Essay Assignment

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Essay 2

On some occasions, historians are quick to make cheerful remarks about how the understanding of history will help us to understand ourselves and to cope with the dilemmas we have inherited from the past.  What good can knowledge of {these} miserable stories do?  Yes, these stories are part of our national heritage; yes, they shaped us as a people; yes, we have to know our past to understand our present.  But, by remembering these stories, what do we gain besides a revival and restoration of the misery? -- Limerick “Haunted America”

Generations of Americans grew up playing cowboys and Indians, while it was impossible to play masters and slaves.  And the reason is that southern historians did their job well and western historians did not. -- Limerick “Intro: HA”

What is invisible to the historian in his own historical moment remains invisible when he turns his gaze to the past. -- Tompkins “Indians”

The dogfish, the tree, the seashell, the American Negro, the dream, are rendered invisible by a shift of reality from concrete thing to theory….the mistaking of an idea, a principle, an abstraction for the real.  As a consequence of the shift, the “specimen” is seen as less real than the theory of the specimen.  As Kierkegaard said, once a person is seen as a specimen of a race or a species, at that very moment he ceases to be an individual.  Then there are no more individuals but only specimens. -- Percy “The Loss of the Creature”

History is not a fixed or static thing.  History is the telling and retelling of stories by fallible human beings.  Marx said that man does not make history, history makes man.  That is, we are time-bound subjects and our cultural moment determines the who and what and how of what we write.  Essentially, our language determines what we know. (Or, as Nietzsche would say, our language determines what we do not know, or cannot know).   In many ways, how we talk about a people or an event determines our knowledge of it, not the other way around.  

According to Jane Tompkins and Patricia Nelson Limerick, Indian culture is co-opted by Americans; the result being that Americans do not have a “real” relationship with Indians, but instead one based on myth and fantasy.  They contend that this fantasy relationship “blinds” Americans and permits genocidal practices to be continued against the Indians.  But, because Americans feel no ill-will (indeed, Americans seems indifferent to this history) any complaints lodged by Indians (or anyone else, for that matter) are perceived as being petty, politically correct, and ultimately unimportant.

For this essay, I want you to dig into one of these areas of “invisibility.”

Why is it that Native American history is “invisible” – like the “vacant wilderness” envisioned by Miller – why is it that Native Americans don’t “count” when it comes to the telling and retelling of history.  Who benefits from the various stories told about Native Americans?  Why are they told that way?  What is concealed? 

Think about this essay as a recovery of sorts.  The Native American becomes a kind of “Grand Canyon” – even when they stand in front of you (like in Tompkins’ early anecdote), we don’t “see” them.  What can you find out about Native American history in your research?  And, most importantly, what can we learn from your findings?  Why does this matter?

Keep in mind that this is not a report.  This is a (hypo)thesis driven essay built on critical reading, critical analysis, and critical thought.  Think of this essay as a mini-history, an exercise in thinking critically about a subject and the sources which reveal its history.

Essays should be 4-6 pages in length, double spaced.  You should have at least 3 outside sources, one of which should be a primary source.   Use MLA format in citing your work. You will be evaluated on the specificity and depth of your topic, the complexity of your argument, the quality of your research, and the strength of your connections.

Some examples of Primary Sources

Documents produced by Government Agencies
Audio Recordings
Video Recordings
Artifacts/Works of Art


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