by Geoffrey Jones
NOTE: (I just got through reading another piece of political correctness about the Cleveland Indians renaming project and decided it would be a good thing to reprint this column for any who missed it the first time, years ago.)
Awhile back an old friend of mine asked me my opinion on the matter of referring to Native Americans as “Indians.” She was confident that a native American would be deeply insulted by this term. Native Americans want to be referred to as “Native Americans ” she said. I answered “Well I’ll tell you what the chief had to say ‘(I was referring to a friend from earlier in my life, David Honyoust, a war chief of the Oneida nation.)
My father and I, as historians, had “fought” side by side, with David and American Indians from all across New York state to save an early burial site from being used for road fill. The effort was a victory and the site’s owner made note in the deed to the property that it was never to be touched. The memory I have of David however that applies to my discussion, was about the name of a nearby school team. It was called the Cambridge Indians.
Some local reporters asked David if he wasn’t offended by the team being so named. “No, said David, in fact I look on it as an honor. When I watch the games and cheer for the team, I feel quite moved knowing that our team is named “The Indians.”
Recently I read the account of a professor who took offense at the ads for the Walt Disney produced animated film depicting Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. She found the film idea “sexist” and “racist,” her argument was that it suggested that a native American girl might not be satisfied with a man from her own village but would be excited over an Englishman like Capt. Smith.
Well my answer to this would be, that was up to Pocahontas wasn’t it? To Pocahontas Capt. Smith would have been like a modern day astronaut. Many modern young girls are taken with astronauts and other celebrities and more than happy at the thought of a relationship with such a one. Pocahontas was a celebrity herself. The morning internet news is filled with such accounts. Modern debunking historians have sneered at the story as being a lie on Smith’s part. “After all he didn’t mention Pocahontas saving his life in his first accounts, only in his 1623 book.” Not bothering with original sources they overlook the fact that Smith’s first accounts were sent to England by a trading company to help interest new settlers for this continent. Telling his experience of being nearly crushed to death would hardly have helped that cause. It was also known that the trading company tailored his early published comments for that very reason.
Other modern comments intended to steer us away from the accounts of those who were actually there are “Pocahontas was only 12 years old at the time. No way there could have been a serious relationship between them.” Again actually understanding history in its own context helps greatly. The age of marriage for young native American girls then was between 12 and 15. In England 12 was also considered an acceptable age for young women to enter into courtship. I suggest watching the great, more recent film “The New World;” it follows original sources very well and is, I believe, a close approximation of what really happened.
An article in “The Atlantic” published helps a lot in explaining these efforts to actually change history to please modern whims. It is called “The Coddling of The American Mind.” It goes in depth into how such modern phenomena as “micro aggressions,” “negative filtering,” “blaming,” etc. are leading to an educational system which literally serves to infantilize students right at the point they are preparing to enter the real world. Even the accepted debate program is challenged by those increasingly thin skinned folks who find ethnic and sexist slurs in every corner. Comedians like Chris Rock are no longer happy about performing in front of such students. Imagine what Don Rickles would have experienced!
My own thought would be in keeping with the old Chinese I-Ching saying, “One should let many things pass without being duped.” We are all human beings with both good and bad qualities, hopefully we feature the good. The Story of Pocahontas and John Smith is some of the good of history, it shows more of how things should have gone during that period. Trying to turn it into something ugly is a loss for everyone. Our study of life and history must always understand this. We study the bad of history along with the good, but take it as it actually happened. Elsewise we become “dumbed down” in just one more way. We have enough to deal with in that respect as it is. Time to toughen up again. Life as it is is a great gift, in scorning the wrongs we still have to honor the rights. We’re not here to give up, but as William Faulkner said…”to prevail.”
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