The great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking warns us that contact with alien life may not be in our best interest. After all, human history shows all too well how indigenous peoples suffer at the hands of a more technologically-advanced society.
The laws of space and time suggest that such visitations are probably not in our future. Still, if we were to awake one morning to find mother ships overhead, I suspect that a nervous Earth might hear our visitors say something like the following. (Note: just replace “Indians” with “Earthlings”):
“The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed.”
—[Secton 14, Article 3, Northwest Ordinance of U.S. Congress, July 13, 1787
This quote introduces Chapter 5—“What’s mine is mine. What’s yours is mine!”—of Conscience: Breaching Social Amnesia by vehoae. In the author’s first book, she illustrates, through exhaustive research, how the perspectives and motivations of the European invaders and their progeny influenced the rhetoric, politics, and decision-making of the day regarding the continent’s Indian Nations.
Beyond the dishonest diplomacy practiced with the tribes, we are treated to the views and arguments of political and religious leaders as they sought a solution to the Indian problem. Such quotes and primary document details trace the discussions of extermination, assimilation and segregation of the tribes from early European settlement to the days of the Indian Boarding Schools.
It’s an uncomfortable history, of course. Reading about the worse angels of our nature (if I may twist the resurrected Lincoln quote) should make us feel uncomfortable. Seeing an unflattering side of American statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson strikes at our patriotic heart.
We know this truth about our past, but some Americans would just like us to forget about it. But vehoae says, “No, look. This is what we did. Here is the proof.” Her appendix, exhibits, bibliography and end note citations take up a third of the book. (I wasn’t kidding about exhaustive research.)
While at the University of Oklahoma in the late 70s, I was lucky enough to have a class with Dr. Jerry Steffen, who warned us about condemning past generations. The future will laugh at us, and condemn us, too, he said. He reminded us to always consider past history in light of the times. This did not mean we should not pass judgements on cruelties of the past. It meant that by understanding the period of history, we could understand why such cruelties happened.
There is no advantage to ignoring our history, but there is much to gain by confronting painful truths. For what better way will we truly find the better angels of our nature?
Visit vehoae’s website to find out more about the author, her interests and her work.
Read an interview with the author, where she discusses her book and the writers that inspired her. Plus, she provides a host of research tips for non-fiction writers!