The cover last year on True West magazine caught my eyes: “When history was true.” The subhead explained: “So much of our history is being twisted and vilified, it’s time for a closer look at the facts.” The author was Paul Hutton, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of New Mexico and frequent contributor to Old West documentaries on The History Channel.
Prof. Hutton opens his commentary lamenting our “time of national discord,” attributing it “a callous rejection of a once-cherished American past.” Continuing, Hutton says, “We see this in the current dismissal by many (mostly in colleges and universities) of the Anglo-Protestant heritage from the American Revolution and early republic eras; of the once seemingly universal, but now historically bankrupt ‘lost cause’ nostalgia following the Civil War; and of the grand unifying story of Western expansion.”
His study of history sounds more like indoctrination than investigation, entertainment over education.
The professor is upset that, “In 1991, Congress renamed Montana’s Custer Battlefield National Monument as Little Bighorn National Monument.”
If we were celebrating strategic skill on June 26, 1876, the battlefield would be named for Gall, Hump and Crazy Horse. But, it was a battle between two groups of Americans. A neutral name seems fitting.
Worse, still for Prof. Hutton, is that “You can find a quote by Black Elk at the Little Bighorn battlefield visitor’s center: ‘Know the power that is peace.’ Would a quote from Tojo be fitting on the monument at Pearl Harbor, historian John Carroll asked. A bit extreme, but Black Elk did participate in the 1876 slaughter of Custer’s command.”
A “bit extreme?” I agree, considering that Black Elk was about 12 at the time of the battle, but still took to the field to defend his village.
Prof. Hutton has another issue with Black Elk: “In 2016 South Dakota’s Harney Peak, named for Mexican War hero William S. Harney, was renamed Black Elk Peak in honor of the Sioux warrior.”
I imagine that Prof. Hutton knows the full history of Gen. Harney
In 1854, Lt. John Grattan precipitated the entire spectacle of brutal retaliations in the 19th century war between the U.S. army and the natives on the northern plains by getting himself and his troops killed in a Lakota village (over an ox). Prof. Hutton’s hero Harney led a retaliatory raid on a completely different Lakota village – one that had taken no part in Grattan’s demise.
Harney initiated a parley with the Indians to give his men time to surround the camp and then had the Lakota negotiator shot dead to signal the troops to open fire into the village.
The official Nebraska Historical Marker notes: “The fight became known as the Battle of the Blue Water, sometimes the Battle of Ash Hollow after the nearby landmark, or the Harney Massacre.”
So, naming the highest peak in the Lakotas’ sacred Black Hills after the perpetrator of a massacre of innocents was the kind of affront only afforded to the victors who spin history to suit themselves.
And, though it somehow escapes historian Prof. Hutton’s mention, Black Elk is not honored for being a brave 12-year-old warrior but as spiritual leader whom mythographer Joseph Campbell cites for his observation that the center of the universe is wherever one happens to be standing.
But, Prof. Hutton somehow overlooks that. He is a man of grievances.
Alaska natives had called the highest peak on the continent Denali since time immemorial? It becomes a travesty to remove President McKinley’s name from a mountain he never saw.
Did the battle for Texas independence restore slavery to territory that had abolished the heinous practice? Yep.
Most of Prof. Hutton’s lament is that modern historians insist upon broadening the view at the scenic overlook on America’s past.
Even mentioning the alternative views, Prof. Hutton says, emphasizes what divides us instead of making the history more inclusive.
He writes that the Western story “of struggle, sacrifice and triumph was overly romanticized, but it also made people proud to be Americans, no matter their place of origin.”
No, Prof. Hutton does not explain just how “proud” Native Americans were confined to starvation reservations, or freed African Americans under Jim Crow laws.
After our great land grab of the Mexican War, the New Mexicans were so proud of their new status that they staged a revolt.
Prof. Hutton claims that the inaccurate legends in American history – and particularly concerning The West – represent the building blocks to create a homogeneous American culture that benefits us all. Except that is just benefits the right – white – folks, though, let it be said that Prof. Hutton does not resurrect the “lost cause nostalgia” of Southern slaveholders.
His defense of the myth-building approach to history is stated toward the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – by a newspaper editor who thoroughly disgraces himself and dishonors his fierce predecessor from the first of the movie: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Prof. Hutton claims the Western Myth, which, following “a ghastly Civil War,” created “a new epic that united a divided nation and gave a fresh national identity to millions of wildly diverse people coming in from many land.”
And what was the driving force in creating this ”fresh national identity?” According to Prof. Hutton: “Dime novels celebrated the frontier adventures” of Wild Bill Hickok, the James Gang, Calamity Jane and “Indian fighter ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, who took the story on the road in 1883 as a grand Wild West extravaganza that enthralled two generations of American and global audiences.”
Dime novels and self-promoting extravaganzas? Talk about unreliable sources. That would be like enshrining lying, bigoted Fox News as the official record of the present.
Furthermore, his hero worship might not be the perfect avocation for a history professor – especially in the 21st century when Mari Sandoz’s detailed, well-researched, debunkings of many of those Old West icons have been available for more than 50 years.
Teaching in Albuquerque, Prof. Hutton seems particularly irked that the good folks in Santa Fe “caved in to Indian protests and dropped the century-old Entrada re-enactment of Don Diego de Vargas’s 1692 reentry into Santa Fe after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt had expelled the Spanish.”
The Entrada portrayed Vargas’s occupation of Santa Fe as a festive parade, with the returning conquerors following a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe into town to cheers and approvals instead of the arrival of an army of occupation that was too large and invincible to challenge.
The truth is that the Myth of Homogeneity is just as flawed as the Myth of The West. The Pueblans in Santa Fe had chafed under the false representation of their ancestors just as long as the conquerors’ heirs had celebrated their re-conquest.
Our ancestors told themselves fairy-tale bedtime stories to gloss over obvious injustices for which we are still responsible as long as we deny them. Repeating those lies in the light of the evidence and objections presented since then serves no useful purpose.
(And don’t think this includes any exoneration of atrocities committed by Native Americans during the battle for North America. They generally lacked the resources for the large-scale massacres that we perpetrated – except against each other.)
Prof. Hutton’s goal of a homogenous society dedicated to a common purpose is an honorable one – as long as that purpose is honorable. So, what we need is a new, more inclusive American Myth.
How can that be? Adapt our stories to the changed time.
The most widely known catalog of European myths belongs to the Greeks, who founded western civilization. But, those stories changed over time.
In some versions, Penelope is promiscuous; an unblinded Oedipus does not exile himself; Iphigenia is not sacrificed to ensure good sailing.
There was even a version of the Troy story that claimed Helen was not at Troy, but was in Egypt while a ghostly version of herself (CGI or clone?) was fooling all of the combatants.
Dishonorable myth-making continues today in the guise of “historians” who cherry pick quotations from our founders to paint them as fundamentalist Christians at a time when most of them were “Deists,” which was synonymous with “atheist,” and for which they were condemned at the time.
So, armed with new facts and expanded viewpoints, it is time for a new American Mythos. This is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves in the Colonies. There were people on the right side of history who opposed that dehumanizing (not “peculiar”) institution from the start.
Many Americans – soldiers among them – deplored the genocidal tactics of Custer, Sheridan and Chivington. Their stories, too, are part of the tapestry of our nation.
This is also the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of the House of Burgesses in Virginia, a reminder of our long-standing desire for self-rule, self-determination. Those who met in Williamsburg were not perfect, nor were those of that Generation of Genius that put this country together. New revelations about their shortcomings emerge regularly. But, acknowledging their human failings should give the rest of us hope that we, too, can be better than our worst characteristics.
The facts are important in their own right. For the stories we glean from them to create a homogeneous America, they must include all Americans, not just the winners.
(Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party: scdpok.us or facebook.com/SCDPOK/.)