An American Creation Story

by Akim Reinhardt

BeringiaThere is scientific evidence indicating that Asiatic peoples migrated from Siberia to America many millennia ago via a land bridge that was submerged by the Bering Sea after the Ice Age ended, or by island hopping the Pacific cordillera in coastal water craft. But when I teach American Indian history, I don’t start the semester discussing Beringian crossing theory.

Instead, I first talk about Indigenous creation stories. For example, a Jicarilla Apache story says that in the beginning, all the world was covered with water. Everything lived underwater, including people, animals, trees, and rocks, all of which could talk. People and animals used eagle feathers as torches, and they all wanted more light, except for the night animals who preferred the darkness: the panther, bear, and owl. The two sides competed by playing the thimble and button game. The sharp-eyed quail and magpie helped people win five consecutive games until the sun finally rose to create the first day. People then peered through a hole to see another world above them: Earth. They climbed up to it.

Or there’s a story from the Modocs of California and Oregon, which says the leader of the Sky Spirits grew tired of his home in Above World. It was always cold, so he carved a hole in the sky and shoveled down snow and ice until it almost reached the Earth, thereby creating W’lamswash (Mt. Shasta). He stepped from a cloud onto the mountain. As he descended, trees grew where ever his finger touched the ground, and the snow melted in his footsteps, creating rivers. Long pieces from his walking stick became beavers, and smaller pieces became fish. He blew on leaves, turning them into birds, and the big end of his stick created the other animals, including the bears, who walked upright on two legs. Pleased with what he’d done, the leader of the Sky Spirits and his family lived atop the mountain. But after his Mt. Shastadaughter was blown down the mountain by the wind spirit, she was raised by a family of grizzly bears. When she became a woman, she married the eldest grizzly bear son, and their children were the first people. When the leader of the Sky Spirits found out, he was angry and cursed the bears, forcing them to walk on all fours ever since.1

One reason I begin the semester with Indigenous creation stories instead of scientific evidence about the peopling of the Americas is that, like most people who teach American Indian history nowadays, I look for ways to emphasize Indians’ historical agency. Stressing agency, the centrality of people in manifesting their own history, is an important part of teaching any group’s history. However, for too long, American Indian history was taught (when it was taught at all) through a EuroAmerican lense. Instead of looking at what Indians did, historians used to focus on what was done to them. Indians, they told us, were victims of aggression and/or obstacles to progress. Native people were reduced to two-dimensional tropes, mere foils in the larger story about European empires and the rise of the United States.

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Conventional Wisdom

by Akim Reinhardt

As the Republican Party begins its national convention today in Florida, I offer this brief history of political conventions and examine their relevance to modern American politics.

George Washington's cherry treeThe generation of political leaders who initiated and executed the American Revolution and founded a new nation, believed in the concept of republican virtue. That is, they felt it the obligation of every citizen to give of themselves to the welfare of their new, shared political endeavor. That their definition of citizenship was quite narrow is very imoprtant, but another matter altogether.

The founders believed that in order for the republic to survive and be healthy, citizens must sublimate their selfish interests for the sake of the general welfare. In line with this, they imagined that the nation’s politicians would be citizen servants: men, who for a temporary period of time, sacrificed the profits and joys of their personal pursuits so that they might shoulder the responsibility of governing the nation, the states, and localities, offering their wisdom and insight for everyone’s benefit.

There was nothing of political parties in this vision. Neither the Articles of Confederation nor the U.S. Constitution made any mention of them. They are, in the strict sense of the term, extra-constitutional political organizations, and they are most decidedly not what the new nation’s architects had in mind when they fashioned this republic. Indeed, they did not even use the term “party” for the most part, instead referring to the political alliances that soon formed as “factions.” George Washington especially despised the new factionalism, even in its nascent form, and he refused to ally with any group. To this day, he is the only president listed on the roll of chief executives as Independent.

Perhaps it was näive of Washington and other purists to scoff at the emerging political gangs. Perhaps the constitution’s framers should have better anticipated this development and done something to temper it, to keep it from warping their beloved system of checks and balances. Regardless, the move towards modern parties was underway as the nation’s politicians began to lineup behind the philosophies and reputations of top leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams.

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Must I Be Free?

by Akim Reinhardt

July 4th was the nation’s first secular holiday. In fact, Americans began informally commemorating their independence from Great Britain on that date even before they were independent. On July 4, 1777, there was a thirteen-gun salute in Philadelphia to mark the day. The next year, General George Washington celebrated by issuing his men a double ration of rum. In 1779, Massachusetts led the way in making the date an official state holiday, and others soon followed. In 1785, the town of Bristol, Rhode Island held a parade, a tradition it has continued ever since, making it the longest running July 4th celebration in America.

Bristol July 4th parade As the 19th century unfolded, the United States went through a startling transformation, and as the nation changed, so too would the meaning of July 4th for many people. The relatively small and highly agricultural nation began to urbanize, industrialize, and expand at an astounding rate. The changes came fast, were highly jarring, and the federal government was still quite small and weak. Consequently, economic development was largely unregulated and things simply ran amok.

By mid-century, the United States was beginning to look like a third world country in many respects. Cities in particular were teeming with squalor, as each day overcrowded slums became home to more people and animals than anyone had thought possible. In the warmer months, streets were filled with pedestrians, push carts, children, rooting pigs, stray dogs, and the bloated and rotting corpses of overworked horses who had pulled their last load. In the evenings they were joined by many neighborhood residents who were fleeing the heat of their un-air conditioned homes.

Jobs were the main draw for the millions of immigrants, both foreign and domestic, who flooded the cities. The Industrial Revolution created jobs by the thousands, but more and more openings were for semi-skilled and even unskilled manual laborers. Electricity was still in the offing, so many people not only worked beside animals, but also worked liked them. Factories chewed up workers and spit them out at an alarming rate. To look back at some of the statistics today is to be shocked.

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