Rewriting the Past

It’s past time to take indigenous histories and counterhistories seriously.

June 7, 2021

Horatio, there’s more to history than what’s practiced by professional historians.

What we typically think of as history – the reconstruction of another era out of surviving shards of evidence -- is only one way to connect with the past. 

Memory, myth, legend, nostalgia, hero worship, and pride in one’s heritage – these, too, are ways that societies draw connections between past and present.  Conveyed through film or historic sites or popular novels and rousing nonfiction accounts, this emotive version of the past is far more popular than the academic history encountered in classroom lectures, textbooks, and monographs.

Holiday celebrations, marriage, ceremonies including marriages and funerals, museum exhibitions, civic celebrations, commemorations, statues, memorials, and even school names also provide links to the past.

There are, however, two other forms of history that deserve far more attention and respect than they typically receive.

There are indigenous histories: The traditions and self-understandings that many groups have constructed about their past and that provide a sense of collective identity and contribute to group cohesion.

Then there are counterhistories – understandings of history that exist apart and in opposition to academic histories and that challenge prevailing master narratives and the very notion that conventional academic history represents a kind of Platonic, objective truth.

To dismiss Indigenous histories simply as an intermingling of folklore and traditions — as a collection of animal stories and myths – is a terrible mistake.  Rather, as scholars we should be recover and teach indigenous epistemologies, oral knowledge, native philosophies, and auto-ethnographies and explore how indigenous peoples made and make sense of colonial conquest, displacement, cultural marginalization, mortality induced by forced labor, disease, and war, and narratives that treated these losses as inevitable byproducts of progress (or, as was once said, civilization).

When we speak of decolonizing the curriculum and deconstructing the canon, this should certainly mean recognizing the cultural authority of previously ignored figures, understanding contentious concepts (for example, justice) from indigenous perspectives, and examining the process of syncretism and cultural appropriation and adaptation.

It should also entail recovering indigenous literary, narrative, and other storytelling traditions, including oral narratives, demanding recognition of indigenous cultural interpreters and knowledge producers, and recognizing the significance and richness of indigenous aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual beliefs.

If we are serious about instilling cross-cultural understanding and global and multicultural awareness, we need to engage with the ways that those around us make sense of their histories.

As for the counterhistories, of which the 1619 Project is surely the best-known recent example, these point to omissions, distortions, oversimplifications, and implicit biases that have, too frequently marred much popular and even some academic histories.

As a classroom teacher, I find that many of my students, and perhaps most, subscribe to one or another counternarrative.  I have learned that if I fail to engage with that understanding of history, the students are likely to regard me as a dupe or a tool of a sanitized, whitewashed, deceptive, or partial version of the past.

My job is not to rebut those counterhistories – though I certainly strive to correct errors, exaggerations, and gross overgeneralizations – but to use those counternarratives as lenses that expose unpleasant truths and as vehicles to prompt debate.  After all, history is always partial, provisional, and subject to dispute.  We need critical vantage points to bare our own biases and implicit assumptions.

The relationship between past and present is far more complicated than the relationship between before and after or earlier and later or previously and now.  As figures as different as Aeschylus and Freud recognized, the past haunts the present, indeed, the past is always present, a fact conspicuous in the growing recognition that the systemic inequalities of today had their roots planted over time.

Much as maturity grows out of a deepening awareness of our personal past, so our maturity as a people requires us to reckon with a history that extends far beyond self or our extended family or ethnic group.  We need to recognize that our personal and collective identities are historical constructs, influenced by past traumas and tragedies and also by traditions that may or not be historically accurate.

Among the most powerful learning experiences I have undergone occurred while working with faculty at tribal colleges.  These professors can never think of higher education solely as a matter of cognitive and skills development.  Their responsibilities are multidimensional and the essential starting point is to understand their students’ values, outlooks, commitments, and connections. It's not surprising that many projects involve students conducting interviews with extended kin, neighbors, and community elders, constructing oral histories, and creating digital stories that draw on their own lived experiences.

Mentoring, counseling, advising, supporting, empathizing – these are essential elements of the faculty's job.  And so those should be for us all.

And just as our role as teachers needs to change, so too do our courses.  Equity requires more than doing everything in our power to help all our students succeed academically.  It also demands that we revise our curriculum to incorporate a far broader range of perspectives.  

A good starting point is to change the way we teach the U.S. history survey, not simply by embracing active learning but by viewing the past from multiple vantage points that reflect the society’s diversity and by tackling head-on the issues that preoccupy our students: racism, sexism, nativism, conquest, and environmental despoilation. 

This isn’t a matter of political indoctrination or teaching students to hate their country.  It’s about teaching American history’s biggest lessons:  about the costs of “progress,” the forces underlying the nation’s growth and expansion, the complex and often conflict-riven nature of intergroup relations, and the ongoing moral civil war about what this country stands for.

Oscar Wilde was certainly right: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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