Western History and Indigenous Mystery

Think about “Western civilization.” Think about rockets loaded down with cars named after inventors hurtling through the cold silence of space. Think about the apple striking Newton’s thick skull. The water wheel giving way to the steam whistle. Mushroom clouds. Think about hubris. About the terrors of slavery supposedly balanced by the gifts of education. Hushed reverence for the rule of law. Container ships full of flip-flops and remote controls and dog toys belching diesel exhaust as they plow through the Pacific gyre. All of that stuff.

A few years ago a history professor and I were trying to figure out why the administration at a large public university might argue that the history of Native Americans, indigenous Mexico and Latin America, or First Nations in Canada wouldn’t qualify as “Western” history. We both thought we knew the answer, so we didn’t bother to articulate one beyond: well, the administration is racist, of course, and “Western” history is a flawed racist project. I can’t speak for the professor, but I haven’t thought much more about it.

Thankfully, there are people who think more carefully about these things than I do, and people who can express their thoughts so much better than I can. Louise Erdrich is one of those people. This morning I was blown away by a casual phrase in her 2016 essay about the Dakota Access Pipeline, “How to Stop a Black Snake.” “Each tribal nation has its own rituals and observances,” she wrote, “but we hold in common the conviction that our earth is a living mystery upon whose tolerance we depend.

Of course. “Western” history is the history of “progress.” In this view, the earth is a puzzle. It yields its secrets to the heroic inquiries of explorers. The heroes were once seafarers, conquerors—hidalgos. Now they are scientists and inventors. There are indigenous scientists and inventors, even indigenous conquerors. But indigeneity is something different entirely, and Louise Erdrich sums up one small part of it beautifully: for many Native peoples, the earth is a mystery, not a puzzle.

This is a critique of Western history, not a part of it.

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