Question the myths that shape America

And remember that what your teachers told you is likely wrong.


In this issue of High Country News, we examine the myths of the American West — specifically California. Merriam-Webster defines the word “myth” as a “traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” School textbooks are often as rich a source of American mythology as they are of Greek or Roman tales. I’m not talking about the stories of Proteus or the Golden Fleece. I mean the American creation myth: the story of settlement made possible by men like Columbus and Cortés, who violently seeded a nation where institutions like the Cleveland Indians and Covington Catholic High School thrive.

I am interested in the United States’ creation stories, the blueprints that allow citizens to forget or ignore the thousands of years of history that existed before the word “America” even existed. The countless languages, cultures and communities that flourished in the Western Hemisphere, the stories that were told, the relationships, the people, their lives — these comprise a whole world that many contemporary readers are unlikely to understand in any tangible way — save for a passage from a half-remembered school textbook.

In this spirit, we bring you Allison Herrera’s cover story, “California History, Retold,” a fascinating journey into the state’s school curriculum. From the establishment of the Spanish Catholic missions in the 18th century to 1960s school-board politics and back again, Herrera invites readers to draw a line from Spain’s first brutal incursions in California to the modern lawmakers unable to change an educational system that most people agree is broken. But even this doesn’t quite do justice to Herrera’s story; it unsettles the American West — exposing its myths, its roots, its violence.

Tristan Ahtone, tribal affairs editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Consider another article in this issue, an investigation by Kalen Goodluck into an ugly modern manifestation of North American mythologies. Searching through news articles, federal reports and court documents, Goodluck found 52 incidents of racial harassment directed at Native American athletes, coaches and fans from 2008 to 2018. The U.S. has seen a rise in hate crimes in the last three years, but as Goodluck reveals, bigotry has been a constant in Indian Country.

Together, these stories speak to the myths that govern American politics, policies and behaviors, the systems in place that make anti-Indigenous sentiments acceptable, even enjoyable, to some. Both stories speak to justice and accountability — and the idea that readers can, with the right tools, begin to think and act critically when faced with institutional racism, whether it appears in sports, or education, or anywhere. No doubt you have seen inequities in textbooks or at football games. But identifying them is only part of our responsibility. We must also ask why they exist in the first place.

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