The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Myth, Meaning, and Popular History

From time to time, I find myself discussing Californian history with folks, and when the topic gets to the Spanish missions, it invariably results in me having to explain that the currently popular narrative (known in the field as the Black Legend) is an over-simplification, and should be assessed critically rather than taken at face value.

This typically results with the person with whom I am speaking assuming that I am an apologist for Spanish colonial activities, and that I think that the Spanish practices were good for the native peoples of California, which is odd as I am not an apologist and am better aware than most people about the impacts that the Spanish colonies had on native populations.

I also am familiar enough with the history, archaeology, and ethnography of my state to know that our view of what happened during the late 18th century and early 19th century in California is based more on legend and politics than on actual events. I have provided and overview of the effects of Spanish colonization before, so I'm not going to get into it in detail here. Suffice to say that while it did, without question, result in the decimation of the native populations, there were many factions amongst the Spanish, all behaving in different ways, and malice, good intentions, and obliviousness were all present in various measures amongst the European colonists. In other words, trying to simply paint the Spanish as a monolithic evil empire misses the very real, complex, and messy nature of the actual history.

However, it is rare that I can persuade someone to see it this way. Even when someone will agree that I am far more familiar than they with the documentation of the time period, and far more familiar with the ways that colonies have typically impacted native peoples the world over, they still refuse to accept that perhaps the mission system was a far more grey and complex institution than they usually want to believe. And very often, I will find a complex, well-thought out explanation of what was going on greeted with a strong sounding, but ultimately meaningless, response such as "well, there's alot of Indian graves in the missions!" - a fact that I had never denied, and for which I was trying to provide historical context.

I think that the reason for people's refusal to accept the complex realities of Spanish colonial activity are twofold:

1) Most people use history more as a mythology than as a description of the past. This is the reason why Religious Right groups want to claim that the founders were all Evangelical Christians, or many people want to believe that the term "rule of thumb" refers to a law allowing wife beating (when it does not), or many anti-immigration folks claim that Rome fell simply because it let too many foreigners in (it actually fell for a wide range of reasons, no single one doing the job on its own). History, when turned into mythology, allows us to orient ourselves, to justify our own position either by showing ourselves as being in line with great historical figures or else by contrasting ourselves with a brutal and evil past, often doing both with reference to different points in history. Regardless, in this way, history is less about factual accuracy and more about setting up good guys vs. bad guys, which leads to some very sloppy and muddled thinking about what actually occurred in our collective past.

2) Related to point #1, history is also viewed more as a story than as what actually occurred by much of the general public. This is why we tend to focus on the big moments or the major figures, and not on the trends and small details that often make all of the difference. For this reason, we want to see the single factor that caused Rome to fall; we want to believe that WWI was the only thing that killed the great empires (WWI did many of them in for good, but the reality is that the emerging nationalist movements and economic issues in the colonies had an effect even before the war); we want to believe that Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great fought and won wars, when the truth is that they led many individual soldiers who were, ultimately, the ones who fought and won (a general with no army is not a general, after all).

In this case, we can see the extraordinarily bad effects that colonization had on Native Californians, and we want to be caught up in the drama and see the native peoples purely as victims of a cruel and uncaring colonial power.

But reality never was black and white, and when we engage in this sort of thinking, we lose track of reality. Cackling, mustache-twirling villains are rare, but everyday people doing evil without being aware of it are common. When we forget this, we lose track of the fact that we, as a species, haven't changed. We are as capable of cruelty as the worst of the Spanish colonials, but we need to be aware of the real complexities of history to be able to keep that in mind and not do harm.


Jack Heron said...

I met a history professor once who told me that whenever he detected a student becoming over-simplistic in their essays (especially in a shoehorn-into-ideology way), he had them discuss the factions and politics of the English Civil War. It destroys grand narratives, heroes and villains.

Lynn said...

Very nice... history is much more complex and grey than most want it to be. And you're right that seeing it in black/white leaves us open to repeating the same mistakes again and again.

That's what scares me (among other things) about the ranting, rabid right-wing.


Anthroslug said...


I used to view people's misapprehensions about history as being annoying, but benign. In recent years, though, I have seen it used in political rhetoric enough to see the potential dangers of it.

Jack: That's a pretty good idea. It reminds me of something that my partner told me - when she was in college, she had two different professors explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both of them providing completely factual accounts of what occurred, each of them coming down on different sides, and each of them coming off as completely level-headed and reasonable. She has told me that the fact that two accurate accounts of the same event could lead to two diametrically opposed conclusions led her to start thinking of the issue as far more complex than she had originally assumed.