American History Means White History

David Lewis

American history consists of history written primarily from the perspectives of white American historians. This is the truth that many Natives live with regularly. As a researcher and scholar I encounter this situation on a daily basis. The main problem for my work is not only that Native peoples were not and are not engaged when history is written, but historians appear to have ignored available sources when composing histories. This to me is an egregiously consistent problem in American history.

Here in Oregon, about a decade ago, I began working with a cadre of scholars in the region to answer questions in history that my tribe was interested in. I engaged with notable scholars who consistently engaged with Native people, and we began sharing information. Where scholars had not known or worked with other scholars previously we began to connect scholars, through the tribe, with other scholars to help enhance their resources. This out-of-the-box methodology began to produce results. One such project began enhancing the book he tentatively titles “Before Portland: The Native Americans' 'Wappato Valley’”. Boyd, an independent scholar formerly under contract with the Grand Ronde Tribe, began working collaboratively with Tribal scholars to tell the story of the Native Chinookan peoples of the Portland Oregon area before the region became the state of Oregon.

The benefits to the tribe were seen as immense. The history of these peoples, who were primarily removed to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation, would be told in great detail. This thick description, built from generations of journal accounts of travelers through the region, would help the present population understand which tribes lived here and how extensive the Tribal nations were. For at least four years working with Boyd, the Tribe engaged in numerous drafts of chapters about Lewis and Clark expeditionary travels through their areas, and was able to review, add content, and aid in the description of the tribes along the banks of the Columbia River.

For decades, history of Native peoples, as taught in many public schools, primarily consisted of Sacajawea helpfully guiding the Lewis and Clark expedition through Oregon, or about the Pioneers’ covered wagons coming to Oregon who were occasionally attacked by “Indians.” Generations of young Oregonians have built a covered wagon in fourth grade and participated in wheeling their wagons trains through school hallways. This has been the extent of Native history for more than 50 years in Oregon in many school districts.

The problem has been in part a paucity of history sources that tell the story of Oregon Native peoples as significant and different from other Native peoples. The Native people from this region were removed to reservations, and became an invisible population in Oregon for more than 100 years.

Once visible again it’s hoped that Native peoples’ histories will then become a part of the curriculum in public schools as well as general knowledge for the majority of Oregonians. Dr. Boyd’s book, once completed, is the sort of project that will change the face of Oregon Native history.

Dr. Boyd has several publications that have become seminal works for any research on Native peoples of the Northwest Coast. His work “The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence” (1999) brought attention to the fact that diseases were introduced to the region which caused the decline of 95% of the Native peoples in the region. While his book “Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest” (1999) helped scholars to understand how anthropogenic fire regimes by tribes managed the lands of the region for over 10,000 years.

David G. Lewis, PhD, is a graduate of the UO Department of Anthropology (2009) and a descendant of the Santiam Kalapuya,Takelma, and Chinook Tribes of western Oregon. He is a researcher, writer and educator, with numerous articles in print, and a book in process, "Termination and Restoration of the Grand Ronde Tribe" with the OSU press. He spends many hours researching the histories of the local Tribes and writing histories unique to the region. David lives in the homelands of the Santiam people, at Tcimikiti (Salem), with his wife Donna and sons Saghaley and Inatye.

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whitehorse's picture
A few months ago I had a meeting with Venice, Florida high school principal Jack Turgeon, Venice, Florida high has a stereotypical "Indian" mascot. I asked Mr. Turgeon, why doesn't the school have an "Indian" mascot that is more representative of the actual Indians that live in Florida. Mr. Turgeon's response was it was not a requirement. Which lets me know that Venice, Florida high school and probably every school in America will not teach the TRUTH about American Indians because it is not a requirement!
rodvanmechelen's picture
The word "Chinookan" is a linguistic term that was invented by White scholars to refer to a subdivision of the Penutian languages. As any Salish speaker can attest, the word "chinook" is Salish, and refers to warm, wet winds. The Chinook name entered into historical records when Chehalis guides leading a group of White men to the main Chinook village in what is now Pacific County, called it Chinook. The name stuck.
smartphoenixnavajo's picture
For American Indians and other Native Peoples, it can only happen with a multi-discipline research. The academic disciplines are one area, like anthropology( archaeology, ethnographic, etc), written history, and of coarse religious institutions. The combination of many written areas can and does produce good solid histories of native peoples.