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Ignoring Any History Before White People

iroquois people

This post could also be titled, The Myths We Tell Our Children. Several years ago, I attended a sporting event for one of my granddaughters. As I was sitting there, a grandmother was explaining to her young grandson the history of The Great Black Swamp, and in particular, Stryker, Ohio. Grandma breathlessly explained how the French “settled” the Stryker area. In her mind, local history began and ended with white people. Sadly, this view of history is all too common, especially in white monocultures such as rural northwest Ohio.

As Grandma regaled her grandson with stories of early French settlers, I snickered, thinking,  Native Americans sure would find this history interesting. You see, long before white Europeans arrived on the scene, IroquoisWyandotHopewell, and Ottawa people roamed the forests, swamps, and waterways of northwest Ohio. While it is certainly true that the French established and platted the town of Stryker, that doesn’t mean that they were the first people to walk/inhabit the land. They weren’t. Sitting along the banks of the Tiffin River, Stryker developed into a prominent railroad town in the early years of the twentieth century. It is not a stretch of the imagination, however, to say that it is likely Native Americans paddled the waters of the Tiffin and camped near Stryker long before European interlopers claimed the land for their own.

Grandma’s history lesson should have, at the very least, included a mention of the people groups who lived in rural northwest Ohio for centuries before the establishment of any of the communities local citizens now call home. Granted, Native Americans tended to be nomadic and didn’t leave permanent marks on the land, but that doesn’t mean they never traversed the land and waterways. They did, and children need to told this lest they develop uninformed, errant views of their “place” in our history.

My wife, Polly, and I love to take day trips, driving the back roads and off-the-beaten paths of rural northwest Ohio, northeast Indiana, and southern Michigan. As we drive along rivers and creeks, I try to envision how the land might have looked before white Europeans drained the swamps and cleared the land. This part of the United States was covered with vast forests, and home to a plethora of wildlife. It doesn’t take much imagination — at least for me — to have visions of Native Americans walking forested paths or river pathways as they hunted or moved from community to community.

In 1917, Nevin Winter wrote a book titled: The History of Northwest Ohio: A Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress and Development from the First European Exploration of the Maumee and Sandusky Valleys and Adjacent Shores of Lake Erie, down to the Present Time. This title aptly describes how most denizens of northwest Ohio view their history. Unfortunately, it is a narrative that tells the truth as far as it goes but leaves out crucial stories and details that paint a fuller picture of whom it was who first called these lands home.

The progressive path towards inclusiveness begins with a proper understanding of American and world history. As long as American children are taught a white, Eurocentric view of the world, we can expect racism and bigotry to continue — particularly here in the hinterland. Children become adults, and pass on these half-truths to their children, perpetuating the lie that the Americas were uninhabited lands ripe for the picking; that native people really didn’t want the land.

My editor mentioned a good book on this subject, Howard Zinn’s seminal work, A People’s History of the United States.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Ignoring the history of Ohio/ America before Whites got here. Interesting, given how the Internet had on file all these documents going back hundreds of years,in the words of all the parties present in those times. Native, Europeans, later Blacks. The Doctrine of Discovery is what triggered all these events,and right now I have the book, ” Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy Of The Doctrine Of Discovery,” by Mark Charles and Soong- Chan Rah. Native and Korean- American authors, respectively. Charles is Navajo- Dutch, and Soong, are both Christian, but not your typical Rightist versions. That book I have now is really interesting. Very timely in our present era, I’d say. The old burial mounds in Ohio are another thing most don’t hear about. Funny how narrow views like the lady talking about French settlers cheat the kids out of a really fascinating back story.

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    Your wriitng about the world the Native Americans knew is evocative. I’m familiar with the area around Tiffin and have paddled the Sandusky River. It’s a beautiful area of your state.

    The Andrew Jackson administration managed to remove all of Ohio’s Native American tribes to the west, which makes forgetting them easier. Last I checked, you don’t have a single tribal casino in the state, because you have no reservation land. A few removed Ohio tribes in Oklahoma have tried to recover their Ohio lands but lost in the courts. So Grandma’s ancestors managed to rid the state of the evils of casino gaming among other things.

    Michigan was farther off the beaten path and still forested, so the Ojibwe and Odawa were able to hold on through the federal removal program after the odious Lewis Cass exacted land cessions by treaty and whiskey. We have thirteen tribes in Michigan, twelve of which have reservations. I think there’s more awareness here as a result. Our rivers, towns, and roads are chock full of native language names. The Grand River, the longest river in Michigan, was called o-wash-ta-nong, “great shining river.” Its headwaters begin in the anglicized “Washtenaw” County, home to Ann Arbor and of course the Wolverines.

    I paddle on the Grand River a lot. Some places are so primordial – the great shining river running between the cool green canopy of the riverbanks. The river was the natives’ highway across the Lower Peninsula, all 250 miles of it. They had landmarks, hunting grounds, and camps, but there were no roads, no towns, no cell phones, and no traffic noise – all things we use to know where we are, and by extension, who we are.

    I get really tired of all that noise, more so all the time it seems. It’s ironic that after my European ancestors displaced the Native Americans, today I paddle in a native-designed watercraft so I can try to live and think more like they did.

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    Bob and I went the Serpent Mound south of Hillsboro, Ohio, and it was cool. Very big, although we were able to walk around the perimeter. Plus that area is rural, but quite hilly, so very scenic. What indigenous people were able to create was so mystical. So Bob and I have gone to a couple or 3 Indian type sites, and I’m thinking we need to go to more this summer. I grew up north of Dayton but I was aware of the mounds in Miamisburg.

    The certainty of white people that their thoughts and culture and politics and influence is better than anyone else, just tires me out.

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    I like how Canada refers to their native population as First Nations. It sounds more respectful than Native Americans does.

    I was in fundamentalist Christian school when we learned Tennessee History in 7th grade. We did learn about the tribes and some of their way of life. Of course, Tennessee’s own president Andrew Jackson’s administration was responsible for forcibly removing the native populations and sending them West. That was glossed over as “Trail of Tears”, and what I got from it was “not a huge deal, of course the European settlers needed the land to do farming and the Native Americans weren’t really cultivating the area so they had to go”. It reminds me now of the attitude evangelical Christians have about the supposed genocides in the Old Testament – that God promised the Hebrews that land, so of course all others needed to go. It’s the same attitude that evangelical Christians hold about Palestinians living in Israeli – that God promised the land to the Jews, so Palestinians have to go. Are we seeing a pattern here? Or am I reaching?

    The movies and books glorifying white people in the West fighting the “savages” hasn’t helped with the attitude toward Native Americans. The Native Americans were depicted as warring savages, nor quite human, or occasional individuals were represented as a friend of White people, willing to collude with “civilized” folks.

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    It reminds me of one of my favorite Larry Gonnick cartoons, during the Devonian the first amphibian lumbers onto land pronounces that he’s the first on land. His (still) fishy friend reminds him that the bugs had already made it to land and he retorts that MY ancestors will write the book.
    I don’t think the grandmother was wrong starting with the French. Since the various native American tribes didn’t leave much of a footprint on the area and anything of note would be considered prehistory. If you really go back you’ll find mammoths and mastodons, depending on where you look you might even find trilobites and fossilized coral from the time Ohio was in the tropics. Humans are quite arrogant about thinking we’ve been here a long time when we really haven’t. It’s actually quite a human thing to start history with your own tribe.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      When does pre-history begin? Were the Vikings pre-history? Or does this just apply to people who lived differently from us?

      Not giving our children a complete history of where they live distorts their view of the world. That’s exactly what is going on in states such as Florida and Texas.

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      That’s amazing, that you completely ignore history covering indigenous people. They had art, culture, medicine, and spirituality. Just because you don’t know anything doesn’t mean it didn’t make a difference or matter.

      • Avatar
        Yulya Sevelova

        I’m waiting with baited breath for the debt ceiling emergency to be settled soon, hopefully without upending and destroying millions of Americans’ lives in the process. Once this issue is resolved however, it’s time for the tribes in Oklahoma,who come from Ohio to try again to return. It’s true that the Doctrine of Discovery is still used when Indian law cases come up before the Court. There’s a lot of success lately for ” Land Back’ cases now. So I hope they will use the momentum of the Biden Administration still in power, to go for it this year. Trump is so anti- Native, things would be blocked otherwise.

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    Karuna Gal

    The history of The Great Black Swamp is really interesting. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Bruce. There a scientist who wants to try to restore 10% of the original Black Swamp, so that the water from all the farms around there will get filtered and cleaned up before it joins Lake Erie. Doing this will help Toledo’s water pollution, for instance.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    P.S. : I love the idea of reviving the Great Black Swamp. I never heard about such a place, until you mention it here, Karuna Gal. I bet lobbying officials to allow such a project to go forward would work. Thank you for pointing out this wetland !!

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Every nation, region and culture has a myth or origin story, if you will. That story always begins at a point where the people are something like the ones who are telling the story. Since the majority of Americans–and nearly all of those with power–have European ancestors, our histories begin with European (whether it’s French, English, Dutch, Spanish or whichever) settlement.

    I was taught–and, for a long time, believed–that this country was founded on principles articulated by Enlightenment writers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and Montesquieu. While Jefferson, Adams, Madison and the other “Founding Fathers” certainly read and thought about them, our actual system of government came, at least in part, from the Iriquois and other Native American nations. The Iriquois Confederacy, to take an example, consisted of five smaller nations: the Onandoga, Cayoga, Oneida, Seneca and Mohawks. Later, the Tuscarora joined them. Thus, the Iriquois Confederacy–and others–were multi-state governments that allowed individual nations autonomy over local matters. Nothing like it existed in England, or anywhere else in Europe, at the time: Most European countries were still monarchies in which power was much more centralized. The one major aspect the “Fouding Fathers” didn’t adopt was that of a hereditary ruler (which the Iriquois chief was): The founders–especially Benjamin Franklin–didn’t want another King George III on their hands.

    So much for “primitive” people, eh?

    Oh, another reason, I believe, that American history is Euro-centric is that European notions of everything from land ownership (most native nations, including the Lenni Lenape–the original inhabitants of New York City–didn’t have any notion of ownership) to art (again, not something to be owned, let alone framed and kept away from the public) and technology are different and, for the most part, don’t include language that expresses indigenous concepts. The European colonizers were Christians, whose view of humans’ relation to nature, and of the sexes and generations to each other, is all but the exact opposite of Iriquois and other nations’ and confederacies’ notions.

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      Yulya Sevelova

      I just looked up the Great Black Swamp, and it does have few advocates, there need to be more. I understand that the ‘ ditch commissioners’ are very authoritarian, inflexible. Fulton County is where the wetland and large farming areas are located ? Some farmers know the value of wetlands filtering water,be it from algae or pollution. There should be a way for both cash crops and wetlands to coexist. A natural preserve,Goll Woods, is a part of the wetland that shows what pre- settler Ohio looked like. I was amazed at the majestic sycamores and oak species,how tall they are. Ohio is the most anti- wetland state in the Midwest. Runoff from fertilizer is their main problem for wetlands,along with the strange attitudes toward the water. 1960’s pollution from sewage and industrial waste is what really triggered this problem, but the 1972 Clean Water Act prevented total destruction of the lakes. If there’s a way to keep mosquitoes from breeding, bringing back the wetlands is possible,if enough people demand it. America is just full of secrets, like this Great Black Swamp I’d never heard of till I saw Karuna Gal’s post !! Lots online now about that place,and who wants to save and restore it.

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      The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber explores this subject in depth. Highly recommended! Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States should be required reading for everyone.

  9. Avatar
    John S.

    BJW- there is a Hopewell site north of Serpent Mound called “Fort Hill state memorial” near Sinking Spring, OH. I go there every fall. It is an earthen wall fort that sits atop a steep hill. The Buckeye trail also runs through this area. Like Serpent Mound, it is administered by the Ohio Historical Society.
    Bruce- there is a book by Allan W. Eckert you may enjoy reading- “The Frontiersman”. It parallels the life of Tecumseh and Simon Kenton.

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Bruce Gerencser