Published Date

January 1, 1996

From Why Become a Historian? (1996)

Arizona State University

Why would anyone want to become a historian? History graduate students must jump through a series of intellectual hoops in a program of study that often takes as long to complete as one for becoming a brain surgeon. After finally earning the coveted degree, historians often slave many hours per week over dusty documents, searching vainly for an elusive piece of missing evidence, and they endure interruptions by loving family members and eager (or disgruntled) students. We must juggle our precious time to keep abreast of new publications as they flow from the publishers, to attend scholarly conferences, and to publish our own research. Furthermore, we often teach students who are more committed to unraveling the mysticism of MTV than discovering historical truths. Yet many stimulating challenges, if not monetary awards, await socially conscious historians.

Before the social upheaval of the late 1960s and 1970s brought greater diversity into American universities and colleges, nonminorities produced virtually all historical studies. Some of these works are fundamentally sound, but many others contain glaring cultural biases, misconceptions, and omissions. Unfortunately, there have been scholars who view the past experiences of nonwhites as being relatively unimportant in the context of national development. For this reason, among others, society needs large numbers of minority historians—American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans—to examine the history of the American people from an inclusive, multicultural perspective.

The history world especially lacks American Indian input. To date, it appears that no more than two dozen Indians have earned a doctorate in history, meaning that most of the literature in the field of Indian history has been conceptualized by non-Indian scholars, including many who never visited the people they study. Consequently, native viewpoints and insights about historical processes, although growing in number, are dwarfed by the abundance of writings by non-Indians.

Aside from research, writing, and teaching, Indian historians can participate in many significant activities. Community needs offer us an opportunity to become involved in meaningful research in such issues as Indian burial and religious rights. I have assisted my tribe, the Pawnee, to identify ancestral remains now sequestered at the Smithsonian Institution for the purposes of repatriation and proper reburial. Moreover, documentary filmmakers working with Indian topics are for the first time seeking the expertise and insights of native scholars. History has enabled me not only to write and teach about Indian culture and experiences, but it has also allowed me the chance to help correct historical injustices. That is why I became a historian.

Because a great deal of work still needs to be done, Indian undergraduate students should consider pursuing a PhD in history. Although the financial compensation in history is not large, the rewards for producing meaningful studies and aiding Indian nations are.

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