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Historically Speaking · November/December 2005 Native Americans and the History of History Steven Conn Those of us who work in the history business right now are faced with an interesting irony. On the one hand, for a people who allegedly don't care much about the past, Americans are certainly awash in their own history. The American landscape is now covered with reminders of the past: battlefields , markers, houses. Those places which themselves are not connected to historic events we rename in memorial. Bookstores, which have otherwise banished much serious and semi-serious writing from their shelves, still do a brisk trade in American history titles. For those who want neither to leave the house nor read a book, cable television brings us history twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Even the yearly calendar has grown crowded with days, and whole months dedicated to different aspects of history. For Americans, history is more and more venerated , preserved, and commodified simultaneously . On the other hand, even as that proliferation has proceeded apace, voices from across the political spectrum complain that we don't know enough about our history, that we know the "wrong" kind ofhistory, and that knowing the "right" things about the past (often glibly called "the truth") is the way to solve our problems in the present. William James, in his marvelous essay "What Pragmatism Means," reminds us that "whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction." Let me attempt to do that here. History, as a field of endeavor, must be thought of on three levels. First, there is what we know about the past. Second, there is the question of how we know what we know. Finally, we must understand how we make sense out of what we know—how we interpret , analyze, synthesize, and otherwise use the past. History entails a body ofinformation, a methodology, and a philosophy all at once. Put another way: history too has a history, and while Americans can now learn about the history of virtually everything—from warfare to underwear, from Populism to pop culture— we haven't as a rule spent much time considering the history of history. After all, students are usually exposed at some point to the idea of the "scientific method" (though maybe not any longer in those states that have voted Darwin off the curriculum), but for most students history still remains largely a collection of names, dates, and events to memorize. Whether we are self-conscious about it or not, what we know about American history is conditioned by a set ofassumptions about how we know and why we should know it in the first place, and that set of assumptions has changed over time and from place to place. Call those assumptions an American historical consciousness. That consciousness began to take shape here in the 19th century, as it did for other Western nations, and it was shaped by several currents. At the founding, many Americans subscribed to a cyclical notion of history, where nations followed something like a life course from birth through growth followed inevitably by decline and collapse. By the end ofthe19th century, most Americans believed that our nation had broken free ofthose cycles and our history would prove to be a straight line of progress and triumph. At the same time, by the end of that century, much of what constitutes the modern practice of history, from its rules ofevidence to its narrative structures, had also been defined. What had been seen in the early 19th century as a branch of polite literature changed into a rigorous scholarly study. Herbert Baxter Adams, in his famous seminars at The Johns Hopkins University, even tried to turn history into a "science." Those changes in consciousness and in methodology were not merely coincidental. Both, I would argue, were shaped powerfully by the presence of Native Americans and by the way Euro-American scholars wrestled with their presence. After all, the mere fact of Native Americans posed a set ofpuzzling historical questions—who were these people, where did they come from, and how long ago—that could not be answered within the frameworks of biblical or classical history. As...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 4-5
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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