She didn’t know that her little green pot would come to me, that it would become a receptacle for a handful of Irish coins and three tiny packets of jawbreakers.
Writers are potters. We pinch and pull stories into existence. We research why and how and wherefore. We invent people and events. We comb and winnow. We put our own lives into our stories, which makes our stories true…ish. In a 2007 TED talk, Isabel Allende quotes a Jewish saying:
Question: What is truer than truth? Answer: The story.
Outside the honesty of story, however, truth is relative, evident in the political posturing our nation has been mired in for at least the last ten years. A “truth” for a Democrat is not the same as a “truth” for a Republican. One wonders if there is a truth that is true for all. Can we all concur that the sky is blue? Can we unanimously affirm that water is wet?
Maybe we can agree that "history is written by the winners"—although admitting that requires us to admit that we are flawed, because winners don’t always tell the whole truth. Winners decide what to include and what to leave out in the story of their win. They aren't likely to reveal the ugly things they might have done to come out on top.
“History is written by the winners” is a theme embedded in Neither Wolf Nor Dog, a film adapted from the novel of the same name by Kent Nerburn. The story follows a white author who is drawn into contemporary Native American life in the sparse lands of the Dakotas. It features conversations with a Lakota elder on the tragedies experienced by his people and the lessons of his life. Filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson shares truths about Native American life that go beyond the two-dimensional portrayal of Indians that most whites have been raised with. At one point, the elder, Dan (played by 95-year-old Dave Bald Eagle) says, “When white people won, it was a victory. When we [Native Americans] won, it was a massacre. When they fought for freedom, it was a revolution. When we fought for freedom, it was an uprising.”
Victory or massacre? Revolution or Uprising? Depends who’s telling the story.
Without a doubt, whites brought disaster to indigenous peoples in the Americas. My mom was a history teacher, so I learned pretty young about America’s deliberate extermination of Native American people and cultures. I know that for decades the media deliberately portrayed Indians in a negative way to validate what whites had done and were doing. Then and now, when I asked why this was done to Native Americans (a question elder Dan also asks), the answer I got was generally a variation of, “Yes, it was terrible. But there’s nothing we can do about it now,” which isn’t a why, it’s an after-the-fact defense of the indefensible, probably what they’ll say when the last iceberg melts and coastal cities all over the world disappear under twenty feet of water. But I digress.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog shares a truth that needs telling, but my mind kept snagging on the film’s bias. I know viewers are supposed to mourn what has been lost/stolen, and I do. I've read Louise Erdrich, Tommy Orange, Cherie Dimaline, others. One of my favorite Star Trek episodes when I was a kid was "The Paradise Syndrome," wherein an amnesiac Captain Kirk finds happiness for the first time in his life with people modeled after Native Americans. As a kid who was worried about pollution, I loved that Kirk found a home with people who revered the earth. As a girl crushing on boys, I loved that Kirk found true love with the kind of warm, funny, nurturing woman I hoped I might become one day.
Star Trek's producer, Gene Roddenberry, said of this episode, "Our story here is whether a Herman Melville theme, i.e., modern man finding his 'Tahiti,' that natural and simple and happy and untroubled life all of us dream about some day finding—and having found it and having held it in his hand, he learns he's incapable of closing his hand around it and keeping it because all of us are innocent prisoners of our own time and place." An opposing view of the story, according to Daniel Bernardi of San Francisco State University in "Star Trek of the 1960s: Liberal-Humanism and the Production of Race," is that this Star Trek episode leans unacceptably on the romanticized "noble savage stereotype."
Stereotype? Unattainable dream? Can both be true?
Of course. A culture can't be put on a plate, garnished with parsley, and served up with a note that says, "this is IT." There are nuances. If you grow up in a culture, you understand it better than outsiders, yet there are aspects of every culture that don't make sense even to people on the inside. The point is, no account of a culture can be accepted as the pure, unvarnished truth since it is fallible human beings who chose the words/pictures/stories that convey that culture. In addition, no culture in the world is or was or ever has been all good or all bad.
Some indigenous tribes in the Americas tortured captives to death, but other tribes adopted captives who didn’t want to return to white culture when they had the chance (Mary Jemison, who will appear in the fourth installment of the JEM series, is one of them). Some Christian churches in Europe provided sanctuary for fugitives, while others supported the Inquisition. Some pre-Civil War Americans in the North helped slaves escape to freedom; some pre-Civil War Americans in the South punished recaptured slaves with maiming and death. It’s not the color of people’s skin that makes them just or unjust, it’s what they have learned. It’s the content of their character. It's fear. People who oppress others are afraid, afraid to learn anything new lest they learn they're not superior after all, afraid to open their hearts to The Other even though people who let others in are richer for it.
The idea that history is written by the winners isn’t new and isn’t only a matter of race. It’s conveyed in Frederich Schiller’s play, Mary Stuart, about the last days of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary is imprisoned in England, supposedly for the murder of her husband but actually because she claims a greater right to the throne of England than its possessor, Queen Elizabeth the First. (The 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots tells this story.) When Elizabeth makes the decision to execute Mary, she is careful to establish plausible deniability so she can be the Last Queen Standing with minimal fuss. Elizabeth’s historians side with her, of course, which is why, for centuries, Elizabeth has been remembered as a legendary monarch while Mary Stuart has been remembered as a plotter and something of a tart.
At a less imperial level, a child who has a conflict in school and tells his parent it’s his teacher’s fault has learned to portray himself as a victim. When the parent speeds to school to savage the educator, he or she often learns that the darling snowflake told only part of the truth to show himself in a better light:
Nobody owns all the truth there is, and nobody can change a day once it’s on the shelf. We can only throw a fresh lump on the wheel and try to make tomorrow more balanced and more true than today.