COLUMN: Courses in state history should cover tough topics

Farm Forum

The Changi Museum in Singapore is dedicated to exposing the horrors the Singaporean people experienced under the Japanese military during World War II. When Japanese people visit this museum, they are often overcome with grief and shame.

For many, if not most, of them, it is the first time they have ever heard of the war atrocities carried out by their government. The experience causes many of them to question their identity as Japanese. They face deep inner conflict.

Most of these people had never been told this part of Japanese history. The Japanese government uses history to instill a sense of pride in its young people. It glorifies Japan, while glossing over or failing to mention historical events that cast Japan in a bad light.

We also have a tendency to teach history in a way that makes us feel proud of being Americans. To this end, we are willing to neglect or distort critical historical facts that could help us avoid repeating such mistakes. We sacrifice many teachable moments to engage in feel-good history.

Consider our treatment of the history of our treaty relationship with the sovereign nations that live within our borders. The fact that so many South Dakota high school graduates don’t have a clue about the treaties between the United States and the tribes and how these treaties came to be casts a shadow on the validity of a high school diploma from our state.

Much of what our state is, how we live and govern our state, and the resolution of many of the conflicts we have in our state depend on having a good understanding of those treaties. A history course of South Dakota is invalid without the inclusion of the factual accounts that led up to those treaties.

How do you teach South Dakota history without talking about the attempted genocide of the Sioux people? How do you teach South Dakota history without pointing out the numbers of times those treaties were broken or unenforced? How can you tell the story of South Dakota without discussing the sequence of events that moved a great nation — what was once the Sioux empire — to become the Dakota territories to South Dakota? How can graduation from a South Dakota high school not require passing a rigorous test on the treaties with the tribes?

Lack of such an education might explain why we have a town and a state park named after a military officer who, aside from having been court martialed and held in disregard by his commander in chief, became famous as result of getting himself and all of his men massacred. As quoted in the New York Herald on Sept. 2, 1876, President Grant said, “I regard Custer’s Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary — wholly unnecessary.”

When U.S. history courses degenerate into feel-good sessions for the Mutual Admiration Society of America, they have abandoned their mission.

Lawrence Diggs, Roslyn, is an author and professional public speaker. Write him at