Native American History is Not Black and White

By Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - CommentaryMany years ago, I wrote an editorial about the state of Arizona prohibiting teachers and schools from teaching students about “controversial” topics that would cause “social conflict” in the state. In other words, subjects like Latino studies and the wars that had been fought in the state were not acceptable. I made my opinion on this clear; No state official, no legislator should distort or censor what history is. To not talk about the conflicts between the white majority population, the Native Americans and the Latinos in the history of Arizona could never be justified for political expedience. Such a sanitized version of local history would be an injustice to the peoples living in Arizona, and an insult for what their ancestors had suffered in the past. I had nothing but harsh words for the Republican politicians in that state, and I can only hope that nothing like this is happening in Arizona today.

Now I am beginning to be somewhat alarmed by what may be taking place in Illinois. It is expected that the Illinois legislature will approve a law requiring Native American history to be taught in all elementary and high schools in Illinois. In this sense, I approve the necessity of Native American history being taught in our schools. It is after all a part of American history too often overlooked. When I was a student, we learned about the ancient Greek gods and goddesses in high school. For the life of me I could not understand that one. What did that have to do with the Americas and the founding of the United States? What did that have to do with Illinois? It is bad enough that so many American kids do not know about American history, let alone Native American history. This is a gap that needs to be filled.

At the same time, what concerns me is if there is a certain agenda that may be behind teaching Native American history. Although no curriculum has been designed for what exactly what must be taught, one key word I have read that is being tossed around is genocide. This word I have a problem with because it assumes that there was a carefully planned attempt at exterminating the Native Americans in Illinois. There is no doubt that the Illinois frontier in the early 19th Century was a rather chaotic and violent one, but far from being an attempt of a planned genocide. The very name of Illinois derives from the Illinois Confederation who controlled much of what is now the state of Illinois. According to French sources, the Illinois Confederation suffered from attacks from other Native American tribes especially the Iroquois. Most of the Illinois Confederation died as a result of these wars between other Native Americans, European diseases that greatly reduced their numbers, and eventually wars with white settlers who came to Illinois. This was a long process that took close to a century, and was far from being a planned act on anyone’s part.

All of the Illinois Confederation that survived were pushed west of the Mississippi River, and today their descendants known as the Peoria are primarily found in the state of Oklahoma. There is much, MUCH more to this story, but suffice it to say that Native American history is far from black and white. More to the point, I am hoping that the curriculum around this subject will not be used for a political agenda. This would do a disservice to our children and for all generations to come. It would poison the political well that is already poisoned enough, and could lead to division and disaster this state and indeed this country may never recover from.

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