Letters to the Editor

“Personal Vendetta” Undermines Native American Goals

James Axtell, December 1994

In his article on "Teaching American Indian History: A Native American Voice" (Perspectives, September 1994), Donald Grinde hurts a good cause by pursuing a personal vendetta against non-native historians. While I would prefer to address some of the substantive issues raised by his views on a native voice in Indian history, I am forced to deal with his calumnious treatment of my work in ethnohistory. Readers will see that Grinde's judgment on curricular matters is no more reliable than his published scholarship.

Where does Grinde get his impressions of my views? Rarely from my publications, which represent my most considered, carefully expressed, and documented positions. Even when he resorts to my books and articles, he misrepresents my views by ripping quotations out of context. When I suggested that "historians need not feel unduly sensitive about their lack of personal research among contemporary tribal cultures," I was in the process of justifying at some length a place for historically trained members in the society of ethnohistorians, which at the time of writing (1977) was dominated by anthropologists. Only Grinde has seen in my intramural remarks a call to non-Indian historians of Indian America to remain stubbornly ignorant of native culture.1

Grinde also plays fast and loose with my carefully qualified and fully articulated views on the use of "genocide" to describe premature Indian losses in colonial America (the extent of my generalizations). I am amazed to learn that in 1992 I "absolved all Euroamericans (except for a few 'homicidal maniacs') of any role in the Native American holocaust" (a term I eschew for several reasons that are adnumbrated in two recent essays).2 I am equally astonished to learn, as any reader of my books must be, that I "defend European behavior in the Americas," an inference that somehow follows from my (alleged) assertion that "only a small and pernicious cadre of Nazis was guilty for all 6 million Jewish deaths." Actually, what I said—in the context of giving three major reasons for being very careful with our historical use of "genocide"—was that "'you cannot'—or rather should not—'indict a whole nation' for the misdeeds and crimes of a few."

A relatively small and pernicious cadre of Nazis was guilty for all 6 million Jewish deaths; the colonists were personally and directly guilty for only a fraction of the Indians who died in the two or three centuries after contact. ... In North and South America, the vast majority of Indians succumbed, not to colonial oppression or conquistador cruelty—as real and pervasive as those were—but to new and lethal epidemic diseases imported inadvertently by the settlers. ... Genocide [which I carefully defined], as distinguished from other forms of cruelty, oppression, and death, played a very small role in the European conquest of the New World. ... Certainly no European colonial government ever tried to exterminate all of the Indians, as Indians, as a race, and you can count on one hand the authorized colonial attempts to annihilate even single tribes. ... For the rest, only the rare, certifiable, homicidal maniac sought to commit 'genocide' upon the Indians.3

When Grinde can't find a published statement of mine to distort, he resorts to 20-year-old private correspondence and an alleged "radio interview" with Catherine Stifter on October 14, 1989. My letter of 1975 to William Fenton (deposited with Fenton's papers in the American Philosophical Society) was simply a comment on the paper Fenton had given at the Denver meeting of the OAH in April 1974. Fenton, not I, had criticized some advocates of separatist Native American studies programs for committing the "genetic fallacy," for arguing (in Fenton's words) that "being part or wholly an Indian gives one special insights in ... interpreting the past" or, in cruder form, "you have to be one to know one." I agreed with Fenton—and I continue to believe—that "there is no special gene for culture; it is learned."4 As for the "fear" or "threat" I felt from the (slow) appearance of Indian scholars in the historical profession, they are figments of Grinde's imagination. I continue to worry about ethnic chauvinists who build paper walls around themselves and their subjects and about shoddy scholarship in any guise, particularly Grinde's.

My "radio interview" with Ms. Stifter is another invention. Five years ago Stifter attended the Conference on Iroquois Research in upstate New York to interview participants on all sides of the "Iroquois Confederacy/U.S. Constitution" debate, allegedly for a future NPR radio show. While Grinde was giving yet another version of his unconvincing argument to the assembled experts on Iroquois history and culture, Stifter taped interviews with me and other skeptics in a nearby room. The "radio" program never reached the air, but the edited, unauthorized tapes of his major critics quickly reached Grinde, in time for him to mine them for the garbled quotations he attributes to me not only in Perspectives, but in an article on the Constitution in the winter 1989 issue of Northeast Indian Quarterly.5 Attempting to cloak his machinations in scholarly respectability, Grinde says in note 5 that the Stifter "radio interview" with me was "quoted in Jose Barreiro, ed., Indian Roots of American Democracy (Ithaca, NY: AKWE:KON/Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 59." What Grinde neglected to say was that the tapes were quoted in his own article in Barreiro's collection, a reprint of his 1989 piece in Northeast Indian Quarterly!

What I was referring to—with heavy irony—in the first tape excerpt was the readiness of the popular media and even Congress to swallow the new orthodoxy on the Iroquois foundations of the U.S. Constitution. By contrast, several senior scholars of Iroquois and colonial history (including William Fenton, Francis Jennings, William T. Hagen, and Alden Vaughan) could not get a letter denying the credibility of this orthodoxy published in the New York Times.

Grinde's muddled rendition of the "genetic fallacy" and my position on it leads him to his most reckless accusation of all: "While such 'genetic' arguments that minimize contemporary Native voices are not presently genocidal, they clearly serve ethnocidal purposes." This outrageous statement alone gives the lie to Grinde's disingenuous "trepidation," "plaintive tone," and plea for "meaningful discourse" between Indian and non-Indian scholars.

While "most Native scholars" might be "more concerned with voice than dominance," Grinde has long made no secret of his personal obsession with "Native scholars'" (read his own) lack of "power" over scholarly "standards," publications, research funds, and faculty appointments. Confusing earned authority with ascribed "power," Grinde advocates intellectual apartheid for Indian historians "involved in the process of creating or inventing a usable past for American Indian people." Convinced that non-Indian "'experts' ... often work diligently to exclude independent [?] Native American [scholars]" from the "mainstream" exercise of "scholarly dominance," he advocates autonomous Indian studies programs, publications, and research funds so that native "viewpoints and interests can emerge more clearly and directly in the scholarly discourse."6

No one could argue with Grinde's goal of involving native scholars in the writing and teaching of American Indian history. But if that history is to be of any real or lasting value to native and non-native Americans alike, and not simply a quick political or emotional fix, it will have to be (re)constructed—not invented—by scholars who work and live by the long-established canons of the historical profession. In our professional pursuits, there are no special dispensations for historians of one race, gender, persuasion or another; everyone is obligated to play by the same rules of evidence and argument and to adhere to the same standards of fairness toward our subjects (all of them) and our colleagues. As Grinde's article in Perspectives has shown yet again, neither his scholarship nor his moral integrity meets our minimal standards.

James Axtell
Kenan Professor of Humanities
College of William and Mary


1. James Axtell, "Ethnohistory: An Historian's Viewpoint," The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York, 1981), p. 10. Grinde also ignored the first part of the quoted sentence, which admitted that "personal experience is usually superior to vicarious experience."

2. Axtell, "Moral Reflections on the Columbian Legacy," Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America (New York, 1992), chapter 10, and "The Moral Dimensions of 1492," The Historian 56, no. 1 (autumn 1993): 17–28.

3. Axtell, Beyond 1492, 261–63. Grinde attributes my quotation to p. 467; the pages are numbered only to 376.

4. William N. Fenton, "American Indian Studies: A Status Report. Comment 1" (paper delivered at the annual meeting of the OAH, Denver, April 17, 1974), p. 2, 3.

5. Donald A. Grinde, Jr., "Iroquoian Political Concept [sic] and the Genesis of American Government: Further Research and Contentions," Northeast Indian Quarterly 6, no. 4 (winter 1989): 10–21 at 18.

6. Grinde, "Reclaiming American Indian History," in Carole M. Gentry and Grinde, eds., The Unheard Voices: American Indian Responses to the Columbian Quincentenary, 1492–1992 (Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, Univ. of California, 1994), p. 1–10.

James Axtell's quixotic response to my "Teaching of American Indian History" essay (Perspectives, September 1994) is welcomed. We are both concerned, paradoxically, with "standards." I argue that teaching and training in American Indian history should involve Native American languages and more cultural understanding, while Axtell implies that advocating such standards (common to the rest of the profession) are a power grab by American Indians like me. While I was specific about my "standards" for American Indian history and how they concur with the tenets of the discipline, Axtell asserts that I lack "moral integrity" and "our ... standards." But Axtell never gives us "his" standards. Instead, he contents himself with a series of ad hominem, ad absurdum, and moralistic arguments that try to shift our gaze from the teaching and "standards" issues plaguing American Indian history to a diatribe against me.

I also resent his unsubstantiated race-baiting arguments—asserting that I have a "personal vendetta" against non-native historians. Three of my recent books in Native American history have been coauthored with Euroamericans. I have also coauthored publications with African Americans. Collaborative research with non-natives has been a hallmark of my career and will remain so. Also, Axtell's letter has several errors—from his listing of "William T. Hagen" [sic] to his misquoting me in "defend [sic] European behavior in the Americas."

In examining Axtell's work, I cited published, oral, and written statements to document an attitude that resonates in his work. Also, I am not alone in criticizing Axtell's work. Bruce Trigger (a Canadian ethnohistorian and non-native) expressed alarm about Axtell's assertions that only a small "cadre of Nazis was guilty for all 6 million deaths" in the Jewish Holocaust and the inference that therefore only a few "homicidal" colonists committed genocide in North America. Trigger found "much to challenge in these arguments" and observed that "Axtell's arguments read too much like a placebo for Euro-American guilt and an encouragement to moral complacency"1 Axtell is also in error about the National Public Radio interview; it did air in an edited form several years ago. I did not receive the interview transcripts "quickly" (as he alleges)—only after the piece was aired. I have copies of the transcripts and cited my published use of them so people could access them easily in their own libraries.

Unfortunately, Axtell's logic involves a lot of denial about the societal causes of the Jewish and Native American holocausts,2 my work on the Iroquois contributions to American democracy, my moral integrity (we have met only briefly in professional contexts), and my professional standards. He fails to understand that just denying the existence of a fact, a historical argument, or standards through ad hominem statements without engaging the evidence, the interpretations, and the literature is clearly fallacious even for someone with his pretensions to authority. Although American Indians played a pivotal role in American history until the 1830s, Axtell will not address the arguments by respected scholars that many of America's founders had an understanding of American Indian political systems and used this knowledge for their own purposes.3

Even when Axtell cites my statements about the need for an autonomous American Indian voice, he has to fragment and mangle my words across an expanse of 10 pages to achieve his ad hominem purposes (Axtell letter, footnote 6). When the oversimplification of 10 pages of my discourse does not achieve his objectives, he laces the analysis with ad hominem statements like "his personal obsession," "'Native scholars' (read his own)," and false accusations that I advocate American Indian "intellectual apartheid." Subliminally, Axtell portrays himself as the victim of a stereotypical unprincipled savage and racial separatist. Actually, I proposed that more Native American viewpoints needed to be nurtured and the teaching and writing of Native American history should be done according to established professional norms.

Although you would never know it by Axtell's cursory examination of my work, I have published a half dozen books and over 50 articles in a variety of academic presses and journals in the United States and other countries (in English and other European languages as well as native languages) that testify to the fact that many scholars do not share his views of my work. My work has been reviewed in venues like the New York Times as well as appropriate historical journals, and those reviews do not concur with Axtell's pontifications. Also, I have received grants from major foundations, distinguished professorships, and an endowed chair during my career. Often, I have found that those who spend another person's honor with ease frequently have little themselves.

While I understand Axtell's need to defend himself, I regret that his words do not help American Indian history. Verbally bashing minority scholars that disagree with you is a ploy that rings hollow today. Readers of this exchange should understand that while I was critical of Axtell's discourses, I did recommend his work as an example of conquest history. Axtell's ad hominem attacks on me contain no such largess. The personalized tone of his arguments and his standards is unfortunate since it obfuscates the debate. If Axtell really believed in the fair and color-blind application of the "long-established canons of the historical profession," he would familiarize himself with Native American languages and cultures and cease the perpetuation of nonconforming professional standards in Native American history that promote paper walls and quick emotional fixes for those lacking basic skills. Essentially, my essay raised concerns that the dominant society still "possessed" American Indian history and largely excluded American Indian voices; Axtell's last sentence about "our minimal standards" regrettably reinforces that proclivity. Certainly, we both have our critics. Ultimately, the readers must decide whose standards are appropriate in this exchange.


1. See Trigger's review of Axtell's Beyond 1492 in Ethnohistory 40, no. 3 (summer 1993): 466–68. Trigger mounts a thoughtful criticism of Axtell's discourse that I cannot elaborate here.

2. Even Samuel Eliot Morison, in Christopher Columbus, Mariner (New York: Penguin, 1983), admits on page 129 that the "cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide." Morison is a past president of the AHA.

3. Julian P. Boyd asserts that Benjamin Franklin "proposed a plan for the union of the colonies [the Albany Plan] and he found his materials in the great confederacy of the Iroquois." See Boyd, "Dr. Franklin: Friend of the Indian," in Ray Lokken, Jr., ed., Meet Dr. Franklin (Philadelphia: Franklin Institute, 1981), p. 240. Boyd is a past president of the AHA.