Sunday, April 30, 2017

Natives from way back

I am listening to Prof. Daniel Cobb's Great Course "Native Peoples of North America". Cobb is a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  

He starts right off with some valuable comments.  The National Museum of the American Indian is a separate building at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. devoted to native peoples,  Cobb says that the first exhibit held there made a distinction between the past and history.  The past is what happened and history is what we know and think about the past.  We don't change the past and we can't but we change our stories and interpretations of the past and its current meaning, implication and impact all the time.

Cobb also said that earlier Americans, such as the well known historian Frederick Jackson Turner often wrote that native American history began in 1492 and more or less ended with the disappearance of the frontier.  Once the US could say that it extended from coast to coast, it was all the United States of America.  Turner said that the frontier was where "civilization met savagery" met.  Professor Cobb makes the point that current historians tend to emphasize that Native Americans HAVE a past but are not OF THE PAST.  

I suspect that if it turned out that good research turned up the result that pants and socks were contributing to shortening our lives and helping us have a painful death, we would quickly adopt other ways of dressing.  I want to forgive our predecessors who were confident that their ways of living and doing were superior to that of others who lived very, very differently.  We seem to be slowly developing a broader, more complete and smarter picture of who we are and how we got here, over both time and distance.

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