The Shoshoneans: The People of the Basin-Plateau (expanded edition)

May 2nd, 2015 | By | Category: 26-4: Tribal College Governance, Media Reviews
By Gregory E. Smoak

The Shoshoneans: The People of the Basin-PlateauBy Edward Dorn, Photographs by Leroy Lucas
Edited by Matthew Hofer, Foreword by Simon J. Ortiz
University of New Mexico Press (2013)
166 pages

Review by Gregory E. Smoak

Originally published in 1966, The Shoshoneans is the late poet Ed Dorn’s account of his journey through the Indian country of the northern Great Basin in the summer of 1965. In his new foreword, Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) rightly situates the work in the social activism and unrest of that tumultuous decade.

The Shoshoneans should also be understood as a study of place. From the Indian colonies of Reno, Winnemucca, and Elko to the Duck Valley and Fort Hall reservations, Dorn paints a picture of life through his encounters with individual Shoshones and Paiutes. He never assumes the role of a cultural insider, nor should he, rather he comes across as a conscious outsider seeking authenticity in Native communities and trying to understand how one might maintain identity amidst gaudy casinos or hostile border towns. The cultural context he does provide is clearly informed by mid-20th century ethnographers, most notably Julian Steward.

Dorn’s travelling companion, the African American photographer Leroy Lucas, contributed the volume’s striking images. Many are portraits, ranging from hip young urban Indians to the 102-year-old Willie Dorsey. In order to photograph a Sun Dance at Fort Hall, Lucas was required to help build the dance arbor and participate in the ceremony itself.

Those looking for a comprehensive historical or ethnographic study will likely be disappointed. Yet thought of as a time capsule, Dorn’s words and Lucas’ photographs capture the economic poverty and cultural wealth of one corner of Native America in the 1960s.

Gregory E. Smoak, Ph.D., is director of the American West Center and an associate professor of history at the University of Utah.

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