restricted access 3. America's Histories

From: Red Matters

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Chapter 3 America's Histories For Eric Cheyfitz and Michael Elliott This chapter's title means to point to the fact that the history of America most of us know is not the only history of America. The indigenous oral tradition, for example, abounds with narratives that the contemporary Wyandot historian Clifford Trafzer calls, "the first history of the Americas" (474).This is "history," Trafzer notes, "in the native sense of the word," but not only in the "native sense," for Trafzer claims that these narratives of monster slayers, women falling from the sky, and emergences from deep within the earth "reflect actual incidents that occurred in world history" (486 n.2, myemphasis).These events are history, period. I will try to show that Trafzer is right: these events are history. And I will also try to show that Trafzer's claim for Native history does not need to insist upon the factuality or literal accuracy — that's how I understand his phrase, "actual incidents that occurred"—of these incidents as a condition for their historicity. This is not to say that traditional Native historiography —history "in the native sense of the word"—cannot or does not produce factually accurate accounts of events in time—history in Our sense of the word. Euramerican history of a variety of kinds occasionally , perhaps even often, overlaps, complements, or dovetailswithNative American history of a variety of kinds. Myconcern, however, is withtypes of Native American historical narrative that Our history calls myth because Wecan show them to be factually inaccurate, or, simply,not historical . Mycontention will be that Native historiography's accounts of events in time can and should be called both true and historical apart from their factual accuracy. I argue this position not as a matter of solidarity but as one of objectivity. I am not, that is, simply choosing to be on the side of the Natives, right or wrong, but, rather, I am saying that they are right: America's Histories 49 what they traditionally take to be their true history is, indeed, historical even when it is not factually accurate. I hardly mean to fault Trafzer for taking the tack that he does. As Greg Dening has noted, "Itwould be difficult to exaggerate ... Euro-American culture's preoccupation with the past as historical fact" (55). And this "preoccupation," ethnocentric and itself historically determined, in the ongoing colonial context in which Native nations exist, exerts immense pressure on spokespersons for Native history to make their case on the field of fact, so determinedly (Dening says fetishistically) committed to accuracy and literal factuality is the dominant view. Trafzer isunwilling to yield the terrain of fact lest Native peoples' narratives of the past be consigned, as I have noted, to the subordinate statusof myth, or, indeed, as has happened before, lest Native peoples themselves once more be considered "peoples without history."1 For a statement of the dominant view of history, let me turn to the eminent historian WilliamCronon. Writing in the Journal of AmericanHistory in 1992, Cronon recognizes the postmodern contention that "history " mayjust be "an endless struggle among competing narratives and values" (1375), but nonetheless specifies criteria he believes must be met by narratives if they are to be considered historical. Historical narratives, Cronon writes, "cannot contravene known facts about the past" and they must conform to "the biological and geological processes of the earth [which] set fundamental limits to what constitutes a plausible narrative" (1347-48), plausible, of course, to us as factual history.These criteria will, obviously enough, be compelled to deny historical status to narrativesof battling giants, warriors temporarily turned into buffalo, or to some of the other examples of Native "history"—I will drop the quotation marks for the rest of the way—that we will examine. But Cronon's view, which I cite as an admirable and generous version of mainstream views ofhistory, need not—that is what I will argue —exclude other views. Before going further, it needs to be said that traditional Native people also make a distinctionbetween historyand myth, although that distinction does not depend upon ajudgment as to the greater factual accuracy of one of the two types of story. For traditional people, historical narratives tell of events nearer to the present in time, whilemythicalnarratives relate an eventfulnessveryfar distant from the present in time, when the world was young and "soft," or not fully formed. But both mythical and historical stories are true, and both are history in the sense that...


Subject Headings

  • Indian literature -- United States -- History and criticism
  • American literature -- Indian authors -- History and criticism
  • Indians of North America -- Intellectual life.
  • Indians of North America -- Historiography.
  • Indians in literature.
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