Lies, Damn Lies and History


Mark Twain got it wrong. It is not true that there are ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics,” as he claimed.  There are lies, damn lies, and history. I said that.

The facts of the invasion of the western hemisphere by Europeans are to a large extent unknown by people who make no effort to find them. Which of course means they are largely unknown except to scholars. The rest of us have a learned a very one-sided history—the history of those who saw themselves as victors.

Yellow Wolf, of the Nez Percé, an indigenous nation of the western United States, put this accurately in 1877: “The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true.  Only his own best deeds,, only the worst deeds of the Indians, as the white man told.”

I want to look at both sides, but the fact is that the side of the whites has been well told for centuries.  I learned their stories in school. For example, I learned how mean and cruel the Iroquois were to those nice kind priests from France. I never learned the other side the story at at all. It took me many  years to learn otherwise. So I want to redress that. I want to look at all sides.

As Ronald Wright said in his wonderful book Stolen Continents,  “Few things are so dangerous as believing one’s own lies”. The first lie, a vital part of what I have called the Original Sin, was that the Europeans were civilized and the people of the Western Hemisphere were savages. That is a lie we should stop believing. It was a convenient lie. It allowed the Europeans to ravage the western continents with a clean conscience.

For example, and this is just a beginning, it is not true that most of the people living in the western hemisphere were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Many of them were exactly that. But many of them lived settled lives in towns and cities.  There were some amazing cities in North and south America.  One of those cities was Cahokia. I will talk about that later. According to Wright, “Hollywood may have convinced us that the ‘typical’ Indian was a nomadic hunter, but in fact the majority had been living in villages, towns, and cities since long before Columbus.”

In fact there is a lot of evidence now that the real barbarians, the real savages, came sailing in on big ships!

Leave a Reply