“Tell me something about American history,” I said, “How does it start?”
She said: “How does it start? What do you mean?”
“You know… Indian history begins with the Indus Valley civilization, the Mauryas, the Mughals, Independence and so on, five thousand years of history conveniently compressed into ten at school.”
“Oh I see. I suppose… we start history from the discovery the New World.”
“Wait, we? Didn’t the Europeans do that? And didn’t Americans live here before them?”
“There were Incas and Mayans in South America… But who lived in North America? Shouldn’t the history of this land be the history of this land?”
“So? Who were the North Americans? Where does American history begin?”
“I don’t know.”
That’s the first conversation that I remember being confused about. Why does American history start with Europeans? It makes no sense! It would be like if Indian history started with colonization rather than it being the second-last chapter in history. (For me anyway, others continued their history education beyond Independence). Then it isn’t a history of this land and these people but some other land and some other people!
This year’s Thanksgiving has me revisiting this conversation and another much briefer one at uni where I asked an American classmate what she and her family did for Thanksgiving and she stated that they didn’t “celebrate” it since she’s Native American. I was shocked. Imagine if the natives of any other land, even precious Europe (from an American perspective), were so invisible and marginalized that they could have a problem with festivities in their own land and still have no say in the matter. Crazy.
So where does American history begin? I went down to the Museum of the American Indian, a building that I had avoided since (Native) Americans are obviously American and not Indian – a pet peeve of mine since I hate being misunderstood (i.e. people “correcting” me by saying “Native American” instead of “Indian” even if I’m talking about Indians from INDIA you IDIOTS *facepalm*). Anyway, the museum. The museum is fantastic, interactive and engaging in a city that’s full of jaw-dropping museums, though it’s oddly eurocentric like the main hall which is gorgeous is also decorated with (in)famous European explorers… for some reason? (Columbus was trying to make his way to India, folks, and ended up on the other side of the world!… And you know, precipitated a series of events in which the natives were all but annihilated.)
But, that aside, I learnt some amazing things like Native Americans, like all other native peoples around the world (I wish we could just say “Americans”, no one goes to India and says “Native Indians” you know?) of course had sophisticated civilizations, histories spanning centuries, art, craft, number systems, it’s all right there! And while there I picked up this book that I intend to read over this weekend:
I’m really looking forward to reading it, even as I somewhat guiltily attend a couple of Thanksgiving meals and spend time with friends and family. I ought to know more about this holiday, but all that I know so far is that it’s a great time to get together with loved ones, talk about what we are thankful for, though I have an uneasy feeling that we’re probably celebrating a dubious history.
Enjoy the long weekend! *I say as I sidle away amidst awkward chuckles.*