Indians of North America

Nov 15th, 1994 | By | Category: 6-3: Philanthropy, Media Reviews

THE CROW COVERFrank Porter III, General Editor
Chelsea House Publishers

Review by Gregory Gagnon

History Lessons

American Indian people and teachers have long lamented the absence of respectfully written histories of Indian peoples that are also dependably researched. For introductory texts studies of war abound, as do National Geographic style “gee-whiz” descriptions of the exotic. The well-researched monographs are usually beyond young, beginning students.

Chelsea House Publishers’ Indians of North America series meets the need for introductory students and provides a bonus. Until this series, the members of smaller tribes have not had a readable single volume history. Now there are 63 syntheses of research on individual smaller tribes and some collective topics like Indian women. Individual studies synthesize tribal histories from Abenaki to Zuni.

Professor Porter, general editor of the series, describes its intent as giving “all Americans a greater comprehension of the issues and conflicts involving American Indians today.” Porter and, one hopes, Chelsea House Publishers, feel that history and culture studies can provide that comprehension. After reviewing about twenty of these roughly 120 page books, it is clear that the series offers excellent and readable beginnings for those of us who try to interest others in American Indian Studies. Ironically, but not unexpectedly, most of the authors in the series have the greatest difficulty treating the period since World War II. Alas, we Indians seem doomed to be defined mainly by the distant past and our adherence to apparently traditional practices.

The series follows a relatively simple pattern: Ask scholars to write books about the tribe they have studied, assign a for- mat and page limit, provide a staff to assist and publish the books rapidly. Curiously, the publishers have failed to provide the degree of advertising in Indian Country which could really have stimulated widespread use of the series. None of the librarians, principals, Indian education coordinators, high school teachers or tribal college Indian studies teachers with whom I spoke during the past three years have ever heard of the series. It is another irony that Indian people are not informed of what is going on in Indian studies.

Each tribal history follows the same format within the roughly 120 pages allotted. A description of creation traditions, history before the arrival of Europeans, European contact effects, reservation creation, the status of tribal members and the reservation today. Each has a pictorial feature and a short bibliography. The books are written (at least the ones I have reviewed) by non-Indians. This does not bother me as much as it does the politically correct, as I accept outsiders for what they know and, as a scholar should, for whether their work is respectful and con- forms to standards of scholarship. I have read too many sup- posed histories written by Indians about their own tribes which are really wishful metahistories which embarrass us all. There are sound Indian scholars and their numbers are growing but one suspects that if each Indian with graduate training in history or anthropology had written one book in this series, there would still be a majority written by non- Indians.

For this review, I have selected five which illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the series: Dean Snow’s The Archaeology of North America (1989); Helen Hornbeck Tanner’s The Ojibway (1992); Frederick E. Hoxie’s The Crow (1989); Stan Hoig’s The Cheyenne (1989) and Mary Jane Schneider’s The Hidatsa (1989). Archaeology is problematical for many of my tribal college students and not a few of my col­leagues. However much of what we know about our ancestors derives from these meticulous delvers. Professor Snow of Suny-Albany provides a good introduction the uses and abuses of archaeology. The Beringia pathways are succinctly summarized. Conservative short sum­maries of the archaeology of each geographic-cultur­al lay a solid foundation. I would have preferred more on the increasing evidence of the Mississippian tradition and its apparent expan­sionist patterns. Despite short statements to the contrary, Snow leaves the impression that each “tra­dition” existed as a tiny discrete society rather than being intermingled within a network of wide­spread cultures and poli­ties. Students need to understand the reality of Indian societies as urban in the same sense as European and Asian poli­ties were—unfortunately this antidote to common perceptions is still needed. Despite my few objec­tions, my colleagues should appreciate this study: I know my students do as I tried it out on some of them.

Helen Hornbeck Tanner, author of The Ojibway, is better known for bibliographic work and treaty-related testimony than for general audience publications. She does a marvelous job of blending Ojibway oral tradition with the historical record. As might be expected, Tanner’s description of Ojibway legal resistance to encroachment and the Voight decision back- ground are the strengths of this book. As a member of the Bad River Band, I would have liked to see more on our place in Ojibway history but with over 100 Ojibway reservation and reserves, choices are difficult. My only serious complaint is one of style as the Ojibway do not emerge as engaging because there are too many “movements” and not enough people. As an historian I welcome the book and hope colleagues in Anishinabe country add it to their libraries.

The best of the series sampled for this review is Frederick Hoxie’s The Crow. Its strength is a measured consideration of the “Children of the Long-Beaked Bird.” The Crow developed a complex response to their needs and to the challenges confronting a small tribe menaced by Lakota, Cheyenne, Blackfoot and others amidst the western movement of the Americans. Crow leaders stand revealed as skilled diplomats who made logical choices among ever more distasteful options.

Hoxie humanizes his study through the careers of eminent Crow leaders. Sword Bearer, Plenty Coups, Pretty Eagle, Robert Yellowtail and William Big Day, among others, enliven a history of a people. The infamous Crow kinship terminology (or is it the Omaha kin­ship terminology that is infamous among stu­dents?) is presented but Hoxie obscures rather than clarifies which proves that even the best writers have problems. It is clear that Hoxie respects the Crow and knows their history. He does not evade assessment of Crow lead­ership problems nor blame non-Indians of all Crow social problems. This is refreshing.

Mary Jane Schneider, an anthropologist who specializes in traditional arts, handles the difficult history of the Hidatsa well. As a smaller tribe, Hidatsa sources are scant. This requires Schneider to place Hidatsa history in the context of the riverine societies and of the affili­ated Mandan and Arikara. Schneider provides a nice discussion of plains arche­ology and several fine ethnographic essays describing the ideal roles of Hidatsa men and women. One entire chap­ter focuses on the social, economic and political consequences of the Garrison Dam, “the most disastrous of all the changes endured by the Hidatsa.” The Dam sim­ply symbolizes the arro­gance of a dominant soci­ety and the limited responses possible for a tiny tribe. Unfortunately, many of the photos and reproductions are Mandan which emphasizes the dif­ficulties faced in selecting a tribe for a separate his­tory when the tribe is inextricably blended with other tribes.

Stan Hoig’s The Cheyenne is a disappoint­ment because it does not rise to the standards of the others in the series. Scholars like Moore, Grinnell and Powell have provided an excellent base of ethnographic data on which Hoig does not capi­talize. The events described in Sandoz’s Cheyenne Autumn offered a neglected opportunity for high drama. To be fair, Professor Hoig does pro­vide solid information for American-Cheyenne war­fare. The Cheyenne of today receive a two para­graph treatment. Despite its limitations, this work is better than most for young readers.

The Indians of North America series should be purchased by every school and college in Indian country. It may be prefer­able for each nation to write its own history for its youth but until we do, these attractively packaged texts prepared by recog­nized scholars define the field. I just hope that our students get the opportu­nity to appreciate them.

Gregory Gagnon teaches at Oglala Lakota College.

Find similar:

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.