It is amazing to me the things that I don’t know as an American, that I feel I should. This has never been brought home to me more than recently. Two events were recently brought to my attention that I never knew, and that I’m fairly certain were never in any of the history books I ever read in school, even on days when I wasn’t daydreaming, doodling, or staring at the crush-of-the-day…
One event was brought up at a party by a Vietnamese-American friend who recently moved to Ireland. She regaled us with things she saw on a recent trip to one of the Irish cities in which they had constructed a commemorative monument to the Native American tribes who sent life-saving shipments of supplies overseas during the potato famine.
Huh? Let me repeat that. One or a few Native American tribes, the Choctaw in particular, saved up what is estimated at $710, what was then a small fortune, despite their own troubles, and sent it to the struggling Irish nation. I know that many of the Irish know of this event since a monument was constructed to the Choctaw. But I wonder how many American Irish, especially those who are third or fourth generation here know about that contribution to their forbears. Or how many Americans in general know of this. I certainly didn’t. The only thing I remember learning about Indians in school was events like the Trail of Tears and other battles, told in general terms. There was seldom anything personal, cultural, or definitively positive taught. Knowing things like this change everything, or should. What a tremendous act of generosity and humanity, that has been completely lost on most of us. They never did it for attention, and probably knew that such an act would never reach the consciousness of most Americans considering the political climate of the time toward them from the American government and settlers. That makes it all the more remarkable.
In addition to this, I learned that the Ottoman Empire under Islamic (yes Muslim) Sultan Abdulmecid offered 10,000 pounds of aid to the Irish. Ten thousand pounds. That is a staggering amount of money for the time. But the Queen asked the sultan to reduce it to 1,000 pounds so as not to give more than the British Crown, which was giving 1,000 pounds themselves. He agreed but sent three ships of food to Ireland in addition, secretly in defiance of the Crown. The Crown found out and tried to block the ships, but they successfully landed in Drogheda Harbor. What happened to the food after that I don’t know. But they sent it. This is something I also, as a citizen of a major world power, hadn’t known about a major world event. The sultan sent the ships in secret, against the wishes of a major ally, so it was unlikely to be motivated by political gain, but more in the interests of real humanitarian concerns.
The second event, I learned about this weekend, at an event hosted by a new non-for-profit organization beginning within the Vietnamese community in Colorado, called the Big Heart Organization. Their mission is to pull together the many organizations within the Vietnamese community to serve on any issue of concern, whether heart disease, smoking cessation, emergency preparedness, refugee aid, etc. At my table was a leader of one of the Hmong clans. I never knew much about the Hmong culture. Only that they came from the hilly regions around Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. I knew that they had their own language, and they were clan-based. I knew that they sometimes used methods of healing such as coining, rubbing heated coins along chi points of the spine to alleviate certain symptoms of illness. I also knew, from past anthropology studies, that this practice had been painfully misinterpreted by some social workers as signs of domestic violence, since it could occasionally cause bruising.
What I never knew, that I think every American should know, was the reason so many Hmong came here, and the meaning of some of the jewelry worn. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong clans were the ones who provided passage to our soldiers through Cambodia and other hostile areas, when no one else would. They assisted the U.S. in extremely dangerous situations, because they believed in the cause our soldiers were fighting for. And when the war was over, and our soldiers left, the Hmong remained to face the wrath of the governments who disagreed with the U.S. Because even though most Americans, and even many soldiers didn’t realize or or even know of the aid that was given to them, or at least from whom, the governments and despots in the countries these allies lived in, did. The Hmong were captured, tortured, expelled from their homes, murdered for political revenge. So they fled, to China, here, other surrounding countries. In China, they have been persecuted as another minority that the Han want to assimilate. So they have been forbidden from speaking their language and practicing their culture. When they were imprisoned, they were forced to wear heavy collars to differentiate them as prisoners separate from the Chinese. And the silver torque that they often wear commemorates the freedom they won from this imprisonment, as they practice their culture in a new land, openly or in secret. As a Jew, remembering the practices of the marranos of Spain, following the Inquisition, who would close up all of their windows and doors, go into their basements and light two candles on a Friday night without knowing why they did such things, I well understood the symbolism.
As for their flight to and reception by the U.S., I think most Americans don’t, certainly I didn’t, appreciate them as more than just one more group of immigrants in ongoing waves of immigrants. I have no problem with immigration or folks coming over. I am a third generation Ashkenazic Jew…married to an Ojibway. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to have a problem with any other group of people coming here for any reason. I am the child of immigrants, and even a hundred years from now, my people will still be immigrants in a land that wasn’t mine, if you want to get nit-picky about the definition of immigrant. We’ll go from new-comers to old-comers…But the point is that the current climate in the U.S. has become fairly hostile toward immigrants, presenting them as clingers-on and nuisances to give charity to and to be tolerated, or who ‘drag America down’ (I have actually seen that nasty comment). But very few people make the realization that many of the people we view in this manner have already paid their dues as Americans, personally, and we never know it, let alone acknowledge their contribution in any way.
This is what makes history as taught in schools frustrating to me. We see the sanitized, general version of things, many events which are summarized to the point of uselessness. I’m not just making excuses for my lackadaisical approach to my high school history studies, though I am the first to admit that I wasn’t a good history student. But what I want to know when I learn history are these little tidbits and how they changed us, as a nation, as a world. And I think kids today do too. It is these stories which transform our general characterizations of different ethnicities we encounter into real people and connected members of the human race.