last july i sat in an arena in halifax, nova scotia with a large crowd celebrating the 1813 naval battle in which the USS chesapeake was taken and towed into halifax harbor by the HMS shannon.
my actual ancestors did not begin to arrive on the north american continent for another 80 years after that, and i can't say that anything about my life or the history of my people is very much worse for that war.
still it was a little unsettling. all in good fun, yes, and i had come to the show expecting a celebration of canadian military bands and such. there wasn't anything about it that felt hostile, even, but there i was sitting in a crowd of canadians wildly cheering over the commemoration of a battle between our two countries.
and i felt very much an outsider. it was kind of like being the supporters group at an away game when your team loses. the winners call you over and offer you a beer and you have a laugh.
or maybe there's a fight in the parking lot after.
but the thing about that war is that we got to go on being a country, with all of "our" land. and there's so little animosity about it between us and canada that most of the time when we go on chanting USA! USA! and going on and on about how we never lost a war on our own soil and are the world war champions, canadians smile politely and don't bother to mention that time they came down here and sacked our capital.
i will tell you who the REAL losers of that war were, though: the natives. and the biggest losers of our revolutionary war? the natives. and the seven years war?
yep, you guessed it. natives.
because while we were busy carving out a new nation from england and england was busy being at war with france and spain and the netherlands, we had nearly neglected to notice that there were people already living here, because they weren't white europeans and they can't really be considered to be people.
let's imagine you have three neighbors down the end of your street, in adjacent houses: susan lives in a house between chuck and dave. chuck does not like the way dave keeps his garden, and dave thinks chuck's paint job is ugly and each of them resolves to fix the problems with the other guy's home.
while they're busy with that, they burn down susan's house and take her yard for themselves and now chuck and dave are ok with how the neighborhood looks, but susan's out of luck.
later on chuck and dave will have barbecues together and tell the stories about the fight and sing some songs and show the photo albums and everyone will agree it was an important time in the formation of the neighborhood, but susan is not invited to the barbecues.
dave has a shed called "susan's shed" and chuck has a garden plot called "susan's flower garden" and sometimes at halloween the kids dress up as susan, but susan is not invited to comment on how she feels about it.
dave and chuck pitched in to move susan's remaining stuff down to the homeless shelter and they think she ought to just shut up and be grateful they let her use the truck.
susan is kind of like the iroquois nations.
right, so everywhere you go in central new york there are historical monuments about the bravery and significance of the sullivan campaign, but monuments are put up by the victors, even generations later, and communities largely agree what a fine thing it is to commemorate the saving of white civilization from the savages, but few of those civic pride groups take into account that the "savages" still live here. the "savages" have families and jobs and live in the community where the monuments celebrate the defeat of their ancestors, the death of their way of life, and the end of their prosperity.
it is easier, maybe, to kill people if you can dehumanize them or demonize them.
for history to be told well, you can't really tell it from a neutral standpoint, because the interesting parts of the story are the parts where you hear what the opposing sides tell you.
but these things always have at LEAST two sides, and we should look at how those other people felt and what drove their part in a conflict, and how they saw things line up.
history is complex. we are not all good or all evil. monuments that commemorate an important victory necessarily commemorate someone's crushing defeat.
i believe these things should be noted. they should be taught and thought about and remembered and studied and maybe even celebrated, but we should never figure our celebration is universal, and we should always remember to invite susan's descendants to speak if they wish.
here are some accounts of the sullivan campaign:
wikipedia: sullivan expedition
early america: sullivan campaign
sullivan/clinton then and now