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How Wikipedia Erases Indigenous History
February 3, 2023

How Wikipedia Erases Indigenous History

Reading Time: 7 minutes

How Wikipedia Distorts Indigenous History, Native editors are fighting back., Wikipedia is not a reliable source for Indigenous history.

A behind-the-scenes battle raged at Wikipedia last fall. The conflict stretched over three months and three separate pages, tallying more than 40,000 words. It began in August, when editor FinnV3 went to the ‘talk’ page (where revisions are discussed by editors) for Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. FinnV3 claimed that Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act was ethnic cleansing and that the page needed to reflect that reality, rather than calling Jackson’s policy ‘forced removal.’ According to FinnV3, the phrase forced removal presented a sanitized, unrepresentative view of history that did not match scholarship. Other users disagreed. Display name 99, who has added the second most information to the page (20,085 characters—in addition to writing nearly half of U.S. President John Adams’ page), argued that Jackson ‘wanted the Indians to be treated well’ and that although his decision to remove Native peoples was ‘tragic,’ it was ‘necessary.’ After months of back and forth, ‘ethnic cleansing’ was added to the article in October.

But related debates on Jackson’s talk page continue, and the issues FinnV3 raised are rampant across U.S. history pages on Wikipedia. Racist comments by influential U.S. history editors appear on talk pages, scholarship is misrepresented, and Native voices are erased. These issues are part and parcel of this country’s long history of settler colonial erasure, which is alive and well on Wikipedia and throughout digital spaces. Generally, U.S. history pages follow one strict interpretation of history written in the 1960s and ’70s, and most editors treat these matters as settled. When information that contradicts these histories is added, some editors claim that new additions constitute ‘presentism,’ or ‘cancel culture.’ In reality, understandings of history are constantly changing based on archival discoveries, new methodologies, and voices that had previously been silenced.

How this process plays out on Wikipedia is especially important: On average, more than 4,000 people visit Andrew Jackson’s page a day, and more than 6,000 take a look at Thomas Jefferson’s. Wikipedia is increasingly viewed as a legitimate source of information, and it can affect legislative and judicial decisions. The latter is crucial right now, given very real attacks on Native American sovereignty in U.S. courts.

Disregard and outright contempt for Native American peoples, history, and knowledge on Wikipedia, in the courts, and in the media is not new. Erasing Native existence was common practice in 19th– and 20th-century New England newspapers, for example. And the United States and Canada have been trying to legiMediaDownloader Native peoples out of existence since the outset of colonization. As the historian Patrick Wolfe explained, ‘Settler colonialism destroys to replace,’ or attempts to eliminate Indigenous peoples so that colonists and their society, history, and cultures can be built in their place.

This is precisely what Cherokee Chief John Ross argued in the 1830s: that Jackson’s goal was to eliminate Native Americans through genocidal forced removal. Nearly 200 years later, some editors still refuse to accept Jackson’s Removal Policy as genocide, and thus continue erasing Native histories and enacting settler colonial violence. This runs counter to the many scholars who call the policy genocide, and whose work is inaccurately described on Jackson’s page: ‘Genocide’ has been completely removed, as has a citation from Colville scholar Dina Gilio-Whitaker, because according to editors, her work is not a ‘strong citation.’ In place of genocide, the page now incorrectly paraphrases historian Jeff Ostler, stating that the Indian Removal Act’s ‘role in the long-term destruction of Native American societies and their cultures continues to be debated.’ But in his book Surviving Genocide, Ostler makes clear the connections between Jackson’s Removal Act and the peoples it affected, concluding, ‘In its outcome and in the means used to gain compliance, the policy had genocidal dimensions.’ Similarly, many scholars describe the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which Jackson led, as a massacre. But Wikipedia characterizes it differently. One prominent U.S. history editor—who is responsible for much of the pages for Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson—dismissed as ‘opinion pieces‘ scholarly articles that referred to the battle as a massacre. Labeling scholarship as such allows editors to discount sources, as Wikipedia generally doesn’t allow opinion pieces unless they’re used to show an author’s beliefs or values.

Wikipedia’s page on Jefferson, himself an architect of Indian Removal, draws on outdated scholarship from the 1970s to argue that Jefferson wanted what ‘was best for American Indians.’ One sentence alludes to recent scholarship arguing that Jefferson removed Native peoples to gain land. During a discussion about Jefferson’s role in removal, the editor responsible for almost a quarter of the pages for Washington, Jefferson, and Ulysses S. Grant made false, racist claims, writing, ‘We certainly don’t want to connotate any negativity towards Jefferson, do we? Okay, we can mention that many tribes were war like, xenophobic, refused to assimilate and that for everyone’s own good and general welfare it was deemed best to keep the two diametrically opposed cultures in separate parts of the country.’

This isn’t a problem unique to the internet, but it is amplified there. Viewing Native science and environmental stewardship as outside ‘acceptable’ science was common practice by the U.S. Forest Service for centuries—and is now reflected on climate change pages on Wikipedia, as well. Similarly, arguing that Native peoples who died from disease during the early colonization of the Americas was inevitable and therefore not a result of colonial violence is an old, tired narrative that more and more scholars are disproving—but it’s a falsehood still replicated on numerous Wikipedia pages.

The information age itself has opened up unique opportunities for harm in this space because ‘Indigenous knowledges [are] being transformed into something to be monetized and collected for profit,’ said Ashley Cordes, a citizen of the Kōkwel/Coquille Nation and an assistant professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Oregon, in an email. ‘This is part of a long history of colonial salvage ethnography, where the academy marked Indigenous peoples as primitive and collected Indigenous knowledge for the ‘good of all.’ ‘ (Disclosure: I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oregon, in the same department where Cordes teaches.)

‘It seems that now everyone feels ownership of … Indigenous sacred knowledges, but since everyone certainly does not have the cultural literacy, lived experiences, and historical aptitude to understand, represent, and credit the Indigenous knowledge keepers and ‘data,’ the predictable result is … erasure, misrepresentation, endemic settler colonial framings, and historical amnesia,’ Cordes wrote.

As Cordes points out, even edits that attempt to represent Native cultures can be troublesome, and there is a long history behind this as well. For example, new editors working with Wikipedia’s Countering Systemic Bias project attempted to move the ‘Water Protectors’ and ‘Land Defender‘ pages to the ‘Environmental Protectors’ page to centralize information. Native volunteers had to work to explain the distinct and important differences between land/water protectors and environmental protectors. Similarly, the ‘Climate Change in the United States’ page explains that ‘Indigenous teachings’ seek ‘a symbiotic relation with nature.’ This perpetuates the harmful ‘ecological Indian’ stereotype, which flattens complex relationships, systems of governance, and societal structures, simplifying and romanticizing Native peoples, rendering them more caricature than human.

Some Wikipedia editors even argue with Native editors about Native history. Non-Native editors have told Native editors (incorrectly) that Tribes are not sovereign Nations on the talk page for Muscogee/Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo’s TV show Reservation Dogs. It’s likely that many editors act this way because they’ve been taught to do so: through education systems, school curricula, and popular culture based in colonial elimination and settler superiority. This doesn’t excuse those who misrepresent or refuse to add Native histories—there are certainly examples of editors intentionally promoting racist ideologies, and the subconscious racism that settler colonialism depends on still causes very real harm. But it highlights the need to reinvestigate the colonial narratives some hold to be true, so that together we can work toward a more robust view of history, instead of continuing colonial fantasies.

To do so, we must look to the long history of resistance to erasure and racism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Pequot rhetorician William Apess called out colonial hypocrisies, Potawatomi leader Simon Pokagon disputed false ‘records penned by the pale-faced historians,’ and Cherokee writer Ruth Muskrat Bronson gave a speech to President Calvin Coolidge that denied narratives of erasure.

Currently, Indigenous and allied editors are working together at Wikipedia’s Indigenous Peoples of North America project to continue resistance and correct the digital record. These volunteers have added ‘ethnic cleansing’ to the Trail of Tears page and are adding ‘genocide’ as well—although they are meeting pushback there too. Other editors patrol important pages and remove racist accounts, correcting and removing bigoted edits. (But this is problematic too: It places the onus of patrolling racism and educating racists on Native editors.) Still other users create pages for Native historical figures who were previously unrepresented, writing Indigenous peoples more prominently into history. When there is disagreement on these pages, allied editors defer to Native editors.

After all, Indigenous peoples have long ‘been at the cutting edge of technology,’ Cordes told me. ‘Native peoples and editors need to be empowered to protect their data sovereignty,’ she said, ‘while also taking the lead as Native computer scientists, artists, storytellers, and media practitioners to develop Indigenous protocols and best practices to increase visibility, and center Indigenous truths appropriately in these spaces.’ To do so, according to Cordes, it is important to ‘start treating cyberspace as a living breathing being’ instead of something that serves to accumulate knowledge and wealth. To begin, she said, ‘computational methods used in Wikipedia need to better reflect Indigenous values in order to be safer and more welcoming for Indigenous peoples and ideas.’

As Cordes describes, allyship and representation are especially important on Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia’s own demographic studies, 89 percent of U.S. Wikipedia editors identify as white, while 0.1 percent are Native, 0.5 percent are Black, 5.2 percent are Hispanic or Latino/a/x, and 8.8 percent are Asian or Asian American; 83.7 percent of contributors identify as male. Perhaps even more telling is that some of the very same U.S. history editors who take issue with adding Native histories to the project also have qualms about adding the history of enslaved peoples in the United States, especially when it comes to historical figures like Jefferson and Jackson.

Who tells history—and who must endure racism and dehumanization to tell their histories—matters. The stories we tell—whether about climate change, United States history, cultural revitalization, or numerous other subjects—matter. Stories shape how we see one another, how we understand our pasts and presents, and how we collectively shape our futures. Until Wikipedia accurately challenges colonial erasure and stops repeating colonial fantasies, we should be skeptical of the stories it tells us. We must be honest about the past. The future depends on it.


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