KEVIN LEININGER: Critics of ‘Anthony Wayne Day’ should help tell the story, not ignore it

In 2011 the History Center told early Fort Wayne's story by a side-by-side display of Anthony Wayne's camp bed and silver owned by Miami Chief Little Turtle. Couldn't something similar be done with "Anthony Wayne Day"? (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
This mural in Courtroom No. 2 of the Allen County Courthouse depicts the Battle of Fallen Timbers. But is it accurate? (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne.
Kevin Leininger

“Fort Wayne needs a lesson in history, not hysteria.”

So asserted the pointed opening line of a scholarly essay released this week intended to counter claims City Council’s recent resolution establishing July 16 as “Anthony Wayne Day in Fort Wayne” was both factually inaccurate and “socially contemptible.”

But which position is correct: The statement from the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma insisting that Native Americans fought under their own commanders, not British, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and that the resolution sponsored by Jason Arp., R-4th, made “no attempt to recognize that . . . the military fort that came to be called Fort Wayne was constructed within the sight of the smoking ruins of (Miami cities and that) the resolution implicitly commemorates those actions while at the same time obscuring them”?

Or was Alan Gaff, author of the “hysteria” quip and “Bayonets in the Wilderness: Anthony Wayne’s Legion in the Old Northwest” closer to the truth when he wrote that the British did indeed lead native forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers and that following the battle Wayne deliberately spared “vulnerable Indian towns” before marching his army to the three rivers and finding “the region deserted, the Indians having moved away”?

If history should not be told only by the victors, neither does it belong to the vanquished. The past is seldom as simple as some would make it, especially when past acts are judged through the prism of present-day values. Council’s resolution did in fact concentrate on Wayne without acknowledging how actions by him and others affected the Miamis and other tribes. But because no one living today was alive in 1794, and original sources often record different facts from different perspectives, is it not possible to consider both viewpoints without allowing relatively insignificant deviations — were the British in command or weren’t they? — to sour or even end the discussion before its starts?

On that score, the real news at this week’s press conference by Wayne supporters was not the announcement of activities planned around the July event but the revelation by attorney Mike Loomis that they had reached out to Native American groups but had so far been unable to incorporate their representation, and hence their viewpoints, into the planning process.

While it is certainly understandable people whose ancestors were displaced would see Wayne differently than the descendants of the white settlers who replaced them, that is precisely the reason Native Americans should agree to participate. Like Gaff, Loomis believes — and the controversy has only proved the point — that the Wayne resolution can promote an understanding of local history too often overlooked in the classroom. How many had ever heard of the Battle of Fallen Timbers before its commanding officers became a point of cross-cultural contention?

A well-rounded picture of that history will emerge only if it is taught as accurately as possible, and from all legitimate points of view. A refusal by Native Americans to tell their story, critical of Wayne as it might be, would be as unhelpful as it would have been had the Wayne advocates sought to exclude it.

Suggesting that opponents of Anthony Wayne Day are unpatriotic, as some have done, does nothing to promote understanding. Even worse than slavery, treatment of Native Americans is the darkest episode in the country’s history. But focusing on the sins of the past while ignoring the atoning good America has produced for its people and the world also breeds a lack of understanding.

Like the nation itself, Fort Wayne’s story is a complicated one of seemingly incompatible threads somehow woven into a flawed but magnificent and even noble tapestry. The past cannot be undone, but the future remains to be shaped and recorded by anyone willing to participate. Telling an accurate history of any of it cannot be done from the sidelines, which is why critics of Anthony Wayne Day should be eager to add their voices to a story that, in the end, belongs to us all.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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