Friday, July 24, 2009

Bookends Friday: The Legacy of Conquest

"The past isn't dead -- it isn't even past." Faulkner could have been inscribing the moral of Patricia Nelson Limerick's 25-year-old survey, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. She does a rip-roarin' job of skewering the one-sided and inadequate history that most of us were taught in school and that too many genealogists rely on today.

Her main point is that we tend to divide the past into two compartments: the distant past of the frontier, and the recent past up to today. But these compartments make no sense; it's all one story, and it's still happening.

The American West was an important meeting ground, the point where Indian America, Latin America, Anglo-America, Afro-America, and Asia intersected. In race relations, the West could make the turn-of-the-century Northeastern urban confrontation between European immigrants and American nativists look like a family reunion. . . .

. . . the working of conquest tied these diverse groups into the same story. Happily or not, minorities and majorities occupied a common ground. Conquest basically involved the drawing of lines on a map, the definition and allocation of ownership, and the evolution of land from matter to property. The process had two stages: the initial drawing of the lines (which we have usually called the frontier stage) and the subsequent giving of meaning and power to those lines, which is still underway. . . .

The contest for property and profit has been accompanied by a contest for cultural dominance. Conquest also involved a struggle over languages, cultures, and religions; the pursuit of legitimacy in property overlapped with the pursuit of legitimacy in way of life and point of view. In a variety of matters, but especially in the unsettled questions of Indian assimilation and in the disputes over bilingualism and immigration in the still semi-Hispanic Southwest, this contest for cultural dominance remains a primary unresolved issue of conquest. {27}
Many of these points apply equally to the Midwest and other earlier-settled parts of the country, but they stand out more in the West because its history is closer in time and has been ardently fictionalized by Hollywood and pulp authors.

Another way to put it is that real history pays attention to more than just one point of view. Much of the old history paid little attention to those who weren't guys and who weren't white. But those people are ancestors too.

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