This title is nearly an oxymoron. There are historic truths, but what we known of history is an invention of mostly people who did not personally experience that history. In truth, historians write histories all the time where they assume that what they are writing is true, based on the preponderance of evidence. Mostly historians get clues as to what is history from a number of sources, and they have to assign values to those sources. Some sources are reliable, some are not based on a number of factors. These factors can include the reliability of the source, the source’s closeness to the events of history, the sources’ political, religious and cultural leanings. Then many historians, the actual researchers and writers have a good number of personal biases they must work through. Many historians admire the subject of their histories, many want to prove a theory, and many desire to get noticed in their publications. Faculty at universities are usually trying to get noticed and to fill in a resume so they can get tenure. Others are trying to make some money. If they become prolific and are good writers, they may sell numerous manuscripts to bug publishers and make a lot of money in publishing and perhaps even movie rights. These sorts of biases can alter histories to fit the needs of the scholar, and in so doing can warp history itself.
Minority peoples noticed these issues decades ago and noticed that their contributions to lived history are ignored, veiled and invisible in written histories. Vine Deloria, Jr. in my personal studies was instrumental in noticing the bias of academics regarding research on Native peoples. His chapters in Custer Died for Your Sins, Anthropologists and other friends (1969) is arguably the spark that lit the fuse for Native Studies and changed anthropology are people knew it forever. It should be voted in as the most influential essay of the 20th century by far. What I learned from that essay is that unless Native people take control of their own studies we will continue to be ignored and at a disadvantage in studies about Native people. That all scientific studies and scholars have bias, even those assumed to not have bias, and that scientists need to admit their bias in their studies.
In our society we place huge value on scientists, people with PhD’s who we all assume work in an unbiased way to produce truth in their chosen science. But this is not the real truth is it? So many scientists, scholars and doctors have proved to be bias and unreliable in the last few generations. Scientists who decided that to much salt was bad for us in the 1980s, were proven to be incorrect just a few years ago. There are many issues like this in nutrition and health, caffeine is dehydrating, fats are bad, lowfat foods are good, egg yolks are bad, tobacco is good, and others.
Similarly, Pluto is now no longer a planet, or is it? Is there a 10th planet outside of the visual range of the solar system? In history we were taught for generations that terminated tribes chose to be terminated, that once tribes went to reservations they were taken care of by the government, that tribes on reservations are freeloaders, that many tribes went extinct, that tribes chose freely to sell their lands, that Indian wars were the sole fault of the tribes. There are so many errors of history, much of it originating from historians with their own “agendas,” a euphemism for biases.
I focus mainly on historians, but this applies to all scientists, because science is a system of figuring out the the most reliable evidence for truth. It really grew out of some people’s realization that the phenomenon of the universe could not be explained by a belief in religious system. That the mysteries of the universe could perhaps be figured out by experimentation and the collection of information that helps people to understand something better. Notice I did not write, “the truth,” because no theory in science is actually 100% truth. We are so trapped in our own physical reality that we can really never know truth.
So the process of writing history is actually a fictional process. I know we call it non-fiction, but its fictional, because all historians insert into their histories, biases, limits of available evidence, limits of validity of evidence, and the way in which their history is interpreted by their audience. The truth of the history that we write today can and will change in time when more sources are discovered, when more techniques are discovered, when we understand more about the world, when people realize the bias behind the histories that are written.
I have written now a good number of histories. Those I wrote 10 years ago are completely inaccurate today because I know more about the subjects today than I knew 10 years ago. This is the dilemma of history. To control for this dilemma, I try to admit to my biases. I write histories from a native perspective. I do not worry about the non-native perspectives, because there are tons of other sources that only access non-native perspectives. So when I can I privilege the native perspectives. I think this can balance history as we know it. There many be projects where i use numerous sources and perspectives but for now I don’t worry about that. I really try hard to find the veiled and invisible histories that should be written. So my histories are really a series of experiments with managing new information that has rarely been accessed before. In my experimentation, I do not worry about being completely 100 percent accurate, that is a project of futility, I just try to get the impression of what may be going on from my research from the available information I have. That to me is a process of creation, just as fictional as any other process of writing history is, and has been.
Recently, I had a conversation with a scientist who asked about my supposition that the Missoula floods were experienced by the Kalapuyans. When questioned about the possibility that Kalapuyans could have passed two stories of the Missoula floods down 12,000 years, I wrote,
“There have been studies of native oral history for tsunami’s and geological events which have proven that the tribe maintained accurate stories of such events for hundreds and thousands of years. Robert Losey has done a lot of work with tsunami stories from tribes in Oregon and Washington, and I can get you references if you need them. Then there are studies of the Creation of Crater lake in Oregon where its been proven that the Klamath people have an eyewitness accounts of the explosion which created Crater lake out of Mt . Mazama. Clearly our region has extensive history of 20 yr, 50 yr, and 100 yr floods. These floods did not fill up the basin to the extent that is mentioned in two Kalapuyan stories, one of them significant enough to become a origin story. Then tribes located on the Columbia to the east each have their own stories of flooding and earth moving, so-called maker stories of mythological figures like beaver who carved the Columbia Gorge. These figures, are metaphors for the floods which created the gorge, the floods being the Missoula floods. Its not enough just to disbelieve native people kept stories for 12,000 years or more, but with all of the mounting evidence that native peoples did keep stories of how their world was created and explained it in metaphors. You will really have to show me at this point how you have proven that these flood stories are not the Missoula flood stories. We are now just learning to understand these stories, because for generations native oral history has been simply disbelieved as not history at all, but there has been no proof presented that it is not actual history. You might say as a scientist that this is an impossible thing to proven, well its also nearly impossible to disprove. Perhaps we just need to think deeply about this and find a way to test the hypothesis rather than simply throw it out as not possible.”
This conversation reminds me that some sciences, and scientists, have a long way to go to accepting that Native peoples’ perspectives on their own history and culture are as valid as any others, and perhaps more so. This conversation did turn in a positive directions as I was able to lead this scientist to some facts from other scientific studies that he could base his understanding on. However, we native scholars and scientists are still struggling with getting validity in experience, a validity questioned for over 100 years in anthropology and other sciences main under that assumption that we were too biased. But we are making advancements in recent decades and we can thank Deloria for raising the issues and prodding the conversation through some 35 years of scholarship.
Ironically, tackling this issue with scientists is relatively easy, compared to addressing this with the people of one’s own tribe, and that is a truth.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.