This past year I spent my birthday at a historical society.
Let me clarify. By no means was this done purely out of dedication to my field – I love studying history, but I have my limits. Neither was it done because I was so overworked that I could not spare one day to spend with family and friends. No, it was an even mixture between time conflicts and procrastination. The Cumberland County Historical Society‘s library is only open on specific days at specific times, and I had become a boss at putting off my Historical Methods research paper.
This was the first time I had ever traveled off campus to do research, and I was going to get it done as quickly as possible. I hadn’t looked extensively into my chosen topic yet: most of my knowledge (or lack thereof) sprang from various internet sites and a couple black-and-white photographs. I’d chosen to write on the Carlisle Indian School, an institution known for its controversial Americanization of young Indian students. Developing my thesis for the paper was going to be simple – after all, the proof was in the photos! There were the Indian children prior to entering the Carlisle School: bedraggled long hair, traditional tribal attire, and looks of unsuppressed rebellion. And there they were again, as presented by the School: bleakly but well-dressed, expressionless, and identical. The school was quite obviously an indoctrination machine that sucked in Indians and spit out Americans. Its founder, General Pratt, was definitely a bigot – and I could probably throw in “cold-hearted” and “ruthless” as well. It all seemed easy to prove and appropriately dramatic. I would find my primary sources and be out of that place in no time.
I was there until the library closed.
This may seem like a harsh lesson in time management (don’t put off your paper or you’ll be sorry!) but overshadowing this were the lessons I learned about history in general and my motivations as a history student.
Let me transition for a moment. Everyone who has ever loved or enjoyed history knows that this particular discipline has a really bad rep. History students know this more than anyone (except possibly history professors. I guess they might know too.) People don’t understand why we study it. We all have had to endure that infamous get-to-know-you question: “What is your major?” Some are surprised at the word “history,” as if they didn’t even realize it was a major. Many become concerned that we do not aspire to become very rich doctors. Most reveal, in some way, shape or form, a general distaste for the study of history, as though it were a bad meal that had never really agreed with them.
Why is history viewed with such derision? Well, I’ve conducted informal interviews of various loved ones who have proclaimed to hate my field of study. Some common phrases I heard repeatedly were that history “doesn’t apply to me,” “isn’t important to me,” and “I just don’t care.” When I probed them further (“Well why don’t you care about history?”), it usually came down to the fact that history concerns itself, to put it bluntly, with “dead people.”
It’s interesting to me how people treat those who have “recently passed on” with such respect, and yet Albert Einstein, Joan of Arc, Confucius, Frederick Douglass, your great-great-great grandfather, Indian student Luther Standing Bear, and Navaho boy Tom Torlino – well, they’re just “dead.” And the assumption being made is that these historical figures no longer relate to what is current, what is active, and what is relatable. They no longer matter because they are no longer living.
This all-too-common mindset can manifest itself in a couple ways. Some people, particularly those who have little experience with history, might claim that since history is primarily the study of “dead people,” then it is simply not worth doing. History is in the past, and trying to take it out of the past is essentially a waste of time. Others, the more educated ones, will often abuse history to meet their own ends, whether that is to make a statement, to form an argument, or to win an election. Why worry about studying history ethically? If it’s all about “dead people,” then as long as you get what you want out of it, who is going to complain?
Now, I may gripe and groan about these injustices, but the truth is, I was committing these same injustices when I walked into that historical society. Not only was I failing to value my historical subjects enough to dedicate sufficient time to them, but I was also using them for my own ends. In my mind those Indian students (all of whom lived very real and very significant lives) were a thesis statement. General Pratt was a paragraph, not a person. Well, all I can say is – it’s no wonder I had little desire to linger long at that library. Why should anyone care deeply about this kind of history?
As it turns out, General Pratt was neither cold-hearted nor ruthless. Imagine my surprise when I found that many of Carlisle’s students actually loved General Pratt. It was one of the best moments of my relationship with history to have to sit back and say, “Wow. I totally misjudged him.”
Even better than that, however, was the moment I found the drawings. As I was leafing through my set of folders, smears of pencil and charcoal caught my eye. I started to pull out page after page of student work – original, creative student work. These were not newspaper clippings, magazine articles or homework assignments. These were images transferred from the students’ heads and onto paper: teepees, feathers, fields, Indians on horseback, Indians hunting buffalo… These drawings had nothing to do with white America or the Carlisle Indian School, and everything to do with life in an Indian tribe.
Those drawings destroyed even my most basic preconceptions about my research topic. The Carlisle Indian School did not “suck in Indians and spit out Americans.” It sucked in Indians and spit out Indians! Indians who wanted to return to their tribe, who never wanted to see their tribe again, who wanted to be Americans, who hated America, who were conflicted, who were frightened, who were overwhelmed, who were human.
Those students may not be alive today, but I interacted with them and I found a piece (even the tiniest piece) of their personal narrative. To realize your own shortcomings in the face of someone else’s incredible story: that, friends, is the beauty of history and why anyone should care enough to study it. I found that the Carlisle Indian School was not just a research topic, it was an institution created by and filled with human beings who were just as current, just as active, just as relatable, and just as significant as anyone who ever thought history is just about “dead people.”
I’d say it was a pretty successful birthday.
Emily La Bianca is a sophomore history major with a minor in politics. She currently acts as work study to the history department as well as this semester’s editor in chief for History on the Bridge.