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A career in Native American studies makes you the grammatical equivalent of a time machine. No sooner do people learn where you work, what you study, or what specific things you happen to be working on than they suddenly switch to past tense. Depending on the sympathies of the speaker, this may be accompanied by sad tones and slightly downcast eyes. Seriously, I’ve lost track of the number of times a few comments from me have led people to great moments of reflection about “what we have done to them” or some such theme.

These moments of introspective time-travel usually leave me with a bit of motion sickness. See, the thing is that people go back to the past like this when I am talking about perfectly contemporary issues. When I worked on the Navajo Nation, simply telling folks what I do for a living was often enough to send their souls searching through history for resolution of collective sins, real or imagined. In most cases, I don’t think folks had any real sense of the specifics in question, no real idea of just what Anglos had done to Navajos (or visa versa), for example. In most cases, I suspect the sudden trip to the past tense was filled with thoughts of generic cowboys and even more generic Indians, …who probably looked more like Lakota than Navajos anyway, at least in their imagination. In any event, the problem is simple enough; for far too many people Native Americans simply belong in the past tense, their issues are forever set in the past.

…and yes, I do wonder just how often Native Americans get this? It would be easy to imagine it must happen far more often to them, but perhaps it’s a white thing after all. I don’t remember getting this effect in the presence of natives, just when it’s me talking to my own, so to speak. It may well be that the change in tense is at least partly a function of a third person perspective, so to speak.

Anyway, I figure it makes it a Hell of a lot easier to be sorry about something if it happened a few generations back. Try to talk to people about issues such as uranium poisoning, forced relocation, or any number of contemporary issues, and they are less certain that what ‘we’ are doing to ‘them’ isn’t somehow justified, or at least necessary, or at least, …hey let’s just change the subject! But folks are happy to talk about Custer; wasn’t he a bastard!?!

Rarely do I get the sense that this sot of time warp is meant to provide historical perspective; often it strikes me as just one more way of changing the subject.

But of course somber regrets for crimes long forgotten are only the nice-guy half of this coin. Flip the quarter over and you get a range of narratives effectively using time to disclaim responsibility for these same crimes, perhaps even a comment to the effect that it’s best for Native Americans to put the past behind them. Occasionally people will actually tell me that reservations or casinos, etc. are attempts to pay for what ‘our ancestors’ did, and of course the point is always to suggest that such concessions are unfair to the rest of us.

And no, this time-to-forget theme is not limited to Native Americans. One has only to suffer his way through “The Accidental Racist” to hear Brad Paisley play precisely this shell game with history. I don’t have the stomach to parse the details of this terrible tune, but let’s just say that Brad is apparently paying for the mistakes of a southern past, and L.L. Cool Jay is happy to let bygones be bygones.

…Seriously, both of them should have known better.

It’s funny those who support the rebel flag are always prepared to discuss its significance in the civil war. Rarely do they want to comment on its use in opposition to the civil rights movement.  History textbooks probably don’t make this much easier, telling us that slavery ended with the close of the civil war. Sure they note the existence of debt peonage and Jim Crow Laws, etc., but that is a more complex story. The morality tale for most people ends at Appomattox. I suspect it is the story of slavery that many will imagine when they ask why African-Americans have trouble putting the past behind them. The notion that some folks can still remember when there was real danger in looking a white person in the eye just seems to escape a lot of people.

But what’s past isn’t equally past for all people. I learned this very clearly out in Navajo country. The nadir or their historical narratives begins with the story of the Long Walk. In 1864 Kit Carson burned their crops and homes and waited for winter to bring them to him.

It worked.

The result was 4 years of internment at a place called Fort Sumner in Southeastern New Mexico. Many of those who started the “Long Walk” to Fort Sumner didn’t make it to the end.

When my friends, students, and coworkers told me their stories about the long walk, what struck me most about their narratives was the way they always began.  They almost always began with a clear reference to some family member. These weren’t simply stories about something that happened to their ancestors; they were stories about the death of a Great Aunt or the trials of a Great Great Grandmother. People telling me these stories consistently anchored narratives of the long walk in their own relationship to one of those who had been through it. These were not stories about an event over a hundred years ago; they were intensely personal stories of family tragedy.

I’ve heard similar stories, …from my high school history teacher, for example. A native of Georgia, her account of Sherman’s march included a great grandmother’s efforts to save a family heirloom (she stuck it on a wall in the hopes Union troops wouldn’t notice). When I taught briefly at a Jewish private school in Houston, I heard such stories from survivors of the Holocaust. More importantly, my students heard those stories. They hear them every year, directly from the survivors, and in countless other contexts throughout that same year. I’ve heard such tragic narratives from Inupiat speaking about the horrors of influenza epidemics brought by whalers and the trials of the boarding schools. Exposure to virgin soil epidemics is hardly ancient history on the North slope, and most any native can tell you about some elder who was punished for speaking her own language at the schools. What all these narratives have in common isn’t simply tragedy; it’s personal connection to the suffering.

People don’t just forget these sorts of events. They keep them alive; they keep them personal. The suffering becomes part of the meaning of history, and part of the personal identity of those that have been through it, of their children, and their children’s children.

Whether or not such stories should be kept alive in that way is a whole other question, a rather ironic one at that. The suggestion that people subjected to injustice ought somehow to simply move on has more than a trace of might-makes-right in it. It is an attempt to suggest that certain horrors are simply an accomplished fact, as are the long term consequences; land lost, buildings and nations built for the benefit of someone else, and whole scores of missing family – aunts and uncles not present and cousins never born. I sometimes hear people say that it would be best to just move on; accept all of this and focus on the future. Best for whom?

In any event, it seems those with such tragedy in their past rarely (if ever) take such advice, and here we have at least a trace of poetic justice. It seems to me quite fitting that those hoping the descendants of tragedy would accept the consequences as an accomplished fact should run square up against one other uncomfortable and very stubborn fact, namely that folks just don’t. People do not forget such things.

They just don’t.