Avoid mythologizing Native American history


For all of you who have been missing local trivia nights, here are some puzzlers. How old was Pocahontas when John Smith arrived in Virginia? How many federally recognized tribes are there in the United States today? How many of the tribes, who once lived in Illinois, can you name? Where does Chicago rank among U.S. cities for its Native American and Alaskan Native population? Who is the highest-ranking Indigenous government official in 2021?

Our knowledge of Native American history matters, not so much for trivia nights (although I hope this article helps), but to appreciate its enduring significance in shaping our lives today and in the future.

The students I meet in my course on American Indian History at Bradley University have already heard about Pocahontas. Mostly they have watched her sing in a Disney movie surrounded by woodland creatures. They remember that President Trump uses the name as a derogatory nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Almost everything they know about Pocahontas, of course, is myth. That’s part of being a colonist and a settler. You move onto other people’s land, you push them out, then you steal their words and their history in ways that make you feel more comfortable. I should know, I’m one too. Amidst ongoing forced Indian removals, my European ancestors arrived in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to settle and farm Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi lands.

Education is the best antidote to beguiling myths and their buried, barbed cruelties. Pocahontas was a real person, but that was only a nick name. Before she became a Disney princess, Matoaka was a real child living with her people in a place they called Tsenacomoco. When Captain Smith showed up to colonize the place that the English alternatively named after their virgin queen, Matoaka was about 9. By 15 or 16 she had been kidnapped to use as a bargaining tool against her father. From what scholars have been able to piece together of her real life, Matoaka had the remarkable strength to choose her own path forward: converting to Christianity, choosing the name Rebecca, marrying, and crossing the Atlantic to learn all that she could about England in order to help her people understand the strangers they faced. Encouragingly, my students prefer learning the truth about the past, even when it is not a bedtime story. To them, “Pocahontas” calls to mind a confident and playful child who grew into a diplomatic and adventurous woman.

What about the history of our own state? By my count, historical documents reveal at least 33 tribal names of Indigenous peoples who lived within the current boundaries of Illinois—in alphabetical order (with more modern preferred names noted): Appalachicola, Cahokia, Chepoussa, Chinko, Chickasaw, Chippewa (Ojibwe), Coiracoentanon, Delaware (Lenape), Eel River, Espeminkia, Fox (Meskwakie), Iowa, Kaskaskia, Kickapoo, Mascouten, Menominee, Miami (Myaamiaki), Michibousa, Michigamea, Moingwena, Osage, Ottawa (Odawa), Peoria, Pepikokia, Piankishaw, Potawatomi (Bodewadmi), Sauk (Sac), Shawnee, Tamaroa, Tapouaro, Wea, Winnebago (Ho-Chunk), Wyandot—but the true list is undoubtedly longer. (How many of these did you know? Sometimes a simple list of names suggests how much there is still to learn, even for experts.)

My own research investigates the history of the Ho-Chunk in the early 1800s as they became reluctantly involved in one of the foundational events in the creation of Illinois. When the aging Sauk war leader Black Hawk migrated across the Mississippi from Iowa in April 1832, the governor of Illinois called it an invasion and quickly called up a militia that included the young Abraham Lincoln. The story of the American military’s haphazard response—as Lincoln was always willing to admit—was far from glorious. But the untold story of the 1832 crisis, the one that I hope to tell in vivid detail, is the actions of the Ho-Chunk to act as peacekeepers to conserve lives, land, and their corn. This story has not been told before, despite many books on the time period. The problem has not been a lack of sources, but—much like the case of princess Pocahontas—settler stories of the Black Hawk War have obscured the role of real Indians in the history of their own times and places.

But the story of Native American life is not primarily about the past. It is an essential part of our present. There are 574 tribal communities that continue to practice nation to nation relations with the United States government. From Gerald Vizenor, an Anishinaabe writer, I have learned to use the word “survivance” because the word “survival” seems inadequate for conveying the sophisticated, remarkable, enduring, and active work of Indigenous self-preservation.

Chicago is one of the great Native cities of our continent. The city’s American Indian population grew rapidly after 1945 due to federal policies aimed at terminating tribal status and dismantling reservation communities. Today it is home to the third largest urban concentration of Indigenous families in the U.S. The American Indian Center has been directed almost exclusively by Native peoples and has operated independently from the Bureau of Indian affairs since its establishment in 1953. The vitality of Chicago’s multi-tribal community over time is remarkable and a testament to the ties that urban Indians maintained to reservation communities and family heritage. There are no reservations in Illinois, but it remains the home of thousands of Indigenous people.

In 2020, the statue of Columbus in Chicago was the site of prolonged and sometimes violent demonstration before it was removed under cover of darkness. In Peoria, a smaller statue of Columbus was also taken down after an extended, organized conversation managed adroitly by the Park District Board. I was honored to be among those who participated in the conversation, but more pleased to see the civil engagement of thoughtful people on opposing sides willing to listen to and hear one another.

The Peoria experience of a calmer resolution might be more representative of historical change than we always recognize. There is no doubt that divisive issues, such as team mascots and nicknames remain emotionally charged. But the history of the last 50 years shows clear signs of steady change, often pushed for by protesters and implemented by institutional leaders. And the crucial factor seems to be a growing body of shared knowledge about our history and its grip on the present.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently announced numerous initiatives aimed at reconciling with Native American communities. UIUC views its origins as a land-grant university as particularly connected to the federal government’s forced removals of Native peoples from Illinois. Additionally, the university seeks to redress its bitter fight to keep “Chief Illiniwek” as a mascot, even after the NCAA deemed it “hostile and abusive.” Bradley University, which has its own racist heritage to reckon with, has already taken steps UIUC has not. For example, Bradley (eventually) found a new mascot with Kaboom! There’s been no mascot at UIUC for 13 years, in part to appease angry alumni. Both Bradley and the University of Illinois maintain their old nicknames: Braves and Fighting Illini.

In 2021, Deb Haaland will most likely be confirmed as the next Secretary of the Interior and arguably the highest-ranking Indigenous government official in our country. She is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo and her election to Congress and selection for Biden’s cabinet are remarkable achievements. “Native history is American history,” she has reminded us. “Regardless of where you are in this country now, you’re on ancestral land, and that land has a history.” Our challenge is to come to terms with this history in truthful ways and to embrace the idea of decolonization in whatever ways we can. Indigenous history and studies should begin in K12 education and it must exist in every institution of higher learning, where individuals engage in the production of knowledge through research and publication while educating future professionals and engaging in community outreach. Indigenous Studies and Native history starts to equip us for difficult conversations and the strenuous work of arriving at new solutions grounded on more solid foundations than those provided by old and ultimately unsatisfying myths.

Libby Tronnes is an assistant professor of American history with a specialization in Native American studies at Bradley University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *