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If You Are a Native New Yorker, Are You a Native American?: The Weaponization of “Native” and the Culture Wars

Bronx and Queens Natives (https://medium.com)

The Cherokee Nation is in the news. No, not for the Trail of Tears, but to fulfill a centuries old treaty pledge. The Treaties of Hopewell (1785) and New Echota (1835) contained the right of the Cherokee Nation to send a delegate to the House of Representatives. Now the Cherokees are poised to act upon the pledge and name a delegate.

This action reminded me that I needed to complete the discussion about Columbus Day versus Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It began when three states self-righteously “dumped” and “ditched” the former in favor of the latter (Columbus Day versus Indigenous Peoples’ Day: A Lose-Lose War). That blog was followed by an examination of the role of Columbus and Columbia in American history (Columbus Day versus Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Part II – Columbus and America). The next blog in the thread focused on the weaponized use of the term “indigenous” and the calamitous effect the now bogus term would have if it were applied in the global arena outside the elitist college environment where it originated. Its effects would be truly devastating especially to Moslems and Arabs if the nations of the world adopted this American invention as their own policy (Columbus Day versus Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Part III- The Meaning of “Indigenous”).

In this blog, I wish to address the weaponization of the term “native.” Consider the following examples. They are not the result of an internet search. They are not a scientific sample. Instead they simply are the examples I happen to come across while reading the printed version newspapers and magazines I receive.

March 15 New York Times op-ed on billionaires and prostitutes: “A professional escort (or even just a native, English-speaking one)…” In other words, instead of patronizing Chinese natives at Orchids of Asia Spa in Florida, why not use a native? Presumably this English-speaking native might be black or white or even an American Indian but one might infer from the op-ed that the author intended the use of “native” to refer to white people.

May 10 New York Times wedding article: “[The groom] met [the bride}, a native New Yorker.” Based on the bride’s photograph and last name, the native New Yorker probably was of Chinese descent or East Asian. The music of Barry Manilow was played during the reception.

Note – It is important here to remember the distorted use of the term Asian-American. It does not actually mean people from anywhere in Asia. In a description of the movie “Always Be My Maybe,” (New York Times, June 2, 2019), the author notes the involvement of “a pair of Asian-American stars” and “an Iranian-American female director.” So whereas Iran (Persia) was part of Asia for more than two millennia, now it no longer is. Geography teachers should be notified of this change.

May 12 New York Times book review by Nancy Foner, a prominent person in immigration issues: “An astounding 77 percent of adult Indian immigrants in 2015 had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with 29 percent of all immigrants and 31 percent of native-born adults.”

May 15 Journal News: Iona College Names Bronx Native as New President (headline).

August 5 Time on Iceland’s Prime Minister: “Many cultures have native words for unique experiences.” The native cultures presented to illustrate the point are Iceland, Germany, and Spain. I think it is fair to say that these native cultures consist of white people.

All of these examples of the use of the word “native” are normal traditional uses without any awareness or belief that such usage might be improper. One suspects these natives of the Bronx, New York, Florida, and the entire country all consider themselves American natives.

Of course, it is no secret that Native Americans are not actually native to America. The idea that people from the Greek-based word Asia crossed over into the Italian-based word America is not new. Scholars debate exactly when the people crossed over, exactly how, and in exactly how many waves. There is unanimity among them that people did leave the eastern hemisphere for the western hemisphere millennia ago.

Lately due to advances in deciphering of DNA evidence, scientists have been able to develop a more detailed understanding of these people were who undertook the journey. Here is the title of one such article from Science Magazine (online, June 5) on the subject:

Closest-known ancestor of today’s Native Americans found in Siberia.

Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t the title mean the people are Native Siberians who emigrated to America? The first sentence adds to the linguistic confusion.

Indigenous Americans… descend from humans who crossed over an ancient land bridge connecting Siberia in Russia to Alaska tens of thousands years ago.

Under normal circumstances, one would expect the editor to correct the writer to say that indigenous Siberians crossed over to Alaska, but these are not normal times and the meanings of words are distorted.

The article describes multiple movements by multiple peoples not all of whom remain extant today.  As a result of this DNA analysis,

It’s the closest we have ever gotten to a Native American ancestor outside the Americas.

Can you imagine someone saying the following about DNA analysis fro a people who migrated west into Europe?

It’s the closest we have ever gotten to a Native Italian ancestor outside Italy.

In the New York Times (June 11, 2019), the teaser on the front page of Science section states “A lost people in Asia may be ancestors of Native Irish.”  I am sorry, I mean a lost people in Siberia may be ancestors of Native Americans. The article provides more details than did the Science Magazine one. It refers to an article just published in the journal Nature about new clues “to the migrations that first brought people to the America.” Presumably if you migrate from England, France, Spain, or Holland on ships instead of by land to America, once you arrive here you become a Native America just as if you come from Siberia. Right?

According to the article, these geneticists have learned that people who live in a place today often have little genetic connection to those who lived there thousands of years ago. Is that even legal?

Wait. It gets worse. As the geneticists traced the various combinations of peoples over extended periods of time who mixed and mingled, they discovered an unexpected participant.

The story gets more complicated. Shortly after that split [24,000 years ago of the ancestors of the Native Americans and Ancient Paleo-Siberians], the ancestors of Native Americans encountered another population with genetic ties to Europe.

 FAKE NEWS!!!!!!! HOW DARE THEY PRINT THAT!!!!

 All living Native Americans carry a mixture of genes from these two groups.
                The new study can’t pinpoint exactly where Native Americans emerged from the meeting of these two peoples.

So not only are Native American not native to America, they have genetic ties to a people from Europe!

MORE FAKE NEWS!!!!!!!

So what then should these people be called?

In 2018, a professor posted a query on H-Early-America, one of numerous H-Net discussion groups which have been created in the academic setting. The question raised was “Help with ‘Native American’ terminology.”

I recently submitted a proposal for a new course that I will teach in our first year seminar program in the fall.  It entails two Reacting to the Past games:  Forest Diplomacy, 1756-1757 and Greenwich Village 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman.  My question is about the former.  In the “official” description of the course, the author uses the word “Indian.”   This is the comment I got from the committee that approved my course:  “The committee would like to note that Native Americans are called “Indians” in the description. We are curious about this word choice (when a more accurate/ politically agreed upon way to describe this population these days is Native American). Perhaps this is how historians talk about the past. But it is worth raising as a question and as feedback.” I chose not to engage immediately since I was simply happy that they approved the course.  But now I’m curious–and would like to respond to the committee since they chose to raise it as an issue.  Is it indeed a settled issue among historians that we don’t use the term Indian and instead used Native American?  I’ve always understood that it is NOT settled and that “Indian” is an acceptable term, but I could certainly be educated by the experts in the field. 

Here we have a classic example of the thought police at an elitist college gently showing the history professor sinner the error of her ways without appearing to be too zealous. The answers to the query help shed light on the present situation.

I wanted to respond since I’ve had almost the exact same conversation regarding my “Imagining American Indians in Film” course. First of all, stick to your guns, as the committee is, in perhaps overly-simplistic terms, incorrect. It is a terminology in flux.

With that in mind, here are some concrete ways to respond.

I start by framing the conversation around the right of groups to choose their own terminology. This is written into the inclusive language policy at my institution, so I make sure to point to that.

In that sense, I always use national/tribal names when possible, deferring to the term preferred by the nation itself. For example, Dine rather than Navajo or Haudenosaunee rather than Iroquois. In moments when I need to refer to people more broadly, I use American Indian. On this I turn to a number of sources to defend that position. The first are American Indians themselves. While the opinion is not unanimous, high-profile individuals have made the case for keeping American Indian. Sherman Alexie is a particularly popular one. There are also larger connections to the history of American Indian activism that many Indian people want to preserve. Finally, there is a legal case for continuing to identify as American Indian, as this is the term enshrined in case law.

Note the use of the term “nation.”

A lengthy comment reiterated these points while offering an interesting take on how once again American Indians are victims of white cultural imperialism.

It is my experience since becoming a historian in my second career that American Indians prefer to be called “American Indians” (after their tribal identification, of course). This comes from asking members, especially when I was a historian with the National Park Service and worked on many projects with tribal historians and other tribal members, as well as in my own research and writing, and the overwhelming response I received was “American Indian” was preferred almost to a man and woman. I am no longer with the NPS, but I understand the agency conducted a survey before compiling its style guide a few years ago, and the respondents overwhelmingly preferred “American Indian.” While some answered “either” was “acceptable,” many more expressed the view that they felt “Native American” was offensive, paternalistic and racist.

When I asked a Cherokee colleague in @ 2003 or 2004, who had been the tribal historic preservation officer before coming to NPS, he said, “if you were born here, you’re a native American.” Then he said “those who prefer ‘Native American’ generally fall into one of three categories: (1) those who work for the government; (2) those who work on university campuses; and (3) white people who claim to be 1/32 Cherokee.” When I was working on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration, 2004-2006, I attended a national conference on the topic, and the presenters were divided in their usage. All the Indian historians called native peoples INDIANS; while the only ones who used “Native Americans” were white academics. I understand the Associated Press style guide has recently dropped its insistence that “Native American” is the preferred term in light of other recent surveys.

Something similar may be observed in the comments about the proposed Cherokee delegate to the House of Representatives consistent with these comments. Chuck Hosin Jr., chief of the Cherokee Nation, said:

Because this is such a historic and unprecedented action by an Indian nation, I think the delegate will have a broader responsibility to help to be a voice for all Indian Country. I’ve seen the power of the tribes collaborating and standing in solidarity on issues. It is my expectation that Ms. Teehee [the proposed delegate] will be mindful of broader issues in all of Indian Country.

Charles Gourd, the director of the Cherokee National Historical Society, commenting of the benefit of the change, said:

Right now what you have to have to do is hope there’s a friendly congressperson that has a staffer that knows anything about Indian issues at all.

Dan Lewerenz, Iowa Tribe, said:

The treaty doesn’t say anything about the Cherokee being a stand-in for other tribes.

How come these people are not using politically correct terminology?  Where is the Thought Police when you need them?

At the recent conference of the Society for Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR), the opening plenary session included a presentation on the Cherokee. The historian consistently referred to these people by their proper name. Similarly other Indian peoples mentioned in the talk, the Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws, also were referred to by proper noun name. Collectively they were Indian Nations. Again, note that term “nation.” It is easy to overlook the importance placed by American Indians on being recognized as a nation. They recognized that England and the United States were nations and saw themselves as comparable political entities. “Nativizing” them strips them of this identity. The academics who work with the American Indians know that these people are entitled to the same respect one would show European peoples: use their name and recognize their “nationess.”

American Indians recognize that the term “Native Americans” was created by white people based on the needs of white people. These white people have a lot of power and can be relentless in imposing their will. Eventually the American Indians may have no choice but to submit to the power of the politically correct. One should recognize therefore that weaponization of “native” and “indigenous” did not arise from a grassroots need. American Indians had no objection to being called American Indians until white people told them they should. The use of these terms should be understood as part of the culture war within white people where American Indians are a pawn to be used to fit a white agenda.

Why would white people do this?

What should be done about it?

[This blog was revised September 2, 2019, due to the Cherokee Nation request to seat a delegate]

“The Year without Summer” (1816): When Republicans Recognized Climate Change Existed (SHEAR CONFERENCE)

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) held its annual conference in New Haven from July 21-24. I was only able to attend the weekend sessions on the last two days. Below is my summary and comments on the second session I attended on Saturday, July 23.

“The Year without Summer” (1816) and Climate Change: Perspectives on the New Climate History from the Early Republic

Tambora

Mount Tambora Caldera, Sumbawa, Indonesia

(Jialiang Gao/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sherry Johnson, Florida International University

Johnson spoke as a Latin American historian. Her initial investigation sought to uncover connections between the United States and the Caribbean involving the summer of 1816. She called that effort Plan A and found no documentation to support her first hypothesis. When hurricanes had increased in the 1770s, there were food shortages in the Caribbean. As a result, the Spanish authorities turned to Philadelphia to trade for food. The environment forced Spain to make this effort and she wondered about the political impact at that time. However, she found no evidence of crisis in food production in 1816 contra to the Plan B hypothesis. Turning to Plan C, she hypothesized that some areas reaped benefits from crises elsewhere. The Year without Summer ended up being a null event for the Caribbean as it was still able to obtain the food needed from the United States.

Sam White, Ohio State University

White spoke as an environmental historian. He began with the observation that climate history has not generated much traction yet. In the United States, geography departments carry less prestige than they do elsewhere in the world. The focus here tends to be on what people have done to the environment, more reflective of American values. The emphasis here is on human agency rather than on the environment in its own right. The wilderness legacy in American culture looms large in academic studies.

In addition to these more general comments, White did speak on a more technical basis on the environmental issues related to the Year without Summer but it would be inappropriate of me to comment on that aspect of his presentation. It was his general observations that he may have hoped would have a more volcanic impact on the scholarship paradigm. Whether his conference eruption will generate such a seismic shock remains to be seen.

Sean Munger, University of Oregon

Munger examined the more traditional elements one associates with historical scholarship – what effect did the wild weather have on the economy, psychology, and religion of America. He averred that people applied the science of astronomy as they it knew to bring order to the chaos that they experienced. The summer had a universal [meaning global] dimension to it in addition to the local impact that one could detect with one’s own senses.  He posited a dual-layered environmental view in response. At the local level, people dealt with the immediate issues of home, farm, and harvest. At the cosmic level, people looked skyward for answers to explain what was happening on earth. Astrology, theology, and science all were brought to bear.

As a result of the volcanic dust suspended in the air following the volcanic eruption, people gained a different view of the sun than in normal times. Sun spots became more visible. It wasn’t that the sunspots were a new phenomenon or that they had increased in number, but that people could see more of them now. One consequence was the newspaper coverage incorrectly attributing the weather change to the increased sunspots. Naturally, sooner or later, such cosmic changes led to the prediction that the world was coming to an end. Sure enough on July 8, 1816, an “astronomer” prophesized precisely such an event. I wondered if William Miller had been aware of such prophecies and if they contributed to his own more scientific calculation of when the world would come to an end.

John Brooke, Ohio State University (Presiding)

Brooke mentioned the comparatively recent explorations by Van Humboldt in South America and their impact on the grappling with the events of 1816. Through what theological framework could people make sense of what was happening? He reminded us that the War of 1812 had recently concluded and also had impacted American life.

Alan Taylor, University of Virginia (Commentator)

Taylor reiterated the points made about historians needing to place closer attention to climate in their studies, but he concluded that the Year without Summer was not a pivotal event in American history. There was a drive to systemize thinking at that time even if it is not convincing to us. People then [as now] seek to discern patterns to explain the world they are experiencing. Today, we are not as quick to attribute climate as an independent entity willfully impacting human life. Taylor recognized the internal discussion within the discipline on landscape acting on human history versus human agency. The latter preference is consistent with the American narrative of the power of people over nature.

I have a note that political events of the War of 1812 and post-Waterloo trumped the concern over climate change but I am not sure how much of that derived from Alan’s comments, my own thoughts, or both.

In the Q&A, the topic was raised of the challenge to integrate the information presented in the session to the traditional American narrative of human agency.

In looking back on this session and reading my notes, it occurs to me that the session, or at least the notes I took, may have veered off its original intention. I don’t know what was submitted to SHEAR [shouldn’t abstracts and session descriptions be posted on the SHEAR website?]. The initial paper by Johnson illustrated an historian at work at her craft, proposing an hypothesis, testing it, and then going back to the drawing board to try again.  But the tenor of the presentations, particularly what was of interest to me, addressed larger issues which go beyond the specific event of 1816. In hindsight it seems that some of the issues raised warrant their own sessions or discussions. Left unmentioned in the presentations was the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. How could any attempt to impose a pattern on the events in nature omit such a recent disturbance or combine both of them? These same years marked Methodism’s arrival as the leading religion in America. How did they interpret these events? In any event, the session stimulated additional thinking on my part so in that sense it was a successful one.

The General Public and the Early Republic Historians (SHEAR Conference)

 The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) held its annual conference in New Haven from July 21-24. I was only able to attend the weekend sessions on the last two days. Below is my summary and comments on the first session I attended on Saturday, July 23.

THE PUBLIC AND THE EARLY REPUBLIC: A ROUNDTABLE ON IN AND BEYOND THE ACADEMY

Mount Vernon Library
Douglas Bradburn, Washington Library, Mount Vernon

He reported that Mount Vernon receives approximately 1.1 million visitors annually.  I spoke with him after the session about this number. Approximately 350,000 are students in the 8th grade. The visits to Mount Vernon by the students often are combined with visitations to other historic sites in area.  I recall a few years ago attending a history conference at Columbia University where the executive director of Williamsburg discussed attendance there. When he started his new job, everyone was excited about the site having finally cracked the 1 million barrier. Now the challenge for the organization was to reach 2 million. Attendance subsequently declined to 600,000+. I don’t know what it is now.

Bradburn stated that people at historical societies and museums need academic help to learn the history relevant to their site.  Towards that end, he proudly discussed several initiatives at Mount Vernon. These included a new education center, a “presidential” library [Mount Vernon is a private site not part of NARA], a digital encyclopedia, streaming monthly book lectures, holding a public symposia, conducting a teacher institute and other programs.

I was particularly interested in the online lecture library. During the break, I had the opportunity to catch-up with Liz Covart. I had not seen her for a few years but I do hear her on her Ben Franklin’s World podcast. I wanted to pick her brain about creating a New York History podcast and she gave me useful information about what is involved. She also noted the great response by the New York history community to her podcast based on the statistics of who is accessing the website.

Several possibilities occurred to me as a result of the presentation and hallway discussion.

  1. Podcasts are the wave of the present – the future is here.
  2. Podcasts and taped lectures provide an excellent way to have facilitated discussions at schools, libraries, history museums, and historical societies. The facilitator could be a social studies teacher, local professor, curator, or enthusiastic person with conversational skills. Such programs even could be offered for professional development credit for teachers. The key would be [for SHEAR] to create a good database of what is available online that interested organizations and people could use in an organized manner and disseminating that information to appropriate organizations like the New York Council for the Social Studies (NYCSS), the Museum Association of New York (MANY), the New York Library Association (NYLA) and the New York Council for the Humanities (NYCH). There is a lot of potential in podcasts and online lectures and I am sure there is a lot going on that I don’t know about.

 

NCPH
Marla Miller, University of Massachusetts

In her non-profit capacity as Vice President of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), Marla spoke about trends in public history and what history sites are doing today. She expressed the comparatively recent discovery that visitors like it when Toto pulls back the curtain and get to see the real deal rather than the tidy spic-and-span look. People don’t want to see what ancient people looked like in their Sunday-School clothes; they want to see them messy. [These aren’t her exact words and she can berate me when she comes to Westchester this September to learn about the Sing Sing Museum project.]

Marla discussed exploring partnerships that previously had been ignored. She specifically mentioned the history museum and healthcare.  Museums can provide therapeutic benefits and reach out to senior citizens to discuss concerns in the past relevant to their lives today. Another possibility was to bring objects from the museum or historical society to the senior homes. She gave a shout out to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hancock Shaker Village [I am not sure or didn’t write down which one she meant], and Martin Van Buren (Patricia West) for those sites innovative work along with Eastern State Penitentiary [she’s into prisons now in CT]. She called for listening to others and promoting one’s interest in public history. Marla definitely needs to return to New York and we should create sessions at conferences to highlight in more detail what these various organizations are doing.

ctstate
Walt Woodward, University of Connecticut and Connecticut State Historian (title not listed on program)

I keep hoping that Connecticut will take back the Town of Rye (where I live) but I have been unsuccessful in getting Walt to endorse the project.

Walt spoke in the capacity of the state historian reaching out the general public and not as a scholar in the academic world. He has a podcast (but I didn’t have a chance to follow-up with him on it) and gives about 75 public lectures per year. His experience has shown him that there is a tremendous public interest in Connecticut for history. He strongly advocates for historians to leave the ivory tower and venture out into the public arena. Walt generously provided some guidelines to be followed if you are so inclined.

  1. Don’t speak academic or undergraduate-lecture style jargon to the general public.
  2. Don’t assume prior knowledge (or that they read the assignment before the lecture).
  3. Complexity is not clarity.
  4. Nuance can be mind-numbing.
  5. Park your biases at the door – leave out the progressive politics. You are there to share your presumed expertise in the past, not to indulge in being a know-it-all on a TV talk show.
  6. Don’t be arrogant – you aren’t the god’s or goddess’s gift to humanity where the little people should bask in the aura of your greatness and be thankful that you have chosen to enlighten them.

The public audience loves history and wants to hear from people who knew it well and can communicate to them in an effective manner. Naturally no one in the audience was guilty of violating any of the prohibitions the way I am doing by writing this post!

Note – Walt didn’t exactly use these words; he has his own sense of humor but I think this captures the gist of his presentation.

Peter Onuf, University of Virginia (Commentator)

In his wrap-up, Onuf raised three issues.

  1. The standard model of history doesn’t have a future – what, then, is the future?
  2. If students don’t care about history, then the professors need the skills of the public historian who has the job of reaching out to a general audience and then to apply those skills in the classroom to reach the students.
  3. Fellowships are replacing tenured jobs as the wave of the future for Ph.D. graduates, a future that already has arrived.

 

Questions and Answers

  1. Craig Friend (Director of Public History at NC State University) to Walt on citizenship. Walt replied that the public historian needs to connect content to the lives of the audience by drawing on the ideas of the people who lived in the historic sites. Brad noted that citizenship is a critical interest at Mount Vernon. The new citizen ceremonies have included people representing 140 countries.

Recommendation – Perhaps a good way to start connecting newcomers to local historic sites would be to have immigration ceremonies at the location. It could include everyone who became a citizen in the last year especially in smaller communities.

  1. A question was asked about relevance and presentism. The questioner expressed a concern that audiences and students push analogies to far [“The Triumph of Mel Gibson” will be the subject on a post on presentism].

Marla answered that a speaker can use that as a point of entry. History provides the opportunity to build bridges between the living and dead citing the example of NPS Patricia West at Martin Van Buren’s home.

  1. Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Monticello, asked a question which I didn’t write down so I can only provide the answers.

Walt is critical of the elimination (or reduction) of history in a STEM world. The history community is doing a poor job of communicating to the general public of history’s importance. There is a need to intervene in creating the k-12 curriculum.

On a personal note, I remember years ago at a Connecticut Council for the Social Studies annual conference receiving a handout, which I probably still have, showing that local and state history would be included in social studies every year even in ancient civilizations and global studies classes. Of course, the implicit assumption was that social studies would be taught every year along with math and English.

Marla suggested academics expand the view of the job market to include public history. Linda Carter, Williamsburg, from the audience, added that convincing academics of the importance of public history is a challenge. Brad echoed this comment.

Brad also mentioned using Google to determine what the public is interested in based on the searches.

If I may conclude with some general observations. In New York, there are separate statewide conferences for public historians, history museums, social studies teachers, and academics. Getting people to work together on an ongoing and sustained basis with actual deliverables is a challenge indeed. A session for public historians in an academic conference definitely is good, but what is next? What, if anything, are the NCPH and SHEAR going to do moving forward? Obviously I am not privy to such discussions or familiar with the national arena, so maybe this observation is of little merit.