In which I watch a video that (badly) attempts to explain the black legend, Native Americans and Spaniards OR No... just NO or SHOUT OUT TO MY HOPI JACKIE
I have so many qualms and quibbles with this video I don't even know where to start. So I'll start with how I found it.
My professor asked me to watch it. This is a Professor from another department who I am taking a class with this quarter. She asked for my reaction and response to the video because she was told that this video (actually this series of videos) is being used in AP History courses to help students engage with U.S. History.
As evidenced by You Tube comments like:
"I'm watching these so I can get at least a 3 on the AP Exam in 3 weeks"
PS. that person took the AP exam "and it was fcking easy." So... there's that. Perhaps expecting any sort of critical thinking to be involved in Advanced Placement history is asking too much.
Anyway, my Professor brought it to me and asked if I would be willing to tell her what I thought about the information in the video.
I told her I would watch it and give a response on the blog. So here is my response: No. Just...no.
Wanna know why? Well, it's mainly because oversimplifying history is a delicate art that not all can master (I know, I know... pot, kettle. I am as glib about history as the next person.) Second, when you make settler colonial based assumptions about history and you back them up with cute little animations that reinforce these primitive (HA, see what I did there?!) ideas about Native peoples in history rather than engaging in critical dialogue, you make an ass out of you and you make ME want to shake my head disapprovingly. Third, for students (or people) to use this video to learn what they will probably assume is a simple, easy, objective, factual, kind of history and then will probably never hear about Native people in history again, this pretends that learning from the assumptions doesn't actually have a lasting impact on the way we treat living Native peoples and their nations.
I get what the video is trying to do. It's trying to engage people in this story by making the story accessible. I agree, somewhat, with the premise of the video series. For far too long things like history, have been told from an inaccessible, stodgy, overbearing point of view. History is interesting, it's hilarious (ask any Native person and they can probably tell you a hilarious joke about history) and it's also complicated and dense.
But what about the people who don't really care and who just want to get a 3 on their AP exam (which, is fking easy by the way...)? Well, for them, and others who have many things to do, we (in my humble opinion) at least owe them a conversation that challenges their cultural assumptions while engaging their curiosity and sensibility. Also, a lot of the stuff in the video is wrong. W-R-O-N-G. No matter what the AP test says.
ASS-umption #1: When the European's arrived there were no classical style civilizations with monumental architecture and empires like the Aztecs or the Incas. Native North Americans had no metal work, no gun powder, no wheels, no written languages, and no domesticated animals. However, they did have farming, complex social political structures and widespread trade networks.
I immediately lost all hope for a pleasant surprise (like SURPRISE we aren't just making another video that forwards settler colonial ideas about Native peoples "before European arrival" in order to justify colonization and invasion of Native lands) when the video started this way (I don't mind the fast talking, the animations, the music, the "thought bubbles" - I get it dude).
Whether or not the video is attempting to acknowledge that Native peoples were more than just "primitive" peoples who were in the Americas camping out, or waiting around for someone to tell them how the wheel works, the set up of the statement (and the follow through) is actually quite successful at painting Native peoples as primitive. (The host does a lengthy take down of the term, though he then proceeds to do exactly what he says he doesn't want to do- to show Native peoples as primitive non-civilizations).
First, the comparison of one "classical style civilization" to another is, problematic, and also disingenuous. It asks students, viewers and others to believe that monumental architecture is paramount to a civilization, and that our ideas about what makes "technology" central to a "classical style" civilization is tied to "metal work" (European), "gun powder" (Western, and Eastern...mind you), wheels and written languages.
Note, however, that there were many other civilized and technological advances in Native nations which are not engaged with NOR presented in the video. For instance, aside from "complex social political structures," "farming" and "trade networks" Native peoples had (and have):
ASS-umption #2: So there had been civilizations in America but they peaked before the Europeans arrived. The Zuni and Hopi civilization... peaked about 1200 CE.
Wow. Tell that the Hopi.
Actually, don't tell that to the Hopi because they might just punch you in the face.
Actually, yeah, try telling that to a Hopi.
So the narrative is the same that happens in "history" done by "old historians" (who the host makes fun of) who want to believe in a few fundamental facts without critically thinking about said "facts."
This "fact" is centered around the idea that somehow, in some way, Native peoples were on their way out of being populous, civilized, organized, generous, complete, whole, balanced "civilizations" and nations because of (insert reason: disease, "environmental degradation" and/or a combination of) and this means that when Europeans got here their "colonization" was in some way supported by nature and "destiny." That's right - "manifest destiny."
Now, the "selective reasoning" that goes in to this assumption of fact means that those instances that support your idea are explored and/or documented while those that do not (say, the continued growth of Native populations "pre-contact" or the complex systems of government, civilization, religion and the like that existed) are erased from the documented record either (1) because people don't WANT to see them or (2) they didn't bother to ask while they were killing/ massacring/ committing a genocide of Native people or (3) they didn't care.
"Selective reasoning" means that one can say "you see, this is an example of how Native Americans peaked and were on their way out because they lived in one place (where the Hopi's/ Zuni's lived) and then stopped living there." Even though you wouldn't tell European history as "see the Europeans peaked because at one time some of them lived in Rome and then they didn't." You can't (or shouldn't) even say that the Hopi's or Zuni's "peaked" at a certain point in history because they are STILL ALIVE.
However, thanks for giving me my new favorite comeback line to anything my Hopi friend Jackie says to me. "Yeah, well, the Hopi's peaked in 1200 CE. HISTORICAL FACT!"
ASS-umption #3: Most Native groups in most cases organized as tribes and their lives were dominated by the natural resources available where they lived. These tribal bands often united into loose confederacies or leagues the best known of which was probably the Iroquois Confederacy, also called the Great League of Peace.
Wow. Tell that to the Haudenosaunee. They were a "loose" confederacy. Dang, you are good at giving me comebacks for Native people I know. "Yeah, well, we know how those Iroquois are -- just a LOOSE confederacy."
Let me note a little about this "loose" confederacy. First, it was from this confederacy that the United States Government was modeled. Second, this "loose" confederacy was documented by the Haudenosaunee people (and I say documented because there were in fact DOCUMENTS created "pre-contact" to "document" history, which I will quibble about later). Third, seriously, tell that to the Haudenosaunee. I'd like to see it. Video it and put it on You Tube.
ASS-umption #4: In general colonizing Florida sucked because it was hot and mosquito-ey. Spain was much more successful at colonizing the American southwest.
Do you know what that means -- to be "successful" at colonizing the American Southwest? Do the students watching this video know what that means? You could add just a few sentences to let people know what that means. It is not a benign statement. To be "successful" at colonizing these areas means: enslavement of Native peoples, killing of Native peoples, displacing of Native peoples, eradicating of Native peoples.
Later this ASS-umption becomes even worse when the host states:
New Mexico is really important because it is the site of the first large scale uprising by Native Americans against Europeans. I mean, the Native people, who the spanish called Pueblos, had seen their fortunes decline significantly since the arrival of Europeans. How much decline? Well between the years 1600-1680 their population went from about 60,000 to about 17,000.
When I first heard this I had to back it up several times to figure out what he meant by "had seen their fortunes decline significantly" and I STUDY THIS TYPE OF HISTORY FOR MY JOB (although, granted, I do not have to take the AP test to get paid... but still).
"had seen their fortunes decline significantly"?? I paused, you mean like, they weren't making as much money because of the arrival of the Europeans? Like somehow the Europeans took their jobs? Like before the Europeans came the Pueblos were rolling in dough and then the Europeans came and now they can only afford one house instead of three?
But no, what he means is that their "fortunes" (like the "fortune" of being alive, not being enslaved, not being killed, not being forced to move, not having your children taken or your family raped or killed) had "declined" which you can tell because their population was decimated (octo-mated?) from 60,000 to 17,000.
That is precisely the problem with the statement and this (re)telling of history. Sure dude, be glib, whatever. But at least, at least consider your word choice. When you have 11 minutes to tell me about all of the Spainards history and the Pueblo Revolt and Native peoples at least consider what you mean by "their fortunes declined significantly."
ASS-ide #1: So we focused a lot on the brutality of the Spanish toward the Indians...
Did you? He makes this ASS-ide after he reads one statement (just one) by Bartolome de las Casas about the inhumane treatment of Native peoples by the Spaniards. And it's almost like he is apologizing for reading these very damning words about what was happening in the Americas as a result of this colonization. Much more than a "decline of fortunes" that's for sure.
ASS-umption #5: As we mentioned at the beginning of today's episode American Indians didn't have writing so we don't have records of their perspective.
We do actually. We really do. There are a lot.
(1) You can look at oral narratives if you'd like, there's a LOT of history in there about "pre-contact" cultures of Native people in the Americas. ("But, but, in history we don't think oral narratives count as real historical documents!" Well, that's really to your detriment then. Because if you wanted to KNOW instead of just ASSUME you would consider the oral tradition, and you would learn how to read and understand them.)
(2) You can look at the documents of Native nations. Wampum belts, Navajo rugs, painted animal skins, baskets, canoes, carvings, rock paintings, etc.
(3) There was a lot written during the Spanish colonization and also a lot taken as testimony during Spanish colonization. So you can learn from people who told their story and it was written down, or your can learn from the stuff that was written down by various Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian and other "explorers."
(4) You could ask. There are lots of us in Native American Studies, at least some of us may be willing to help. (I don't know about the Hopi's though, they might just say "oh hey dude, I thought we PEAKED in 1200 CE!"
But why does it even matter? It's just history and stuff...
Do you know when I get students in my NAS class they usually end up writing me a reflection in which they say something like "What makes me the most upset is that I never learned these things about history before. Why didn't anyone ever tell me?!" And most of them were AP history students...
I suppose I will answer this one with a quote from the video:
One of the great things about American history is that we have a lot of written sources- this is the advantage of the US coming on to the scene so late in the game, historically speaking. But every story we hear comes from a certain point of view, and we always need to remember who is speaking, why they are speaking, and especially which voices go unheard - and why.
Maybe, had the video been held to the same standard, this "crash course" could actually benefit people who are curious enough to want to learn SOMETHING by helping them to engage with what this learning is about. Read the quote above again (said by the host at the end of the video) and note that this video is a certain point of view (western based historian) and we need to remember who is speaking (western based historian) why they are speaking (to get you tube views?) and which voices go unheard (in this case, the ones that call in to question these settler colonial western historical ASS-umptions about Native peoples.)
But also, how come. How come we don't expect more from even a short video used to help high school students access history. And shouldn't we? I know I do.
P.S. This video is supposed to be about The Black Legend, Native Americans and Spaniards and nary (yes, I said NARY) a mention of California and how the brutal treatment of Native people continued well into the 1700s by the Spanish in order to colonize Native peoples nor (yes I said NOR) a shout out for the many uprisings and rebellions of Native people in California against the mission system? Not even a "oh yeah they did this in California too!" Nada? Although the video probably would have said something like "and you know those California Indians they peaked in 1500" and then I would have had to get in my car, google where the host lives, drive for hours, find his house, knock on his door, waited until he opened it so I could look at him and say "NO, okay! JUST NO."
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, fan of "The Good Wife" and "The Walking Dead", who likes to go for long walks on long piers...
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