I have often wondered why many seemingly reasonable Americans take unreasonable, inconsistent – indeed hypocritical – callous stances on some issues, both foreign and domestic. And then I started teaching my daughters American History. I had been using a popular homeschooling history curriculum, “The Story of the World”, but I didn’t like what it had to say about Islam, so I started looking elsewhere. In my search for a new history curriculum, I found the book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, which quite literally changed me both personally and as a homeschool educator.
This is one of those books that can make you yell out loud while reading it. I felt cheated, betrayed, manipulated and propagandised by the very system that was supposed to educate me. Of course, as an adult I realise that what is taught in school, what is written in newspapers and what is reported on the news is contaminated with bias, half-truths, omissions and worse. I just had no idea the extent to which it happens in textbooks and the blatant, unabashed propagandising that occurs. This is the sort of stuff that happens in a communist country, not here, I thought to myself. But it appears that many, if not most, children in the United States are taught a sanitised American history that promotes patriotism and certain outlooks, preventing them from critically looking at events from different perspectives and giving them an inflated sense of self. Indeed, textbook publishers in the United States have admitted such.
For example, each year, on the second Monday of October, Columbus Day is celebrated in the United States, commemorating Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America. It is hard to imagine how anyone could celebrate this holiday knowing the atrocities that were committed by Columbus and his men against the native peoples he encountered and the subsequent explorers following his lead. But that is the point. Many Americans don’t know the gruesome details of what happened, although Columbus’ journals and those of contemporaries are readily available. Clearly, like all people, Columbus was a complicated product of his time. He accomplished many things, but his legacy also includes unspeakable cruelties, the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade and the eventual enslavement and extermination of millions of people.
A major problem with a whitewashed historical perspective is that it influences one’s view on current events, often leading to the support of unwise and catastrophic domestic and foreign policies, affecting people all over the world. The treatment of the Native American peoples is a stunning example of how biased historical knowledge can help lead to horrific results. For example, the term “settlers” in general has a positive connotation in the United States, conjuring up images of independent, self-reliant, brave men, women and children who conquer the wilds and other adversities to create a prosperous and fulfilling lifestyle for themselves and their descendants. In the American mind, settlers are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family trying to make a peaceful home on the prairie among hostile, savage Indians. If one knew a little more of the history of the “settlement” of the United States, however, and the unconscionable treatment of the native peoples to settle it, the term “settlers” would not be so positively viewed. Yet the terms “settler” and “settlement” are by and large still viewed positively in the United States and I believe it is no coincidence that these terms have been used to describe the actions of Israel in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.
How the Native Americans lost their land changed depending upon the relative power of the relevant parties. As the Native Americans lost bargaining power, the policies of the United States relied more heavily on “removal” and “reservations”. At the time, the term “removal” did not have the negative connotation it has today involving force, which is probably why it was chosen. It meant more to move or relocate voluntarily, much like the word “transfer” is being used today. Both, though, are euphemisms. As American history shows, the removal of Native Americans from their homelands can hardly be called voluntary.
Settlers moved onto Native American lands with impunity and illegally, with no authority able or willing to get them off: arguments were made that Native Americans were nomads, not farmers, and thus left the land uncultivated in an effort to deny them ownership; villages were destroyed and their memory obliterated; different laws governed Native Americans and the settlers; laws were passed to purposefully harass them and normal life was made increasingly impossible to encourage them to leave; they were given the worst, most undesirable lands and the resource rich areas were allocated to the settlers; treaties were made with no intention of honouring them, simply for expediency at that moment; collective punishment was administered; they were considered aliens in their own land; they were forced onto reservations, could not leave willingly and were denied the most basic necessities of life; dehumanised, tortured and murdered and even the most atrocious policies justified as necessary for the protection of the settlers. Sound familiar? It should. The treatment of Native Americans in the United States offers an array of successful tactics on how to expel people from their land. Unfortunately, many Americans fail to see the connection because they don’t know their own history.
Is the United States alone in propagating its sanitised version of history? Of course not. Do many citizens of the United States support unjust and inhumane government (both foreign and domestic) policies primarily because they do not know their own history? I doubt it. But if the foundation of one’s national identity and outlook is based on inaccuracies and deception and current events are framed in the familiar and acceptable language of a biased historical narrative, government policies will not be evaluated accurately, opportunities will be missed to prevent and to resolve conflicts and the hatred of certain groups will be nurtured – all leading to disastrous consequences for individuals, communities and peoples on all sides.
Aaminah Shakur offers tangible solutions to combat apathy.
J. Samia Mair is the author of five children’s books, the most recent Zak and His Good Intentions (2014) and The Great Race to Sycamore Street (2013). She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and Discover, the magazine for curious Muslim kids and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals and elsewhere. She is a homeschool mom who now loves to study history.