A Bigger American History

My last rambling blog post tried to link missionaries Whitman and Spalding, Catholic and anti-Catholic Northwesterners, Yale historians, Manifest Destiny, the Fur Trade, Whitman College and Bison Books into a tidy essay on history and historiography. I could have done a blog post on each, I imagine, rather than make that untidy bundle.

Distilled to its essence, the idea was to show that the history that, until recently, was taken as standard history was only a small slice of the actual peoples and events that fill a real four hundred year, 1776-2021 calendar of these United States. And that Protestant Providentialism—the Idea that missionaries were in the service of God-ordained westward expansion—and concurrent anti-Catholicism helped reduce and erase other histories from the canon. The canon was Anglo-American and Protestant—and almost entirely male; women its helpmates, schoolmarms, prostitutes, and diarists, but not its actors.

The canon rejected all non-Protestant faiths—Catholic, Jewish, Moslem, Dreamer, Deists (after a flourish with the Founders, Deists quickly exited our history, or joined other non-Protestant groups at the margins). Indians were excluded, seen as obstacles to White, Protestant advancement, or the subjects of civilizing, missionizing, and assimilating by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Italians and the Irish, Chinese and Japanese all lived at the margins of our history, building political wards, restaurants, laundries, Little Italys and Chinatowns, farms and railroads that all served the major Anglo-American builders of the Nation. Their religions were all “not-Protestant”; their skin color suspect,

African-Americans—slaves and “free blacks”—were the subjects of Providential history—but not its protagonists. Slavery was the cause of the abolitionists, the purpose of the “Back to Africa” movement, the raison for the Civil War, the cause of Reconstruction’s failure—but Blacks were the objects of Anglo-American history. They only recently edged their way into the canon on their own terms with the Civil Rights Movement. And now we, the nation, finally and fitfully, see the resolution of the racism that abetted and allowed slavery as living up to our Anglo-European inspired founding ideals—or we fight to regain an older, whiter canon.

On a personal note, my Norwegian and German immigrant ancestors did not make the Main Stage either. The Germans, a major immigrant group from 1850-1900, built breweries, bakeries, sausages and cities, but stayed clear of national politics and the Anglo-American canon. The Scandinavians took their lefse and lutefisk, their accents and squabbles with each other—Norwegians v. Swedes v. Danes—to Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas, cold country where they farmed and built dairies and the Twin Cities. Scandinavian immigrants were the subject of a four-volume set of novels by Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg. You can read them in English, but “The Emigrants” was a story of Swedes emigrating to America, written for a Swedish audience.

All of these people—all of us—Swedes, Greeks, African Americans, American Indians, white women and women of color, have had our histories, our stories, and although their appearances in textbooks and standard histories are rare, they have been and have been recorded. State historical societies, journals of regional and special history and anthropology, Moberg and Willa Cather wrote them in fiction and Mari Sandoz wrote them in fiction and non-fiction: the stories of the Westward movement from the point of view of women, Indians, and white men who were not Anglo-Protestants.

I did a quick tour through the U of Nebraska’s Bison Books catalog. They cover the country while highlighting the Midwest and West; they include Indians at every step; the fur trade is part of our history; women writers and subjects are prominent; and Bison keeps memoirs and old accounts in print while publishing new material on old matters.

How different the canon would be if it included Bison books in its bibliography. Here’s a sample:

The Soul of the Indian
An Interpretation
Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa)

Starring Red Wing!
The Incredible Career of Lilian M. St. Cyr, the First Native American Film Star
Linda M. Waggoner

Black Elk Speaks
The Complete Edition
John G. Neihardt

Cogewea, The Half Blood
A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range
Mourning Dove (Humishuma)

Eyewitness at Wounded Knee
Richard E. Jensen, R. Eli Paul, and John E. Carter
Introduction by Heather Cox Richardson

Sarah Winnemucca
Sally Zanjani

Sacajawea’s People
The Lemhi Shoshones and the Salmon River Country
John W. W. Mann

My People the Sioux
Luther Standing Bear

Twelve Thousand Years
American Indians in Maine
Bruce J. Bourque

With My Own Eyes
A Lakota Woman Tells Her People’s History

Indians in the United States and Canada
A Comparative History
Roger L. Nichols

Wolves for the Blue Soldiers
Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860-90
Thomas W. Dunlay

Letters from the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions
Father Philip Rappagliosi
Translated from the Italian

Boarding School Blues
Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences

A Final Promise
The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920
Frederick E. Hoxie

Native American Son
The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe

Unsung Heroes of World War II
The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers
Deanne Durrett

Native America, Discovered and Conquered
Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny
Robert J. Miller

Burning the Breeze
Three Generations of Women in the American West
Lisa Hendrickson

A Cycle of the West
The Song of Three Friends, The Song of Hugh Glass, The Song of Jed Smith, The Song of the Indian Wars, The Song of the Messiah
John G. Neihardt
The Adventures of The Woman Homesteader
The Life and Letters of Elinore Pruitt Stewart

Desert Wife
Hilda Faunce

Home Below Hell’s Canyon
Grace Jordan

Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West
Dale L. Morgan

Vanished Arizona
Recollections of the Army Life of a New England Woman

The Beaver Men
Spearheads of Empire, Second Edition
Mari Sandoz

The Cattlemen
Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860
A Woman’s Life on the Mormon Frontier
Mary Ann Hafen

The Magnificent Mountain Women
Adventures in the Colorado Rockies
Janet Robertson

Covered Wagon Women, Volume 9
Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1864-1868

A Mine of Her Own
Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950
Sally Zanjani

Add in most of Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz–and Alvin Josephy’s Nez Perce Country!

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