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?
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)