When asked before the end of World War II how historians would assess his leadership, Winston Churchill replied: “History will be very kind to me because I intend to write it.” I was reminded of Churchill’s quip in light of two recent controversies concerning this country’s destruction of the American Indians.
The most contentious of these was the Roman Catholic Church’s canonization of the 18th century Spanish missionary Junipero Serra, the first saint to be so honored on U.S. soil. Serra’s canonization, celebrated by Pope Francis during a Mass in Washington, D.C., was condemned by no fewer than 50 California tribes. Many Native Americans cited the brutal mistreatment and deaths of their ancestors by Catholic missionaries under Serra’s jurisdiction.
Critics see a disconnect between Serra’s canonization and the pope’s apology last summer for the church’s role in what he called “the grave sins” committed against native people. This backlash has prompted many Serra supporters to concede that while floggings and other harsh measures were used to discipline Indians, one must consider the times – a lame rationalization that echoes Churchill’s line and reminds us anew that history is basically written by the winners.
A Sacramento State honor student of Native American heritage discovered as much during a history class several weeks ago when she challenged her professor’s definition of genocide. Chiitaanibah Johnson claimed professor Maury Wiseman not only denied that Native Americans were subjected to genocide but removed her from class for refusing to back down.
“Genocide” is a loaded term to be sure, and equating the decimation of the Native American population with Hitler’s systematic extermination of 6 million Jews is certain to provoke strong disagreements. Even so, there’s no denying that U.S. expansion destroyed millions of Native Americans who perished because of disease or conquest.
Not exactly this nation’s finest hour, unless one believes that Native Americans needed to be displaced and essentially eliminated for the greater good of a superior civilization. That was a common narrative until the last several decades when a degree of historical revisionism began to emerge, and Indians were seen as more than mere savages.
Revisionism that highlights U.S. multiculturalism has provoked a counterattack from conservative critics who contend that political correctness has hijacked history textbooks. And they have mounted a counterattack to ensure that students are sufficiently patriotic.
When Lynne Cheney chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, she pushed for history texts heralding American exceptionalism. Texas has followed suit with textbooks emphasizing the Christian influences of the nation’s Founding Fathers and featuring conservative groups and personalities.
I was motivated to major in history because of a charismatic professor who presented America’s complex story in full. He detailed the disgraceful institution of slavery where slave owners, including Thomas Jefferson, had black mistresses; how the fervent belief in manifest destiny justified the taking of Texas and other Western territories; and the discrimination against immigrants, noting how the Chinese were essentially excluded after they helped build the transcontinental railroad. He was especially critical of the herding of loyal Japanese American citizens into relocation centers after Dec. 7, 1941.
My history professor’s provocative lectures inspired us to be wary of narratives trumpeting this nation’s virtues while neglecting its moral failings. And to remember Samuel Johnson’s admonition about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel whenever chauvinists deem criticism as disloyalty.
Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He currently teaches at American River College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.