The dangers of presentism when confronting the past

In late November 1864, Col. John Chivington led a regiment of Colorado militia volunteers, 675 men strong, in the massacre and mutilation of between 70 and 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, mostly women and children, camped along the banks of Sand Creek in eastern Colorado.

Those who view the story of Natives in America through an unrefracted lens might nod knowingly, imagining the Sand Creek Massacre as one extreme incident in a long, premeditated genocide, embarked on by the government, applauded by expansionist settlers, and abetted by pious-sounding missionaries. Such a view does a disservice to history and disrespects the players involved.

Presentism is one of the most common errors of historical reconstruction, using the values of the present to judge the motivation of the people of the past. It fails to appreciate both the context in which those people acted, and their intentions.

In the case of Sand Creek, national leaders, the press and members of Congress condemned the massacre and the men who perpetrated it. Congress launched a two-year investigation headed by Sen. James Doolittle of Wisconsin. While discussing Doolittle's report, Congress learned of another massacre, this by Gen. Winfield Hancock, of a combined Sioux and Cheyenne village in northeast Wyoming.

Doolittle and his colleagues demanded action to stop the immoral, wanton killing, and to recognize the plight, and the rights, of the Natives. Congress responded by creating a seven-man Indian Peace Commission. Commissioners met with the Indians and heard their remonstrances. The Commission initiated new treaties, and made a comprehensive report in 1868.

As historians Francis Paul Prucha and Brian Dippe demonstrated in their work, reformers thought they had little time to act to save indigenous Americans from destruction by white rapaciousness. Working with Congress, they formulated policies which included concentration, education and civilization. Only by quickly reconfiguring Native cultures in the white mold could those cultures, could those people, survive, become able to maintain and compete in the white-dominated world.

Today we rightly label those policies as failures for their disregard of Indian history, rights and dignity, their ignorance or indifference to the essential relationship between Native people and the land, and the spiritual cohesion of village life. But as is often the case in seeking to right what we now consider the wrongs of the past, we miss two historical factors in our labeling. Cultural relativism was not yet a fixture of common culture; people thought there could be only one right way to be. And many of those we see as victims of those policies in fact embraced them, for they agreed with the reformers.

In 1915, the fledgling Alaska Native Brotherhood, led by Peter Simpson, endorsed the Alaska Indian Citizenship Act, modeled on the national 1887 Dawes Severalty Act, which acts today we view as demeaning to Natives at best, massively destructive at worst. Eligibility for membership in the ANB under its first constitution, written in 1912, required that the applicant speak English, lead a "civilized" life, meaning individual economic independence, and pay their annual school tax.

Also in 1915, when Tanana chiefs met with James Wickersham and Thomas Riggs in Fairbanks, while the Indian leaders stipulated that they wanted their communities to be able to continue their subsistence harvesting and village life as they always had, they also demanded jobs on the new railroad for their people and representation in the territorial legislature and the Indian Office so they would know what lay before them. Like the Tlingit, they understood their circumstances and adapted to them.

Our common belief today in equality and the sanctity of human life, and in the right of people to maintain their cultural identities and values, leads us to condemn the injurious policies directed at American Natives. But an honest conversation about that past necessitates simultaneously a nuanced appraisal, one that grants dignity to the players who made that past. As Margaret Renkl wrote in The New York Times this week, civic memory is both true and deeply false. Simplified history always contains some truth; narrative construction files off a story's roughest edges. But the past itself is shaggy, troubled, unruly. It will not be contained. Like culture, like this story, it is always evolving.

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Steve Haycox

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.