History in the first person plural

The other day I was at UT’s McClung Museum, where there’s a fantastic exhibit on Native Americans in Tennessee.  The exhibit includes a film about the experiences of the Cherokee from prehistoric times down to the present day, with onscreen commentary from current members of the tribe.  Some of them use the first-person plural when talking about past events.  “What we decided to do when the whites came was such-and-such,” or, “One of our holy people said such-and-such,” and so on.  I’ve seen the film a number of times, and this use of the first person plural to discuss events that happened well over a century ago has always struck me.

Coincidentally, when I got home I ran across an interesting editorial called “No Longer Circling the Wagons: Many National Parks Get Indian Stories Wrong.” It’s worth reading in full, because it touches on some fundamental issues regarding historical interpretation and historical memory.

The main issue is that parks don’t give Native Americans as much interpretive “airtime” as they do whites.  I’m sure that’s generally true, but with mitigating circumstances.  For one thing, history is inherently and inescapably weighted toward people and events that left a paper trail.  It’s much easier to document the comparatively few years during which the U.S. Army battled its way across the West than it is to document the many centuries during which Native Americans had the continent to themselves.

The Cherokee Female Seminary in Oklahoma, with the class of 1875 posed in front. Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

Second, things are changing.  If you visit NPS sites that have recently undergone interpretive overhauls, I think you’ll find that Native Americans aren’t all that underrepresented.  To take an example from my neck of the woods, the visitor center exhibit at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, updated not too many years ago, includes substantial sections on the Native experience along the Wilderness Road, both before and after European involvement.  Sites with older exhibits and signage aren’t likely to be as inclusive, but you can’t change a park overnight.  Each park doesn’t have its own onsite exhibit fabrication team.  If I’m not mistaken, there’s one department responsible for fabricating and installing historic exhibit galleries for the enite park system.  They’ll get to you when they can get to you.

Anyway, what really jumped out at me what this section:

Changes in interpretation have also been significant at Nez Perce National Historical Park, which includes more than 30 sites in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. After having built closer relations with the Nez Perce nation over the past 20 years, the NPS is ready to let the tribe tell its own story here. The new park brochure about the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana gives the tribe this voice. It opens with a greeting in the Nez Perce language and then speaks in a Native voice: “Far from our beautiful homeland, upon this quiet terrain of our Earth Mother, the spirits now forever bear silent witness to our people’s painful and tragic encounter with manifest destiny.” The tribe, and not the NPS, appears as your host at this site.

Done right, this approach avoids one of the biggest risks of national park interpretation—having the arrogance to tell someone else’s story your way.

The phrase “telling someone else’s story your way” seems along the same lines as the frequent use of “we” in the McClung Museum’s film.  There’s a definite sense in which some parts of history can become “our story,” especially when it’s the history of one’s own ethnic group, country, region, class, or whatever.  That’s the sort of history that one “owns.”

But there’s an equally important sense in which it’s all “someone else’s story.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We’re not the people of the past, and any belief that we can speak for them based on experiences we have in the present is usually a conceit.  We neglect the fundamental “otherness” of the past at our peril.  Sure, we all have our vested interests in the stories of particular groups, and concerns that these stories get told properly are legitimate.  But the fact of my membership in a group doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to have a particularly accurate appreciation of the reality behind those stories.

One has identities that coincide with those of people who lived in the past, but one also has an identity as a citizen of the twenty-first century.  This latter identity comes with a lot of baggage, and we’re unconscious of much of it simply because we’re so accustomed to it.  Anytime one invokes the historical “we,” there’s a risk of presuming that one can understand people of the past without any residue from our modern-day identities getting in the way.  The result is that we can easily misread both ourselves and our predecessors.

Let me stress that I’m not trying to imply that modern-day Native Americans aren’t “real” Indians, or that it’s none of their business how the NPS interprets Native history, or that an Irish-American has no business taking pride in Irish history, or anything along those lines.  I’m simply pointing out that our presence in the here and now puts limitations on our abilities to intuitively “read” the past.

History in the first person plural seems to be a more common practice among groups who have suffered misfortune, stereotyping, neglect, or defeat, which is perfectly understandable.  Native Americans have, of course, suffered more than most other historical groups.  It’s not surprising that all this cumulative experience would become an important touchstone for their collective identity, regardless of temporal boundaries.

The same thing happens among people who identify strongly with the Confederacy.  We did this, we experienced that, we were in the right, as if Sherman marched through Georgia last week and personally burned a row of condominiums.  Come to think of it, I once heard the exact same language used in a gathering of northerners.  For work-related purposes I once had to attend a dinner organized by descendants of Union soldiers. The keynote speaker referred to Grant’s assumption of overall command by saying, “Their winning team had been used to beating up on our losing team, but now they were finally going to have to face up to our winning team.” As the only southerner in the room, I couldn’t help but think this was a little comical.

None of this would be a big deal, except that this first person plural approach to history puts us at serious risk of presentism.  I think we all need a usable past, but our primary need is for a past that’s accurate.  There’s a healthy sympathy that we can bring to our attempts to understand historical figures, the kind that opens us up, makes us willing to accept them for what they were, and helps us to see their world as they saw it.  And then there’s an unhealthy kind of sympathy, which comes from an assumption that we’re basically the same as they were, making it impossible to get ourselves out of the way and appreciate the past on its own terms.

It’s never occurred to me to use the first-person plural when referring to events that happened more than a century and a half ago…but, of course, it wasn’t my ancestors that got dispossessed of everything they had and then sent packing to Oklahoma, was it?  Knowledge like that is probably going to make history more personal.

So do you guys think the “we” approach to history is appropriate?  If so, under what circumstances?  Sound off in the comments section.

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Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

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