I loved reading in the paper last week about the Michigan Historical Commission’s plans to rethink some of the state’s historical markers. The big example was the one on US-2 proclaiming that Lake Michigan, the seventh largest freshwater lake in the world, was discovered by the French explorer Jean Nicolet in 1634.
That might be true for Louis XIII in France. From his point of view, the lake was undiscovered before Nicolet saw it. But of course, that is a total joke from the point of view of the Indians who were guiding Nicolet on his journey. The Anishinaabe people – Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Algonquin – had been paddling around the lake and spearing sturgeon at the mouth of the Manistique River for centuries.
The thing is, today, descendants of those Ojibwa guides live right beside descendants of the French explorers and English pilgrims and Irish immigrants and freed slaves and Chinese students and Syrian refugees that live in America.
If you just got here in America from Lebenon, and you are just happy to be alive, you could look at that historical marker and think, “Geez, 1624 is nothing. In Baalbeck, two hours east of Beirut, there are Roman buildings from 300 BC.” If you live on the reservation at Bay Mills, you probably just shrug.
People who run things make themselves the “we.” Other people are the “other.”
Who was the first man to climb Mt. Everest? I learned in school that it was Sir Edmund Hillary, and I remember his name decades later. But I can’t remember the name of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepalese guide who was there beside Hillary, carrying some of his stuff. Two guys were the first to climb to the crest of Mr. Everest, but we learned about one of them.
We students also learned the words to the preamble to the Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Those are such lovely words. What else does a country need but justice, tranquility, safety, liberty and concern for the general welfare of the population. But at the time it was written, of course, the “We” didn’t include women or slaves.
Women, who became citizens 100 years ago, are climbing pretty well into the “we.” Before the Nov. 3 election, there were 26 women in the 100-seat Senate and 101 in the 435-seat House. Descendants of slaves have had a harder time getting into the “we.” The last legal barriers to their participation in life only fell in 1964. Kamala Harris might be the first descendant of slaves, through her Jamaican father, to reach the White House. Barack Obama’s dad was from Africa.
I am beginning to think that we might have to reject “people” as the synonym for “we,” because it just causes problems. On the other hand, “We the humans” is inclusive, covering Baptists, survivalists, Freemasons, queers, Democrats, prisoners, CEOs, and priests.
“Lake Michigan was discovered by humans at a date unknown to historians, but water began filling the glaciated basins about 14,000 years ago.”