Searching for Common History
Indigenous peoples and nation-states have different social and cultural ground rules that often present varying interpretations of history and contemporary relations. Only more recently have Indian peoples had greater opportunity to present their understandings of the past, and start to give their own interpretations of history and relations with the government and American society. History and symbolism is important to every culture, and when they seriously are in conflict both groups must tolerate each other’s viewpoint, or agree to disagree. It might be said, however, that there are some issues that need to be resolved and should not be tolerated by either side.
The honoring of past leaders is a central way in which history is commemorated. Often the founding fathers of a state, or nation like the United States, are widely honored and schools, airports, roads and universities are named in their honor. There are numerous named references in honor of George Washington, and Ronald Reagan has highways, hospitals and airports named after him. Naming is a time honored tradition that reminds the people of the values and foundational acts of their past leaders.
What happens if Indian people and U.S. citizens of states do not agree on the important leaders of the state or of history? The heroes of Indian country often acted in opposition to the foundational leaders of American counties and states. With the present efforts to create multicultural nations, there should more common ground for agreement about how to honor the leaders of the past. Especially when those leaders were often in conflict. If multiculturalism, or recognition of indigenous rights and cultures are part of the process for building more united, multicultural, indigenous recognizing, and understanding nations, then some common understandings of past heroes and history are necessary.
How can there be greater common understanding of history and heroes? One way to look at this issue is to adopt contemporary moral and human rights standards. Did the past leaders maintain moral standards that would be considered proper by the standards of mutual respect that will make a contemporary multicultural nation possible and enduring? Our contemporary visions look to constructing more just and culturally understanding nations and economies for the future, and at the same time we have to live with the legacies of the past. Nations built on violence and oppression, and the honoring of leaders who participated and benefited on such violence, are not the basis for creating the grounds for the new more diverse nations that will be needed in the future.
Recently in California, a preschool in San Francisco was renamed because the original name came from the first civilian governor of California, Peter Burnett, a racist who wanted to exclude blacks and Chinese immigrants from California. He also led a campaign to exterminate California Indians (Robin Hindery, Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2011). However, there continue to be many other institutions in California that honor Indian killers. The Hastings College of the Law, part of the University of California system, is named after Serranus Clinton Hastings, the first Chief Justice of the California State Supreme Court. Hastings led campaigns to take land and exterminate Indians in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. Many members of the Yuki and Uka tribes were among the victims of Hastings and his ranch hands (Bruce Anderson, Counterpunch, February 5, 2007). Similarly, the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria are an Athabaskan speaking California Indian community, who were named by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). According to some Bear River Band members, Henry Rohner, after which Rohnerville was named, was an Indian killer during the California gold rush days. The band has tried to officially rename their community, to exclude the reference to Henry Rohner, but those efforts were denied by the BIA.
While it is important for all cultures to honor their leaders and ancestors, in a multi-cultural world and nation, greater attention must be paid to the sensitivities of all groups, and high standards of moral integrity and contemporary standards of human rights should be applied to understand which leaders are deserving of sustained and future honoring.