Indigenous People in Their Own Words, Part I: The Rarity

By Mariam Williams

By now, you’ve probably seen at least one video of a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial Friday, Jan. 18, between white male high school students and an indigenous elder. As mea culpas continue from journalists and other media personalities who accused the boys of racism and bigotry before videos taken from other angles appeared online, I find myself examining whose version is being accepted as the truth and wondering whose perspective will be preserved as such.

I hadn’t checked Twitter in a few days when a friend alerted me via text that Covington Catholic, a school between my hometown (Louisville, Ky.) and my friend’s (Cincinnati, Oh.), was trending. The first video I saw explaining why it was trending showed in its foreground a Native elder and a white boy face to face, probably no more than a foot away from each other. The elder was drumming and singing. The boy, wearing a MAGA hat, looked the man in his eyes and smirked. Boys in the middle- and background, all of them white and several also wearing MAGA hats, laughed, gawked, cheered, and raised their cell phones. One boy clapped along with the drum. (The Black Hebrew Israelites do not appear in the video at all.)

The first words I heard about the incident from a direct participant were those of Nathan Phillips, the Omaha Nation man in the video playing the drum and singing. Intermittently wiping away tears he recalled hearing the teens chant, “Build that wall!” He said, “This is indigenous land. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did. For millennium, before anyone else came here, we never had walls. We never had a prison. We always took care of our elders, took care of our children. We always provided for them. We taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see that energy of the young men … put that energy into making this country really, really great.”

 

My initial reaction was threefold: unsurprised at the behavior of the teens, moved by Phillips’ tears, and smugly satisfied that a Native American elder gave a first-person account and that his account was the one the media ran with. His voice was the voice of the incident, and his voice was heard all over Twitter. He owned the story. 

Then came Monday. 

There were new videos from new angles and different timeframes. Then came the relief that this young group of Trump supporters couldn’t possibly have been disrespectful (at best) and were, in fact, the victims of overzealous retweeters—relief masked as retractions and analysis that the scene was more complicated than originally understood. Then came the Today show interviewing Nick Sandmann, the smirking teen, Wednesday morning. Thursday morning, nearly one week after the confrontation, Today returned to Phillips.

But I want to stay on Saturday for a minute, because in the historical record, in the pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and political cartoons preserved from the Colonial, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary eras, it is extremely rare for an indigenous person’s perspective to be the first or main story the broader public hears, and rarer still for that voice not to be filtered through whites—whether they were combatants or allies. 

Nathan Phillips got the chance on Friday and Saturday to tell what happened, but he wasn’t reduced to a narrator of the viral footage. He was an elder, an activist, and someone who felt led to use prayer and a blessing song to navigate the racial tension he observed between groups of black and white males at the Lincoln Memorial. His humanity remained intact. A full picture of Native folks’ humanity, too, is rare to find when looking for Native voices in the historical record.

So much of what historians depend on to research and understand the past was written, and as Black Futures Lab co-founder Rasheeda Phillips said at one of our listening sessions, remembering persons and events in writing hasn’t always been the tradition of communities of color. Even when historians want the perspectives of people whose lives haven’t traditionally been preserved in the archives, this methodological difference poses a challenge. 

In a digital age, however, a conversation, story, or family history that ordinarily may have been passed down orally might appear on Twitter or Instagram as video. (Quick sleuthing suggests the video I saw in director Ava DuVernay’s feed was reposted from Instagram user ka_ya11, a user who identifies as a member of the Dakota nation. Notably, social media platforms often are the way people of color amplify one another’s work and perspectives.) These digital platforms are their own archive, and traditional news platforms turn to them to find and substantiate news and opinions. 

Monday through Wednesday of this past week, news outlets returned to privileging voices, experiences, and accounts that were white, male, and—given that the students involved attend a private school—wealthy. Did the media simply give a more balanced view by giving Sandmann a chance to share his side of the story? In a world where colonialism, genocide of Native peoples, and their imprisonment in religious schools never happened, yes. In the world we live in, the world where it did, the media simply rushed to absolve young white men (and their chaperones) of collective responsibility and individual malice. From an archival perspective, they repeated mistakes of collectors of the past, even when they didn’t have to. That is how ingrained within America’s DNA white supremacy is. 

But in 25 to 100 years, what will hold more weight to people looking back at this moment—viral, instantaneous postings, the next-day regrets of experienced journalists, or Nathan Phillips, an indigenous man, in his own words?

Ladies Resist, Counter-resist, and Complicate

Editor’s Note: How will women vote? The question has been on the minds of politicians and pundits since before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment. Women’s potential votes carried power on major questions such as citizenship, the rights of enslaved (and later, formerly-enslaved) blacks, and temperance. The country could change in women’s hands.

But women — including white women, the focus of much polling and hand-wringing this midterm season — have never been a monolith. If women today who believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford allegations of attempted sexual assault against now Justice Brett Kavanaugh had lived in the 1800s, they would have found ample support for their resistance to the status quo. So would women who now want to protect men against false allegations or who offer other challenges to what many people see as progress.

In the latter group–at least, sort of–was Sarah Josepha Hale, who used her editorial position at the magazine, Godey’s Lady Book, to speak against suffrage and to take other controversial stances. The Athenaeum of Philadelphia houses a file of Hale’s correspondence, along with one of the country’s most complete collections of Godey’s Lady’s Book.Below, Peter Conn, Executive Director of the Athenaeum, offers more about Hale and her print media as a tool of resistance.


Sarah Josepha Hale

By Peter Conn

Little known today, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879) could claim several significant accomplishments in her long and eventful life. She played a major role in the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument and the preservation of George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. She lobbied successfully for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday (Abraham Lincoln issued the requisite proclamation).

Her second volume of poetry, Poems for Our Children(1830) included one of the most familiar bits of verse in the English language, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” originally called “Mary’s Lamb.” (In 1877 Thomas Edison recited the opening lines of “Mary’s Lamb” as the first speech to be recorded on his newly invented phonograph.)Hale was also the author of several novels, to a couple of which I will return.

However, it was Hale’s forty-year tenure as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, beginning in 1837, that placed her among the most influential women of her time. The magazine’s circulation reached 160,000 by 1860, making it the most widely circulated women’s journal of the nineteenth century. Along with poetry and short stories, and advice on child rearing and home furnishing, the magazine’s attractions included beautifully colored illustrations of current female fashions.

Courtesy The Atheneum of Philadelphia

The essays that she wrote for the magazine, along with the work that she commissioned and published, reveal a complex and indeed divided set of political and cultural commitments.

On the one hand, through her own professional accomplishment – a widowed mother of five children supervising every detail of a major magazine – Hale exemplified a high level of independent financial and managerial skill. And in her essays and speeches, she argued strenuously in favor of expanding educational opportunities for girls and women. She also wrote in favor of conferring property rights on married women, the subject of vigorous and sometimes rancorous debate through much of the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, Hale argued with equal energy against female suffrage and embraced a quite traditional role for women: as homemakers and as fit mothers of future American patriots. In her view, “to induce women to think they have a just right to participate in the public duties of government [would be] injurious to their best interests and derogatory to their character.”

Courtesy The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

A similar division marked Hale’s attitude toward slavery. Her first novel, Northwood; A Tale of New England (1827), contained among its subjects one of the earliest representations of slavery in American fiction. However, while she called slavery “a stain on our national character,” she opposed abolition, instead supporting the relocation of the nation’s slaves to Liberia. She endorsed the work of the Ladies Liberia School Association, which raised money to found schools and underwrite teachers in that country. And her novel, Liberia, takes as its theme “the advantages Liberia offers to the African, who among us has no home, no position, and no future.”

In short, in the landscape of nineteenth century resistance, on the great issues of women’s rights and slavery, Hale is to be found in divergent and often contrary locations: opposing both slavery and abolition, supporting both women’s education and a traditional commitment to women’s domestic roles.

In 100 Years, What Will Be the Origin Story of #MeToo?

By Mariam Williams

 

On October 15, 2018, Tarana Burke posted the following message to Twitter:

It was the beginning of a thread about the Me Too Movement’s origin story, how Tarana Burke had come up with “Me Too” more than 20 years before actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase as a hashtag and invited other women to share their stories about sexual harassment and assault, how the question, “had white hollywood [sic] tried to tried to steal this from a Black woman?!?” emerged, and black female journalists advocated for Burke’s recognition.

Her answer to the question of theft may be surprising: “The short answer, No. But I was definitely in danger of being erased.” I think what was (and is) in more danger of being erased than Tarana Burke and her founding credentials is the Me Too Movement–not the movement that emerged in 2017 after The New Yorker’s investigative journalism unveiled allegations against Harvey Weinstein, but the movement Burke started.

Burke’s thread suggests her purpose in starting Me Too was to support Black and Brown girls and women who were survivors of sexual assault as they disclosed what happened to them and “to uplift the power of community for survivors.” I see this as different from what #MeToo, the hashtag, was in 2017 and is one year later.

When I see the hashtag #MeToo, I see the news headlines about the latest power man in entertainment or journalism exposed as a serial harasser, rapist, or misogynist, and the headline that follows within the next hour about his contract suddenly being terminated or his resignation received, effective immediately. In some ways, it’s an exciting phenomenon to watch. The prevalence of misogyny is being exposed, and the power structures created to allow and encourage men to abuse women with impunity are falling.

On the other hand, Are the perpetrators who also happen to be working class being exposed? Are they losing their jobs? If so, what’s happening to the women and girls in their families who their paychecks used to support? Also, given that the vast majority of the (formerly?) powerful perpetrators have been white men and their accusers have been the white women working for them, are women of color, particularly working class women of color, benefiting from #MeToo? Are the systemic racism and misogyny they live with daily changing? Are their survivor stories known and heard? Do they have the support Burke has also been so concerned they have?

As PACSCL conducted its previous project, In Her Own Right, they found that their 38 member institutions didn’t hold many stories about women were not white, not wealthy, or not for some other reason already held in high esteem by their contemporaries. This means there are holes in the historical record.

When historians look back at the Me Too Movement 100 years from now, what will they find has been preserved? The newspapers will have archived their exposés on Hollywood’s predators and the female actors they victimized. They will have archived their interviews with Tarana Burke. The Library of Congress will have archived every tweet including #MeToo and even the ones including #MeTooMvMt, which Burke included in the last post of her thread. What will they find about the girl who first motivated Burke to say, “Me too”? What will they find of working-class women and the networks they form within their places of employment when no union exists or their union fails them? And when historians ask about the meaning of Me Too, about its short- and long-term victories, setbacks, and transformations, will it look like celebrities who were mostly white and female made Hollywood a better place for their peers, or like Burke and brown and black girls and women found ways to support one another when other systems failed them?