Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Native Americans, Puritans, and Bias

After reading a few books on an historical topic, one can pick up some of its slants pretty quickly. Over vacation I read books on New England Indians in the 17th C, and it was clear in one that it had a main goal of getting the reader to understand that the Abenakis and Pennacooks and Narragansetts were more sophisticated and technologically advanced than popular imagination would have them.  Nothing wrong with that, it’s quite true.  In another the author was trying to rehabilitate the image of both the natives and the Puritans in their early interactions.* That is also true. We can call such things a bias on the part of the historian, yet they are easily adjusted for. If the next book one takes to hand is somewhat dismissive of native culture, or a fourth book dwells heavily on the mistreatment of Indians by settlers we don’t consider that any of these books have fully invalidated the others.

Pendula swing over the decades, and historians like to provide correction and perspective when they can. One can tell the reasonable works from the unreasonable by what they do with the data contrary to their goal. It is one thing to try and explain it away; it is quite another to ignore it altogether.
There was an American history series by Peter Marshall beginning in the 1970’s with The Light and the Glory. I disliked it from the start, but was also aware that I was a new Christian and had just acquired a liberal-arts degree from exactly the sort of professors Marshall was telling me to be suspicious of.  Perhaps I was deeply, terribly wrong in my understanding of history, having been brainwashed by secular humanists who found no place for God. I tried to step back and take the work for what it was. Yet there are signs of unreason that are reliable in all fields, and leaving out the inconvenient bits is one. Marshall stressed those moments in Columbus’s life and in his writing when he displayed piety and a desire to serve God. Those are real – the words at least are real, we can’t know the explorer’s sincerity from a distance – but his truly horrible deeds were simply not mentioned, or were glossed over with so much polish as to render the wood beneath invisible.** The pattern persists throughout the work. It is a polemic, dedicated to proving a particular narrative of American history. I found an interesting discussion of it by an historian here. 

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States does much the same. Zinn ignores what he doesn’t like.  When events are so large that they cannot be simply hidden behind the curtain, he highlights only those elements which support his narrative. He is similarly polemic. Notice that in both cases the author believes he is only righting a wrong, restoring a balance that has gotten so far out of hand that drastic measures are justified.

Not justified. An author must ultimately consider that the reader might encounter no other work but his, and consider his obligation to truth simply.  The wars of bias do not suspend the rules of honesty. 

Political correctness comes in many flavors, some of them traditional or conservative.  Additionally, I am also not persuaded that the controversies are as one-sided as the polemicists claims. Marshall’s narrative was one believed by a great many Americans who felt it was being taken from them by a new generation of untrustworthy historians. Zinn did not secure a publisher because his work was original but because a great many people already believed his narrative.  His was not a declaration of independence but a battle in a war long under way. Thus their eliding the inconvenient is even less justified.

Reasonable authors may slip, and native religion has been receiving one-sided treatment at least as far back as the 1960’s. They were animists, or totemists, to use a less-familiar but more precise word. This is very common among peoples with no system of writing.  If one stops to think about it, of course it’s going to be difficult to develop an overall theory of nature, existence, and spiritual underpinnings without being able to write it down and share it from village to village or generation to generation. If at least some people in the area are literate one can move into philosophy, theology. Prior to that, even polytheism is going to be a stretch. In reading up on the Wild Hunt in northern European mythology I found the huntsmen could be elves, the dead, fairies, or even vaguer creatures.  Their leader might be Woden, Gwyn ap Nudd, or the Devil and their purposes, though always dangerous to humans, varied from tribe to tribe.  Each valley had its own mythology, related but not identical. Gods and demons lived in the rituals surrounding them, not texts.

This is not to be disdained – Christians would do well to better understand that God exists as much in the rituals of worship as in what we think about him. We become so abstract that we have no blood. But it is not the same thing as a unified theology, of which the Native Americans had little. Yet the historians writing about them were at great pains to project a theory of the cosmos back onto their beliefs. It seems a little patronising, actually, that they had to imbue this rather standard preliterate culture with a nice, dry, philosophical underpinning. Interesting. It wasn't that long ago that most of my ancestors believed in tomten, or sacred groves.  I don’t know what the current habit of historians is on the matter.

*I have mentioned this before. Between 1620 and King Philip’s War, the Europeans the Puritans left behind were quite frequently at war, and the native tribes just outside the coastal range were at war, but eastern New England was largely at peace, even with all the differences and misunderstandings

**it struck me while writing that “gloss over” could come from “disguise by polishing,” or from “deceptive words of explanation,” the former being related to glow, the latter to glossary. Looking it up, it seems the two concepts come from different roots but have influenced each other in English for centuries. So there.


james said...

Hadn't thought of that, but the source of all wiki-wisdom suggests that the oldest Greek temples weren't as old as alphabets, though maybe roughly contemporary with the Greek alphabet.

Sam L. said...

I see "glossing over" as mentioning the few high, shiny spots, and ignoring everything else.