By Lois Joynt
Modern day Britain is a beautiful hodgepodge of cultures and characters; but modern day Britain lies on the dirty bed of its past. The sheets are neglected, the pillows muddied and sullen, in a desperate pit of forgotten-truths. And yet, so much of our present is reliant on our past, so much of our intricate, British DNA is woven with the souls of those we conquered, or terrorised (perspective dependent) that there is a heated and ongoing debate around the education of our past in schools.
Shashi Tharoor, Congress party and Lok Sabha member, calls our collective, selective memory a ‘historical amnesia’- a term I would argue fails even to go far enough, as the inference is one of an innocent forgetting, rather than an allusion to the malicious ignorance we give to our colonial past. This article will seek to point to two examples of British colonisation, the colonisation of the US and Australia, and the consequent treatment of its inhabitants, be it Native Americans or Aborigines, and will make the case as to why we need now, more than ever, to learn of these events for our history to have a positive effect on our present.
Native American culture is beautiful, if not radically juxtaposed to our own tempo. The Native American people are predominantly spiritual and peaceful, and whilst there is much variation amongst the current 574 recognised tribes, a consistent respect for mother nature and especially the buffalo, which many tribes see as the source of life, is prevalent. Many tribes were largely pacifist before the introduction of weaponry by the Old World, following the buffalo as travellers until its natural death, whereupon no meat would be wasted, no skin thrown out, and the heart replanted as an offering to the earth. Native Americans have gone on to poke fun at the Hollywood portrayal of them as violent barbarians, stressing in their own films ‘our tribe never hunted buffalo’. In a similarly liberal vein, Native Americans recognised gender identities outside of the binary form; ‘two-spirit’ people or ‘berdache’ is a term which encompasses the LGBTQ+ far before it was commonplace culture in Europe.
However, much of these cultural nuances were destroyed in the European colonisation of the continent. Between 1492 and 1900, it is estimated some 12 million indigenous people were killed across the states, in what is simultaneously the most devastating and most forgotten genocide in human history. In one of the most famous massacres, the Battle at Wounded Knee saw some 300 Lakota tribesmen killed by the US army. Chief Oglala Lakota said of it ‘I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch’ in one heart-breaking testimony.
But what of the relevance to our modern life? Why are these atrocities so intrinsic to our current climate? Alongside the obvious respect which we ought to pay to those murdered, another answer lay in the fact this racism is not over; it still reigns prevalent with our neighbours across the pond in an unspoken civil war we, the British, began. Flint, Michigan, a safe space for Native tribes, has now been without clean water since 2012, when cost cutting in the region dictated a switch in water supplier to an unsafe plant. It could be argued that this is a race issue; it is no coincidence that a country which has treated its natives in such a horrific way continued to target them for dangerous budget cuts over WASP neighbourhoods. Therefore, if we can seek to educate people on our part in the destruction of many ancient civilisations and tribes, we can seek empathy with these current situations, and bring radical change about to those who need it most. Ultimately, this can only benefit our society.
Aboriginal and Māori culture is an ever changing landscape; a ‘discontinuous process in which culture and tradition are continually made and remade’. As with many ancient civilisations, Aboriginal belief patterns centred around the spiritual. ‘For the Australian Aborigines each day is a celebration of their Dreamtime beliefs’, which are a series of religious and spiritual thoughts. But much of this rich culture was erased with the brutal tide of colonisation, as before. More than 250,000 Aborigines were killed in the initial colonisation through the introduction of new diseases to the land, and by the end of the tirade less than 60,000 Aborigines were left, meaning less than 4% of the modern population in Australia is indigenous people. Most jarringly, and a core reason why this history needs to be taught in school, is the sheer volume of modern pupils who know nothing about this. In my own survey, using random sampling amongst my peers, I found less than half were even aware of the effects of disease on colonised lands. If we can give people a basic knowledge of our past across the world, we could strive to make a more empathetic generation to current world issues, such as the refugee crisis.
In conclusion, it is of the upmost importance we being to teach in schools the effects of colonisation on indigenous people so we can look to the future and act with empathy and courage on modern issues, rather than suffering ‘historical amnesia’.
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