Tuesday, November 27, 2018


Jill Lepore's These Truths: A History of the United States came out this year (2018). Published by W. W. Norton and Company, teachers will be drawn to it as a source for developing lesson plans. As regular readers of American Indians in Children's Literature know, I will occasionally take a look at books marketed to adults because I think teachers might use them. I cannot recommend Lepore's book.

Here's why I cannot recommend it. Lepore is an acclaimed historian, but when I got to page 23 and read what she wrote about Zuni, I hit the pause button right away. She wrote (yellow highlights are mine):
In 1540, a young nobleman named Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an army of Spaniards who were crossing the continent in search of a fabled city of gold. In what is now New Mexico, they found a hive on baked-clay apartment houses, the kind of town the Spanish took to calling a pueblo. Dutifully, Coronado had the Requerimiento read aloud. The Zuni listened to a man speaking a language they could not possibly understand. "They wore coats of iron, and warbonnets of metal, and carried for weapons short canes that spit fire and made thunder," the Zuni later said about Coronado's men.
Some people use "hive" to characterize a state of activity but Lepore uses it to refer to the construction style of Native homes. Others have done it, too. For many (most?) people, it might seem fine, but to me--someone whose ancestors built those kinds of homes--I think the association of work with bees rather than human beings is a problem. For hundreds of years, white people have written about Native people in ways that overtly and subtly denigrate us, casting us as inferior. We were not, and it is wrong that such words continue to be used.

Then, this acclaimed historian uses a problematic quote! Let's take a close look at "They wore coats of iron..."

Lepore cites David Weber's The Spanish Frontier in North America for that quote. I looked at his book. He has it as an epigraph for chapter one, and cites "Zuni tradition" (see the screen cap to the right).

Lepore is a professor, teaching students how to become historians.  When I was a professor in American Indian Studies, it was important to me that students learn that they must be critical of sources they used in their studies. Presumably, Lepore saw Weber's source when she chose to use it for her book. Did she think "Zuni tradition" was sufficient? Apparently, she did.

With the internet, it is simple enough to figure out sources.  Though Weber didn't provide a footnote for his source, he does list Woodbury Lowery's book, The Spanish Settlements Within the Present Limits of the United States, which was published in 1901. Lowery has "They wore coats of iron..." in his book. Here's a screen capture of that passage (purple highlight is mine):

On the previous page, Lowery tells us his source: Frank Hamilton Cushing! Cushing--acclaimed by some--is far from a reliable source of Zuni history. He misrepresented them in his writings so much that his name is still spoken there, with derision. In the early 1990s, Zuni cartoonist Phil Hughte did a series of paintings about Cushing. They were published in book format in 1994 by Zuni's publishing company, Zuni A:shiwi. Hughte's book is titled A Zuni Artist Looks at Frank Hamilton Cushing and there's a PBS video, Another Side of the Story, about Hughte's work (I cringed at the flute rendition of Amazing Grace at the opening to the video, but the content is definitely worth your time.)

Lowery failed in using Cushing as a source. 
Weber failed in using Lowery as a source. 
And Jill Lepore failed in using Weber as a source. 

I'm spelling that out--in that way--because it is important that teachers and professors take care in the sources they use then writing or teaching students. It is important to see how errors get recycled. And, it is especially troubling to see Lepore replicating this error, in 2018!

Integrity of research is important. She's definitely failed in her passages about Zuni. It makes me wonder about the rest of the content. It should make you wary, too.

On Twitter, I've seen several historians raise similar questions about her book. I'll write to them and ask if I can add their remarks here. If you've read the book and see problems with how Lepore has represented Indigenous history and people, let me know. I'll add your comments to this post.


Update, November 27, 1:03 PM:

With her permission, I am adding Dr. Alyssa Mt. Pleasant's tweets on Oct 31, 2018. She is on the faculty at the University of Buffalo and specializes in Haudenausounee history. She was responding to a tweet from Jeff Ostler (he's a historian at the University of Oregon), who shared a photo of a passage from Lepore's book and asked if it was a serious problem for Lepore to write that Jackson's removal policy only applied to the southern nations. The passage Ostler shared says (highlight is mine, and I've inserted [sic] to mark Lepore's spelling errors.):
Jackson's first campaign involved implementing the policy of Indian removal, forcibly moving native peoples east of the Mississippi River to lands to the west. This policy applied only to the South. There were Indian communities in the North--the Mashpees of Massachusetts, for instance--but their numbers were small. James Fennimore [sic] Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) was just one in a glut of romantic paeans to the "vanishing Indian," the ghost of Indians past. "We hear the rustling of their footsteps, like that of the withered leaves of autumn, and they are gone forever," wrote Justice Story in 1828. Jackson directed his policy of Indian removal at the much bigger communities of native peoples of the Southeast, the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Chocktaws [sic], Creeks, and Seminoles who lived on the homelands in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, Jackson's home state. 
On twitter, Dr. Mt. Pleasant replied to Ostler, saying:
Since you asked...this is egregious. On so many levels. Any scholar of American Indian history could write an essay about the numerous problems with this passage. Because it’s 2018 and we all know that this is a tired, debunked narrative.
Folks who are curious about this need look no further than John Bowes 2016 book _Land Too Good for Indians: Northern Indian Removal_ The book has been widely reviewed, so it’s well known (or should be) among historians.
Thinking further about the seriousness of the problem, beyond its disconnection from current scholarship, I worry that a passage like this reinforces all the negative stereotypes about History and historians that circulate in Indian Country.
And I think about the role that passages like this play in discouraging Native youth from studying History, because the stories they know about themselves, their families, their communities & their nations are misrepresented in narratives like this.
And as a Native person who is a professional historian, I know that this sort of discouragement comes early and often, it can contribute to unwelcoming classroom environments, and it may be part of the reason there are so few Native people who hold PhDs and teach History.
Happily, though, there are ways to address this. Together w my co-authors, we developed a larger discussion of *both* the problems and the solutions in our article “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies: Completing the Turn”.

Dr. Mt. Pleasant recommended this post as part of this conversation: The Miseducation of the Public and the Erasure of Native Americans, written by Lewis Borck and Ashleigh Thompson, was posted on Nov 22, 2018 at the American Anthropological Association's blog.


Update, November 27, 1:55 PM:

Dr. Christine DeLucia, a historian at Mt. Holyoke, shared my review and thanked me for:
"delving into a specific example of how and why Jill Lepore's treatment of Indigenous histories--and the methods she employs--are so problematic. Uncritical use of colonialist sources that purport to speak for Indigenous people is a deeply rooted issue in Euro-American scholarship."


Anonymous said...

The beehive is the symbol of the state of Utah, as the insects are known for their industriousness. They are generally matriarchal societies. The dying off of honeybees is one of the major agricultural concerns to the food supply of the 21st century.

Perhaps it is you, Dr Reese, who should reconsider your prejudices against bees and their place in our ecosystem rather than project that Lepore is denigrating the Zuni for their architectural style.

Ava Jarvis said...

A good friend and I had a talk over the weekend about Who Gets Published, which can be extended to Who Gets A Voice In History Books That Are Published. The answer tends to be: White and Middle-class/Rich. Kind of the worst people to have any kind of reflection on others or even themselves.

I used Amazon's "Look Inside" to search These Truths for information about Japanese Internment and the American-Vietnam War.

I have concerns, but since I can't afford the book (and it doesn't look to be a book I can borrow from Archive.org's OpenLibrary) and I'm housebound and unable to get a library card, I can't substantiate whether I should be concerned or not beyond the limitations of Look Inside.

From what I can see, though, I wonder if Lepore has the "only the best sources" itch, which tends to be a racist, sexist, and classicist approach to evaluating which sources to include in a work. Folks rarely get taught to look for (or even respect) first-hand sources, you get taught to look for second-hand sources from high-ranking government officials or highly respected academic peers.

For instance, for Japanese Internment, there's mention of what Korematsu did and what happened to him, but otherwise the only person who speaks on that legal case (in the text) is the dissent of a white judge. I hope that in the pages that aren't shown in Look Inside, that there were quotes from Japanese-American community leaders, maybe even a quote from George Takei whose family went through internment, but I'm very used to the victims of Japanese internment being treated as little more than voiceless dolls in English-language history books, so my optimism in this regard is low.

(After all, the Asian stereotype in America is that none of us can speak English. I wouldn't expect anyone white to consider us as primary sources over white sources, no matter how central we might be to the issue at hand, nor how well we speak English, nor how eloquent we may be in written words. I'm very bitter about this injustice.)

And the Vietnam War... it's very hard for me to tell anything of what's going on since many pages are not searchable, but I'm curious if the book even vaguely mentions that the Vietnamese who were interested in overthrowing the government overseen by French colonizers in exchange for a democratic society, asked the United States government for aid, and were turned down. So it was rather... messy of the United States army to then invade Vietnam afterwards.

But, of course, the sources for this are naturally Vietnamese, and so to most American/European historians we can't be trusted. Another very raw injustice.

And then, of course, the Vietnamese refugees weren't treated terribly well, and many of us have stories to tell (we do have leading people in academia these days who went through this, who even specialize in this area of history, so surely Lepore talked to or read the book of at least one if her evaluation of "best sources" included academic prestige), although considering many American history books don't even mention how badly their own veterans were treated, I'm also not optimistic.

Hopefully the Look Inside was counterindicative and she really did include Japanese-American and Vietnamese-American and Vietnamese sources.

On the other hand, taking "Zuni Tradition" as a legit source from a white historian is making the case for this look bad. What the actual hell. Like, gah, Lepore should be embarrassed. That's the kind of thing a college freshman does.

Additionally, I also hope that Lepore took the time to write about the struggles and successes and organization and leaders of the working class (not just the middle class) in a way that isn't patronizing or reductive, rather than only writing in high praise of the innovations of middle class and rich folks, also a frequent failure of American history books.

Ava Jarvis said...

Oh, another comment in a row.

Hi Anonymous! What a gaslighting and passive-aggressive coward you are to "argue" a minor point in such incredible bad faith.

I think it's pretty damn evident that bees are not considered as worthy as humans, no matter how industrious they are.

Unknown said...

Seriously, Anonymous? That's your takeaway here? That Debbie is prejudiced against...bees? That is far and away the least relevant thing you could possibly ahve said. Congratulations.


Beverly Slapin said...

Anonymous at 11/27/18 at 12:51 PM CST—

In deconstructing the research for a book that teachers will probably use as a reference, long-time Native scholar Dr. Debbie Reese—whose own ancestors built the homes that many erroneously refer to as “hives”—pointed out this particular term’s use as one example of many of the author’s sloppy research.

Dr. Reese and I have never discussed her feelings about bees, but I would guess that she appreciates their importance in the ecosystems they inhabit and that she harbors no “prejudice” against them.

Humans are not bees. Bees are not humans. Humans build homes. Bees build hives. Anonymous, your comment was one of the best deflections I have ever read. To quote Veronica (above), “Congratulations.”

Val O. said...

No wonder that comment was Anonymous. I'm not sure I'd want my name attached to something so ridiculous.