Rewriting the rewriting of American History
For the first 108 years after the grand opening of the State Capitol, schoolchildren and other visitors to Hartford had their choice of exterior Capitol statuary to gawk at and express their admiration for as they strolled around the four compass points outside the building.
As long as your taste in important, historical Connecticut citizens ran toward adult, white Christian males - newspaper editors, soldiers, ministers, English settlers, etc. - you could be satisfied. It was not until 1987 that the statue of any woman – Governor Ella Tambussi Grasso – was added to our marble pantheon.
But that's it. Apparently, over the past 100 years or so, no other woman, and no non-white person, has accomplished anything worth celebrating on the exterior of the seat of government in Connecticut. Our state history was essentially set in stone between 1895 and 1935.
I note this because the history of Connecticut, and the history of America in general, is – as the saying goes – written by the victors. And for several centuries in Connecticut and America, that means white men alone wrote American history, and decided what to include, and what to toss out, and who to immortalize in bronze or marble, and who to ignore.
But times have changed. Like allowing Native Americans, Blacks and women to vote, America is moving inexorably toward that more diverse, complete, and whole nation that our founding fathers promised when they sought to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" in the Constitution.
That change, and that history, is something to celebrate.
But there remains in America, and in Connecticut too, a troubling strain of nativism and nostalgia among those who once decided and who would like to continue to be the sole deciders of what America's history is and should be. And perhaps nowhere is this nativism and nostalgia more evident -- and to me more troubling -- than in our treatment and understanding of Native Americans.
I will skip over for the time being a debate about the inclusion of the John Mason statue in the marble pantheon on the façade of our State Capitol. I will bypass for now a debate about the comic-book like nature of the first Thanksgiving stories taught in elementary schools over the past century. I will omit any discussion of the nearly 30-year-old state compacts with our Native American tribes to engage in gaming on their sovereign reservations.
But those issues and much more are the very point of creating a new, model curriculum for Native American studies in Connecticut's K-8th-grade classrooms beginning next year. The days of simply learning the "Three R's" in school - reading, writing and 'rithmatic – have not only long passed, but are actually a detriment to any student looking to function and succeed in a modern America. And the days of relegating Native Americans to some dull, misty corner of Connecticut history are over too, despite what any sentimental intolerance may desire.
The state Department of Education is working with Connecticut’s recognized tribal nations to create a new Native American studies model curriculum to take effect July 1, 2023 that will include the study of Native American tribes in Connecticut, as well as Northeastern woodlands tribes. Along with the arts, career and consumer education, math, science and social studies, Connecticut students will now learn about computer programming, climate change, financial literacy, Black and Puerto Rican history, Native American history, gay and lesbian studies, American veterans, and civics.
If Connecticut wants to stand frozen in the past, we can allow less than 50 percent of state residents to dictate the past and future for the rest of us: what we know, what we don’t know, what we value, and what we believe. But the history of Connecticut and America is still being written every day, and it should be learned every day, so that one day our statues will be a real reflection of the diversity and the greatness and the promise of America.
Sen. Cathy Osten represents the 19th District.