Sunday, April 20, 2008

Telling choices: Some musing on the writing (and reading) of history

A grass house typical of Wichita Indians, painted by George Catlin, 1834. Image found here.

Some of you may remember this post, now almost a year old, in which I compared and contrasted the contents of two brief paragraphs from different sources that cover those years in the 1860s in which the Wichita Indians began their dealings with the first white settlers in this area: the years that led to the founding of Wichita. While I hadn't forgotten about picking up the tale, I just hadn't gone back to it.

Today, though, while Googling about for something entirely else, I ran into the Official Site of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. It has a page devoted to the history of the tribes, from which the text below is taken.

Although a reservation and agency were established, the Wichita people were not able to remain in this land [west-central Oklahoma]. In 1863, they were forced by Confederate troops to leave their reservation and flee north to Kansas. While in Kansas from 1863 to 1867, the Wichitas had no land to farm and few friends to help them in their time of trouble. Many people starved. Others suffered from smallpox and cholera epidemics that swept through their villages. Only 822 people returned to Indian Territory in 1867.

The "musing" part is below the fold.

With this third text we can set up a continuum of the descriptions, their placement determined by their respective contents' emphasis on Indian-white relations. The City of Wichita site's text is focused more on the early white settlers in the area, chiefly on "their" first industry of the cattle trade. The tribe's account focuses on the Indians, in particular on its forced removals to and from the Wichita area and on its hunger, impoverishment and disease--though in some ways (such as not mentioning the plaque's detail about Skeleton Creek) it is muted in its recounting of that suffering. The plaque in the park occupies the middle position, though--unsurprisingly, given that the plaque is titled "Wichita Indians"--its frame of reference is more Indian-oriented. The tribal history and the plaque both mention that suffering; the plaque and the city's history both mention the cattle trade.

Three narratives of the same short span of time and small space which do not agree with each other in all particulars. I have no way of knowing which of these narratives provides the truest account of those years; and even if I did know, I'm not at all interested in playing a game of historical "gotcha." Also, it's obvious that it's not the intention of any of these accounts to offer exhaustive narratives of that time. Still, here in miniature, we can see something at work: what to include or leave out, and why, are the two basic questions all historiographers must constantly confront when writing history (and, for that matter, every blogger who decides to say a little something about his or her day or childhood or what have you). Michel de Certeau, in his book The Writing of History, describes that dynamic in the Introduction:
In the past from which it [that is, the "present" in which a historiographer works] is distinguished, it promotes a selection between what can be understood and what must be forgotten in order to obtain the representation of a present intelligibility. But whatever this new understanding of the past holds to be irrelevant--shards created by the selection of materials, remainders set aside by an explication--comes back, despite everything, on the edges of discourse or in its rifts and crannies: "resistances," "survivals," or delays discreetly perturb the pretty order of a line of "progress" or a system of interpretation. These are lapses in the syntax constructed by a law of a place. Therein they symbolize a return of the oppressed, that is, a return of what, at a given moment, has become unthinkable in order for a new identity to become thinkable. (4)
de Certeau's putting things thusly drives home something that it can be easy to forget regarding the production of historical narratives: that, being narratives, their writers have to make decisions not only on what to include or exclude, they also must decide how to talk about that which they include. As just one example, the two texts that refer to the cattle trade talk about it in very different ways. Why their authors made those choices in their respective tellings, I cannot say, beyond that those choices are just as interesting to speculate on as why the Wichita tribes' website makes no mention of the cattle trade.

Just as Mark Twain famously wrote that the man with one watch always knows what time it is but that the one with two watches is never sure, I find myself today, having acquired a third brief paragraph describing the same material in very distinct ways, being still more uncertain as to the truth of that time. Is that truth not in any one text but in the accretion and distillation of their contents and that of others I will find and read? Well, yes. But as de Certeau points out by implication, a history by its very nature cannot be all-inclusive, or it will be unintelligible. Therefore, to be true to one's subject (broadly defined), even that historiographer most desirous to be an honest broker must, inevitably, commit numerous betrayals.


R. Sherman said...

In pondering this post, (and rereading your prior entry) I was struck by the number of "narratives" into which the Wichita fit: Westward expansion, cattle trade, European relationships/contact with native peoples, the Civil War, Civil War effects on Native peoples, i.e Cherokee Confederates (?) v. Neutral Wichita, City of Wichita etc. Obviously, as you point out, one cannot tell the "whole" story in one fell swoop.

Query, however, whether the word "betrayal(s)" is too negative for the process in which, by definition, all historians must engage. Other than some nefarious Orwellian plot to erase certain facts, merely electing to tell a portion of a story honestly and limiting one's focus thereby, doesn't seem like some traitorous behavior.


John B. said...

Yeah--I was thinking about that same thing earlier today: it might be a bit heavy-handed. Something like "exclusions" would be more neutral. The thing to do, as I've said in other contexts, is to acknowledge those other narratives' existence and then go on to tell the one you've chosen to tell, "Rest of the Story"-fashion.

R. Sherman said...

By the same token, is it really that easy to tell the story you want if the standard narrative of the day is not the focus? I'm continuing to think about this. Well done, although my work level may suffer.


John B. said...

Just in case anyone might be interested in knowing: I'm strongly considering using these three texts in my next comp. class as an exercise in assessing/making guesses about authors' perceived audiences/purposes/biases/etc. The idea would be to present the texts and ask students to match up the texts with their sources, and ask them to discuss in a paper on what basis/bases they paired the text with the source they did.

Comments/brickbats welcome.