Native Wikipedians Fight Back against Erasure of Indigenous HistoryRoundup
tags: historiography, Internet, Wikipedia, Native American history, public history
Kyle Keeler is a settler-descended Ph.D. candidate in environmental sciences, studies, and policy/literature at the University of Oregon. He is currently working on a co-authored book, Colonial Conservation: Native Resistance to Theft in U.S. Environmental Policy, and a co-edited collection, Unsettled Environments: Settler Colonialism, Environmental Destruction, Environmental Humanities, both for University of Nebraska Press.
A behind-the-scenes battle raged at Wikipedia last fall. The conflict stretched over three months and three separate pages, tallying more than 40,000 words. It began in August, when editor FinnV3 went to the “talk” page (where revisions are discussed by editors) for Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. FinnV3 claimed that Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act was ethnic cleansing and that the page needed to reflect that reality, rather than calling Jackson’s policy “forced removal.” According to FinnV3, the phrase forced removal presented a sanitized, unrepresentative view of history that did not match scholarship. Other users disagreed. Display name 99, who has added the second most information to the page (20,085 characters—in addition to writing nearly half of U.S. President John Adams’ page), argued that Jackson “wanted the Indians to be treated well” and that although his decision to remove Native peoples was “tragic,” it was “necessary.” After months of back and forth, “ethnic cleansing” was added to the article in October.
But related debates on Jackson’s talk page continue, and the issues FinnV3 raised are rampant across U.S. history pages on Wikipedia. Racist comments by influential U.S. history editors appear on talk pages, scholarship is misrepresented, and Native voices are erased. These issues are part and parcel of this country’s long history of settler colonial erasure, which is alive and well on Wikipedia and throughout digital spaces. Generally, U.S. history pages follow one strict interpretation of history written in the 1960s and ’70s, and most editors treat these matters as settled. When information that contradicts these histories is added, some editors claim that new additions constitute “presentism,” or “cancel culture.” In reality, understandings of history are constantly changing based on archival discoveries, new methodologies, and voices that had previously been silenced.
How this process plays out on Wikipedia is especially important: On average, more than 4,000 people visit Andrew Jackson’s page a day, and more than 6,000 take a look at Thomas Jefferson’s. Wikipedia is increasingly viewed as a legitimate source of information, and it can affect legislative and judicial decisions. The latter is crucial right now, given very real attacks on Native American sovereignty in U.S. courts.
Disregard and outright contempt for Native American peoples, history, and knowledge on Wikipedia, in the courts, and in the media is not new. Erasing Native existence was common practice in 19th- and 20th-century New England newspapers, for example. And the United States and Canada have been trying to legislate Native peoples out of existence since the outset of colonization. As the historian Patrick Wolfe explained, “Settler colonialism destroys to replace,” or attempts to eliminate Indigenous peoples so that colonists and their society, history, and cultures can be built in their place.
This is precisely what Cherokee Chief John Ross argued in the 1830s: that Jackson’s goal was to eliminate Native Americans through genocidal forced removal. Nearly 200 years later, some editors still refuse to accept Jackson’s Removal Policy as genocide, and thus continue erasing Native histories and enacting settler colonial violence. This runs counter to the many scholars who call the policy genocide, and whose work is inaccurately described on Jackson’s page: “Genocide” has been completely removed, as has a citation from Colville scholar Dina Gilio-Whitaker, because according to editors, her work is not a “strong citation.” In place of genocide, the page now incorrectly paraphrases historian Jeff Ostler, stating that the Indian Removal Act’s “role in the long-term destruction of Native American societies and their cultures continues to be debated.” But in his book Surviving Genocide, Ostler makes clear the connections between Jackson’s Removal Act and the peoples it affected, concluding, “In its outcome and in the means used to gain compliance, the policy had genocidal dimensions.” Similarly, many scholars describe the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which Jackson led, as a massacre. But Wikipedia characterizes it differently. One prominent U.S. history editor—who is responsible for much of the pages for Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson—dismissed as “opinion pieces” scholarly articles that referred to the battle as a massacre. Labeling scholarship as such allows editors to discount sources, as Wikipedia generally doesn’t allow opinion pieces unless they’re used to show an author’s beliefs or values.
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