American History: Facts, Legends or Myths?

I have recently discovered that for much of my life, what I have known about U.S. history has been based on partial truths. This is because much of what mainstream U.S. culture ‘knows’ of American history is based on legends and myths.

According to anthropologist, Dr. Rhianna Rogers, A legend is a semi-true story, which has been passed on from person-to-person.  Legends have important meanings or symbolism for the culture in which they originate. They include elements of truth, or are based on historical facts, but they also have ‘mythical qualities’.  They can involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originated.

Rogers also stated that a myth is a story based on tradition or legend, which has deep symbolic meaning. Myths convey ‘a truth’ to those who tell them and hear them, rather than necessarily recording a true event.  Myths may be accounts of actual events that have become transformed by symbolic meaning or shifted in time or place. Often, myths are used to explain universal and local beginnings and involve supernatural beings. The great power of the meaning of these stories, to the culture in which they developed, is a major reason why they survive as long as they do – sometimes for thousands of years. Examples of such myths are certain creation stories.

‘American’ myths include the myth of Manifest Destiny, for example. Manifest Destiny was the notion that it was the duty of the ‘enlightened’ European people to bring ‘civilization’ to the ‘savage’ inhabitants of the ‘New World’ that they ‘discovered’. I now know that myths, such as these, began as a way for Europeans to justify the taking of the land and their attempt to exterminate the people who lived in the New World, and many of these myths have persisted over time, even to this day.

Myths, such as those related to the Manifest Destiny, many times, began as works of art that were created by non-Natives and they presented a simplified and romanticized version of the conquest of the continent and also of the Native Americans.

Image Source:  http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/item.php?item_id=180

As students begin to describe what they see, they quickly realize that they’re looking at a kind of historical encyclopedia of transportation technologies. The simple Indian travois precedes the covered wagon and the pony express, the overland stage and the three railroad lines. The static painting thus conveys a vivid sense of the passage of time as well as of the inevitability of technological progress. The groups of human figures, read from left to right, convey much the same idea. Indians precede Euro-American prospectors, who in turn come before the farmers and settlers. The idea of progress coming from the East to the West, and the notion that the frontier would be developed by sequential waves of people (here and in Turner’s configuration, always men) was deeply rooted in American thought.For example, American Progress (circa 1872), a painting by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the good that was supposedly inherent in the westward expansion of European notions of civilization.  This was shown by portraying the progression of technology and economic activity. Historian Martha A. Sandweiss of Amherst College explained,

Consider, also, this portrait of westward expansion, Attack on an Emigrant Train, from an advertising poster, ca 1910.

Image Source:  http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/46.html

In this way, certain artifacts – that is, works of art created by artists who held biased views – became a sort of ‘objective’ record of history that future novelists used to expand the myths. An example of such is Beadle’s Half Dime Library. New York, Beadle and Adams. Vol. XIV, No. 350. (Mass Market Appeal 2 of 19), which according to the Bancroft Library, stereotyped Native/non-Native encounters stating that, “Amid kidnapping, drinking, and wilderness pursuits”,  author Ned Buntline introduced “Indian warriors who succumb to the wiles of ‘fire-water’ and tobacco and others who carry out a heartless massacre that forever separates the young lovers.”This is a portrait of a “Madonna-like mother and child, a Florence Nightingale version of a young woman tending to a wounded man, the heroic ‘white father’ leading the pioneers’ defense, a black man offering assistance, and the ever-faithful family dog straining to meet the attackers” (Bancroft, Mass Market Appeal 19 of 19). By representing the European immigrants as the victims and Native people as bloodthirsty savages, the creators of such works also portrayed colonial imperialism as ‘promoting peace’.

Image Source: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/04.html

Later, popular culture and mass media expanded the myths even more. Consider the stereotyped image of the ‘savage warrior’ as it was represented in popular magazines such as Western Story.The caption for the cover illustration reads, “SUDDENLY, THE WHIZ OF AN ARROW WAS HEARD, AND THE ARM OF THE WRETCH WAS LITERALLY PINNED TO THE TREE.  Stereotypical characters assist in the generation of the ‘us against them’ narrative that creators of dramas rely on in order to engage their audiences.

Image Source:  http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/05.html

Consider, also, the stereotypical representations of the American cowboy that appeared in cinema, such as the 1934 motion picture film, The Lawless Frontier, a ‘cowboy and Indian’ action picture,  which starred ‘Western’ film icon John Wayne.

Image Source:  http://www.mikeclinesthenplaying.com/2011/09/june-1935-movie-listings.html

Consider also, the stereotypical Indian princess in the 1995 Disney animation film, Pocahontas.

Image Source:  http://www.tripleclicks.com/detail.php?item=55967

Stereotypical notions of the ‘savage warrior’, the ‘American cowboy’, and the ‘Indian princess’ dominate mainstream mass media and therefore public notions of such figures in history. Images such as these are so pervasive, that, many times, we hardly notice them:

Image Source: http://www.lemhi-shoshone.com/salmon_savages_mascot.html

Image Source: http://www.old-ads.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Marlboro_ad.jpg

Image Source: http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/4219/2912/1600/landolakes.jpg

Until someone demands our attention:

Then, perhaps we begin to see. Much of what mainstream U.S. culture ‘knows’ about Native Americans comes from sources that are less-than-credible: Our knowledge, for the most part, consists of stereotypes of American historical figures that have been commodified and perpetuated such that our ‘remembrance’ of the past is now less-than-accurate. I have come to see that, for the most part, there has been precious few portrayals of Native people as intelligent actors, who were defending their homes, family and heritage. More portrayals of Native people in all the roles in which they engage would help to balance perceptions of these marginalized, objectified, and for the most part, socially excluded group of American people.

Works such as Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-white Relations From Prophecy to the Present (Nabokov, 1999) offer their readers a much needed historical view from the Native American perspective.

Image Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54990.Native_American_Testimony

The description from the back cover reads,

In a series of powerful and moving documents, anthropologist Peter Nabokov presents a history of Native American and white relations as seen through Indian eyes and told through Indian voices: a record spanning more than five hundred years of interchange between the two peoples. Drawing from a wide range of sources – traditional narratives, Indian autobiographies, government transcripts, firsthand interviews, and more – Nabokov has assembled a remarkably rich and vivid collection, representing nothing less than an alternative history of North America. Beginning with the Indian’s first encounters with the earliest explorers, traders, missionaries, settlers, and soldiers and continuing to the present, Native American Testimony presents an authentic, challenging picture of an important, tragic, and frequently misunderstood aspect of American history.

This book has drawn me into a world and a history that, until now, I had not known existed. This is expanding my knowledge of American history.  I am no longer relying quite so much on the semi-true stories, of heroic characters of ‘American’ lore, or the creation myths of America’s origins that have dominated ‘American’ history.  I am now able to compare and contrast the stories told by many narrators, in order to develop a more complete picture of a very complex social order.  It is interesting to see that many of the Native narratives in Nabokov’s book contain the very same elements of legends and myths in the Native historical record, as exists in mainstream U.S. culture. I think that now, when I read different views of the past, I will be less interested in knowing ‘the facts’ and more engaged in seeking out ‘the truths’ that people hope to share when they create such stories.

Works Cited

 “Mass Market Appeal (2 of 19).” Mass Market Appeal (2 of 19). N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/04.html&gt;.

“Mass Market Appeal (19 of 19).” Mass Market Appeal (19 of 19). N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/46.html&gt;.

Nabokov, Peter. Native American testimony: a chronicle of Indian-white relations from prophecy to the present, 1492-2000. Rev. ed. New York, N.Y.: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Rogers, Rhianna. “Interpreting the Past and Present: Myths and Stereotypes in US History.” U.S. History Throuogh Ethnology. Empire State College. May 2013. Reading.

Sandweiss, Martha A.. “John Gast, American Progress, 1872.” Picturing US History All. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/item.php?item_id=180&gt;.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “American History: Facts, Legends or Myths?

  1. Very very thought provoking article….I now am extremely interested in reading “Native American Testimony” for myself. Thank you for doing this enlightening research. 😉

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