How much of what we have learned about the past is incomplete or isn’t true? Even the quote ‘History is written by the winners’ is incomplete. While the quote is attributed to Winston Churchill there is little evidence that this is his original quote. Knowing whether or not you can rely on what you learned as ‘history’ is especially important right now as we have conversations about it with different perspectives. The circumstances, context, and author of historical events should be included with the facts, dates, and places. Without those considerations, Napoleon’s quote is more applicable – ‘History is a lie agreed upon.’
This was brought home to me personally in the last several months as I began doing research on Native American history. Having grown up in Wyoming, near the Wind River Reservation, the area and Native American history has always been of interest to me. Additionally, in school I had classes in Wyoming history, the history of Western Civilization, Revolutionary War history, Civil War history, etc. I considered my U.S. history education to be fairly complete but wanted to update and expand my learning. At the urging of my daughter, I began reading An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
What I discovered surprised me. Much of what I had learned in school was incomplete, and some was not true. For example, I was taught that many Native Americans were ‘encouraged to relocate’, when the truth is that many were slaughtered, evicted, and force marched to live somewhere else. I wasn’t naïve – I knew some of this had happened. It wasn’t until I updated my history education that the breadth and depth hit me. Additionally, I had always done well in school and take pride in being well read and well informed – essentially well-educated. The more I read and the more examples I saw of what actually occurred – the more upset I became. I began questioning everything I had learned about the history of everything and wondering how much else was incomplete and untrue. It was a breakdown for me. What could I trust? It felt like my education had betrayed me and left me unprepared for the discussions of today.
That upset and breakdown have sent me on a treasure hunt – to re-discover the past. I am actively re-learning history – what really happened and why. It is providing a more complete and more truthful context for what I learned in school. It is also helping me better understand native peoples and their perspective, especially in the light of today’s circumstances and conversations.
If you suspect that some of what you have learned historically is incomplete or not true, there are things you can do:
- Take responsibility for your past education. It is not someone else’s responsibility to educate you – it is your responsibility to educate yourself.
- Update your education. Research and read broadly – not just the internet paragraph version of the events. Look for the thought leaders and first-hand accounts of what happened.
- Validate the education source. Who is the author? What is their background? Is the publication footnoted with a bibliography and reviewed for accuracy?
All history texts and classes are not lacking, but mine sure was. It was hobbling me from being able to completely understand the context and magnitude of what had happened and the lingering impact. Having one person believe that there were frontier skirmishes and another believing it was genocide is a problem. Both people argue from an ‘I’m right’ position, disagreeing on both the history and its influence on today. Breaking through impasse starts by acknowledging where our history education is lacking. So – when you next find yourself in a conversation about indigenous people’s rights or Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ rights – keep in mind that your knowledge of history is likely incomplete and may be false. History need not be a lie agreed upon – but it is up to us to do the work, update our education, and participate in a different conversation.
If you are looking to get started with updating your history education, here are books to consider:
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America – Richard Rothstein
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America – Nancy Isenberg
The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle – Lillian Faderman