Did indigenous people have any important events in history at all: Discovery, Blank Slate, and Episodic Memory

Posted on April 26, 2009 by


From UC-Santa Cruz's Merrill College Mural Wall

From UC-Santa Cruz's Merrill College Mural Wall

From Eviatar Zerubavel’s Time Maps:

…when we say that Columbus “discovered” America we are basically implying that no one was there before him, thus implicitly suppresssing the memory of the millions of Native Americans who were actually living there at the time of his arrival.

As demonstrated by the way we conventionally label anything that existed in America prior to Columbus’s arrival as “pre-Columbian”, 1492 marks a fundamental break between America’s actual “history” and what we apparently consider its mere prehistory.

Key word that always never passes the bs test when talking about distant histories: “discovered” and its noun variation “discovery.”

I don’t mind the everyday verb usage of the word “discover.” Yep, you can “discover” that you have 3 nipples. You can “discover” that In N Out fries are better than McDonalds fries.

But when were talking about something being “discovered” or a “discovery” as a reference point in history, that usually means to imply that an individual in history “found/did something that no one else had done before…ever.” Kind of like how Georges Ifrah says this in his book the Universal History of Numbers:

The Indian people were the only civilization to take the decisive step towards the perfection of numerical notation. We owe the discovery of modern numeration and the elaboration of the very foundations of written calculations to India alone.

My inner-Vygotsky drops, “Oh, really, how do you fuckin’ know? You weren’t there.” I wonder if the people in the past knew and would identify themselves as being from “India.”

In contexts of scientific innovation, the noun “discovery” is a word that negates possible sources of influence. As a noun, it’s a word with its own life. There’s an awe-inspiring aura that surrounds a “discovery.”

If words are tools and the job is to embellish an individual accomplishment, “discovery” is just the right word to use.

However tools are useful only to the point where they actually fit a job description.

If words are tools and the job is to get at a truth in history, the word “discovery” should be used with more caution, sparingly, and with lots and lots of qualification.

The word “discovery” unnecessarily heightens the importance of one individual as if they were free from any mode of thought other than his/her own. As is often the case, no one really acts, discovers, or innovates outside of their social milieu/environment. The social milieu/environment is needed as the network, the initial receptacles from which to build hype for a discovery, and later to be attributed to an individual or group.

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As James Loewen wrote in Lies my Teacher Told Me, the writing in American history textbooks that operates as if people of the paler complexion operated on a “blank slate.” “Blank slate” as if the continent were an empty void and indigenous people were insignificant and of no consequence.  The emptiness gives room to make new “discoveries;”, heck even  inventions…of history.

* * * * *

The institution of American education systematically doesn’t really give a shit if you know a tribe’s stories, anecdotes and parables; they only care if you know the story dictated by them and their forebears. Them and their forebears, usually pertaining to Anglo-Americans.  Their story as dictated is somehow a “complete” overview.

We take courses on American institutions and AP classes to certify that we know the complete story of American history.  For purposes of passing those tests, it’s almost imperative to know the American Revolution and Civil War battles as if they were part of your own episodic memory. Meanwhile, we stick to rote, decontextualized, generalized semantic memories — that is rote facts of life about the savage, yet namby pamby walk-with-the-spirits American Indian. Semantic memories are generalized, as if all the people did was mainly cyclical and unprogressing.

Did indigenous people have any important events in history at all?  As in some kind of social, event-driven episodic memories. Episodic memories that are connected to present day events — accessible and relied upon to tell the narratives/stories. Narratives and stories being the antithesis of the roteness that is “history”, lying dormant and dusty in a bookshelf or in a museum somewhere and ultimately forgotten.