The descriptions of a church-run Canadian boarding school for Indians in Richard Wagamese’s brilliant novel, Indian Horse, were brutal. The book was published in 2012; a movie released in 2017. In today’s news stories, echoing Wagamese’s book, a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children has been found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
“Ground penetrating radar” discovered the remains, but Wagamese’s novel, and hundreds of accounts by former students, tell us that these stories have been known and told for decades. Prime Minister Trudeau has apologized; when he asked Pope Francis to do the same, he was rebuffed.
History has never been a clear-eyed view of the past. History, it seems, is as much about the age it is written in than the age it is written about. Ours is an open season on past histories, ground penetrating radar everywhere churning up old histories covered over in their time and in later accounts by people dedicated to using history to teach “American values.”
Today, classmates from the 1960 class at Oceanside High School in California are wondering to each other about a Japanese-American classmate we voted “most likely to succeed.” Had she been removed to Missoula? Did she take her first steps in the internment camp at Manzanar? She’s not attended class reunions; I do not recall the Japanese internment camps being part of our 1950s school curriculum.
Nor did I learn that some—maybe many—of my California classmates that we called Mexican were in fact Luiseño or Cahuilla Indians. I looked up the Indian writer Gordon Johnson when I went to Oceanside for the fiftieth reunion. Gordon is Cahuilla/Cupeño and lives on the Pala Indian Reservation just a few miles east of Oceanside. He said that in the Southern California of the 1940s and 50s, “if you were light, you passed as white; if brown, you were Mexican.” Indians were at the bottom of the heap.
Gordon wrote for years for the Riverside paper; I went to school at UC Riverside, and remember a small handful of African-American students and a few Asian-Americans. I can’t remember a Mexican or an Indian student.
That’s changed of course; UC Riverside is now as diverse a campus as there is on the West Coast. And as the complexation and composition of the student body has changed, the complexation and real composition of our country is being revealed. To the consternation of many!
But this historical genie is out of the bottle. Ground penetrating radar is everywhere. The real story of white supremacy—screamed loudly by James Baldwin when I was a student 60 years ago, swallowed in the Civil Rights movement, and found again in the wake of George Floyd, is now documented in book after book, movie after documentary. Internment camps and Asian exclusion laws are in high school and college curriculums. Yes, there are many speaking against their inclusion and the inclusion of any dirty chapters in the nation’s history in “our school,” or “our textbooks,” but it is difficult to see how the Anglo-American lid of a fine and virtuous nation living up to the language and sentiments of its original documents can hold out long in a continent that is changing rapidly, talking about past sins and future promise as it does so.
There will be more missing children found, and the disappearances of Indian women, long a grievous concern in Indian country but until recently largely unreported in the national press, will stay at the center of public consciousness until it too is aired, grieved, and fought hard against.
At least that is a hope. There are constant pressures to return to a sanitized version of American history, the Western where the good guy comes to town and wins, or the bad one repents, or the civilizing schoolmarm carries the day. Meanwhile, the schoolmarms and priests, Indian agents, police and military officers responsible for terrible acts, are being named, their deeds exposed by the penetrating radars of hundreds of explorers not satisfied with the “standard” version of history that has dominated for so long.
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