, , , , , , , ,

006When people introduce a given piece of information as “something you don’t learn in the history books” or “something they don’t teach in history class” I often find myself wondering if the individual in question really has read any history books lately?

I think these are comments that just roll off the tongue while someone thinks about what they are going to say next. When I hear what they do say next, as often as not I find myself thinking; “well I teach that,” or even “Hell, that’s right in my textbook!” Sometimes I even find myself thinking; “Every teacher I’ve ever had and every textbook I’ve ever used teach that very thing you numbskull!”

Just kidding; I don’t actually use the word ‘numbskull’ in my internal monologues.

The kind of history-bashing that I am talking about almost always involves old yarns long since unraveled by the majority of historians out there. Just to provide one example, most of the myths about Columbus fall under this heading. I don’t think I’ve ever had a teacher present the classic myth of Columbus discovering America or proving the world is round, at least not without including some form of ironic commentary. I can think of numerous instances where the critique didn’t go far enough, but even my second grade teacher in a conservative lily-white community way back in the 70s made a real effort to debunk some of the standard Columbian themes. My American history textbooks don’t present the classic Columbus myths and my world history textbook even has a small section about the invention of those very myths. Yet, I still hear people preface the standard critique of Columbus with the pretense that we are about to take on the entire history profession just by listening to them.

I get a little tired of it.


This isn’t to say that I don’t have my own complaints about the state of the art in teaching history, and especially about textbooks. It’s a rare day that an encounter with any given survey text doesn’t leave me in tears, or at least put me to sleep, and I regard it as poetic justice that I will forever be teaching introductory classes where these instruments of torture seem to be a staple crop.

The problems that plague survey texts are generally a bit more subtle than Sunday morning historians would have it, however, and those problems are often difficult to resolve without asking students to do more than most wish to. The inaccuracies of history texts aren’t always due to fundamental misunderstanding; they often seem to be the result of narrative choices, choices often dictated by the nature of survey-text sedatives.

Case in point?

I use a reader for my Native American History class, Major Problems in American Indian History. It contains both primary documents (those produced by actual participants and witnesses in various stages of history) and interpretive essays. One of those essays in this text, “The Dakota Sioux Uprising, 1862” by Gary Clayton Anderson, presents a wonderful glimpse into the internal conflicts associated with this event. In this article Anderson takes on a terrible event in the history of Indian-white relations, one in which a number of atrocities were committed against non-native civilians, including women and children. If one were of a mind to tell such stories, this event could easily be the classic ‘Indian massacre’ that haunts the background of virtually the entire western genre in both film and literature. The uprising certainly contains enough frightful particulars to transform any narrative into a genuine nightmare. In fact Stan Hoig makes a point to suggest fears of a similar outbreak helped to explain the actions of officials in Colorado during the events prior to Sand Creek.

Note: I said prior to Sand Creek; Chivington and his men are a special kind of evil, but that’s a rant for another day.

In Anderson’s view, the uprising is a complex story in which various factions within the Dakota (otherwise known as Santee Sioux) square off against various factions of outsiders. As hunting became impossible, and rations promised by the U.S. government failed to appear, the prospect of starvation became inextricably mixed with questions about ways of living (farming versus hunting) and relations with outsiders. Some Santee had taken up farming; others wanted to resume (or take up) hunting as a primary means of subsistence. Significantly, many of those who had taken up farming had established connections (even marital relations) with local whites. So, the Santee population included a substantial ‘mixed blood’ population, and the local whites included many who had established ties to the tribe, some of which rose to the level of fictive (adoptive) kin ties.

Without going too much further down this rabbit hole (interesting as it is), Anderson does an excellent job of putting the violence of the outbreak in the context of all these factions. He argues that those perpetuating the violence were trying to pull their own community towards hunting as a way of life while punishing those whites they regarded as responsible for their own situation. Mixed bloods and whites with clear ties to Santee were generally spared (with some Santee going to great lengths to protect such people), and significant factions of the Santee pressed to end the fighting. Rivalries between those pressing the fight (which included a conflict over the question of whether to attack civilians or focus on military targets) and those seeking to end the fighting rose to the scale of potential intra-tribal warfare. Indeed, the actions of Santee opposed to the fighting helped to bring an end to the fighting.

One read through this article, and the simple narratives for this uprising go right out the window.


So, what do the survey texts in American History classes have to say about all this? Well let’s look at a couple of them…

I used to use a textbook called Out of Many: A History of the American People by John Mack Faragher, et. al. The third edition of this book has the following to say about these events:

Elsewhere in the West, other groups of Indians found themselves caught up in a wider war. An uprising by the Santee Sioux in Minnesota occurred in August of 1862, just as McClellan conceded defeat in the Penninsular campaign in Virginia. Alarmed whites, certain that the uprising was a Confederate plot, ignored legitimate Sioux grievances and responded in kind to Sioux ferocity. In little more than a month 500-800 white settlers and an even greater number of Sioux were killed.  Thirty-eight Indians were hanged in a mass execution in Mankado on December 26, 1862, and subsequently all Sioux were expelled from Minnesota. In 1863, U.S. Army Colonel Kit Carson invaded Navajo country in Arizona…

Let’s look at another text called Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (Concise Fifth Edition) by John M. Murrin, et.al. This book has the following to say on the subject:

The civil war set in motion a generation of Indian warfare that was more violent and widespread than anything since the 17th century. Herded onto reservations along the Minnesota River by the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851, the Santee Sioux were angry in the summer of 1862 that annuity payments did not arrive, threatening them with starvation. Young warriors began to speak openly of reclaiming ancestral hunting grounds. Then on August 17, a robbery in which five white settlers were murdered opened the floodgates. The warriors persuaded Chief Little Crow to take them on the warpath, and over the next few weeks at least 500 white Minnesotans were massacred.

Hastily mobilized militia and army units finally suppressed the uprising. A military court convicted 319 Indians of murder and atrocities and sentenced 303 of them to death. Appalled, Lincoln personally reviewed the trial transcripts and reduced the number of executions to 38, the largest act of executive clemency in American history. The government evicted the remaining Sioux from Minnesota to Dakota Territory.

My current textbook, The American Promise: A Compact History, Fourth Edition by James L. Roarke, et. al. has the following passage on the uprising:

The Indian wars in the West marked the last resistance of a Native American population devastated by disease and demoralized by the removal policy pursued by the federal government. More accurately called ‘settlers’ wars’ (since they began with ‘peaceful settlers,’ often miners, overrunning Native American land, the wars flared up again only a few years after the signing of the Fort Laramie treaty. The Dakota Sioux in Minnesota went to war in 1862. For years, under the leadership of Chief Little Crow, the Dakota, also known as the Santee, had pursued a policy of accommodation, ceding land in return for the promise of annuities. But with his people on the verge of starvation (the local Indian agent told the hungry Dakota, ‘Go and eat grass’), Little Crow reluctantly led his angry warriors in a desperate campaign against the intruders, killing more than 1,000 settlers. American troops quelled what was called the Great Sioux Uprising (also called the Santee Uprising) and marched 1,700 Sioux to Fort Snelling where 400 Indians were put on trial for murder and 38 died in the largest mass execution in American history.

Anyway, that’s three texts. I have a couple more that don’t even mention this event, which is a little disturbing.


So, what do we get out of all this?

Well, first, you gotta love the way one book describes the event as the largest use of executive clemency in history and another describes it as the largest mass execution in American history. There is probably an interesting lesson in fact selection there, but the most interesting thing about that little point may well be that both facts seem to be part of the same story. In one text, that is a story of great mercy, and in the other it’s a story of slaughter, and neither story is contradicted by the facts (at least not at this level of detail).

Ah well, moving on…

The first thing that I would say here is that none of these texts paints the natives in an overtly negative light. These were not written with the intention of slandering the Santee and pleading the cause of manifest destiny after the fact, so to speak. Such narratives do exist, but I didn’t find them in my stack of survey sedatives. If anything, each of these narratives seems almost painfully to be pleading the Sioux’s case and working hard to ensure the reader understand they had their reasons, so to speak.

The distortions here are a little more subtle; most of them being a function of basic story telling technique. Simply put, the question here is one of peopling the story-line. Where Anderson talks about multiple factions in and around the Santee community, each of these authors is telling a story about whites and natives. When they choose to break that down a little, we get references to ‘warriors’ and to Chief Little crow. Gone is the conflict within the tribe between pro-war and pro-peace factions, the entire existence of mixed bloods, arguments about who should and who should not be killed, and especially the active opposition of some villages to participation in the fighting. The decision to spare some whites while killing others is nowhere on the horizon here. And of course the notion that Little Crow simply led his people ‘on the warpath’ (reluctantly or otherwise) simplifies the nature of his leadership as well as the politics of the uprising itself. None of these sub-themes can be worked into the narrative (or even envisioned within it), because the characters are not even in the cast. There is simply no place for them.

So, what do I expect? Pretty much this, actually. These are survey texts, and the authors are struggling here to get a complex story into a paragraph or two. This means simplification, even oversimplification. It seems to me that in each of these cases, the author has made choices based at least partly on the larger narratives in which this story fits. Where Anderson is telling the story of a specific event, each of the survey text authors is treating this as a moment in a larger narrative about Indian-white relations in the west. They identify the participants in the Santee Sioux uprising based on the characters already filling that larger narrative.

Of course one of the central ironies here is that having put an insufficient number of players on the stage, so to speak, each of the survey authors is then at pains to make understandable the actions of the fictional Santee tribe which has become responsible for these events. Unable to assign specific actions to specific agents in the story, these authors must then work to keep us from walking away with a great big anti-Santee bottom line. But that bottom line is precisely a function of the narrative decisions they have already made. If we knew more about who was doing what and why, that impression would have no place to creep into the story, but we don’t. In the end, I suspect that anti-Santee bottom line will be the take-away for so many students, no matter how many sympathetic comments an author works into the text. In the larger story of American growth, the Santee can’t help but appear as an obstacle to that growth. You can make them sympathetic, but the only way to make them something other than an antagonist is to change the larger story altogether. Nothing done within the space of a couple paragraphs is going to work.

But a couple paragraphs are all the Santee uprising are going to get in the average textbook.

Now, just imagine that same kind of trade-off in every paragraph of virtually every page (side-bars excepted) of every history text out there. So, you see, this isn’t a problem of what is and isn’t taught; it’s a problem of how it’s taught. Many of these stories are just begging to be forgotten. You can see it in the way they are written.

Enjoy your reading kids!