We’ve heard it so many times before. History has always been written by the victors. It’s a sad reality, yet very true. It means that much of the history of Africa and the Western Hemisphere has been recounted with a decidedly European viewpoint. As someone of mixed European and Indigenous American extraction, I always felt conflicted about this disparity. While trying to find information about Native American Texans in an encyclopedia during my grade school years, for example, I noticed that references to pre-Columbian peoples were treated dismissively. It wasn’t just archaic history in standard academic circles. It was irrelevant. Even mention of the state’s Spanish colonizers – the first permanent European settlers – was dubbed “pre-history.” It seemed Texas history didn’t actually begin until the likes of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston arrived. And it didn’t matter that these men weren’t even born and raised in the state.
Only within the past half-century has the truth about various indigenous societies been revealed with advances in archaeological research and detailed forensic analysis. Lidar, for example, has taken the concept of neon lighting from the banal presence of liquor store signs to the jungles of Central America where long-abandoned Mayan structures remain shrouded by the foliage. As a devotee of Archeology magazine, I’m constantly amazed by discoveries of ancient settlements across the globe. Areas once thought to be occupied by nomadic hunter-gatherer types at best are revealing the ghosts of thriving population centers.
Yes, history has always been dictated and composed by those who somehow managed to overcome the locals – usually through the casualties of disease and pestilence or the sanguineous nature of war and violence. But the blood of history’s victims seeps into the ground and eventually fertilizes the crops that feed the newly-minted empires. That blood eventually metabolizes into the truth of what really happened – albeit many centuries or millennia later. Still at that point, it can no longer be ignored.
Here in the U.S. we’re now seeing statues and other emblems of the American Civil War come down by government decree. Supporters of that conflict have maintained its genesis was the battle for states’ rights, while truth-tellers insist it was a battle over slavery. They’re both correct, in some ways. It was a battle over the right of some states to keep an entire race of people enslaved. I certainly feel removal of these statues is appropriate. Those who fought for the Confederacy wanted to rip the nation in half over that slavery issue and therefore, should not be venerated as military heroes. They’re traitors.
The debate has now shifted to renaming many U.S. military bases. In my native Texas, one military base is named after John Bell Hood, a Confederate general who – like so many other Texas “heroes” – wasn’t even born and raised in the state. Hood also wasn’t an especially adept military commander; having lost a number of individual conflicts. And yet, a military base is named after this treasonous fool?
The U.S. Pentagon has expressed some willingness to rename military bases that reference those ill-fated Civil War characters. Naturally, it’s upset many White southerners who annually reenact various Civil War conflicts; not realizing how ridiculous they look in their antebellum garb. I can’t help but laugh at them. They’ve been fighting the war for over 150 years and STILL haven’t won!
In his usual brusque and toddler-esque manner, President Trump announced last month he would veto a USD 740 billion defense bill if it included an amendment that would rename many of those military bases. He declared, “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom.”
Remember, the Confederacy lost that war. A million reenactments won’t change that reality.
Some 30 years ago my father discovered that Spain’s Queen Isabella (who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyage) was an ancestor of his mother. According to documentation my father found, Isabella learned of the atrocities Spain’s military officials were committing against the indigenous peoples of the “New World” and ordered them to stop. That’s one reason why Latin America has a stronger connection to its native peoples than the United States and even Canada.
It should be worth noting that, while Italians celebrate Columbus as a national hero, he probably wasn’t even a native son. For centuries he was considered a Genoese sailor with grand visions of finding a westward route to India and subsequently gain an edge in the then-contentious spice trade. Contemporary research, however, has declared he was actually the son of Polish King Władysław III; often dubbed the twelve-toed king because allegedly had 6 toes on each foot. And I have to emphasize that Columbus couldn’t get Italian leaders to finance his ventures, so he turned to Spain. In the 15th century C.E., Italy was actually a conglomeration of city-states.
In one of my earliest essays on this blog, I lamented the term “redskin”; a derogatory moniker for Native Americans that has figured prominently into the names of many sports teams, from grade school to professional. Just this week the Washington Redskins football team announced what many previously considered unthinkable: they might change their name. Team owner Daniel Snyder conceded he’s bowing to pressure from its largest corporate sponsors (big money always has the loudest voice in the corporate world), as well a growing cacophony of socially-conscious voices demanding change. Snyder said the team has begun a “review” of both the name and the team’s mascot. Detractors, of course, moan this is political correctness at its worst. But, just like Civil War reenactors still haven’t won, Eurocentrics still won’t admit they didn’t obliterate North America’s indigenous populations.
Change on such a grand scale is always slow and painful. But, as with time itself, change will happen; it can’t be stopped.
We can never correct or fix what happened in the past. Nothing can ever atone for the loss of millions of people and the destruction of the societies they built. But we can acknowledge the truth that is buried. It’s not rewriting history; it’s writing the actual history that remained entombed in that bloodied soil for so long. It’s adding the needed and long-absent color to reality.