I recently read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. I keep hearing and reading on teacher websites about all the lies we are teaching about the colonial period of American history, especially the time of the early settlements. At Thanksgiving the pot seems to boil over, and I’ve been wondering what these lies are. Although I’ve researched the period each time I’ve taught it, I’ve never found shocking new information, so when I read the blurb about this book I thought it was just what I needed to set the record straight. It was particularly timely as I am working on materials to support this instructional unit. I want to be sure that my materials are accurate, at least as far as they can be, and that I don’t contribute to the support of any lies.
I waited several months for the book to become available through the library—there was a long waiting list. When I got the message it was there, I immediately checked it out and started reading. I was very disappointed! Mr. Mann talks a lot at the beginning of the book about the lies that he was taught in school, and how he’s now dealing with his son being taught the same lies, however, after reading the entire book, the only lies I could find were these:
- The native population of the Americas was very sparse, when in fact it was not.
- American native cultures were very simple, when in fact they were very complex.
- American native people “walked lightly on the land”, when in fact they had an enormous impact on the land.
I learned all these things as a child in school, so it’s hard for me to see the problem.
Most of the book was about Central and South America—the Inca and Aztec cultures that could never seem sparse, simple, nor easy on the land! The book primarily discussed the arguments between historians, and other professionals, about the minutiae of each one’s theories. This all seemed like more of an ego struggle than any astonishing research.
After reading the entire book, studying the images presented (and they were very interesting), and listening to “cat fights” for page after page, I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know, except maybe the issues people are worrying about, which makes me feel more up-to-date!
The book did bring a big question to the forefront of my mind—how do we really know what happened 400 years ago? How do historians get to the real truth? How do they prove their theories? How are they held accountable for what they present? Reading the book was worth the thinking it’s given me, and a new perspective on looking at the past.
I’m now focusing the intent of the instructional materials I’m working on toward the question, “How do we know what really happened 400 years ago?” I want students to be little historians—finding information buried in the detritus of daily life, just like big historians do! I want students to
- dig through
- argue about
- conclude on
so that they can recreate the “culture” in order to learn more about what life was really like in times past. This book gave me a lot to think about and was certainly worth the read!