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Political Mercury

Reynolds’ ‘both sidesism’ buries Black Hawk’s words with his stolen remains


An obsession with balance can obscure the truth. 

In his brilliantly performed new audio book “The Bomber Mafia,” Malcolm Gladwell, using expert reporting, inviting prose and riveting sound effects, including actual audio recordings of the sources quoted, raises a historical question that indeed does enter the “both sides” structure.

Should the United States have fire-bombed Japan, going with lower-level flights and Napalm bombs that eviscerated dozens of cities, turning them into flesh-melting infernos?

The high-altitude precision bombing the United States tried earlier in the war had limited effectiveness with huge casualties for American crews. Wrapping that up with President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on the Empire of Japan leaves us with a true “both sides” debate on war, morality, strategy, geopolitics.

There are many angles — “sides” — to history, starting with the narrator. Biases and perspectives emerge. But an obsession with balance, in history just as in journalism, can obscure the truth, which is the true pursuit.

Both sidesism doesn’t work for all history, which makes an answer Gov. Kim Reynolds gave us to a recent question about Iowa history so distressing.

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A few days before she signed legislation limiting what educators can teach on racial history in Iowa, Reynolds stood on the shores of Black Hawk Lake. It’s named after one of the great figures in Iowa history, Chief Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk tribe for which Iowa’s Sac County (home to Black Hawk Lake) is named.

Black Hawk’s biography is tortuous. He suffers the loss of his homeland. He’s imprisoned and paraded around the nation as a spectacle in the 19th century. After Black Hawk died, his remains were stolen in a head-spinningly macabre scheme by a white man intent on using them in a carnival-like display.

“Even in death, the white people would not let him rest,” Kerry A. Trask writes in the book “Black Hawk: The Battle For The Heart of America.”

Black Hawk, whose name (and history if we are being honest brokers) are affixed to one of our state’s larger counties and a beautiful western Iowa state park, is not a mascot.

He’s a man of great historical importance.

And he’s a victim of genocide.

Which raises a question about Iowa House File 802 that won’t allow the teaching of divisive concepts about race, like structural prejudice, which, in the case of Black Hawk, manifested as the erasing of his people at the hands of white settlers.

Speaking at Black Hawk State Park in Lake View after an agriculture-and-recreation event in recent weeks, Reynolds, said Black Hawk’s story — one wrapped in genocide — should still be included in educational discourse — but under certain conditions. 

“As long as it is balanced, and we are giving both sides, I think it is part of history and they should be able to teach that,” Reynolds said. “It has to be balanced and make sure we are having a conversation, and we are educating children — not indoctrinating — and actually giving them the chance to learn and to make their own decisions.”

It’s debatable whether Black Hawk’s own words, in an 1832 surrender speech in which the Sauk leader framed his own fate, could be introduced into the curriculum of a 2021 history class in Kim Reynolds’ Iowa as he assails European settlers whose descendants now inhabit Iowa. 

“An Indian who is as bad as the white men could not live in our nation — he would be put to death, and eaten up by the wolves,” Black Hawk said. “The white men are bad school-masters; they carry false looks, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them, and ruin our wives. We told them to let us alone; but they followed on and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us like the snake.”

How, governor, do you teach both sides of genocide?

Please don’t consign Iowa’s white kids to soft bigotry of low expectations by sugar-coating their ancestors’ actions.

They can handle the truth, and by knowing it, will likely do better than their great-great grandparents. n

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.


  1. Brad Knott says:

    Interesting story and great example of GOP intent to white wash history (pun intended). The Governor says she doesn’t want kids indoctrinated yet she allows partisan politics, not professional educators and local school boards, determine what they will read. This too will backfire. When I was young being told something was forbidden only made me more curious and determined to find out.

  2. Richard Phelps says:

    I think we will be required to come to terms with our history. The question is how will be able to do it as a society. Our Iowa legislature and our governor have decided that they are not going to accept this change to their idea of America the Magnificent, There are things we need to atone for as society and country. Rather than denying this new effort to better understand our history and to accept the fact that we haven’t always been the good guy, they could simply ask how to help. The change in the sense of ourselves and our ancestors is changing and will continue to change with or without our legislature and governor participating. It would be nice if they were to lead the way though, but that doesn’t seem possible.

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