Tuesday, May 6, 2008

History is Written by the Winners*

What do your remember from grade school history? Chances are it shapes everything you think … or know … about the world. For you, that’s the dominant narrative about what happened (for most of us) in Europe and the New World. It’s your truth.

Later on, as the missing pieces are filled in by high school and college courses, or even your own reading, your understanding may change. Still, all that new information is incorporated – even as an exception – into the dominant narrative.

Some of my favorite Thanksgiving table talk is about Squanto. You probably remember him from 3rd grade: He was the Native American who helped the settlers through that first cold winter and desperate spring. So here’s the question: In what language did Squanto greet the Pilgrims?

The answer, of course, is English as he had been to London.

So what happened in the 115 years between Columbus and Jamestown? I remember reciting something about the Fountain of Youth, Montezuma’s ransom and the Inca gold.

But what about Spaniards in Kansas?

Sort of gets left out of the narrative.

In A Voyage Long and Strange, Tony Horowitz picks up the story where most of the popular history books leave off. Along the way he encounters Samoset, the real first Native American to greet the English (in English) in Massachusetts. (His request: A beer. Good man.)

But Horowitz also finds French and Spanish adventurers crisscrossing what’s now the continental United States and eventually exploring half of the current states. He offers the description from a Conquistador lying on the plains of Kansas (“a sea of grass”) and marveling at how flat the land is.

So why haven’t we all heard this story before?

At the time it could gone any of several different ways. But the English (and their language) eventually won. Since then, nobody’s been telling that story and other narratives have become dominant.

And all the arguments would have been a little different.

* Alex Haley

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