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The Sugarcoating of Native American History
Andrew Ng
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I learned about Christopher Columbus in elementary school, sitting with the other 2nd graders on a checkered carpet of many vibrant colors. Occasionally, one kid would squeal or giggle, but we were mostly attentive to the lesson. We learned that he was a heroic explorer who had discovered America. I immediately looked up to him as an important man in the long history that had gotten the United States where it is today.

I’m Asian-American, but it didn’t feel odd to me that most of the role models I learned about in school were white men. From the start, my education was Eurocentric, meaning the focus was mostly on European culture. So it made sense that the person who found America was another white guy.

We learned that Columbus was sent by a queen to sail to India, but accidentally ended up in the Caribbean islands. My teacher wrote the names of Columbus’s three ships on the board—the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. My perception of Columbus at the end of the lesson was that he was a brave explorer.

I had no idea how he had mistreated the indigenous people until I was in 4th grade and read a book on my own about the landing of Columbus in the Americas from the perspective of a young Native Taino boy. The book is called Encounter and was written by Jane Yolen. The narrator refers to Columbus as an “invader” which started to shift my thinking about this “hero.”

I didn’t learn much about Native Americans until social studies class in 8th grade. There, while covering United States history, we had a lesson based on the painting American Progress by John Gast and the concept of “manifest destiny.” Sprawled across the painting was a larger-than-life white woman, levitating in the air, helping build America as the white men below her walked toward the left, or west, side of the painting, into the “uninhabited” land.

My teacher said the woman represented Lady Liberty, adding that “she symbolized freedom.”

“At the time, expansion westward was based on the principle of ‘manifest destiny.’ This means that development is inevitable, and that expansion westward will only benefit the United States,” he said. European-Americans used manifest destiny to justify annexing Texas from Mexico and to take the whole West from the Native Americans.

Holes in the Lesson

My teacher pointed out that the woman was holding a cable and that a red train ran below her, to symbolize innovation and trade.

Then the teacher said, “Do you see these people in the painting? They are Native Americans. They lived here before, but they were moved to other places in America called reservations.”

I hadn’t noticed the Native Americans, but once they caught my eye, I was intrigued by them. They wore feathers in their hair instead of hats. They had arrows instead of axes. They had horses instead of trains. They seemed more real and like they had more of a culture.

The bell rang. By the next day, it seemed everybody had forgotten about the Native Americans. Looking back, I realize there were so many holes in the lesson. We never learned what reservations were, and how Native Americans were rounded up and forced onto these reservations. Many from the East had already been forcibly removed or killed.

The white colonizers at the time had various justifications including that their Christian religion and more sophisticated technology gave them the right to all the land in the West. They also reasoned that since the indigenous people weren’t farming the land, it wasn’t theirs to begin with.

I became fascinated with other cultures. People and their history intrigued me, so when I received an application for an advanced history class called AP Human Geography, I decided to take it.

Accurately Representing History

It was the best class I’ve ever taken. Sure, it was tough because it was a college level course, but my teacher was passionate about cultural diversity and accurately representing history. We learned about Sub-Saharan African history, Middle Eastern history, East Asian history, South Asian history, and Latin American history, which included a lot of conquering and colonization by Europeans.

image by YC-Art Dept

When we covered urbanization, my teacher made sure that we learned about how the poor people in the U.S. (disproportionately African Americans and other minorities) were the ones to suffer through horrible conditions. For example, she showed us a documentary about how affordable housing projects were set up to fail, and how the residents living there were exposed to high levels of crime and poor sanitation.

These units shocked me. The class awakened me to the concept of Eurocentricity and how history was written to paint Europeans as generous people. That perception was beginning to break apart in my mind as I learned the true history.

This summer, I learned about more examples of history distorted by a “white filter.” Here in the U.S., white perspectives dominate our view of history. The history that we learn alters our perceptions of white people’s treatment of darker people. I learned about how Native Americans are mistreated and oppressed to this day.

Forced Assimilation

In the past, the U.S. government wanted to displace the Native Americans and take their land and resources, and they did so by killing them or by confining them to reservations. Our leaders signed treaties with the tribes, but then broke them if, for example, gold or oil was found on their land.

The U.S. government and the settlers eventually stopped killing Native Americans, but they kept practicing forced assimilation. One way they did this was by creating boarding schools for Native American kids. They stole young Native Americans from their families and put them in these schools far from home. They were not allowed to speak their language, practice their culture, or interact with their relatives. The ones who didn’t follow these rules were brutally punished.

Native Americans are still being treated unfairly today. I had heard of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but I didn’t know the full story.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s traditional territory was continually cut into smaller and smaller pieces of land because white settlers wanted to extract the gold that was there. Their stolen land was never restored to them.

In late 2016, it surfaced that a new oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, would cross under the Missouri River and Lake Oahe. The Standing Rock Sioux said construction of the pipeline violated their treaty rights to the reservation once again.

Today’s Battle for Standing Rock Sioux

What’s more, Lake Oahe is the primary water source for the Sioux Tribe, and many sacred tribal sites surround the lake. The Dakota Access Pipeline would threaten that water source and perhaps damage the sacred tribal sites. The tribe says it was not properly consulted before this construction, and you can imagine how betrayed they felt after that.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe decided that they had to take action. They built huge camps for peaceful protests next to the construction of the pipeline; some people stayed there for two years, inspiring both Native Americans and allies to join them. Yet the company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, responded with brute force last fall. They unleashed dogs that bit the protestors, who were peacefully defending their own land.

After Donald Trump became president, the pipeline supporters got their way, which angered people all over the world who had just heard about the issue. Although they didn’t succeed in stopping the pipeline, the protestors did raise awareness about what was happening. I admire their persistence and bravery.

After hearing about all that happened I felt helpless. It is shocking to me how the social injustice against Native Americans still persists today. I needed to do something, so I wrote this story. You can take action too by educating yourself on the issue and raising awareness.

For example, in the same way that I didn’t understand the whole story of Columbus until I sought out more information, many people don’t know the full story of the Dakota Access Pipeline because of biased or incomplete news reports. When you’re concerned about an issue, look for the facts from reputable news organizations. Read history that tells the story of all Americans, not just white people. Ask questions, and tell people the facts you learn. That way, we can help steer events in a more fair direction.


A More Complete History

Books to help you learn more about Native American history include Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (later made into an HBO movie) and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dubar-Ortiz. Native American authors writing today are Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich. Online publications that talk about Native American history include Indian Country Today (indiancountrymedianetwork.com) and Rethinking Columbus (part of Rethinking Schools: rethinkingschools.org).

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(NYC-2017-09-21)

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