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Nocturnal Ruminations: To whom does history belong?

04 Feb

There is no simple answer to this question.  It is one fraught with turns and twists, spins and dichotomies that would make Levi-Strauss grin with pleasure at its analysis. History can be interpreted, shredded, and analyzed in a most curious way that would make Kierkegaard smile every time one says “hindsight is always 20/20.”  Though, I’ve always enjoyed Megadeth’s take: “Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back things are still a bit fuzzy.”

Ultimately, history is a collection of shared communal experiences whose threads when drawn together weave the tapestry of modernity.  Simplistically, we can point back to say the American 1950s as a time in which things were great, men by and large worked, women took care of the home and children went to school happily and didn’t question their teachers.  Families lived in subdivisions (all the rage at that time), having two children, a white picket fence and one motor vehicle.  This is the modern, mainstream presentation of this era; however, its reality is questionable at best and outright wrong at worst.  The 1950s offered little to no social mobility to women, homosexuality was an underground and perilous state of being that could led to one being tried as if a communist, and I have not even begun with the state of minorities in the U.S.  So, therein, there are many histories from the 1950s alone: the History of the Government, the History of the Mainstream, the History of the Minority, the History of Sexuality, &c.

So, to whom does history belong?  And for that matter about history which are we writing?

Anthropology and archeology come from explorers and vagabonds, the rogues of the academe, to perform their analyses on the cultural lineage and situations of humans worldwide.  When the fields began and throughout their early periods in the United States, the scientists were tasked to record dying languages, quiet Indian problems, and to understand history from material culture records.  The result of this was the looting of archeological sites of heritage, especially in the Southeast, fictional accounts of cultural experience, and altogether ethnocentric interpretations of the past and present.

Mound sites in the Southeast were systematically excavated without concern for the mound structure and as a result no longer exist.  The bodies of those buried in the mound and their associated grave goods were placed in museum, dusty offices, and barns that served as museums or galleries of curiosities. The academy was able to understand and interpret all the artifacts, burials, and imagery, but at the expense of literally ripping another people’s heritage from the ground and destroying their cultural geography in the process to place it in laboratories and later museums.

As a result to this, our academic history of violence and theft, the U.S. Federal Government began legislating (not of their own accord, mind you, but through years of hard work) acts like NAGPRA and amendments to NEPA, NHRPA, and the other federal laws regarding cultural heritage and artifacts.  Ultimately, this led to the return to the tribes their dead whose skeletons, having been properly excavated, were locked still in the soil their bodies were placed, so that they could be reburied.  The tribes were allowed to have input into what and how their heritage was being displayed.

Ultimately, laws like this benefitted all parties in the U.S., which is a great thing.  Innovative and emphatic scientists found ways to work within these new laws to go further.  A great example of this are historic cemeteries in Arkansas, many of which were located near rivers when they were placed and over the course of just one hundred years are now being eroded into these rivers.  Often, these cemeteries contain individuals of a low socio-economic bearing or African-American.  Using NAGPRA and its funding arms, scientists contacted the descendent communities, excavated the cemeteries, were allowed to analyze the burials, and then aided in the repatriation process.

Therefore, it is obvious: one of owners of history are the communities from which the individuals whose stories are being told come.  This includes the living and the descendent communities whose wishes and input should be sought when undertaking an analysis of their people.  This is, in fact, why we’ve got these laws put in place and it is in fact our ethical obligation to do so.

A Part of the Larger Community

History is not solely the purview of the descendent community alone.  It is also a part of the larger background of the entire population of a city, a county, a state, and further a country.  This is not to say that it is owned by these official political organizations, but that its events belong as part of them.  In social science, there is a theory of interaction with the larger social group.  It is these large “agents” as you will that establish the Dialogue, and those beneath interact with the Dialogue by their Statements.  History obviously informs the Dialogue of these political organizations, and the hope is that they alter the manner in which they interact with their communities.

A Word on the Democratization of History

We live in an accessible time in which search engines have replaced the Dewey Decimal system.  Wikipedia, for all its derision by the academe (as of my last year of graduate school, students could still not use this site as a source), is better peer reviewed than some academic journals, I’m certain.  I have been involved on projects whose aims were to pull artifacts, at the behest of the descendent community, from their storage chambers and display cabinets so as to turn them into digital representations of the real objects for dissemination on the internet.  The ultimate result of this is that history, cultural experience, and understanding are always at your finger tips the moment you sit down to your keyboard.  You have access.  You should have access.

Ultimately, however, for as well meaning as these things are and have been, history is essentially real world philosophy, meaning we have historical facts and interpretations. There are no such things as historical truths, because your truth and my truth could be completely different based off the facts we use to defend our arguments.  False interpretations of facts often leads to mass market success for people.  If you have cable television, go to the History Channel or its sister channel, H2, and look at the titles of the series in question.  If you do not, go to their websites and look at their viewing guides.  You’ll find shows like “America Unearthed,” a show done by a Forensic Geologist (did not know there was such a thing until this show) who is doing archeological analysis of strange locations and events in American history and tying them to wild and completely unprovable things (e.g: Phoenicians landed on the Salisbury Plain and began building Stonehenge before coming to the US and building a menhir here; Mayan explores traded with Etowah in the US).  Brad Meltzer, a mass market novelist, offers a show called Decoded, in which he purports to deconstruct and analyze the semiotics of secret, conspiracy theory things.  Please note that Mr Meltzer, who’s a successful writer of cheap conspiratorial fiction and cliffhangers, uses the word “symbology” to describe what he is doing.  His study is in fact semiotics and symbology is not a word or field of study with a rational mind.

The democracy of history is good in that historical fact belongs to everyone; however, it allows for many interpretations.  The danger in these interpretations is that if they are misused and misguided, it could cast a very poor and dim view of history.  Ultimately, history belongs to everyone and it can be viewed in many different ways to craft a picture of the past.

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