What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Encounters

Was Wounded Knee a Battle for Religious Freedom?

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

Sioux tribespeople taking part in the Ghost Dance, 1890, drawn by Frederic Remington based on sketches from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

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

"Marquis de Lafayette" engine panel painting, Lafayette Hose Company of Philadelphia. Ca 1830-1849. Image courtesy of Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History.

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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The Civil War General Whose Godly “Mission” Went Astray

Oliver Otis "Uh Oh" Howard Was a Crusader for Ex-Slaves and a Scourge of Native Americans

Caricature from Puck showing Gen. Oliver Otis Howard chasing an Indian around a rock; Aug. 7, 1878. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By Daniel Sharfstein
May 12, 2017

When God first visited him in 1857, Oliver Otis Howard was a lonely army lieutenant battling clouds of mosquitoes in a backwater posting that he described as a “field for self-denial”: Tampa, Florida. Howard had spent his life swimming against powerful tides. Ten when his father died, he had to leave his family in Leeds, Maine, and move in with relatives. Through constant study, he made it to Bowdoin College at age 16, graduating near the top of his class …

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When the President’s Best and Brightest Were Also the Richest

The Practice of Tapping the Moneyed Elite Began with WWI—and Was Surprisingly Scandal-Free

Bernard Baruch, a financier and speculator known in his day as “the lone wolf of Wall Street,” was one of the first so-called “dollar-a-year men” appointed by President Woodrow Wilson. Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

By Charles Rappleye
February 10, 2017

From our earliest days we Americans have embraced leaders from among the ranks of the nation’s moneyed elite. Voters set the tone when they chose George Washington, the wealthiest man on the continent at the time, as the first president.

But that choice was accompanied by a healthy skepticism of the role of money in the halls of government. As the years went by, recurrent scandals prompted rounds of reform, fostering an intricate system of rules to promote ethical conduct.

The result …

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Why Groundhog Day Now Elevates Science Over Superstition

For a UCLA Biologist, Celebrating the Lowly Marmot Could Shed Light on Global Warming

A family of yellow-bellied marmots—close relatives of the groundhog—at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Crested Butte, Colorado. Courtesy of Ben Blonder.

By Daniel T. Blumstein
January 31, 2017

I am a scientist who loves Groundhog Day, that least scientific of holidays. Every February, as Punxsutawney Phil shakes the dust off his coat, emerges from his burrow, glances at his shadow (or not) and allegedly prognosticates winter’s end, I gather a group of professors, graduate students, and other assorted science geeks at my UCLA lab to nibble, drink, schmooze, and revel in ground-hoggery in all its magnificent splendor.

I study the behavior, ecology, and evolution of groundhogs and the …

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A Jewish Photographer’s Nearly Forgotten ‘Collaboration’ with Cheyenne Indians on the Santa Fe Trail

The Sole Surviving Image of the Perilous Journey Provides a Crucial Bridge to History

The only surviving daguerreotype from Solomon Nunes Carvalho’s journey West in 1853 depicts a view of the Cheyenne Village at Big Timbers. A pair of figures stand to the left; drying hides hang on the right. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Steve Rivo
January 27, 2017

On a cold day in late November 1853, in a place called Big Timbers, in what is today southeastern Colorado, a Jewish photographer named Solomon Nunes Carvalho hoisted his ten-pound daguerreotype camera onto a tripod and aimed his lens at a pair of Cheyenne Indians. At first glance, the resulting image, scratched and faded from years of neglect, seems unremarkable. But in fact it is probably the oldest existing photograph of Native Americans taken on location in the western United …

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In the Wake of Pearl Harbor, a Secret Intel Report Could’ve Stopped the Internment Camps

The Tale of a Daring Night Raid That Vindicated Japanese Americans

A recreation of a typical living space inside internment barracks for a Japanese American family at Tule Lake in California during World War II. Photo courtesy of Andrea Pitzer.

By Andrea Pitzer
January 18, 2017

In spring 1941, months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a team led by U.S. Naval Intelligence officer Kenneth Ringle broke into the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles.

One man stayed downstairs to guard the elevator while the rest snuck upstairs using skeleton keys to make their way to the back rooms. They brought along a safecracker—a convicted felon sprung for one night to help them—as well as local policemen and FBI agents, who set up patrols outside during the …

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Inaugurations Are More Than a Hail to the (New) Chief

How This Enduring Ritual Highlights the Strengths—and Tensions—that Define the American Presidency

Vice President Joe Biden, left, President Barack Obama, and former President George W. Bush, right, sing the national anthem at the end of the swearing-in ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2009. Photo by Ron Edmonds/Associated Press.

By Richard M. Skinner
January 10, 2017

On Jan. 20, tens of millions of people will watch the pomp and spectacle of a uniquely American tradition. The hushed politicos in the pews of prayer service, the gleaming marching band brass on parade, the holy men and women delivering solemn invocations, the tuxes and gowns dancing their way through evening balls. And, of course, the next president of the United States of America, right hand up, left hand on the Bible, being sworn in for the highest office …

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The American Revolution Story Has a Hole the Size of Spain

While the Marquis de LaFayette Gets a Share of the Glory, Names Like Gardoqui and Gálvez Are All But Forgotten

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By Larrie D. Ferreiro
November 29, 2016

Americans like to think of our nation as exceptional in nature, a dramatic break from all that came before it. Being exceptional, it’s inconvenient to acknowledge that two European powers provided invaluable assistance in our struggle for independence from Britain. So we usually don’t. The American origin story thus has scrappy colonists fighting the British alone, with little outside help except for France’s Lafayette, and a cameo by General Rochambeau at the very end. But Americans could have never won …

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American Culture’s Unlikely Debt to a British Scientist

A Fortuitous Influx of Cash Launched the Smithsonian’s Earliest Art Collection

lead-image-courtesy-of-the-smithsonian

By Helena E. Wright
November 16, 2016

In 1835, through an unlikely turn of events, the young United States became the beneficiary of the estate of one James Smithson, a British scientist of considerable means who had never set foot on American soil. The gift of $500,000 (about $12 million today) carried the stipulation that it be used to create an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

How amazing—and baffling—this windfall must have seemed! The responsibility was tremendous, in terms of the amount, the perception, …

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