The story of the settlement of Oregon is largely one of victimization. The pioneers, settlers in many stories are escaping taxes and lack of opportunities in the east. Some are even coming from Europe where they had little rights and no opportunity for advancement. The movement of these peoples west is a journey to find opportunity, freedom, liberty, from the oppressive structures to the east. Manifest Destiny, the assumption of American rights to the lands of the west, is an narrative intended to inspire colonization of the west coast so that Americans can compete with the European colonizers for access to Asian economies.
This is also the story of the first settlement of the North America. The Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth rock, sought freedom and liberty from their oppression in England. They were the victims, the oppressed, even if their fundamental form of Christianity was too conservative for the peoples of England.
The victimized oppressed story continues into the American Revolution. The 13 American colonizes were being oppressed by King George who levied oppressive taxation on them. The American federal government sought to become free of that oppression, and fought to be free and democratic. The nation was born to be a free and democratic nation for the people.
The story of the Oregon trail then is a story of redemption from oppression in the east. The nine month Oregon Trail journey itself was also a time when the pioneers were victimized by savage tribes who attacked them, and stole the women. This is a series of American victimization narratives that is the central history taught in our schools.
The story of how Oregon became a United States Territory is also a victimization narrative. Hudson’s bay Company was unfairly treating the American settlers with high prices for goods. The Americans then drive cattle from California to get out from under this economic oppression and lobbied Congress to do something about the British oppressors. Once the US government got involved the Oregon Treaty was signed within a few years and the American settlers had a territory free from British oppression.
In the 1840’s and 1850’s the next oppressors were the tribes, who, it was rumored, would someday attack all of the American settlements, massacre all of this people in an attempt to drive the Americans from their lands. This narrative cast the settlers into a position of being possible victims of tribal oppression.
In the 1840’s, because of the acts of violence against pioneers and to eliminate the possibility of native oppression, the volunteer ranger militias were formed. The volunteers then attacked Native villages for any provocation. with the militias, numerous villages of tribal peoples were massacred because of small offenses so that the native peoples could no longer oppress the Americans.
After the Rogue River Indian wars there were hundreds of depredation claims against Indian treaties for the loss of property by settlers. They were the victims of Indian depredation.
America was the victims of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and so the countries retaliation is total. This justified in the minds of the decision makers the use of two atomic bombs in Japan, because they were the oppressors, and the U.S. was the victim.
The victim narrative is strong in the United States. It castes Americans in the role of being victims of the actions of lawless, bloodthirsty, and savage acts by outsiders, whether they be British, Spanish, or American Indian tribes. It is an attractive narrative that pull on the hearts of people who hear the stories, students, patriots, anyone believes in the symbolic nature of America. American as the place of freedom, or liberty, of opportunity, of democracy, of many things that all people most want. America becomes then the safe haven for the victims of oppression.
This centralized American history narrative is just about the only American history taught to Americans today.
Not central to American history is histories of the other peoples. Native history is not central, and therefore is taught outside of American history, if at all. Native history does not follow the “correct” narrative which casts American pioneers as the victims. Native history allows other peoples to speak their own history, one which states unequivocally that all of these acts of the pilgrims, settlers, pioneers actually oppressed native peoples in the process. So in Native history, American become the oppressors, a status which most Americans do not want to own. If they know the history, there are attempts to mask it, to rewrite the history with a positive spin, and to completely exclude it from educational textbooks. The reasons are usually, there is not enough time to teach it, there is not enough money, they do not know how to teach it, or that native history is some sort of altered and therefore illegitimate history mainly told by biased people.
Oppression is perhaps unavoidable in the world. Our collective world history has lots of stories of conquest, resettlement and oppression. And parallel with these histories are attempts to write the story of the time as the story of how the oppressed victims are seeking freedom and do not want to be seen as the oppressors. Native historians then point out that the oppression of native peoples is not a thing of only 200 years ago, but continues into the present, with continuous threats of taking tribal lands, taking tribal rights, taking fishing rights, taking water rights, as well as innumerable other threats from the federal government whenever there is a regime change. Most Americans do not like to hear that the oppression continues to the present, that native peoples are still the victims and that the U.S. government is now the oppressor.
If America was supposed to be something different, a different form of government, a symbol and icon of freedom and liberty of all peoples, then perhaps there needs to be a change in how all peoples are treated. The central American history narratives need to change to reflect the realities for all peoples, not just the victim story of how America the country was founded. That victim narrative, while powerful, ignores the lands taken from tribes, the destruction of tribal populations, the racism against tribal peoples exhibited by the mainly white American peoples, and the invisibility of all of this holistic history to most of the population.
This is likely why 99% of my students state that they know nothing of Native peoples or their history.
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.