Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, and Westward Expansion

I recently finished Sarah Vowell’s book, Unfamiliar Fishes.  If you are not familiar with Vowell’s work, she is the author of a number of books on a variety of historical topics.  She writes in a very conversational tone, and makes references to modern day issues and pop culture.  As she conducts research for her books, she visits many tourist destinations and research libraries.  Often times in her books, she will pause from the historic narrative to tell a story or anecdote about a museum she visited or a person she met.  These asides all tie into the main narratives of her books, and provide a fun way to learn about a historical topic.  In some of her past books, Vowell has written about presidential assassinations and pilgrims.  Even if you are not aware of her work as an author, there is a good chance you have heard her voice.  Vowell has had a career in public radio, formerly working on Public Radio International’s This American Life, and was a voice actor in the Pixar superhero movie The IncrediblesUnfamiliar Fishes, published in 2011, is her most recent book, focusing on the arrival of New England missionaries in the Hawaiian islands.

What does this book have to do with Dickinson County, Kansas history?  Not much at all.  But while reading it, I was greatly reminded of the hardships of the Kansas Plains Indian tribes in the late nineteenth century.  In her book, Vowell shows how upon their arrival in Hawaii, New England missionaries not only taught natives about the God of the Christian Bible, but also implemented an entirely different way of life for the Hawaiians.  The Hawaiians were introduced to new styles of clothing, home construction, and a plethora of other concepts and ideas.  Native American tribes living on the plains of the Midwest found themselves in a similar situation.  Boarding schools sprang up across the Midwest at the turn of the twentieth century, of which many Native American children were forced to attend.  This is not necessarily a topic I discuss with young schoolchildren as they visit the Heritage Center, but we do talk about how the lives of Plains Native Americans drastically changed as pioneers moved west.  One of the best ways to present this idea to kids is to talk about buffalo, or American Bison.  As kids, most of us are taught that Plains Indians used every part of the buffalo.  This is an idea that is ingrained into our heads at a young age.  As kids visit the museum, we talk about how many tribes were dependent on the buffalo for many aspects of their lives.  I then remind the kids that as explorers and pioneers traveled west, buffalo hides became worth a lot of money.  It has been estimated that over four million buffalo were killed from 1872 to 1874.  Some historians even place this figure upwards of seven million.  Suffice it to say, this greatly changed the way of life for many Native American tribes on the plains.
American history is filled with situations such as this.  After all, the United States is a melting pot of different cultures, people, and ideas.  Of course, there were many positives and benefits that westward expansion and growth caused, but we must never forget the people that were hurt by this progress.

To learn more about Sarah Vowell and her work, visit here.

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