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common ground

Reaching the Public
Spring 1998, vol. 3(1)

Online Archive

*  Ancient American History for All Americans

(photo) Students reconstruct a 1000 year old Mississippian house.

"I am simply astounded that there is virtually no scholarly literature which addresses the role of North American archeology in the contemporary world. "

Brian Fagan

by Francis P. McManamon

Since the first decades of the European settlement of this continent, some of the new inhabitants have attempted to understand the history of the original Americans. For more than a century, these efforts have had general public and political support, including investigations by the fledgling Smithsonian Institution to resolve the mystery of the moundbuilders; systematic recording of ancient monuments and sites by the Bureau of American Ethnology, museums, and university archeologists; the popularization of ancient history by investigators such as Bandelier, Fewkes, and Hewett; and the legal protection of these resources by the Antiquities Act. Through these early initiatives, largely in the 19th century, and subsequent activities in our own century, the understanding of America's ancient history and the preservation of archeological remains associated with it have come to have special legal and public policy endorsement. Most of these efforts however, have been by a relatively small number of experts and other interested individuals.

Most European-Americans have not been inclined to look back at the ancient or recent history of the Americas, or even at their European heritage. Many of the first colonists were escaping from European economic, political, or religious constraints. They were settling a "new world," a world that to most of them had no history. This perspective we know now was totally incorrect, but it has colored the American view of history for centuries, reaching even to our own times. My parents' high school history books (e.g., D.S. Muzzey's A History of Our Country, Ginn and Co., 1936-1946) devoted two paragraphs of a 906-page text to American Indians and their history before the arrival of Europeans. The high school text I used in the 1960s was not much more informative. Richard B. Morris' Encyclopedia of American History (enlarged and updated edition, Harper and Row, 1970) takes a dozen pages in its initial chapter to describe the original peoples of the Americas before describing the rest of American history in the next 800 pages.

In the 1990s, as my children worked their way through elementary and secondary school, they and their classmates spent a bit more time on the subject. In Virginia, where they both attended school, the statewide standards of learning (Board of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia, 1995) call for fifth graders to be able to describe the first Americans, their origins, how they lived, and some of the better known Indian cultures: Inuit, Anasazi, Northwest Coast, moundbuilders, and Eastern forest tribes. Eleventh graders are to understand the characteristics of Indian cultures at the time of European contact and the results of that encounter.

Thus, from the late 1940s to the 1990s, we detect some progress; however, there still is relatively little about ancient America that is part of standard public education. There is much to do in this arena. America's early history receives far less instruction time, reading, and class discussion than ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Almost any other history topic gets more attention.

There is no inherent barrier to keep modern Americans—no matter what their ethnic background—from embracing America's ancient history as their own. The immediate roadblocks to widespread understanding are the paucity of appropriately "translated" technical archeological data and the lack of widespread means of conveying up-to-date, interesting information about the subject. Archeologists and anthropologists are making inroads as they work with educational systems at the state and local levels. These efforts need to continue and expand. Efforts must also be undertaken to reach Americans who are no longer students, in particular through the mass media.

Many Americans are intrigued by the ancient history of the continent—despite their lack of direct biological or cultural relationship—as well as with preserving its remains. They have good reason to make this legacy their own. An anchor to the past, in this case one embedded in place rather than biology, helps individuals balance their modern life through reflection and comparison.

The approach of 2000 is calling forth increasing reflection about where we have been as a people, as well as where we are going. When casting back to consider the past, Americans ought not to limit their view to the past 500 years, when European Americans came to dominance. There are thousands of years awaiting review and reflection—awaiting to be embraced by all Americans.