Sunday, July 4, 2010

Whitewashing History

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

This is a holiday when history is on everyone's mind (well, that and fireworks), so I thought to celebrate I would discuss the whitewashing of American history. And as you may have guessed, I chose that term very deliberately.

I am almost done with A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, which also inspires this post. It is a great book and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in exploring an alternative viewpoint on American history, but man it is a project. I've been reading it since April (and I am a very fast reader).

This is the first part of a two-part series. In this post, I'll explain what I mean when I say that American history is generally whitewashed, we'll look at some examples of this phenomenon, and then the effects that this has on our perceptions of our own country. In the second part of the series, I'll explore a subject which is very dear to my heart - how do we teach American history so that we avoid this problem?

(See, students? This is what I mean when I ask you to write an introduction providing an outline for your audience to follow. Below, note how I use bold headings to separate the different topics of my essay!)

What is Whitewashing?

As many of you may have already guessed, I'm using the term "whitewash" to denote a history that has been written so as to eliminate, minimize, distort, or infantilize the contributions of POC.
This term is often used for films that use white actors to play "ethnic" roles. As Latoya Peterson of Racialicious writes in a post about using POC in historical movies: "[N]on white people often find that their contributions to history are whitewashed, relegated to footnotes, or omitted completely." That is, a white actor is used to play the part of a POC - the white actor is expected to either be somewhat dubiously interpreted as non-white, or the race of the character is altered from the original, be it book, play, or real-life historical figure.

White people are often cast in non-white roles - particularly in Asian roles, as you can see for yourself in this excellent post from Sociological Images. Recently, the internet has exploded in controversy over the casting of The Last Airbender movie, which is based on an anime set in an Asian world. As Nojojojo explains at Alas, a blog:
"[B]ecause the whole world [of Airbender] is Asian, [stereotypes are] lost in a sea of non-stereotypical, non-exoticized, perfectly normal human beings. How amazing is that? Not only that, but Avatar actually depicts different Asian ethnicities. Though this is a fantasy world, there are clear allusions to the Inuit, Koreans, Mongols, Tibetans, several flavors of southeast Asian, various Indians, and more."
So naturally, the actors all cast in the main roles are white. Except for the bad guy, who is played by Dev Patel, an Indian.

Looking at historical figures, I could give you the example of Gerard Depardieu, the white Frenchman, playing the part of the French writer Alexandre Dumas (creator of the Three Musketeers). Problem? Dumas' grandmother was a black Haitian slave, and Dumas had clearly non-white features.

Now, how many people even knew that Dumas was a POC? I certainly didn't.

Hollywood alters both their fiction and non-fiction stories in order to minimize POC, and popular ideas of history do exactly the same thing. We receive our understanding of history in many ways - from our parents, political leaders, teachers, and media - but we often hear the same basic story. This story is incomplete.

Six Grandfathers / Mount Rushmore

Let me give you an example* of how a big part of the story of Mount Rushmore has been left out of our national dialog.

Mount Rushmore is in the Black Hills region of South Dakota - or, to give it the Lakota Sioux name, Six Grandfathers is in the Paha Sapa. As the Native American activist, scholar, and writer Russell Means explains,
"The sacred Black Hills have two descriptions in the Lakotah language. Paha Sapa and Kȟe Sapa. The white man says that Paha Sapa means ‘Black Hills’. I will attempt to correct their interpretation of my language. The word ‘Pa-ha’ is broken up into two meanings: Pa describes the mountains emerging from the earth. Paha Sapa all together gives you a picture and a description of our sacred mountains as seen from a distance. The Ponderosa Pine gives the illusion of black from a distance and the mountains emerging from the earth. Paha Sapa. Therefore, what you see is holy. The words ‘Kȟe Sapa’ also gives you a description of what the sacred mountains look like close up, with the white stone cliffs, the meadows and the trees and the valleys. Therefore, you know it is holy."
Originally, this region was purchased by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, a massive land acquisition from the French government of 828,800 square miles in the center of the American continent. The Black Hills were (and are) in rugged, formidable country, and for a long time the original inhabitants of the land were left largely in peace. Soldiers and explorers came through the area, as did a handful of settlers, but for the most part white people had little interest in such a desolate (to them) part of the country.

The Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Lakota nations lived in this part of the world, and by the late 1800s tensions between the native groups and the US government, particularly over the construction of the Bozeman Trail as a route to the goldfields of Montana, had erupted into Red Cloud's War. And believe it or not, the native groups won. The Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed in 1868 and guaranteed that the Lakota would hold the Black Hills, as well as land rights across areas of South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, in perpetuity.

Let me reiterate. The government promised the Lakota that they would be the owners of the Black Hills for the rest of time.

Guess how long that lasted? Six years. In 1874 the Custer Expedition found gold in the Black Hills. And suddenly, the US Government was vastly more interested in this sacred land than they were before.

The story of how the Lakota had their land stolen is long, complex, and infuriating, but to simplify matters let me just say that current tribal lands represent not even a quarter of their original promised allotment, as you can clearly see on this map. Furthermore, within current tribal holdings many actual plots of land are owned by non-natives, and this region of the country contains the many of the poorest counties in America, including the poorest on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

(click to make larger)

If you want the entire story, as well as the stories of many other tribes, check out Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations, by Charles F. Wilkinson.

Six Grandfathers was a sacred mountain to the Lakota within the Paha Sapa. The mountain got the name "Rushmore" when the young lawyer Charles Rushmore, out west checking land titles for a mining company, asked a guide what the mountain's name was. "Mount Rushmore" joked the guide.

Naturally, this is the name that we now know the mountain as. Sacred Indian name? Out the window. Stupid joke name? It's a white man's name, isn't it? Let's call it that on all the maps.

Fast-forward to 1924, when all of the Lakota were good and oppressed on the heart-breakingly poor reservations, and after hundreds of their children had been shipped off by the American government to boarding schools intended to strip them of any memory of their cultural heritage - much less pride in it. A white guy named Doane Robinson wanted to build an American monument in the Black Hills.

In order to do this Robinson hired the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish immigrants. Robinson originally had in mind a sculpture celebrating local history, but Borglum was thinking on a larger scale. After a lot of messing around in federal and state congress, the carving was under way.

The project faced opposition from many sources - naturalists weren't too excited about Borglum destroying the beauty of the mountain and the bill to establish the memorial was defeated twice in the South Dakota state senate, narrowly passing on the third try. As the official Mount Rushmore National Memorial website for the National Parks Service states:

"Receiving permission to do the carving, finding funding and managing personalities were all a part of the challenge to establish Mount Rushmore National Memorial. At times it seemed harder to keep the project going than it was to do the colossal carving of the four presidents."

You know what the official website does not mention? That the Lakota were pissed. It was bad enough for the government to steal the land, but now they had defaced this sacred mountain. The four presidents chosen - Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and T. Roosevelt - were all in office during the acquisition of Indian lands, and all are particularly hated by many Native groups for the damage caused specifically by the actions of these men. I think that only Jackson may have a worse record when it comes to Indian Affairs.

I've been trying to think up an analogy, but I'm not sure this needs one. Imagine that someone steals something that is holy to you and permanently alters it in a way that is both offensive and profane. And then imagine that everyone else thinks that this destruction is perfectly fine and that you're over-reacting to something that isn't that big of a deal.

Also, the evidence is fairly strong that Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (spelling corrected per Anonymous). Yes, really.

Mount Rushmore continues to be a focal point of Lakota anger towards the US government. In 1971, the American Indian Movement, an activist group, occupied the monument to draw attention to the US' disregard for its treaties. Technically, due to the Fort Laramie Treaty the Lakota still own the Black Hills. In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sioux Nation** in the case of United States V. Sioux Nation of Indians (448 U.S. 371). The court found that:

"A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history."

The Supreme Court ordered a reparation payment of $120 million, but ruled that due to the passage of time the Black Hills could not be given back to the Lakota. The Sioux Nation refused the money. The Black Hills are not for sale.

Members of the Sioux Nation are some of the most economically disadvantaged people in America. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the 8th largest in the country, but the poorest. 80% unemployment rates. 45% live below the official poverty line. 47 year life expectancy for men, 52 years for women. Infant mortality rates 5 times higher than the national average, adolescent suicide rates four times higher than the national average.

The reparation money still sits in a bank account - untouched and accruing interest. It's up to $570 million. 80% of tribal members polled don't want the money. They want the Black Hills.

So What?

The official Parks Service website briefly mentions Native Americans - in the "Guided Tours" section it lists a program on the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota groups (all part of the larger Sioux nation). If this is the same "tour" I remember from visiting the monument several years ago, it's a row of signboards with a few pictures and a brief history of the tribes. The story of how the land was stolen, and the groups who still are desperately trying to reclaim it today, is largely absent.

I first heard this story in college, in a course on Native North American religions. Most people don't know this history at all, or know only fragments of it. There are, of course, omissions in historical sites across the country - see Lies Across America: What Our Historical Sites Get Wrong, by James W. Loewen, for more. But Mount Rushmore is, after all, the most American of monuments. It's the secret hidden base of Team America!

It is sadly ironic (and grimly appropriate) that one of our country's most iconic sites represents centuries of racism and oppression. The NPS website trumpets: "Mount Rushmore has grown in fame as a symbol of America - a symbol of freedom and a hope for people from all cultures and backgrounds."

And Mount Rushmore is a symbol of America, but not exactly as the NPS seems to hope.

The 4th of July is often perceived as a day when it's un-American to remember the bad parts of our history. That's nonsense. When we ignore the contributions of POC - when we erase their stories from our monuments - we're lying to ourselves and to our nation. If we want to make this country great, we can't ignore its problems present and past. We can't make things right if we don't know that they're wrong in the first place. And if we get swept up in the jingoistic nationalism that appears to be so popular nowadays, we will do nothing but perpetuate a system of lies, a massive paean to a reality that never was. This 4th, celebrate America by telling her true story.

Comments are fixed - so have at it.

*My examples are often related to Native Americans because I have a particular interest - professionally and personally - in this area. If you have other examples (and there are probably thousands), feel free to mention them in the comments. I'm always excited to learn and to gather new examples for teaching.

**The Lakota are a part of the Sioux nation.


  1. Great post! I will have to read Zinn's book someday - I've been planning to for years, but it does sound daunting.

    Re: actors and race - this is something I've always found interesting, because I think it can easily go too far in another direction (i.e. race as the main qualification for casting). The example that's coming to mind at the moment is Fred Armisen playing Barack Obama on SNL - I recall there being a lot of uproar about this, because Armisen is not African-American (he's German, Japanese, and Venezuelan, according to Wikipedia). Some people suggested that one of the African-American actors on SNL at the time (I think Kenan Thompson and Finesse Mitchell were in the cast then) should play Obama instead, simply on the basis of their race, even though Armisen actually bears a much stronger resemblance to him. I felt like this was tantamount to saying "all black people look alike" - basing casting solely on a performer's race rather than the full package.

    Thoughts? I'm trying to think of other examples - maybe Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart?

  2. FYI, you misspelled Ku Klux Klan. (There's no L in the first word.)

  3. Thanks, Anonymous. I always do that for some reason.