Story posted May 10, 2007
On History and Honor
by Matthew Klingle, Assistant Professor of History and Environmental Studies
May 9, 2007
Americans honor their past, but they don't honor history. There is a difference between the two. We erect monuments to political leaders, war heroes, and cultural icons. (In the case of Bowdoin, we honor a rare man who was all three.) We celebrate birthdays; this year is the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America. At first glance, it seems that history has never been more popular. An entire television network is devoted to the subject, and biographies of John Adams and Albert Einstein rocket onto bestseller lists. But this is not honoring history.
I have to admit some discomfort giving this talk. I'll reveal my reasons soon, but they begin with my professional identity. We historians ask people to think historically, which is different than idolizing the past. Thinking historically requires seeing the past as a different place, of seeing past and present as the result of complex causes and effects unfolding through time. It demands attention to context and contingency because it matters how and when things happen. Thinking historically does not come naturally to most Americans, who see themselves as the sole authors of their nostalgic life stories.
And this is one of my troubles in speaking about honor because, as a historian, I cannot see honor as an idea out of time. This is not to say that honor is relative. But it is to say that what people honor at one moment in time may not be honorable in another. Take the long story of race relations in America. The institution of slavery and the system of unequal power that it entailed began soon after the colonists we commemorate today landed in Virginia in 1607. As slavery evolved, honor came to define the relationship between black and white. For the master class, their honor rested upon the perpetual degradation of their slaves, from birth until death. According to historian John Hope Franklin, "nothing was more important than honor" to the white Southern master and protecting it was "a continuing preoccupation" before and during the Civil War. The abolition of slavery did not erase this anxiety. Instead, it morphed into a terrible code justifying the lynching of black men for merely being black in order to prop up the privilege of being white. Understand this history and you realize why, in 1968, black sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike carrying signs emblazoned "I AM A MAN." One hundred years after the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave African Americans full rights under the nation's highest law, these men reclaimed the honor that generations of white Southerners had tried unsuccessfully to deny them.
The story of the Memphis workers points to another reason why I'm uneasy talking about honor. We cannot shake off completely the weight of history, yet sometimes, if the circumstances are right, people can, individually and collectively, lift or reduce its burdens. In doing so, they can redefine honor for themselves and others.
To illustrate my second point, let me turn to my own work. I'm a historian of the American West, a region of the country as saturated with strange ideas of honor as the South. The history of white-Indian relations is one example. White Americans have long honored Native Americans, but their ideas say more about being white than being Indian. On the one hand, whites have revered Indians as noble beings living in Eden's shadow. But on the other hand, they have also despised Indians as degraded creatures unfit for modern civilization. This strange mix of awe and loathing is what generated the many treaties negotiated in the nineteenth century to dispossess Indians of their land. Treaties were, in the minds of white Americans, the apotheosis of honor; they were the proper and right thing to do for what men like Isaac Ingalls Stevens considered a vanquished people.
Stevens was the territorial governor of Washington and beginning on Christmas Day 1854, he held eight treaty councils across the territory over the next year. In each treaty, Stevens enacted the same principle of honor, promising Indians the permanent right to fish in their "usual and accustomed places ... in common with all citizens of the Territory" in exchange for ceding their lands to the federal government. Stevens later died in the Civil War as a colonel in the Union Army, and his successors ignored the treaties. White fishermen resented Indians catching prized Pacific salmon, and they convinced state authorities to arrest and jail Natives fishing off reservation. For their part, the federal agents responsible for protecting Indians wanted their charges to stay on the reservations and become respectable farmers. Banning fishing helped them to kill Indian culture in order to reform it.
Billy Frank, Jr., born in 1931 on the banks of the river named after his people, the Nisqually, inherited this history. His father, Willie, was an accomplished storyteller, like his father and grandfather before him, and Billy grew up hearing of the treaties and colossal runs of spawning salmon. Now, the salmon were vanishing and fishing was an honor reserved for whites alone. Billy's father couldn't accept this and neither did his son, so, beginning in 1945, when he was only 14 years old, Billy joined a family tradition: getting arrested for catching salmon. He was apprehended some fifty-odd times over the next twenty five years.
For Northwestern Indians, breaking unjust laws was a matter of cultural and economic survival, and by the 1960s, they took cues from the civil rights movement to attract national attention. They held "fish-ins," modeled after the famed "sit-ins" held throughout the segregated South, and the tactic worked. In 1970, some 300 police officers stormed a peaceful fish-in on the Puyallup River, firing tear gas and birdshot indiscriminately and arresting all 62 men, women, and children, one as young as nine years old. The televised brutality forced the federal government to sue the state of Washington on the Indians' behalf. After a long trial, in 1974, Judge George Boldt ruled in favor of the tribes who had signed the treaties 120 years earlier.
It was an amazing decision from a conservative Republican appointed to the bench by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but Boldt took Stevens at his word, just as the Indians had. The treaties were a contract, so Indian signatories had retained the right to fish in all of their usual and accustomed places, to take up to one-half of the entire catch, and to serve as co-equal managers of the region's fisheries. "The mere passage of time has not eroded, and cannot erode," Boldt emphasized, "the rights guaranteed by solemn treaties that both sides pledged on their honor to uphold." The verdict enraged white commercial and sport anglers. Many burned the judge in effigy on the federal courthouse steps in Seattle.
But Frank praised Boldt for letting Indians, like his 94-year old father, Willie, to tell their stories in court. "He made a decision, he interpreted the treaty, and he gave us a tool to help save the salmon," Frank said later. Instead of looking back in anger at his former adversaries, Frank honored the spirit and the law of the treaties. He co-founded the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and became its chairman, using his new power to protect salmon for Indian and white alike. Some of his closest allies were the same state officials who had ordered armed sheriff deputies to arrest his family.
Not surprisingly, Frank has been recognized widely for his work. He received the 1992 Albert Schweitzer Prize for uniting the citizens of the Pacific Northwest to protect their imperiled environment. Lately, he has been a leader in what may be the most complicated problem to face the region: the recovery of polluted Puget Sound, one of the continent's great waterways. But his sense of honor remains firmly anchored in history. This past March, Frank wrote that the Douglas fir tree under which Governor Stevens and tribal leaders gathered in 1854 to negotiate the Treaty of Medicine Creek was gone. Yet, to him, the treaties "were alive ... as valid today as the day they were signed." It was his responsibility to respect the treaties; honor and history continued to intertwine through time.
And this is why thinking of history and honor is important. Look around this room. Less than four decades ago, half of you would not be here because Bowdoin, like so many private institutions of higher learning, was exclusively male. Women were not worthy of academic merit. Our first African American graduate, John Brown Russwurm, was a pioneer, but he was the exception for almost a century afterwards. Institutions and minds change, and when they do, history happens. Even in these moments, however, we never go it alone. Some may be gifted or just plain lucky (or unfortunate) enough to have leadership pushed upon them, but they are never acting outside of history. Billy Frank's successes would have never happened had there not been the treaties, the fish-ins, the violence, or the unexpected help of others.
I say this not to devalue your hard work. You deserve the honors you will receive here, and I'm honored to be in your presence. But I cannot accept my honor without reflecting on how history shaped the path that took me to this podium. Had my late grandfather, raised on the Wyoming prairie in a sod house, not taken a job building dams during the Great Depression, he might not have had the means to support his future family. Had my mother not been the first in her family to finish college, she might not have been a computer programmer. And had she not had the guts to succeed in that all-too-male profession, or the courage to raise her young children as a divorced mother, her two sons might not have attended college as well. And had I not been encouraged by so many teachers, mentors, and colleagues, I would not be here tonight. Honor is inseparable from privilege, in both the loftiest and most selfish senses of the word, and I have benefited from many privileges in my life. So I urge you not to accept your honor without considering where you stand in time. What is your own history? What combinations of chance and imagination have carried you forward, and who helped you along the way? You, like me, do not live and cannot live outside of history.
In the end, thinking historically is never easy; it is often very painful. But it reminds us of the responsibilities that any honor entails, and that honor is never something we attain all on our own. Honoring history can thus help us to live with the consequences of being imperfect creatures in an ever-changing world. And in that knowledge is, perhaps, the greatest honor of all: the distinction of being human.