Teaching American Indian History: A Native American Voice
Donald A. Grinde Jr., September 1994
Over a generation ago, Rupert Costo, a Cahuilla Indian elder and advocate of American Indian rights since the 1930s, inspired me and other Native American historians with these words:
In the past, Indians have had good reason to distrust and even scorn the professional researcher. Too often have they interpreted ... Indian history [and] misrepresented their way of life. It becomes necessary now to correct the record, to write the history as it should be written [and] to interpret correctly the aboriginal past. ...
There is a great and rich store of information still locked in the hearts and minds of Indians all over the nation. ... Friends of the Indians may join in our great work, helping but not leading, aiding but not pushing, taking part but not taking over.1
Costo, more than any other American Indian leader, believed in the power of the printed word and the importance of history. To facilitate his vision, he endowed the Costo chair in American Indian history at the University of California at Riverside to help Indians regain control over their histories. Costo knew there were great problems inherent in the reinterpretation of the American Indian past, but he never lost his resolve because he understood the symbolic, psychological, and scholarly importance of the task.2
With this in mind, I confess it was still with some trepidation that I agreed to pass along these thoughts on the teaching of American Indian history from a Native American perspective. Although I have taught for over twenty-five years, I find I am at times characterized as a historian of "victims groups" and a professor who teaches what George F. Will and other commentators consider to be the "dotty" idea that "the Iroquois were important to the making of the Constitution." Today, those of us who are working on the intellectual frontiers of American Indian history see our efforts disparaged for "disuniting America" and our work "politicized" by pundits and self-proclaimed champions of the "real" history of America.3
Although casting doubts about the virtues of American Indian history may be cathartic for virtually everyone except American Indians, some astute observers note that some historians themselves have "dotty" notions about those in our profession dedicated to the study of the aboriginal people of the Americas. In addition, Native Americans are painfully aware that our history is perhaps the only branch of the discipline in which one does not need a thorough knowledge of the language, culture, traditions, and philosophies of the people being studied. Ethnohistorians such as James Axtell have commented that "historians need not feel unduly sensitive about their lack of personal research among contemporary tribal cultures. Often the descendants of their historical subjects no longer survive, or, if they do, have lost much of their historical cultural character."
Twenty years ago, Axtell feared that as more American Indian scholars created a Native voice within the profession, people would accept the "genetic fallacy" that American Indians are the only people who can interpret their history.4 Today, "essentialism" (only members of the group can do their history correctly) is the term that is used to describe this exclusive argument. In their fits of hyperbole, Axtell and others ignore the fact that most Native scholars are more concerned with voice than dominance. As a small part of the population whose voice is often muted by the very people who study us, we see a double standard in such "essentialist" charges, since few people worry about the "genetic threat" of Anglos studying the Founding Fathers or the "gender threat" to women's history. Recently, Axtell's fears were realized when Native American leaders and scholars as well as some non-Indian academics persuaded Congress to recognize American Indian contributions to American democracy. Axtell's reactions included some of his own "genetic" theories:
[S]ome of us poor little white academics sitting in our little ivory towers are jealous of the access that some of the Onondaga leaders and so-called pro-Indian historians have had. ...
I have a better shot at getting at the truth about this constitutional issue because I'm neither a descendant of a Founding Father, [and] I'm certainly not descended from the Iroquois, although I'm an Iroquoianist and love that as a subject, as I do all people in Eastern America.5
While such "genetic" arguments that minimize contemporary Native voices are not presently genocidal, they clearly serve ethnocidal purposes.
In this rhetorical environment, Native American scholars must also submit routinely to racial and sexual slurs in contemporary historical works from university presses because some "poor little white academics" are threatened by Native people and are not sensitive to stereotyping. For example, I quote an undocumented "genetic" description about eighteenth-century Mohawk women in a recent "ethnohistorical" work: "She was still young in years though perhaps not very handsome, for Indian women lost their looks early." Another unfootnoted general discourse on Mohawk people claims that "they all craved rum; it was their greatest pleasure, and when really thirsty any of them would give everything he possessed for a dram of 'that Darling Water.'"6
Nevertheless, while Native Americans understand that "all Italians are not gangsters" and "all African Americans are not good athletes," we despair that the discourse on Indians continues to deter rather than develop historical understanding.
Empty "Objectivity" Belies Serious Dialogue
While distancing oneself from the group one is studying may appear "objective," American Indian scholars know how far, for example, a graduate student in French history would get without a knowledge of French and the need to go to France to pursue scholarly research as well as to gain an understanding of French life. If a graduate student also argued that the French people posed a "genetic threat" to their own history and that they were all rude, the graduate adviser might harbor some reservations about the scholarly abilities of such a student. Indeed, the muted voice of American Indians during the recent Columbian Quincentenary is testimony that the dominant society is not ready to engage in a serious dialogue with American Indians about the past five hundred years. The climate of academic opinion is such today that when one raises critical methodological issues as an American Indian scholar, one is often characterized, ad hominem, as an "essentialist."
The point of my plaintive tone is that what passes for American Indian history is quite often just the history of Indian-white relations (and the colonial conquest perspective at that), or it is the history of governmental bureaucracies that have dealt with American Indians. In our rush to become a color-blind society, a critical body of scholarly literature that examines and elucidates the Native American voice and addresses American Indian historical concerns is not readily available to mainstream historians since it is just emerging from Native American studies programs across the country. Too often, American Indian history either becomes a mirror image of the westward movement or is written from the ethnographic perspective of Protestant divines or anthropologists who "represent" the ways of American Indian people. Today, an increasing number of anthropologists and informed historians contend that the image of the American Indian in history, literature, and art has been largely an "invented" tradition external to the American Indian experience.
The Confining Rhetorical and Scholarly Inventions of Empire
With this mentality, Native American people often find their history imprisoned by the rhetoric and scholarly inventions of empire. As technicians of American nationalism, many American historians consciously and unconsciously perpetuate these conceptual "truths" and inventions of empire in their discourses on United States history. Much of the tension surrounding the emergence of American Indian studies and history in the academy is the product of an intellectual tradition that rationalized and "legalized" European conquest. Thus, these invented intellectual realities of the last five centuries stand in the way of the creation of a meaningful discourse between Native and non-Native peoples in the Americas.
In a very real sense, the architects of conquest not only possess the physical resources and the peoples of the Americas, they also continue to possess the history. According to Vine Deloria, Jr. (Sioux), this "submergence" of American Indian history (as well as the histories of other minorities) creates "a homogenized and sanitized version of American history."7 Essentially, Native American scholars such as Deloria maintain that until American Indian scholars and people regain an independent voice in the historical discourse, this invented reality will keep Native American history and people in thralldom.
It is not so much that the colonizing society's discourse on American Indian history is wrong, but rather that it is decidedly incomplete when compared to the historiography of the colonial powers and other "sovereign" peoples. In essence, until we get more Native voices involved in the process of creating and inventing a usable past for American Indian people, we will not have a sufficient and appropriate American past that can be internalized by America's Native peoples and sensitive non-Indians. Without a more balanced historical discourse, apologies and fantastic images of American Indians generated by the conquest mentality will continue to hinder our understanding of American Indian people.
In 1492, the scholar Antonio de Nebrija presented his Spanish Gramatica to Queen Isabella. While Isabella was puzzled about the worth of this scholarly tome, Nebrija's introduction assured her, and other readers, that "language is the perfect companion of empire." Then as well as now, language configures and reconfigures power relationships. Hence, many European scholars, from the start of the colonial venture, were aware of the importance of positionality (i.e., one's place in the racial pecking order) with regard to the various voices in the discourse on empire.
The persistence of these notions of positionality in the historical discourse today has caused some American Indians, such as Jimmie Durham (Cherokee), to observe that the debate to ferret out historical errors is of secondary importance to American Indian historians since European analyses of the experiences of American Indians were and are distorted through the "potentially correctable lies and myths" held by non-Indians about American Indians. The primary problem resides in cultural misrepresentations that are "more properly a sign of the relations of power" created by empire in the historical discourse. For Durham and other Native Americans, misrepresentations of the American Indian past also demonstrate the problem of translating one set of cultural terms through another and are a reflection of the long-standing historical relationships between American Indians and Europeans. For many Native Americans and other non-Western peoples, it appears that Western civilization cannot understand different human cultures without circumscribing them with their own desires and aspirations.8 I believe, however, that in spite of these problems, researchers and teachers of American Indian history can open multiple perspectives about the history of the United States without doing "victims" history or "feel good" history. At present, the problem seems to be one of consciousness.
Elevating American Indian Viewpoints through Language
Making students more conscious of American Indian viewpoints in U.S. history surveys and in specialized courses is easily done through language, since it is through language that one gains a more realistic understanding. With this in mind, I start my courses in American Indian history (confined to the area north of the Rio Grande and south of the Canadian border) with readings from Gary Witherspoon's Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (University of Michigan Press, 1986). Since most undergraduate and graduate students understand no Indian languages, a work like Witherspoon's exposes them vicariously to a world where the principal verb for existence in English, "to be," is replaced by the verb "to go" in Navajo. Thus, all living things "move" (e.g., the sun, the wind, the stars, animals, and plants) according to the Navajo. With this realization, my students gain a different perspective on Native American people and their cultures from the start of the course (i.e., ecocentricity and interrelatedness in Indian cultures become more readily apparent). Another excellent work on language is Concerning the League: The Iroquois League Tradition as Dictated in Onondaga by John Arthur Gibson (Syracuse University Press, 1992), edited by Hanni Woodbury. This interlinear English-Onondaga translation of the Great Law of the Iroquois is one of the vital documents of world history, and students are stimulated by the power of its message of free- dom and dedication to democratic principles. Women students are often surprised to find that the Iroquois constitution specifically condemns rape. With such insights, students are imbued early in the course with the realities and values of American Indian people.
While linguistic works should be used sparingly, they can have a significant impact upon students who have never dealt with Native voices. Although the standard approach to the teaching of Native American history involves the chronicling of Indian-white relations, a commonsense approach to the language and great works of American Indian culture can make an American Indian history course (or portions of a U.S. survey course) more than a largely negative examination of Indian-white relations since it avoids the conquest mentality and gets "inside" the culture of Indian America.
Reexamining Method and Perspective
The next step is to discuss the methodological problems of American Indian history from a variety of viewpoints. The American Indian and the Problem of History (Oxford University Press, 1987), edited by Calvin Martin, is a good introduction. A more exhaustive methodological examination from an essentially Native American viewpoint is in The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance (South End Press, 1992), edited by Annette Jaimes (Yaqui/Juaneno).
Since language creates images, I sensitize students to the problems of the European image of American Indians by assigning Ronald Takaki's "The 'Tempest' in the Wilderness: The Racialization of Savagery" in his A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Oxford University Press, 1993). It is an excellent interpretive overview of the literature on this topic with extensive bibliographic citations. Also, Ward Churchill's (Cherokee/Metis) Fantasies of the Master Race contains an Indian's assessment of these image issues.
After dealing with language, methodology, and perceptions, I often require an essay that analyzes the history of American colonization from an Indian perspective, and Deloria's afterword in America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples before the Arrival of Columbus (Vintage Books, 1993) is excellent.
Rereading Early Contacts, Conquests, Reservations, and Sovereignty
For a provocative analysis of the perceptual pitfalls inherent in colonial sources that deal with American Indians, see Karen O. Kupperman's Settling with Indians. Kupperman asserts that people with sustained contact with Indians (e.g., traders and missionaries) wrote more favorably and reliably about Native peoples than did colonial administrators whose rhetoric served the interests of empire. She notes by way of introduction that
modern descriptions of the meeting between Indians and the English colonists generally agree that the English were abruptly dismissive of Indian culture, that they were either totally disinterested or saw it as something to be shunned or even destroyed as the work of the devil. My reading ... yielded a very different result, and one that seemed to me to make better sense of this early cross-cultural confrontation.9
To promote discussion, Kupperman's views can be juxtaposed with more conventional conquest histories like Francis Jennings's The Invasion of America (Norton, 1976) and James Axtell's After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (Oxford University Press, 1988). Wilbur Jacob's Dispossessing the American Indian (University of Oklahoma, 1985) seeks a middle ground in the debate over the progress of empire. Indian Roots of American Democracy (AKWE:KON/Cornell University Press, 1992), edited by Jose Barreiro (Taino), deals with colonial interactions from a Native American viewpoint. Jack D. Forbes's (Powhatan/Lenape) A World Ruled by Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Aggression, Violence, and Imperialism (DQ University Press, 1979) is a good Native view of the horrors of colonization.
The shift from European conquest to conquest by the United States is the focus of Barbara Graymont's The Iroquois and the American Revolution (Syracuse University Press, 1972). For a wider view of the American Indian impact on the Revolution, see Donald A. Grinde, Jr. (Yamasee) and Bruce E. Johansen, Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy (University of California Regents and UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 1991).
During the early national and Jacksonian periods, treaty making, land cessions, missionization, and removal become the keystones of U.S. Indian policy. Bernard Sheehan's Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian (Norton, 1974) and Michael P. Rogin's Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (Vintage, 1976) are useful interpretive works to consult. Arthur H. DeRosier, Jr.'s The Removal of the Choctaw Indians (Harper, 1972) and Richard White's Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (University of Nebraska, 1983) analyze the impact of the above policies on American Indian peoples. R. David Edmund's (Cherokee) Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership (Little, Brown, 1984) is an effective undergraduate text that chronicles American Indian resistance to land grabbing in the Old Northwest. For a Native American analysis of adaptation to removal, see Rennard Strickland (Cherokee), Fire and the Spirits: Cherokee Law from Clan to Court (University of Oklahoma Press, 1975).
When removal ends, the reservation era begins, and ethnocide replaces genocide as a policy. Robert Trennert's Alternative to Extinction: Federal Indian Policy and the Beginnings of the Reservation System, 1846–1851 (Temple University Press, 1975) examines this tradition in Indian policy. William H. Armstrong's Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief (Syracuse University Press, 1978) is an excellent biography of the first Native American commissioner of Indian affairs. Frederick E. Hoxie's A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 1989) and Francis P. Prucha's American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865–1900 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1976) provide valuable insights into the real and ideal aspects of American Indian assimilationist programs at the end of the nineteenth century. The disastrous policy of dividing reservations into family plots, called allotments, is treated cogently in Leonard A. Carlson's Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land: The Dawes Act and the Decline of Indian Farming (Greenwood, 1981).
As the twentieth century begins, the idea of American Indian self-determination and sovereignty becomes a debatable topic in more enlightened circles. The best one-volume study of twentieth-century American Indians is Stephen Cornell's (Ojibway) The Return of the Native: American Indian Political Resurgence (Oxford University Press, 1988). James S. Olson and Raymond Wilson's Native Americans in the Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press, 1984) is a good synthesis of current scholarship, but it is marred by their misunderstanding of American Indian militant groups. The Indian New Deal sought to abandon ethnocide, and Kenneth R. Philp's John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920–1954 (University of Arizona Press, 1977) is the best examination of that era. A handy study that portrays the Native American reaction to the Indian New Deal and subsequent policies is Hazel W. Hertzberg's The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan Indian Movements (Syracuse University Press, 1971). Alison R. Bernstein's American Indians and World War II (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) is the best treatment of the 1940s.
After World War II, Native people saw a return to ethnocidal policies, and Donald L. Fixico's (Shawnee/Sac and Fox/Creek/Seminole) Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945–1960 (University of New Mexico Press, 1990) chronicles these efforts.
Sun Chief: The Autobiography of a Hopi Indian (Yale University Press, 1971), edited by Leo W. Simmons, is a good account of American Indian life in both the Indian and non-Indian worlds in the early twentieth century. Similarly, Thomas E. Mails' Fools Crow (University of Nebraska Press, 1990) is a penetrating biographical analysis of a Sioux medicine man's life from the 1930s to the 1980s. Deloria's Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Avon, 1970) and We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf (Dell, 1970) are still the two best classic and witty statements about the contemporary American Indian dilemma. The most readable study of the FBI's war against the American Indian Movement in the 1970s is Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (Penguin Books, 1992). A sensitive autobiography from this era is Lakota Woman (Harper, 1990) by Mary Crow Dog (Sioux) with Richard Erdoes.
For an interpretive work with a distinctly Native American perspective that challenges conventional views on American Indian history, see Oren Lyons (Onondaga), John Mohawk (Seneca), et al., Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations, and the U.S. Constitution (Clear Light Publishers, 1992). There are many overviews and textbooks that give the uninitiated a functional introduction to American Indian history. Some of the best are Philip Weeks, The American Indian Experience: A Profile (Forum Press, 1988); Edward H. Spicer, A Short History of the Indians of the United States (Krieger Publishing Company, 1983); Angie Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States (University of Oklahoma Press, 1977); Arrell M. Gibson, The American Indian: Prehistory to Present (D.C. Heath, 1980); and Harold E. Fey and D'Arcy McNickle (Flathead), Indians and Other Americans: Two Ways of Life Meet (Harper and Row, 1970).
A Litmus Test for Five Hundred Years of Destruction
The litmus test for a good Native American history course (or a U.S. survey course that effectively examines Indians) is how the five-hundred-year destruction of Native America is treated. Most non-Indian accounts (including the government's interpretation) use "population decline," "population change," or "depopulation" as terms to describe what most American Indian scholars call "genocide." Recently, James Axtell absolved all Euroamericans (except for a few "homicidal maniacs") of any role in the Native American holocaust. In defending European behavior in the Americas, Axtell even argues in Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial America (Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 467) that in modern Europe itself "only a small and pernicious cadre of Nazis was guilty for all six million Jewish deaths." In Axtell's eyes, those who support racist governments and ideologies are not guilty of genocide. While the conquerors have a right to their view, I make sure my students come to grips with other arguments that do not minimize genocide in the Americas.
For example, David Stannard's American Holocaust (Oxford University Press, 1993) views Native American genocide as a more thorough and complete process than the Jewish holocaust. Russell Thornton's (Cherokee) American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1990) is a helpful demographic work. However, some American Indian scholars are critical of Thornton's work. For instance, see Lenore Stiffarm (Gros Ventre) and Phil Lane, Jr., "The Demography of Native America: A Question of Indian Survival" in Jaimes' State of Native America, and "In Search of a Second Harvest" in Marxism and Native Americans (South End Press, 1983), edited by Ward Churchill. Environmental alterations borne out of the European encounter are treated in William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang, 1983), Calvin Martin's Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade (University of California Press, 1978), and J. Donald Hughes's American Indian Ecology (Texas Western Press, 1983).
No Native American history or U.S. survey course is complete without an examination of the tribal viewpoint. John Stands In Timber (Cheyenne) and Margot Liberty's Cheyenne Memories (University of Nebraska Press, 1991) and Alfonso Ortiz's (San Ildefonso Pueblo) The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being, and Becoming in a Pueblo Society (University of Chicago Press, 1969) are two excellent works that explore tribal history and experience from the "inside" out. Similarly, the D'Arcy McNickle Center for the History of the American Indian at Chicago's Newberry Library has encouraged the development of many tribal histories over the years and can be contacted for details. Since effective teachers need to know where to go for help and information, the D'Arcy McNickle Center is a major focal point for the study and teaching of American Indian history, and its publications and symposia are highly recommended. W. R. Swagerty, ed., Scholars and the Indian Experience: Critical Reviews of Recent Writing in the Social Sciences (Indiana University Press, 1984) is a useful survey of the literature (the Newberry Library aided in its publication). Terry P. Wilson's (Potawatomi) Teaching American Indian History (American Historical Association, 1993) is another useful handbook with an excellent bibliography. Also, UCLA and Cornell University have excellent American Indian Studies programs with extensive publications that give voice to a multitude of Native American perspectives and issues. Tribal colleges like Sinte Gleske College (Sioux) and Navajo Community College also publish many helpful pamphlets and books. Useful journals include Akwekon Journal (formerly Northeast Indian Quarterly), American Indian Culture and Research Journal, and the American Indian Quarterly.
Reclaiming Native American History to Address Misperception
When teaching, one deals from one's strengths, especially when embarking on such a multifaceted task as the teaching of American Indian history in a survey or even a specialized course; the above themes and bibliographic selections reflect mine. There are other sources and methods available, and I regret I could not mention many important works in this short essay. Independent reading, research, and writing will also expand one's vistas. In addition, I never fail to remind students that American Indian history is about human beings in the Americas, not "savages," "heathens," or "natives." Finally, any course in American history should address the historical misrepresentations Chief Luther Standing Bear (Sioux) observed a couple of generations ago: "The white man excused his presence here by saying that he had been guided by the will of God. ... There ensued a blind worship of written history ... [and] of the written word."10
To redress the current historical imbalance, Native Americans must reclaim their history so that the pitfalls of victimization, stereotyping, marginalization, and cultural arrogance are avoided. In the end, a critical and potent Native voice in the historical discourse will enrich the multivocality of American history and widen our perspectives.
2. Since Native American studies programs and scholars use both "American Indian" and "Native American," I freely use both terms here. People arguing the "political correctness" of either term are often dodging tougher questions.
3. See George F. Will, "Compassion on Campus," Newsweek, May 31, 1993, for his ad hominem comments about minority history. See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Disuniting of America (Knoxville: New Agenda, 1991) where he states that America's strength is its ability to create a nation "from pieces of ... diverse racial, religious, and ethnic origins" (p. 80). Schlesinger ignores America's oldest "disuniting" ethnic policy, the genocide and ethnocide of American Indian people.
4. See James Axtell, The European and the Indian (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 10, and James Axtell to William Fenton, September 10, 1975, in William N. Fenton Papers, American Philosophical Society, for Axtell's analysis of the perils of the genetic fallacy.
8. Jimmie Durham and Jean Fisher, "The Ground Has Been Covered," Artforum (summer 1988): 101–102. See also Edward Said, "Representing the Colonized: Anthropology's Interlocutors," Critical Inquiry 15 (winter 1989) for anthropology's role in subjugation. James Clifford's Predicament of Culture (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1989) develops these themes as well. For a good treatment of these issues from a Native American viewpoint, see Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema, and the Colonization of American Indians (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1992).
—Donald A. Grinde, Jr. (Yamasee), teaches United States and American Indian history at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He held the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian History at the University of California at Riverside from 1989 to 1991. He is currently completing a book on American Indian ecologies and editing an American revolutionary era pamphlet relating to the Iroquois.