Native Americans have been lied about more often than any portion of the American population. One major reason why this is true is that history textbooks depict them through “white eyes.” To be fair, textbooks’ accounts of Native American history have improved in recent decades; they include more biographies of specific Native Americans and more accounts of historical events from Native American perspectives. Nevertheless, textbooks continue to take a biased view of Europeans’ relations with Native Americans. To correct such biases, Loewen says, we must look at history through “red eyes.”
Building off of the point he made at the end of the last chapter, Loewen acknowledges that textbooks’ depiction of Native Americans isn’t entirely ethnocentric—in fact, textbooks have gotten better at writing about Native Americans in recent years. Yet despite this, there is always something inherently biased about writing only from a white perspective—as Loewen will demonstrate (albeit through the potentially offensive image of “red eyes”).
The first mistake that textbooks make about Native American history is to adopt a tone of certainty about the origins of the Native Americans. There is tremendous controversy about when and how the earliest Americans arrived; some archaeologists believe the first Americans were herders who arrived about 70,000 years ago; others say they arrived much more recently. Some textbooks make the mistake of saying that the earliest Americans “accidentally” discovered two new continents, or “did not realize” what they’d discovered. The Native Americans were skilled navigators—they must have realized that they’d found a new, unexplored land mass.
The notion that a large group of people could have “accidentally” discovered America is pure ethnocentrism. The Native Americans were good navigators, so, if anything, their discovery of America was far less “accidental” than Columbus’s (since, after all, Columbus believed he was sailing to India).
Textbooks also assume that the earliest Americans were not “civilized,” because they had no agriculture and warred frequently. In truth, civilizations aren’t necessarily peaceful or agricultural (and indeed, Western, agricultural societies have been some of the most violent in history). Native Americans had their own sophisticated civilizations, which were markedly different from those of the Europeans. But by representing the Native Americans as primitive and disorganized, textbooks create the impression that the Native Americans were “ripe for conquest” by the enlightened European powers.
While anthropology and history have become more politically correct and open-minded in recent decades, high school history textbooks still seem to be locked in a time when historians considered non-agricultural societies “primitive.” There is no rule that agricultural societies are more advanced than non-agricultural societies—and anyone who says so is probably guilty of ethnocentric bias.
Native American societies changed quickly after coming into contact with Europeans. They adopted European technologies and foods, and built in the European style. European settlers deliberately played different Native American tribes against one another, using a “divide and conquer” strategy. Victorious tribes sometimes sold defeated tribesmen as slaves to Europeans in return for guns, kettles, and other goods. Too many history textbooks repeat the cliché that Native Americans “didn’t make good slaves,” but in fact, Native Americans worked as settlers’ slaves for hundreds of years.
In the previous chapter, Loewen already established that European explorers enslaved Native Americans; here, he expands on this point, showing how, for centuries, European settlers used Native American slaves to further their ends, and traded slaves with other Native American tribes.
Another big mistake that textbooks make is to represent the American West as a “frontier” or a “wilderness.” Both words imply that America was an uncivilized, wild place that needed to be developed by European settlers. European settlers were just as profoundly influenced by Native American culture as Native Americans were influenced by European culture. Indeed, there were thousands of European settlers in the early 18th century who chose to live as Native Americans, rather than spreading their own civilization across the “wilderness.” Settlers praised Native Americans for their democracy and equality; indeed, settlers may have borrowed practices such as the town hall meeting from natives. When protesters at the famous Boston Tea Party sabotaged a British ship, they were dressed as Mohawks—not because the Mohawks were unruly, but because settlers admired the Mohawks’ organization and democracy.
Paralleling Loewen’s discussion of the European consciousness in Chapter Two, the concept of a “wilderness” necessarily implies the existence of some stable “civilization” to balance it out. However, contrary to the idea that most textbooks imply, many early settlers saw the Native Americans as organized, idealistic, and democratic, rather than disorganized or wild. Loewen’s allusion to the Boston Tea Party is another good example of how he links together different historical episodes to reinforce an idea (and, also, a good example of how history textbooks misrepresent events like the Boston Tea Party).
For two hundred years, European settlers fought dozens of small and large wars with Native Americans. Some textbooks have taken the important step forward of admitting that European settlers were often the aggressors in such conflicts—for instance, at the Wounded Knee Massacre. But even such textbooks still give the impression that the natives were stubborn and unwilling to cooperate with reasonable Europeans. One textbook notes that the U.S. government offered land and money to the Native Americans, but the natives refused to accept it—perpetuating the fallacy that American land was the U.S. government’s property to give away.
Although textbooks had made some progress toward representing Native Americans in a more fair, respectful way, too many textbooks repeat the standard line on Native American history; namely, that Native Americans refused to comply with European settlers (when, by all appearances, the reverse was true).
It’s important that we recognize the “Indian-ness of some of our wars.” In the 17th and early 18th centuries, Europe fought four major wars on American soil, all of which included huge numbers of native casualties. Significant numbers of natives fought in the War of 1812, as well as the Civil War and the Mexican American War. In all cases, natives mostly aligned with a European power against American colonies (and later, the U.S.), recognizing that Europe would be more likely to honor their human rights.
History textbooks don’t talk about the Native Americans who fought in American wars, usually on the side of European powers and against settlers. One reason they might omit such information is that it would stress the clash between settlers and Native Americans, emphasizing the point that settlers, for all their talk of democracy and equality, weren’t interested in protecting native rights.
One of the most dangerous fallacies in history textbooks is that Native Americans had a strange, pre-modern understanding of property. It’s well-known that Dutch settlers bought Manhattan from Manhat natives for “a pile of beads”; the anecdote is usually interpreted to mean that the natives didn’t understand the principle of ownership or the potential of their land. What the anecdote omits is that the Dutch accidentally paid the wrong tribe, the Canarsees, and that the Manhat spent the next decade fighting for control of their own land. Another well-known “fact” from history textbooks is that Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the U.S by buying Louisiana from France. Textbooks ignore the fact that the land wasn’t France’s to sell; it had been stolen from Native Americans through a series of fraudulent transactions, and the U.S. continued to fight natives in Louisiana for control of the land for the next century.
Loewen argues that textbooks use the history of Manhattan’s purchase as an example of Native American foolishness or ignorance of property laws, when, in fact, the episode suggests Dutch settlers’ inability to honor contracts. (However, Loewen doesn’t offer a thorough explanation of the Native Americans’ understanding of property to counteract this—he doesn’t give other examples of Native American property rights, or explain why the Native Americans accepted a relatively small amount for Manhattan.) By focusing on the controversy between America and France, textbooks obscure the real controversy between settlers and Native Americans surrounding ownership of Louisiana.
When discussing the War of 1812, many textbooks suggest that the main outcome of the war was “a feeling of pride as a nation,” or even the composition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In truth, the War of 1812 deprived Native Americans of most of their land in the Northeast. And culturally, the War of 1812 reduced natives to “savages” in the eyes of many European settlers, where previously, natives had been heroes and icons to many.
The War of 1812 is one of the least-understood wars in American history classes, and Loewen suggests that this might be because history textbooks are concealing the real impact of the fight. On a cultural level, the war caused most European-Americans to conceive of Native Americans as wild and contemptible.
By the middle of the 19th century, the United States government had made it its explicit mission to exterminate Native Americans—at the same time that European nations such as Britain and Germany were exterminating the native populations of Tasmania and Namibia. Adolf Hitler is known to have admired the prison camps in which U.S. troops kept Native Americans, and in some ways he modeled Nazi concentration camps on them.
Loewen’s argument that the government aimed to wipe out Native Americans in the U.S. is shocking, in part because it differs so greatly from the anesthetized, “rosy” view of history that most textbooks convey. Textbooks do not, for instance, talk about the prison camps where soldiers kept Native Americas before executing them. (Conservative critics were particularly irritated with this passage from Lies My Teacher Told Me, and singled it out in their negative book reviews.)
Studying American history, one must confront a difficult question: could whites and natives have lived together in peace? From the beginning, there were major obstacles to peaceful coexistence: in Virginian legal courts, for instance, natives were denied all rights, and European settlers encroached on native land throughout North America. Nevertheless, there may have been cases in which natives and whites assimilated and formed one society. Students often learn about the Roanoke colony that mysteriously disappeared; Roanoke is often presented as an example of Native American treachery. But some historians believe that the Roanoke settlers simply joined the nearby Croatoan tribe and adopted their lifestyle. There were some cases of natives marrying European settlers—an important step towards peaceful coexistence—but in most English colonies, there were laws that prohibited intermarriage between whites and natives. It’s also possible that natives could have survived as an autonomous state within the U.S. Instead of dealing with the ambiguities of white-native coexistence, textbooks present a far more simplistic narrative: Europeans tried to civilize the natives, failed, and then proceeded to “dispossess” them of their land.
It is difficult for historians to answer the question Loewen poses here, because it’s an untestable hypothetical. However, Loewen offers many examples of cooperation and unification between Europeans and Native Americans (the possibility that the Roanoke settlers assimilated with the Native Americans is another good example of how textbooks omit ambiguity to create a simplified, ethnocentric account of the past). As before, Loewen’s point isn’t that Native Americans definitely could have lived in peace with European settlers; rather, he argues that textbooks should at least suggest such a possibility, rather than portraying the conquest of North America as a predestined, near-mythic event.
One reason why the standard history textbook narrative about white-native relations is wrong is that many natives did try to assimilate with white society and found that they weren’t wanted. Some Cherokee natives joined white society in Virginia, learned English, purchased property, and went to church. But they were usually harassed by their neighbors. Native chiefs were often passionate advocates for equal protection under U.S. law: they wanted the same rights as U.S. citizens so that they couldn’t be killed or intimidated. Without equal rights, however, natives could never be fully acculturated with white America.
Textbooks tend to put the blame on Native Americans for failing to get along with European settlers—not the other way around. In doing so, textbooks ignore the considerable evidence that many Native Americans did try to assimilate with European colonies, and were rejected. Loewen’s discussion of failed assimilation anticipates his analysis of racism in the following two chapters.
How should textbooks present the history of Native Americans? To begin with, Loewen says, they shouldn’t present Native American history as a history of evil white people versus saintly natives. There were many white people in American history—the Quakers, the Presbyterians, the Whigs—who strongly wanted to treat natives with respect and compassion. Furthermore, textbooks must convey the fact that natives and whites influenced each other’s cultures in profound ways. In doing so, textbooks can dispel the racist myth that native cultures are uncivilized or backwards, and suggest that the United States can continue to learn from Native Americans.
Loewen wants to stress that textbooks shouldn’t demonize white settlers and beatify Native Americans; such an account of history would be just as wrong as the version textbooks present now. Rather, history textbooks need to convey the sense of an equal exchange between European settlers and Native Americans—a reciprocal exchange of technology, food, religion, and even political ideals.