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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

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History

So, last night, I went to see and hear Gloria Steinem speak……

……..and it was thrilling. An icon for equal rights and the feminist movement for more than forty years, she has lost none of her passion. Her wit and gracious humor and sharp insights into the last few months brought cheers, applause, tears and laughs.

It was an honor to meet her over the book signing shortly afterwards. Her warmth and down-to-earth presence averted any awkwardness I might have felt in engaging with her. I even got to make her laugh over a comment I made, referring to my Ancient Greek comedy.

It was an evening that took root a few weeks ago, when I saw the event listed and it sparked my interest. It was enlightening, encouraging and hopeful. I ran into people that I knew and met others, of whom I hope to get to know better.

In the last few months, I’ve felt like history had been doubling back on itself, repeating the same patterns and events with new names and different faces. From the Dakota Access Pipeline to the attempt to undo civil rights for women and people of color, it is clear to me that we, as Americans, do not remember our history. As an amateur historian, it’s frustrating and surreal and makes me more determined than ever to keep learning history.

We can’t change the past. Going backwards gets us nowhere. As frightening and uncertain as the future is, we have to keep moving forward. If we remember the lessons of the past, we can affect and alter the future.

The goal is for the benefit of everyone, not a select few.

The theater marquee where I attended the lecture.
The theater marquee where I attended the lecture.

So, last fall, I took a history class…….

……about how California came to be a part of the United States. I signed up for it in part to improve my general GPA in order to pursue a Master’s degree. I also love history and I want to incorporate what I learn to improve and to enrich the settings of my fiction writing.

Using The Elusive Eden by Bullough and Orsi, the course traced the ‘discovery’ of the region until the latter decade of the 20th century. We covered a lot of material, ranging from the encounters and conflicts between the First Americans and the Spanish and European explorers of the 16th/17th centuries to the creation of the Spanish missions. We read about the Gold Rush and the Civil War, about the Prohibition era to the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. There was so much history (and at the same time, not enough), that I’m breaking this up into more than one post.

You know that saying, and I may be paraphrasing a little, “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it”? Every week, I was reading my text book about events that happened three hundred, fifty, twenty years ago. On the news, it was playing out all over again. The players were the same, the conflict was the same, but the year was different.

What I learned about California as a republic prior to its acceptance into the United States reflects the growth and change of America as a whole. Like the state itself, the history is vast and sweeping, detailed and epic. Because of that, I will be writing about California’s history over multiple posts.

Through the prism of California, I saw how America evolved, set itself back and emerged anew, only to start the cycle all over again.

It was a surreal five months, to say the least. And it hasn’t ended.

My text book.
My text book.

So, I had written something for my history class……

……and it turned out that I had misunderstood the purpose of the theme I had chosen. It’s a good piece, however, so I’m sharing it here:

In the fictional future as described by Star Trek, there’s a rule about first contact that our intrepid heroes have to follow and abide by, with no exception. Called the Prime Directive, it is defined this way: no interference by Starfleet or any member of the Federation upon cultures that are thriving, but not yet technologically advanced or aware of life beyond their world.

Members of the Federation/Starfleet are forbidden to interfere and impose their beliefs, way of life or views on said cultures. Regardless of how technologically advanced the culture might be, First Contact with the Federation does not occur until the alien culture has proven that they are capable of interstellar travel.

Granted, this is from a TV show about an ideal future, but many of the fictional characters that inhabit the show are human. They were either born on Earth or on a space station or starship, but they are connected to our very real history. This kept coming to mind while reading the assigned chapters and handouts regarding the first contacts between the Native Californians, the Europeans and the Spaniards.

Looking at that part of our past from the 21st century, we (hopefully) can see where things went wrong for everyone in those disastrous first contacts. The Europeans and Spaniards viewed the Native Californians as little more than backwards children at best that needed to be corrected or primitive apes at worst to be dominated and controlled. This is demonstrated quite clearly by the capture and forced conversion of the Natives by the missions.

Neither side recognized that the Natives had an established way of life and culture that benefited their peoples and the land. The Natives lived in harmony with their environment to the best of their ability, taking care to neither over-populate nor over-harvest the land. Being human beings, they also had conflict among themselves and other tribes. Depending on the standards one used to judge them by, they were either very sophisticated or very primitive people.

The impact of first contact between the Natives and the explorers seemed to depend on who was involved and whether the process was peaceful and mutually beneficial. Such encounters were passed along to other tribes and down to the younger generations, creating a long memory. This would affect future contacts, because not all explorers had anyone’s best interests at heart other than their own. If greeted openly, there was an opportunity to abuse that trust, thus souring the tribe of being receptive to those who wouldn’t.

Treaties and promises made between the Europeans/Spaniards were more often than not broken when the newcomers saw the wealth offered by the land. Treaties were broken when gold was discovered in the Black Hills and, as I write this, the Standing Rock Sioux are fighting to protect their only source of clean water against an oil company.

There is a reprieve, enforced by the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Army, calling on the Dakota Access Pipeline to “voluntarily pause all construction”. This came nearly a week after the oil company’s bulldozers destroyed sacred sites. But it is not a full-stop to that project.

Star Trek, according to Gene Roddenberry in 1991, was “an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.” Because, he added, “If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.

Have we learned those lessons? I don’t know. According to the fictional future of Star Trek, we as a collective whole – meaning, the entire world, all countries, no exceptions – do learn those lessons and achieve that ideal at some point.

Will we learn from the past? I think so. Over two hundred tribes and other groups are currently in North Dakota, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. That’s amazing and hopeful.

Can we change? Again, I don’t know. My feeling is that it’s a personal choice to be open to the lesson, learn from it and change oneself. All one can do is share one’s own experiences.

Anything beyond that is control.

Recommended:

The Elusive Eden
Star Trek: The Original Series
Trail of Tears
Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline petition

 

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