were studied by between 25% to 50% of people surveyed. I was not surprised by these findings, due certain characteristics of these cultures. The Maya, Inca, and Aztec all had many aspects we associate with “civilization”, like empires, large cities, and advanced agriculture. The Iroquois didn’t build large cities cities nor have advanced sedentary agriculture, but they did have a complex form of government similar to our own. In contrast, the Inuit and Mapuche were disjointed for most of history. However, I struggled to come up with an explanation for why they hadn’t learned about the Olmec or Norte Chico civilization, as both are in areas believed by historians to be “cradles of civilizations”, similar to Mesopotamia. While many reported learning about at least some Amerindian cultures, the next part of the poll showed a general lack of knowledge. 68% of those surveyed reported that they “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed” that they had learned sufficient information about indigenous American civilizations, with only 19% responding “agree” or “strongly agree”. In the next question, 88% of those surveyed said that their knowledge of indigenous American civilizations was “low” or “very low”, with only 8% saying “high”, and 0% saying “very high”. Interestingly, most of those that responded that they had learned sufficient knowledge about indigenous American civilizations also replied that their knowledge of these cultures was low. To me, this showed a possible feeling that Native American cultures were not that important to learn about. This led onto the next question: is U.S. history more or less important than Native American history? 50% responded “more” or “much more”, 44% responded “neither more nor less”, and 6% responded “less”. To me, this showed about an even split in the student body. Around half felt that U.S. History should be focused on more heavily than Native American history, whereas the other half felt that the two histories should be held to the same quota. The second portion of the survey was directly assessing the participant’s knowledge of indigenous American cultures. 56% answered correctly that some Native American cultures had nations with borders, and some were loosely organized tribes, and the rest (44%) either responded that Native Americans did not have nations and only had tribal borders, or that they did not have nations or borders, only tribes. Again, there was an even split, this time between those who knew about the existence of Native American nations and those who didn’t. The responses depicted how few people know anything whatsoever about Native American civilizations. Only one person surveyed knew that the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan is considered by many historians one of the most populous cities in the world during the pre-Columbian era (Paris, Florence, and Constantinople are also considered to be in this category, and one person did answer with a different correct answer, Paris).  I threw this question out not expecting anyone to actually know the answer–I wanted to see how people responded to infer some biases. Because even on a poll specifically about indigenous American civilizations, almost everyone guessed a European, North African, or Asian city. Finally, the last few questions regarded American civilizations in the context of Western interaction. Most people were at or near the correct answer when asked what percentage of indigenous Americans died as a direct or indirect result of Western colonization, with the most people answering 99%, 90%, or 70% (it is believed to be around 90%). When asked the simple question of whether or not Columbus had landed in any part of what we now called the U.S.A, 81% incorrectly answered that he did, showing some confusion about the role of Columbus in U.S. history. Ok, so you just read a bunch of poll data with a little bit of interpretation. But, what is the large point that I am trying to make with it? First, Latin students as a whole simply do not know very much about Native American civilizations. Both the opinion-based questions and the assessment questions showed a lack of understanding or study of many essential Native American cultures. However, one thing that surprised me was that while most claimed that they had a low knowledge of Native American civilizations, nearly all knew that the majority of these populations had died due to colonization. I believe this is due to the fact that we often learn about Amerindian cultures in Western-focused contexts. In sixth grade, I learned about the Inca, but I did not learn about their conquests, architecture, or road systems– I learned about them during a unit called “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” where we learned about how some groups’ bad “geographic luck” caused them to be technologically disadvantaged, which then led to their imminent destruction. In ninth grade, we learned about the Aztec for about a day, and then immediately moved onto studying the city built on its ruins, Mexico City. This feels eerily similar to how we treat Native American history and U.S. history. The U.S.A is built on the ruins of Native American civilizations, but we only focus on them for a little bit before moving on to what we consider “our” history. Many people may not consider learning about these cultures to be important compared to cultures from Ancient Greece, China, the Indus River Valley, and of course, the U.S. itself. Additionally, I think that 100% of the student body should at least know that Native Americans had nations. Before 1776 and before 1492, there were people living where Americans do now, and though they were not called American, these people must still be considered to be a part of our history. When I went on an exchange program in China, I remember thinking that they had so much history while we only had around 250 years. But we do have thousands of years of American history. We just need to expand our definition of “American.” I don’t want to look at these civilizations merely as ruined and defeated. While Ancient Greece fell, when we study it we don’t focus solely on the Romans conquering it. Instead, we focus on the philosophers and advancements that are still around today. Similarly, when we study Native Americans, we should not only look at colonization and death, but also at the unique innovations and beautiful things that each culture brought, which still persist in American culture today.]]>