Skip to main content

The Guilt Collectors

July 2024
2min read

Pondering Mr. Shannon’s essay further, it occurs to us that the young may have tuned out on the study of history in some part because what we have to say about it these days keeps changing so radically and so abruptly. At least it does on the surface, in popular literature, in the movies, and on television. The mode is so destructive that heroism has become a joke, moral courage an aberration, democracy a satire. Heroes turn into villains overnight, from Custer in the film Little Big Man to Kennedy in the Pentagon Papers. The most terrible bad actor of all, in the litany of youth, is the white man, who has been transformed into a heavy out of melodrama; in his manifold sins and wickednesses a new generation bathes in a kind of orgiastic guilt.

One of the best-selling guilts of late has to do with the American Indian, whom the new historical mode has turned into something approaching sainthood. To blow the whistle on some of this nonsense there appeared before a Western History Association conference in April, 1971, the noted senior ethnologist in the Department of Anthropology of the Smithsonian, John C. Ewers, who is also one of our contributors. We are obliged to the Western Historical Quarterly for permission to reprint the following brief excerpts from his talk, “When Red and White Men Met: Frankly, I believe there is enough blame for the sorry state of the Indian”s in the American West today so that we can all have a share of it—including those Indians who are most vocal in passing the buck for their plight to the white man. Certainly the historian is in no position to say, as did President Truman, “The buck stops here.” He can trace the origins and intentions of past policies, and he can evaluate their effects. But the historian neither conceives nor implements new policies. If it is true, as the inscription on the National Archives building down the street from my office proclaims, “The Past is Prologue,” his findings, if they are known to policy makers and administrators, may be of practical value. They may help to prevent repetitions of past errors. They may even point to some aspects of past policies that have shown some promise. We have had so many Indian policies. Surely they cannot all have been one hundred percent wrong. …

With our advantage of hindsight we know that the Spaniards were not the only whites who were not always kind to the Indians. We should know also that kindness is not enough. Some of the most kindly intentioned Indian policies failed in the long run to benefit the Indians in the ways or to the extent they were intended to help them. Doubtless the missionaries and other “friends of the In dians” thought they were acting in the best interests of the Indians when they sought to remake them in the white man’s image through such mechanisms as conversion, allotment of lands, and teaching of the three Rs. …

I do not believe that Custer died for my sins. Nor do I believe that historians or anthropologists should try to expiate their sense of guilt by rewriting the history of the American West so as to portray all Indians as red knights in breechclouts, or all whites as pantalooned devils. Nor do I see the role of the historian of Indian-white relations to be that of being kind to either party in this historic confrontation. But I do think he should study this very complex theme in both breadth and depth, consulting and weighing all the sources he can find, so that he can be fair to both sides.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.