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Native American historian challenges National Museum of the American Indian
WORCESTER, MA—The National Museum of the American Indian represents "a lost opportunity to integrate American Indians into the national consciousness because it ignores the long history of indigenous occupation of this land," charges a native American scholar in the July 2007 issue of Common-place, the online history journal.
In, "Why I can’t Visit The National Museum of the American Indian," Jacki Thompson Rand, a Choctaw, writes of her experience as the only Native American among the museum’s early planners. Instead of stories of the Native past, museum leaders chose to focus on arts, culture, and commerce. Rand concludes that this kind of cultural recognition "is a distraction for Native people, a painless amusement for non-Natives, and a way for U.S. government politicians and bureaucrats to avoid the hard questions raised by the history of U.S. internal colonialism."
In another Common-place article French historians rediscover their American past. In, "Making New France New Again," authors Gilles Havard and Cécile Vidal note dramatic recent changes in historical writing about French colonization in the Americas. Formerly ignored provinces of Acadia, Louisiana, and the Caribbean are now being freshly considered by French, Canadian and American historians.
"Stubborn Loyalists" by Edward M. Griffin recounts a nineteenth- century writer’s visits with the eccentric, spinster daughters of Mather Byles, whose Loyalist politics during the Revolutionary War cost him his congregation and led to his house arrest as a dangerous person. His two daughters remained loyal to the British monarchy and continued to battle with the their neighbors in Boston until their deaths in the mid-nineteenth century.
Researching her recent book, The Sea Captain's Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century (2006), led Martha Hodes far afield from any archives. In "Tales from the Vault," she retraces her journey from New England to the Caribbean as she followed the life story of her book’s subject. In the process, Hodes learned that a place in the present is less likely to conjure the past than it is to confirm our distance from the past.
Writer Joyce Chaplin traveled to London for some historical sleuthing into the life of Benjamin Franklin. "In Talk of the Past," Chaplin recounts her recent visit to the house on Craven Street in London, where Franklin lived for two extended stays between 1757 and 1775. Chaplin ponders the lucky circumstances that enabled the house to withstand a nineteenth century building boom, the Blitz and decades of neglect before being restored by the Friends of the Benjamin Franklin House in 2006. "It may be a matter of luck that certain pieces of the past have come down to us, but luck shouldn’t be the only reason it happens." she concludes.
Writing in "The Common School," Jim Cullen describes how he uses a series of films featuring actor Daniel Day-Lewis—from "The Crucible" to "Gangs of New York"—to encourage his high school students’ consideration of whether the heroic individual or the impersonal process shapes history. Actor Lewis "shows a remarkably textured, yet consistent, vision of American history," Cullen observes, "and unlike the movies of John Wayne, his characters have a richer and more reciprocal relationship with their communities."
In "Ask the Author," Common-place asks Peter Mancall, whose book, Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America was recently published by Yale University Press, "What led you to turn from social history to biography in your study of English encounters in North America?" Mancall explains that writing the story of Hakluyt allowed him to show how the idea of colonization took hold in European minds during the late sixteenth century.
Writing in "Object Lesson," Matthew Underwood describes four boxes of natural history specimens sent to the fellows of the Royal Society by Connecticut Governor John Winthrop in 1670. The Indian corn, currency and Indian-language Bible contained in the boxes demonstrated Winthrop’s plans for the Indians’ assimilation of European conceptions of the land and its potential.
Although the two groups never achieved the productive coexistence Winthrop had envisioned, Underwood concludes that "objects such as the specimens that Winthrop sent to the Royal Society make evident that we still have much to learn about the role of natural philosophers (and physicians especially) in shaping the political economy of the English Empire in the seventeenth century."
"Common Reading" features a conversation between Madison Smartt Bell and Laurent Dubois, writers of fiction and non-fiction about the Haitian Revolution and Toussaint Louverture. The two discuss a new trend in historical writing, bringing in relatively unknown people and making them into characters, braiding their stories through whatever larger narrative is being told.
"Bringing in lesser-known figures is a way of incorporating the insights of social history, particularly the idea that we need to understand people’s everyday life and everyday struggles, and also to multiply and expand our notion of who the actors of history are," Dubois notes.
In "Talk of the Past," Johann N. Neem examines Thomas Jefferson’s belief that to maintain democratic equality across generations, private fortunes must be broken, eliminating what we today call trusts and foundations. This argument was challenged in the nineteenth century by Alexis de Tocqueville, who charged that private institutions preserve freedom by protecting minorities from the "tyranny of the majority." Today, as many public universities become more reliant upon private donors, there has been a political shift, Neem says, as these institutions are less and less beholden to state legislatures and government oversight boards. "The scales seem to be tipping away from Jefferson and towards de Tocqueville," he writes.
The current issue of Common-place also contains the following book reviews: Sharon Block’s, Rape & Sexual Power in Early America by Elizabeth Urban Alexander; Thomas Bender’s A Nation Among Nations by Richard R. John and Saul Cornell’s, A Well-Regulated Militia by Robert E. Wright.
Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journals features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Florida State University Department of History.
About the American Antiquarian Society
The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world.
The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.
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