Educating America: The Historian's Responsibility to Native Americans and the Public
Angela Cavender Wilson, May 2000
Slinking down in my chair of the high school classroom, I listen with dread to the discussion about Native Americans. I feel no connection to the hostile, savage, primitive people I am hearing about. How can the words on this paper differ so radically from those of my elders? Where did these historians get their information about Native Americans?
My earliest memory of stories told by my grandmother are those about the United States–Dakota conflict of 1862. When I first read historical accounts of that event I excitedly picked out events I knew were true because my grandmother had talked about them. My respect for the author was gauged by how often he or she made mention of stories I'd heard in the oral tradition. Growing up in a Dakota family with a rich oral tradition, I often heard my grandmother end a story with, "that was never written in a history book." It was her account of the Dakota past which fostered my love for history and led to my pursuit of a degree in the discipline. But reconciling differing conceptions of history—those of my native community and academia—has been full of challenges and frustrations, the gulf between them often seemingly unbridgeable.
The personal scenario above illustrates some of the basic issues pertaining to the relationship between academic historians writing Native American history and the Native American people about whom they are writing. This relationship has been fraught with mistrust on both sides: historians mistrust the ability of native people to keep accurate accounts of their historical past while Native Americans mistrust the ability of historians to accurately interpret Native American historical realities. At the core of the mistrust is a basic argument about who has the authority to interpret Native American history and on what sources that interpretation should be based.
The fundamental difference between academic Native American history and Native American history from the native perspective is the medium through which the history is interpreted. For the vast majority of native cultures, the primary means of transmitting and understanding history has been through the oral tradition; for academic historians, the primary way of transmitting and understanding history is through the written narrative. For many Native American people, whose voices and perspectives are rarely included in written histories, those histories are considered just another form of oppression and continued colonization. For historians, mistrust of the oral tradition is based on the view that all oral history needs to be validated by written sources, without which oral narratives constitute unverifiable legend and are therefore unreliable sources. Overcoming that mistrust will require educating academic historians about native oral traditions and demonstrating to them the value of understanding Native American history through the perspective of those who have lived it. Ultimately, a consensus must be reached within the discipline about the absolute necessity of including Native American voices in the research and writing of Native American history. This would insure a measure of accountability to the living people about whose ancestors we are writing.
Some of the discrepancy between the way native people and academic historians think about Native American history has to do with perceptions of what constitutes important information. For many Native American people, history is important because it establishes our sense of identity and belonging. We understand who we are and how we came to be because of the stories transmitted by our elders. Rarely is Native American history from this perspective concerned with dates and times; rather, notions of place and homeland are given primacy, as it is this connection that is closely linked with our sense of identity. However, because many accounts cannot be placed within a chronological framework, it is often impossible to employ academic historians' usual means of corroborating sources. Within Native American oral traditions, different means of validation and verification are utilized. For example, collective memories are often engaged to insure the accuracy of any given account, and those who are known to have been trained well are respected and sought out within the community for their knowledge, skill, and expertise. In terms of establishing credibility or validation, in many native communities, the words and the honor of the elders are sufficient.
Events and details deemed relevant and important enough to transmit within the oral tradition are not necessarily the same as those academic historians feel compelled to write about, nor do they necessarily include those events and circumstances about which non-Native Americans chose to leave records. One of the results of this difference in values means that what is of value in native culture may not make it into the written record, and what does make it into the written record may be seen from the Native American perspective as dry, full of unimportant details about some things, and completely missing the important aspects of others. This is not to say that the oral and the written always conflict, or that native people do not appreciate the research and writing of many non-Native American scholars, but rather that the approach to history is different, making for very different stories and understandings of the past. In addition, Native American oral tradition focuses less on European-Americans, more on Indian–Indian relations, and includes stories of interactions with non-human spiritual beings—all elements which have served to baffle some academic historians.
A growing movement is taking shape within the field of Native American history, however, in which it is recognized that Native American history from the Native American perspective must be included in any solid research in which Native American nations appear. Scholars are recognizing that native language study can shed significant light on historical events, and oral history is being used in ways that suggest it is breaking away from the confines of being simply a "supplementary" source and is now being used in the main bodies of texts.
While the definitions and meanings of Native American history are being argued in the academic context, there are other major issues affecting a much larger population that also deserve attention—such as the historian's relationship to native communities, and the lack of outreach to the American public. Nowhere is this more apparent or problematic than in Native American history because no population is more misunderstood and stereotyped than American Indians. Many historians seem to believe in a trickle-down effect in which their theoretical, academic, or enlightened interpretations of the past will slowly, but magically, reach the masses—even while they direct their writings to other historians or upper-division and elite college students. Because of enormous amounts of misinformation regarding the histories of American Indians, this is particularly dangerous and ineffective, especially considering that many Americans acquire their understanding of Native Americans through Hollywood movies. It is no secret that most high school students believe history is the least useful subject they are required to learn. Historians will have little impact in kindling an interest in history if they continue to write to each other rather than to the masses. In this area historians have fallen extremely short.
In the social studies curriculum at both the elementary and secondary level American Indians are nearly invisible, so the lack of participation by historians in educating a wider audience has detrimental effects. Very rarely do contemporary academic or cutting-edge discussions of Native American history also inform discussion in any classroom outside of a college or university. As a consequence, professors in Native American history spend much time with incoming students not only building on an extremely limited knowledge base, but also attempting to correct the misinformation students have accumulated, either through movies or excerpts in social studies textbooks depicting Native Americans as little more than obstacles to westward expansion. It is no wonder that when contemporary Native American political issues arise, the public shows complete ignorance regarding Native American treaty rights, issues of taxation, government-to-government relationships, Native American law, tribal government operations, and many other topics. While scholars of Native American history understand, for example, the importance of treaty agreements with the United States (though there are often disagreements in interpretation), this knowledge is not reaching the general population, so the public is ill-equipped to understand the treaties to which its own government is obligated. Students entering college are often opening their eyes to Native Americans for the first time. More accurate interpretations of Native American history ought to be tackled in the elementary social studies curriculum and continue through secondary and postsecondary education. If historians do not take on this responsibility, who will?
Besides making writings accessible to those beyond academia, what more might we do? Where does this leave us? Where do the various understandings of Native American history intersect and how can we work together? Historians researching and writing in the arena of Native American history have an ethical obligation to include Native American perspectives in their work, a notion that recognizes the authority and expertise of tribal historians, and in the end will produce more balanced interpretations. The field of Native American history, and by extension American history, will only be enriched by the inclusion of differing perspectives and in the process will broaden and expand the definitions of history.
—Angela Cavender Wilson (Wahpetunwan Dakota) is a doctoral candidate in American history at Cornell University. She has accepted a position as assistant professor of American Indian history at Arizona State University and will begin her appointment in August 2000. Her dissertation, "De Kiksuyapo! (Remember This!): The Eli Taylor Narratives and Dakota Conceptions of History," is based on an oral history project with her grandfather from the Sioux Valley Reserve in Manitoba, Canada, which she expects to complete in May 2000.