Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Selectively Telling Your History

Earlier this week I was writing a lecture on the Navajo Long Walk. This will be the subject of next Tuesday's Forgotten American Blogging, but in brief, the US Army forced the Navajos to leave their home and go to a distant reservation in the 1860s. It was a complete disaster.

I was scanning around for books on this in the library to crib from. The most useful thing I found was actually a book for children, Navajo Long Walk. Probably kids about the age of 11-12.

The Navajos have a complex history. They hardly fit the stereotypes many people have of Indians--they have ravaged their own landscape through overgrazing. They raided the villages of New Mexico for almost 200 years, causing widespread death. And they actively engaged in a regional slave trade.

Today, people don't much want to talk about these things. This book about the Navajo Long Walk really tried to hedge on the slavery issue. The book claims, "Far fewer New Mexicans were taken captive by the Navajos than Navajos were taken captive by the New Mexicans, yet it was the Navajos who became feared as raiders." Perhaps. But I think if you asked the Utes or the Hopis or the Zuni, they'd tell you that the Navajos were pretty damn fierce and loved taking slaves. Yet these peoples are interestingly not mentioned.

The book also claims that "The Navajos called the Americans the New Men. They hoped to find a peaceful way to exist with them." Um, no. Not to take away from the horrid Indian policies of the United States but the Navajos were not a peaceable people. They would have liked to take American children as slaves as much as New Mexican or Zuni. All the way into the 1860s, the Navajos were raiding villages throughout western New Mexico, even stealing US Army cattle.

Now I don't have much of a problem with this. The Spanish and the Americans were invaders of New Mexico, though so were the Navajos really. They all harrassed the fairly peaceable New Mexico Pueblos. I refuse to feel bad for the US Army in the American West. After all, they did engage in freaking genocide, something the Navajos certainly never did.

But it would be nice to have a little honesty in our historical narratives, particularly when they are developed for children and published by the National Geographic Society. The Navajos were slavers and did a lot of damage to other Indian peoples and the Hispanos of New Mexico. Deal with it.

Note--any similiarities between teaching undergraduates and teaching 5th graders are strictly coincidental.