The other day while browsing Facebook I came across a 2006 piece from the Atlantic titled, “The 100 Most Influential Figures in American History.” It was being promoted by the magazine with a Facebook ad buy.

I clicked on the post and found that the Atlantic asked ten “eminent historians” (their words, not mine) to select 100 of the most influential people to shape American history. As I clicked through the list I realized that there was not a single Native American mentioned.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a reservation-raised, fully enrolled, card-carrying Native American (yes, we have cards, they are called Certificates of Indian Blood or CIB).

I am also an attorney, husband and father of young children. Like most parents, I am concerned about the world my children will grow up in. I pay attention to things that have the power to influence their lives. I notice when Native Americans make appearances in books, news stories and film. I also notice when we are omitted, ignored or forgotten about completely, which was the case for The Atlantic’s piece on the 100 most influential people in American history.

When you only ask people from a certain demographic to weigh in on an issue, you get biased results that reflect a limited point of view. American history is considerably more than what white people think.

So who cares right? It’s a stupid list, my children will probably never see it and no one really thinks about posts like these longer than five minutes, right? Wrong. I scrolled away and moved on, or at least tried.

In my attempt to move forward, a flurry of questions kept bringing me back to this list. “Where was Sitting Bull? Crazy Horse? Jim Thorpe? Why did PT Barnum, the circus guy make the list and not Chief Joseph or Tecumseh?”

To be sure, I re-read the list a few more times and noted how many were male and female and noted the race of each person mentioned.

Here is the count for those keeping score: 90 = male, 10 = female, 92 = White/Caucasian, 8 = Black/African, 0 = Latino, 0 = Asian and 0 = Native American.

Maybe I am sensitive to this topic because I am Native American. I definitely can’t change what I am. But I have the power to change the way I think and try to open my mind to new viewpoints. We all have that power. The Atlantic does too, and yet for this list they chose not to. In concocting this list and selecting their panel of historians The Atlantic only petitioned white people.

I am not saying that as a negative thing. It’s just a fact. I looked them all up, read their bios and saw their pictures. All very smart and very accomplished, all very white, and in the “whiteness” of these experts lies the problem. When you only ask people from a certain demographic to weigh in on an issue, you get biased results that reflect a limited point of view. American history is considerably more than what white people think.

You can’t tell me that PT Barnum, Stephen Foster or Joseph Smith are more influential in American History than literally every Native American to have ever lived. What about leaders of the Lakota, Dakota, Oglala and others who fought against Manifest Destiny and American expansion and whose resistance and treaties influenced present day American borders?

Photo Credit: Tom/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)
Come on, this dude can’t be more important than every Native American ever. Photo Credit: Tom/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

What about the Natives who fought along side George Washington during the American Revolution? Surely they had more of a hand in America’s fate and legacy than the writer of “My Old Kentucky Home” or the circus guy. When was the last time you went to a circus? Heck, when was the last time you thought about a circus?

What about Sacagawea who accompanied Lewis and Clark (they made the list) along their expedition? What about Black Elk, Red Cloud or the Code Talkers who helped defeat the Japanese in the Pacific theatre of WWII?

Genocidal Andrew Jackson made the list. I guess you can influence American history by killing Native Americans, but not if you are one.

Part of me wants to forget this stupid list altogether. Part of me wants to argue till I am blue in the face. Instead I will settle to make this one point: Do not forget about us. American historians have an ugly habit of omitting important people and events from its official narrative.

This list is just another in a long line of lists, documents and textbooks that do not acknowledge or accurately teach about the contribution of other ethnic and social groups to American history. We’ve all heard the saying, “history is written by the winners,” and that may be the case, but we should know better.

The Atlantic should know better. The history of America is not monochromatic, nor are the individuals who shaped it.

Cover Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

What Do You Think?

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Sam Crowfoot was born in Utah and raised on an Indian reservation in Alberta, Canada. He graduated from Brigham Young University and the University of Wisconsin Law School. He is deadly from three-point range and shoots photography on the side. He lives in the Phoenix area with his wife and four children.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Crowfoot, you makes a pretty good argument (especially about PT Barnum). However, I politely disagree in regards to the portion about Joseph Smith. Smith and the pioneers were the first to settle much of the west and make it inhabitable, expanding American populations. In part, he sent missionaries throughout the world whose converts immigrated to the United States. The Mormon Battalion dug wells and built inhabitations throughout the west as they moved to the Pacific coast. Smith also organized the largest religion to ever form in the Americas and produced the most popular book of scripture regarding the Americas ever released. And he was more progressive than most if not all of the country on topics including slavery, harmful effects of tobacco, religious liberty, building the west, etc. His messages reached throughout the United States when he ran for president and by the missionary work which he organized which still reaches throughout the United States. Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the largest religions in the Americas with millions of members. In the annals of American history, I think it would be very difficult to find a more significant figure in American history amongst almost any American population than Joseph Smith.

    • I didn’t know the West needed settling. People were already living in the West prior to the LDS church moving in. Your comment only reinforces Crowfoot’s argument that it’s hard to get an accurate accounting of the nation’s most influential when only one demographic is given the opportunity to make the nominations.

      • Joseph is referring that there was no official or recognizable White settles in the west. There is documentation that there were mountain men in the west. Definitely there were Indian tribal settlements throughout the west. Most mountain men deterred settlements in the west because it would impact their economic interest in fur trade. For example, mountain men did not want Mormons to settle in the west and particularly the salt lake valley and the vicinity.

  2. @JM I didn’t realize the West needed settling prior to the arrival of the fur trappers and LDS church that soon followed. The West was already well inhabited prior to that. Your comment only reinforces Crowfoot’s argument that the nominated people to be considered the 100 most influential can not be the most accurate when only one demographic is asked.

  3. Mr. Crowfoot has some really good points. There is no place for racism or the narrow-minded in this century! If I were the Atlantic Magazine, I would revamp my list. Mr. Crowfoot has blasted the Atlantic Magazine on Facebook!

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