Where to begin?

“Where shall I begin?” asked the White Rabbit of the King in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop” was the King’s reply.

When it comes to American history, where shall we begin? The answer I put forward in HIST, my textbook, was not 1607 but instead to sweep quickly through the early peoples on the land that would become America and get to the contact of cultures–red, white, and black–that would shape colonial American life in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. To do that, you had to know a little about each culture before and at contact, so there was a summary of that (Chapter 1); otherwise the actions at contact wouldn’t make any sense. Chapter 2 is settling the land by the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English, and by Chapter 3 we’re on the British colonial steamroller, familiar terrain though it is.

That said, it led to my Indian problem, and ours. If we treat American history as we normally do–getting to the Revolution as quickly as possible–do we cut short the story of the Native Americans? An even more challenging questions is: is that okay? If we define United States history as the history of the making and transformations of the United States, what of pre-contact Native American history do you really need to know?

I don’t pretend to have the answers, and the question of “the beginning of American history” will always be contested ground. But thinking it through gets to the more penetrating question of what we are teaching when we teach American history. Is it the story of how we became who we are (quite literally)? How the political nation came to look and act the way it does? Or is it the story of the land? Certainly all three and more, but how do we prioritize?

It is not altogether helpful to say: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” To quote Pooh’s Eeyore: “Oh bother.”

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