History Matters

Carol A. Hand

As William Blake wrote,

“What is now proved was once only imagined.”

I choose to imagine a future based on the best of the past.

“The forests have never failed the Ojibway. The trees are the glory of the Gitchi Manito. The trees, for as long as they shall stand, will give shelter to the Anishinabe and the Animal Brothers. They are a gift. As long as the Ojibway are beneath, the trees will murmur with contentment. When the Ojibway and the Animal Brothers are gone, the trees will weep and this will be reflected in the sound of the si-si-gwa-d”. My grandmother told me this is so, and her grandmother told her. When the forest weeps, the Anishinabe who listen will look back at the years. In each generation of Ojibway there will be a person who will listen and remember and pass it on to children. Remembering our past and acting accordingly will ensure that we, the Ojibway, will always people the earth. The trees have patience and so they have stood and have seen many generations of Ojibway. Yet will there be more, and yet will they see more” (Ignatia Broker, pp. 32-33).

lac du flambeau www dot distancebetween cities dot net

Photo Credit: Lac du Flambeau Photo Credits: Lac du Flambeau

This is a profoundly different future than the one Columbus envisioned.

“Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass” (Loewen, p. 60).

Taino men and women greeted him with gifts when he landed on the shore of the Caribbean islands. His ruminations were simple.

“They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” (Zinn, p. 1).

Bartolomé de las Casas wrote about what he witnessed later in Cuba.

“Endless testimonies … prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives…. But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…. The admiral, it is true, was blind to those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians (Zinn, p. 6).

“Spaniards hunted Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food” (Loewen, p. 62).


Photo Credit: Columbus and his men hunted natives with war dogs.”

“What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots” (Zinn, p. 11).

As always, there are choices. We can continue to believe the manufactured myths of heroic characters, or recognize we have a responsibility to be honest about the past. Without grounding in truth, we will be unable to find the way to a future that is based on the best we can imagine, walking beneath trees that murmur with contentment because we recognize that all life is sacred.

tree of peace

Photo Credit: Tree of Peace by Artist John Fadden

Works Cited:

Ignatia Broker (1983). Night Flying Woman: An Ojiway narrative. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

James W. Loewen (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Howard Zinn (1990). A people’s history of the United States. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.


29 thoughts on “History Matters

  1. Excellent summary.

    I wonder, however, if Columbus is getting too much of the (sole) responsibility of the subsequent genocides. After all, he was working for a monarchy that at the same time was expelling all Jews and Moors from Spain (and would soon put all “Lutherans” to the auto-da-fe). And Columbus probably ought not to be blamed for the independent actions of the French and English with their own brands of genocide.

    But you are right. Without historical memory our choices are necessarily limited by our uninformed imaginations.


    1. Thank you, DK. I appreciate your kind words and your important reminder about the danger of the simplistic “hero worship” approach so often used in the texts we use to teach history. Columbus was not the first European to “discover” the “Americas.” The historical context in Europe at the time made his ventures noteworthy, and by framing his work as individual heroism, the US is able to create a myth that serves an imperialistic agenda.


  2. I think there needs to be a great deal more of storied or shared heritage recorded in history books, as a contrast to dominant narratives which get shared. David Abram says that written history has broken the tradition of story telling, and yet at the same time, who’s story gets told? Collective memory isn’t always shared in history books, which means the stories which do get taught are biased and dominant.

    In communities with an (intangible) heritage filled with story telling, poetry and dance, there lies alternate realities and approaches to being human. It’s good of you to share these stories Carol. I hope they don’t always remain on the margains, but one day take up as much space as today’s dominant conversations. May it be this way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nicely crafted, Carol.

    In my typical rant I must once again point finger to religion, for this is where fault originate. Christopher Columbus was Christian, Catholic. So as to the statement, “They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want,” slavery is a biblical practice, encouraged. No where will one find in said holy book the condemnation of slavery, not a single word opposing the practice. There is however passages regarding the proper treatment of slaves, and numerous examples of slavery and slaves owned by God’s elite, but never is it condemned.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. … And the new colonialism – growth at any cost. Future generations (if our great grandchildren survive us) will speak of the present day profiteers and plunderers, like we do of Columbus, Cortez and the like. To honour and respect mother earth, the trees, and the sky, like the Ojibway, is our only hope. Thanks Carol – happy thanksgiving.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I for one loved history and it was that love of history that contributed significantly to me leaving the Catholic Church. And I have to share it briefly, because I learned that the church was directly responsible for Colonialism. Carol, this was a beautiful piece, indeed showing how history should be taught with story and poetry, and art, and of course the unvarnished truth. Since here in Alaska, the state observes Native American Day on the 17th, I’ll have to write a post in celebration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I look forward to your post, Skywalker, and thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comments.

      Ah yes, the church and colonialism – one of the very few angry sentiments I ever heard my mother utter was about her treatment by the Catholic church during her forced incarceration in one of their church-run Indian boarding schools as a young child.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, his stories and her stories matter. The way that the Ojibway viewed the trees as a part of the very fabric of their existence is stunning in it’s simplicity and wisdom. For all of our technological gains, we have lost so much ground in our understandings and connection to the living, breathing planet we all call home. Peace to you, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing this article, Frank. It’s an eloquently-argued ethical stance that highlights why “Native” logos and mascots are such dangerous racial slurs. It also underscores how effective divide-and-conquer strategies still are in the perpetuation of oppression and discrimination.


  7. According to Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest, when William Wilberforce first joined the movement to abolish the slave trade in 1787, three fourths of the global population were either slaves or indentured servants.


  8. Empire and oppression have been part of human history for centuries…Columbus was the son of his time and culture, like many people these days who blissfully support an oppressive system and go home to watch TV: it is not the norm to be fully awake and see things as they are: I am Latino American and speak Spanish because I happened to be born there…and I am a social activist and Permaculturist because I was lucky enough to be born to a mother and aunt who taught me social justice and encouraged my critical thinking and love for Nature…
    The work of those of us with compassion, justice and systems-thinking as our flag is to create the circumstances for others to wake up…the trees have seen it all and we are killing them. It’s time we rescue that partnership, that friendship, the non-oppressive ways of living in this Earth.
    Thanks for all your posts and for being there…


    1. Sylvia, I look forward to your thoughtful comments and am never disappointed. You are able to interweave such important insights about the importance of staying focused on practical actions we can take toward a more compassionate and inclusive future.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes, of course history matters. It bestows a legacy, negative or positive, that has a very long tail. I commented on this on Jeff’s blog. Many Caribbeans are of mixed descent, including Arawak (Taino) and Carib (from whence the word Caribbean). It is only now that the history books are being revised to more accurately depict the history of the Caribbean from a Caribbean perspective.


    1. Thank you for adding important historical details, Shery. I’m grateful to hear history books are being updated – as you point out, inaccuracies have left a legacy of ignorance that continues to affect peoples’ lives.


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