I arrived in Vienna last week for another journalism fellowship (thank you, ICFJ!) — this one will have me at the Wiener Zeitung (literally the Vienna Newspaper) until the end of October. They asked me to blog about the city, through an American’s eyes. So here we go.
Other than a few visits to Istanbul, this is my first experience in Europe. Others had told me that one of the most striking things for American tourists is just how much history surrounds European daily life. And that’s certainly true. The Ringstraße that surrounds Vienna’s core is a major street that replaced the old city walls, dating back to the 13th century. The city was originally a Roman settlement, and traces of that past are still visible as you can see in my photo above.
A recent discussion on Reddit hit on this point. A few choice snippets:
• I remember visiting a pub in England, and they had a little blurb about the history of the place. I remember the shock of realizing I was in a pub that was older than my whole damn country. (I’m from the US)
• An American tourist was once looking at the Oxford university library. He thought it was amazing and asked a man who worked there, “Excuse me, is this building pre-war?” The man replied “Sir, this building is pre-America.”
But there’s a problem here. If you are aware of it or not, America has a history that pre-dates the Declaration of Independence. And in Minnesota, it’s not as if our history started when Europeans reached it via Lake Superior in the 1650s (Or, if you believe the Kensington Runestone, when Norse explorers visited in the 14th century). As the state of Minnesota’s Indian Affairs website puts it: “Minnesota, the place where the water reflects the sky, is the place of Dakota origin. The Dakota have thrived in this area since time immemorial.”
Dakota have been in Minnesota the longest, but they are of course not the only tribe. So why don’t we commemorate and celebrate our state’s first inhabitants the same way Europeans do? Part of the reason, argues a blogger on indigenous issues from northeastern Wisconsin, is that we aren’t taught North American history the same way we learn European history in school.
If your textbook of North American history goes into the details of the Middle Ages, the Reformation and Renaissance, the Silk Road, and European monarchies, and you don’t include equal description of the Mississippian coalescence and dispersal, Haudenosaunee-Algonquian relations, the Woodlands, trans-plains, and southwestern trade systems, the Mexica conquests and the Fifth Sun ideology with explicit naming of various places and leaders, then your textbook is inadequate.
Why do you include those “pre-contact” European things? Because they explain the motivations and reasons for what Europeans did. But people largely imagine North America as this timeless place and don’t recognize that pre-contact American history had just as much of an effect on post-contact history because it provides explanations of the motivations and reasonings behind indigenous peoples’ actions.
But of course, that would require people to recognize that indigenous people had their own histories and agendas and agency that affected the course of history rather than making them a passive recipient of European historical force.
That said, there are Indian historical sites across the state. At Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, there’s a mask where people can look “through the eyes” of Chief Little Crow. (I must admit though, I’ve been to that park many times and have never seen it.) Up the North Shore in Grand Portage there’s the Ojibwe heritage center.
But I’d argue that visitors to these sites who lack historical knowledge aren’t able to make connections from the past to themselves; they can’t appreciate what they are seeing. I know I can’t. Which is a pity, because that would go a long way toward realizing that our history runs just as deep as Europe’s.
This post also appears on my An American in Vienna blog for the Wiener Zeitung.