The aura of Indian names—Massachusetts, Monangahela, Arapahoe County, Mississippi, Minnesota—hangs over America, even after the indigenous people are often gone. A Founding Amnesia has long erased the stories of Native Americans in history texts and the media. From silent movies until the ’60s, “cowboys and Indians”—John Wayne as a hero, “Apache blood” as a sign of “savagery”—were fixtures and fixations of Hollywood films, the last bastion of the ugly, 19th century military watchword Manifest Destiny.
Thanks to the resistance of the American Indian Movement, however, the record has been corrected, at least in part, to reflect the actual stories of white America’s encounters with native people: tales of expropriation, admirable resistance, and genocide from coast to coast. Nonetheless, the Smithsonian still has a collection of 20,000 indigenous skulls, cut off in massacres, the flesh boiled down. Many had initially been sent to Dr. Samuel George Morten to concoct 19th century anthropometry, a pseudo-science of “racial” measurements alleging “Anglo-Saxon” superiority. But in 1990, Congress at last passed NAGPRA, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. Slowly, slowly, body parts are being returned to indigenous communities for burial.
The U.S. is not alone, however, in whitewashing its encounters with Native Americans. Most remarkably, perhaps, the ethnic cleansing of the “Wild West” has long been an exotic theme in Germany for more than a century thanks largely to the novels of a very strange man named Karl May—which were beloved by none other than Hitler.