The Benefits of Historical Misinterpretation

Some day down the line, perhaps decades from now, I plan on assembling a monograph with the rough title, “The Benefits of Historical Misinterpretation.” It will cover a series of case studies about how professional historians got things wrong, and it will also address the philosophical why. If an historical actor was wrong, there was a reason why. It will also flesh out the lasting effects of historical misinterpretation.

This idea came to me after chatting further with Naomi Shihab Nye about the purported flat where Louise Erdrich purportedly lived in Fargo during the 1970s. Naomi said she had further discussions with Louise about her time in Fargo, and that Louise said she did not, in fact, live above Arctic Audio (where you should still go because they have super cool McIntosh amps for sale there). I’m still uncertain where the story started, and I’ll have to chat with the Fargo Forum reporter who originally published this purported fact. But this is why scholars do what they do: research, research, research, triangulate data, see what agrees and disagrees, think long and hard about all the angles, and so on. It’s an exercise in forensics, no doubt.

In thinking about the thinking of this, I was also thinking about how the State Historical Society of North Dakota misinterpreted Menoken Village in 1964. If you read La Vérendrye’s journals, he notes how he got lost wandering around in a large village of earth lodges in AD 1738. When visiting Menoken Village, though, there are only a hand full of earth lodge depressions — certainly not enough to get lost in. In the 1930s, local area lore held the Euro-centric view that Menoken was the La Vérendrye site. Perhaps Orin G. Libby and subsequent leaders of the State Historical Society of North Dakota thought a good chunk of the earth lodges were washed away by Apple Creek erosion? I don’t know. But since the 1990s and on, the SHSND and Stan Ahler and company brought techno-archaeology to bear on Menoken Village, and the data revised the interpretation. Through radio-carbon dating, we now know Menoken Village was bumping and going full-tilt with activity around AD 1200.

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