Historical Truth


Historical Truth Essay, Research Paper

Historical Truth?

As a child sits through history class in the first grade, he or she learns of

the relationship between Christopher Columbus and the Indians. This history

lesson tells the children of the dependence each group had on each other.

But as the children mature, the relations between the two groups began to

change with their age. So the story that the teenagers are told is a gruesome

one of savage killings and lying. When the teenagers learn of this, they

themselves might want to do research on this subject to find out the truth. But

as one searches, one finds the inconsistency between the research books.

So the question is, who is telling the truth? Mary Louise Pratt and Jane

Tompkins probe these difficulties of the reading and writing of history,

specifically at the problems of bias and contemplative historical accounts. In

“Art of the Contact Zone,” Pratt explores the issue of whose version of history

gets favored and whose gets limited by analyzing the circumstances

surrounding Guaman Poma’s and de la Vega’s letter to the King of Spain. In

“‘Indians’: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History,” Tompkins

investigates how history is shaped in accordance to personal biases and

cultural conditions of historians by questioning different writings about Native

Americans. Each author comes to the conclusion between history and

subjectivity, meaning that history is problematic. The historical accounts

pondered by Pratt and Tompkins through historical text allows them to realize

that every account that a historian calls a fact is really a perspective. Pratt’s

concepts of “contact zone,” “autoethnography,” and “ethnography” are

supported by the historical ideas in Tompkins essay.

The concepts “contact zone,” “autoethnography,” and “ethnography” are

used by Pratt to support ideas in her essay about history. A “contact zone,”

according to Pratt, is where two cultures “meet, clash, and grapple with each

other”(625). “Ethnography” is a story where the superior writes about the

inferior, while “autoethnography” is the opposite, telling a story by the inferior

about the superior. As the cultures clash, the winner gets to tell the story.

The winner is usually the one who has the superior power. Pratt brings up

this idea while she discusses two authors: de la Vega and Poma. De la

Vega’s “ethnographic text” illustrates the relationship between the Incas and

the Spanish during the conquering of the Inca’s land. On the other hand,

Poma’s “autoethnographic text” on this historical account contains conflicting

ideas. But both of these essays are sent to the king of Spain. Which essay is

read by the king? For one, it is not Poma’s essay since it is

[s]uch a text is heterogeneous on the reception end as well as the

production end: it will read very differently to people in different

positions in the contact zone…it deploys systems of meaning

making, the letter necessarily means differently to bilingual

Spanish-Quechua speakers and to monolingual speakers in either

language (536)

With such a language barrier between who Poma is trying to make contact with,

the Spanish King, allows his letter to be lost. But de la Vega, who is a son of a

Spanish official, writes his letter to the King of Spain. De la Vega also spoke

Quechua, but “ his book is written in eloquent, standard Spanish, without

illustrations” (536). This allows the Spanish people, the main target for his

essay, to read and understand the history. So the victor, de la Vega, gets to tell

his story about the Incas and the clashing since he is the superior culture. Not

only does Pratt write about such types of texts and “contact zones,” so does


Tompkins essay also deals with the various writings of historical

accounts. The “contact zone” she studies is that of the Puritans and Indians.

Every text that Tompkins reads tells a different story about the conflicts

between the two groups. One author, Miller, does not pay attention to the

presence of the Indians. Tompkins assumes this because Miller states that

what amazed him most was the ‘massive narrative of the movement of

European culture into the vacant wilderness of America’ (620). How can the

wilderness of America be vacant when the Indians inhabit this area? On the

other hand, the view of Jennings is that the Puritans are cruel, while the

Indians are superior to them, the Puritans. So this “contact zone” between the

Puritans and the Indians is viewed differently by each author. Unlike Pratt

who reads both an “autoethnographic text” and an “ethnographic text” to

understand the historical relationship better, Tompkins reads only

“ethnographic texts.” This enables Tompkins to only get one main view, that is

of the superior being, the Puritans.

The conclusions Tompkins comes to about facts and perspectives in

history apply to Pratt’s way at looking at historical texts. According to


[t]he statement implied that in order to make a moral judgment

about something, you have to know something else first-namely,

the facts of the case you’re being call upon to judge. My complaint

was that their perspectival nature would disqualify any facts I might

encounter and therefore I couldn’t judge(631).

Tompkins states that to know the full story, one has to know the facts before one

can form an opinion. But Tompkins finds out that the differences in the texts

that she has read is due to the “perspectival nature” of the authors. So,

[t]he seeing of the story as a cause for alarm rather than a droll

anecdote or a piece of curious information is evidence of values we

already hold, of judgments already made, of facts already

perceived as facts (631).

Tompkins is saying that there are no facts, just opinions. So what each

historian calls a fact is really a perspective or opinion. Tompkins’ position on

facts is that they are not completely true due to the opinions of the author.

With this information, Pratt would agree with Tompkins view about

factualism and subjectivity in historical accounts. In Pratt’s examination of de

la Vega’s and Poma’s essay, she upholds Tompkins’ assumption. Poma

writes an “autoethnographic text” where the inferior writes about the superior

and their conflicts. So de la Vega’s essay is the opposite, an “ethnographic

text.” Poma, an Incan, does have a form of writing, one that is not common to

others, so his essay is filled with pictures and text to describe the accounts of

the conquering by the Spanish. With the essay containing pictures, and a

mixture of different languages it would be difficult to understand by anyone.

On the other hand, de la Vega’s essay is written in the native language of

Spain where they will understand the topics talked about. Each of the

authors, de la Vega and Poma, view their works as the facts. But Pratt is

telling us that history is subjective. As it is seen the superior cultures text was

readily available for people to see based on the accessibility to have the text

duplicated. Another example is that de la Vega represents the superior

culture. So with peoples biases one would conform to the beliefs of the culture

that is more like themselves. This is exactly the same reasons why Tompkins

did not read any texts written by an Indian, because they were not available

for her to read to get an accurate account of the time period since the Indians

did not have accessibility to the requirements of writing essays. Also, the

majority of people would not understand the text if it was written.

According to these two authors, there seems to be a question of

subjectivity in historical accounts. Which from reading both essays one would

find this to be true. For example, the historical documents encountered by

both authors found some conflicting ideas. Comparing the two authors

strategies to read history, Pratt does a complete job. A complete job means

reading primary sources from both the inferior and superior cultures. This

way she could get the full picture of the actual accounts of the “contact zone.”

On the other hand, Tompkins does not read both types of texts, only

“ethnographic texts” and comes to her conclusion. But the basis of Pratt’s and

Tompkins’ essay is of the essays they read. Therefore each author is biased

in their own nature. There biases come from their culture, which affects the

way one sees or understands, and writes history. So whose view is right? It

is oneself who ultimately decides on which historical point is true based on

ones biases.

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