What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Encounters

How White Settlers Buried the Truth About the Midwest’s Mysterious Mounds

Pioneers and Early Archeologists Preferred to Credit Distant Civilizations, Not Native Americans, With Building These Monumental Cities

By Sarah E. Baires
February 22, 2018

Around 1100 or 1200 A.D., the largest city north of Mexico was Cahokia, sitting in what is now southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Built around 1050 A.D. and occupied through 1400 A.D., Cahokia had a peak population of between 25,000 and 50,000 people. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cahokia was composed of three boroughs (Cahokia, East St. Louis, and St. Louis) connected to each other via waterways and walking trails that extended across the Mississippi …

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The Missionary Children Who Taught Empathy to Americans

Raised Abroad, John Hersey, Pearl Buck, and Others Brought Back a Faith in Open-Mindedness

By David A. Hollinger
January 29, 2018

Published in 1946, John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which described the impact of the atomic bomb on residents of the city, is an extraordinary book. It not only described the bomb’s effects, it enabled Americans to see the Japanese people as fully human, even in the immediate wake of a war in which the Japanese had been demonized as a race.

Hersey’s perspective had roots in his childhood in China, where his parents were American missionaries. His capacity for empathic identification with …

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How the Forced Removal of the Southeast’s Indians Turned Native Lands into Slave Plantations

"Alabama Fever" Triggered a Takeover by Cotton Planters of America's Oldest Indigenous Region

By Christina Snyder
January 2, 2018

The Old South wasn’t really that old. Plantations appeared in many areas of the Deep South only a few decades before the Civil War.

Before that, the South was Indian country.

The South’s long and rich Indigenous history is unknown to many Americans. But once you look, the signs are everywhere: in Native place names (Alabama, Arkansas, Chattahoochee, Tallahassee, Tennessee); in hundreds of earthen mounds—some half-destroyed, others still towering; and in the Native communities that remain in or near their homelands.

Native …

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What Calvin Coolidge Didn’t Understand About Native Americans

Though He Was Adopted by the Lakota Nation, He Clung to a Paternalistic Mindset

By Cécile R. Ganteaume
November 30, 2017

During the summer of 1927, Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States, was formally adopted into the Lakota nation. The ceremonies took place in Deadwood, South Dakota, with the prominent Sicangu Lakota activist and teacher Chauncy Yellow Robe presiding. Yellow Robe’s daughter placed an eagle feather headdress, a potent symbol of Lakota culture, on Coolidge’s head. The tribe also gave Coolidge a Lakota name—Wanblí Tokáhe, or “Leading Eagle”—signifying his welcome into the Lakota nation. To the Lakota, the adoption …

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The Religious Roots of America’s Love for Camping

How a Minister's Accidental Bestseller Launched the Country's First Outdoor Craze

By Terence Young
October 12, 2017

Summer 1868 passed as an unremarkable season at Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The weather was fine, the scenery delightful, and the usual array of 200 to 300 recreational hunters and anglers passed through the small settlement on their way into the wild lands beyond. The summers of 1869 and 1870, however, were an altogether different story. The weather was more or less the same, and the scenery continued to entrance, but instead of a handful of sportsmen …

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What Riding Trains Taught Me About Americans

Rail Travel Induces a Reverie and Intimacy Among Its Diverse Passengers

By James McCommons
August 17, 2017

Amos, a one-legged Amish man, was having trouble with his new prosthesis. He left the leg in his sleeping compartment and came to the diner on crutches—a hazardous ambulation on a moving train.

Because Amish do not buy health insurance nor take Medicare or Social Security, he rode The Southwest Chief from Chicago to California and went to Mexico to see a doctor. He paid cash for the leg in Tijuana.

“A van picked us up at border and took us to …

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How the Kellogg Brothers Taught America to Eat Breakfast

Informed by Their Religious Faith, the Siblings Merged Spiritual with Physical Health

By Howard Markel
August 3, 2017

The popular singer and movie star Bing Crosby once crooned, “What’s more American than corn flakes?” Virtually every American is familiar with this iconic cereal, but few know the story of the two men from Battle Creek, Michigan who created those famously crispy, golden flakes of corn back in 1895, revolutionizing the way America eats breakfast: John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother Will Keith Kellogg.

Fewer still know that among the ingredients in the Kelloggs’ secret recipe were the teachings …

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An L.A. Woman Embraces Her Ancestral New Orleans Home

How Family Reunions Revealed That My Grandparents’ Stories Are My Own

By Lynell George
July 27, 2017

Zigzagging through the crush of rush-hour commuters at L.A.’s Union Station, I’m hoping to make up for lost time. Suddenly, out of the edges of my vision, a man crosses in front of me, planting himself directly in my path. In a broad-brimmed Panama hat, cream-colored slacks and shoes to match, he’s a vision of not just another place, but another era.

“Where you from?” he asks.

I hold him in my gaze just long enough to assess the question:  …

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Was Wounded Knee a Battle for Religious Freedom?

By Clamping Down on the Indian Ghost Dance, the U.S. Government Sparked a Tragedy

By Louis S. Warren
July 6, 2017

The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 appears in many history textbooks as the “end of the Indian Wars” and a signal moment in the closing of the Western frontier. The atrocity had many causes, but its immediate one was the U.S. government’s effort to ban a religion: the Ghost Dance, a new Indian faith that had swept Western reservations over the previous year.

The history of this episode—in which the U.S. Army opened fire on a mostly unarmed village of …

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Why Has America Named So Many Places After a French Nobleman?

The Marquis de Lafayette's Name Graces More City Parks and Streets Than Perhaps Any Other Foreigner

By Laura Auricchio
June 22, 2017

If you live in the United States, you’ve probably come across a county, city, street, park, school, shop, or restaurant named for Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), the most beloved French hero of the American Revolution. In New York City, my home town, I’ve spotted three different Lafayette Avenues, one Lafayette Street, a Lafayette playground, and four public sculptures of the Marquis. Although there’s no official count, Lafayette probably has more American locations named for him than any …

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