Living History is Not Dead People

A few years back, I met a woman at the Miccosukee festival who was a member of the Miccosukee Tribe. When I mentioned that I I’ve done reenactments, she bristled and said, “They just want to kill Indians all over again!” It made me stop and think of her sentiment, and why she thought that way. Are we just glorifying the bad part of history? Our goal as interpreters is not to show death and bloodshed, or just have a battle. 

The woman had a very good point. It was a very difficult part of her history. A documentary I saw of Creek people in Oklahoma, explained that they did not speak about the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and the Creek War that happened 200 years ago at their community grounds because of the bad memories that it brought up. I talked to a Creek friend from Oklahoma who was visiting this past summer, and they do not talk about the history that happened here in the east. These are bad memories for them, even if they were six or seven generations ago.

Jack Martin in his book, “Sacred Revolt,” one of the best that covers the Creek War causes & effects, in my opinion, starts out with a very good point. He writes:

“I was disturbed at the way historians left those people dead on the battlefield without ever bothering to ask who they were and why the fought? It was as if scholars were killing them over and over again by failing to imagine their lives, symbols, desires, and perspectives.”

We should not do living history to make a gruesome spectacle or bad theater to draw a crowd. Unfortunately, most battle reenactments that I have seen in the past few years just look absurd. They have not gotten better. We should do interpretation properly, and tastefully. We should do it out of respect for who the individuals were. Not remember them from their death, but celebrate their life. These are not just bad actors to be killed over and over again, but individuals who we need to meet and talk with. 

And I am no stranger to battle reenactments. I have been involved in them for more than 35 years.

Early on when I started doing living history, I quickly found out that I much more enjoyed the events where I can talk with people and educate, more than ones with a battle reenactment where I didn’t get time to do that. Later, I became a lifetime member of the National Association of Interpreters, and a certified Interpreter. I don’t want to do bad theatrics. I try to do the best job I can with interpreting and portraying the past.

More Native people have gotten involved in living history in the past 30 years to portray how life was and how they do things. A great book on the subject is, “Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions” by Laura Peers. Native people don’t view living history as something that happened in the past, but part of who they are and their culture.  It is very personal for them, to share their family and cultural traditions & history. 

A living history event looks great when there are top quality interpreters who do a good job portraying life and culture from the past. If you want to see such an event, you can go to Fort Toulouse/ Fort Jackson for Alabama Frontier Days next weekend. 

An event should celebrate life in the past, not just focus on bad theater of a gruesome death. Not killing Indians all over again. Otherwise, they will never rise to a standard of quality that is anything better than that.

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