Licensed trafficking and ethnogenetic engineering.
In selecting certain books for prizes, committees of historians award the images put forth in those books. Those images then become the likeliest candidates for inclusion in textbooks and transmission into the American historical consciousness. A pair of recent prize-winners illustrate the historians' license to imagine Native America.
The Middle Ground: Indian& Empire& and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815(2) by Richard White is an excellent work according to historians' standards. In recounting the crisis over control of the Ohio Valley, for example, White takes an innovative down-river vantage and evades the reader's assumption that the events were inevitable. One hardly expects the decisive battle at Fallen Timbers until it is over.(30 The book is full of such gems.
The problem with The Middle Ground stems from the author's distance from the people whose histories he examines. White is writing about the histories of Winnebagos, Wyandots, Seneca-Cayugas, Shawnees, Delawares, and other tribes whose members are present today on our social landscape. To someone acquainted with those tribes, his brilliant paragraphs are disappointing. He is not recovering a segment of their past, but toying with a story severed safely from their present. He simply ignores the people whose history he is examining.(4) That approach to the writing of history resembles the familiar pattern of extraction of Native resources such as timber and minerals by outside interests that give back nothing to the Native community and move on when the easy profits play out. Committees of the Society of American Historians(5) and the Organization of American Historians awarded prizes to The Middle Ground, tacitly endorsing its method.
Ignoring a people's living generations accords with the historians' superstition that the distant past can be seen more objectively than recent times. This superstition rationalizes an important taboo against examining the recent past. Thus, historians ignore the persistence among white Americans of cultural traits advantageous to them at the expense of the tribes. The dishonoring of treaties reflects such traits, and the Lakotas and the Newes can attest that Americans still do that. Still, a writer in The New Yorker can refer to the heyday of the Wild West shows as "the decades following the sack of Indian culture"(6) as though, for example, the Lakotas' Black Hills and the Newes' (or Western Shoshones') lands known as Newe Segobia (or much of present Nevada) were not contested today, and as though vigorous examples of "Indian culture" did not depend on the integrity of those lands.(7) The taboo enjoins historians from pointing out that the sacking continues.(8)
So Richard White's "new Indian history"(9) beheads the tribes in his story by disregarding their living generations. Such a mutilation can hardly be termed Indian history. The tribes keep their own histories, which often begin and end with the living. White's is a retelling of his own people's account of their long-ago dealings with the tribal nations. That story needed updating for this generation, and White has retooled it in accord with the American hegemonic myth, which leans heavily on the fiction that the consequences of American aggressions are safely in the past.
White trivializes the tribes with his decision to misclassify a disparate assortment of tribal groups under the single and inaccurate label "the Algonquians."(10) If one can accept the grouping of the tribal peoples by nontribal scholars into large categories according to esoterically perceived relations among their languages--and some tribal thinkers cannot--one may reasonably prefer that the writer keep to his own categories. Scholars classify as Algonquians the tribes whose languages are related to that of a people once labeled "the Algonkins."(11) Shawnees, Delawares, Kickapoos, and Anishinabes (Chippewas) speak languages like that. Wyandots (Huron-Petuns), Seneca-Cayugas (Mingos), and Winnebagos do not, but White calls them Algonquians anyway. Wyandot and Seneca-Cayuga languages are related to the "Iroquoian" languages of the six Haudenosaunee nations, the Cherokees, and others. The Winnebago language is "Siouan," related to languages of the Iowas, the Otoe-Missourias, and others.
Throughout Native America, related languages contribute to the complex network of families and tribes that has integrated this hemisphere since long before Europeans arrived. Each tribal person has a place in that network. Native scholars should be wary of relinquishing the network in its full complexity as a model of history.(12) Although White acknowledges the network and gives it some attention, he abandons it when he applies the label the Algonquians. He opts instead for the "definition of Native Americans . . . as a separate and single other" that Robert F. Berkhofer Jr. describes in The White Man's Indian,(13) a book about white people and images that they have conceived.
This is no quibble. White's reductionism occurs under a license that has real-world repercussions. Where a Winnebago may be taken for an Algonquian, a red pickup may be taken for a red-and-white van as in the case against Leonard Peltier.(14) License to trivialize significant distinctions is a consequential matter. Who decides what is significant, and who benefits?
"The Winnebagos were Siouan," White admits,(15) ignoring an opportunity to acknowledge that they still are. What must Winnebago historian David Smith and his tribespeople think about being conjugated out of the Siouan language family? Although historians resist the temptation to speak of a living colleague as though he or she were dead, casting an entire nation into past tense meets the profession's standard. Thus historiography nurtures Americans' default impulse to vanish the Indian.
Another unwelcome survivor in the historiographic medium is the long list of epithets that Americans apply to Native groups. When White writes about Hurons and Mingos, he is preserving ethnic slurs against ancestors of living peoples. Huron appears to have originated among French persons as an aspersion on the hair style of Wendat or Wyandot[te] ancestors.(16) The Mingos of White's narrative survive today as the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe. Mingo is identified as an Algonquian word meaning "stealthy, treacherous."(17) Wyandot and Seneca-Cayuga are perfectly good names, and to ignore them in favor of outsiders' labels is a violation of simple etiquette that historians would not allow in other contexts. Imagine introducing two colleagues at a reception: "Lydia, have you met Charles?" If Lydia should respond, "How do you do, Chickenlips?" there would be consequences. Who licensed historians to insult entire nations in the same manner?
It may be argued that the epithets Huron and Mingo are venerable old insults that have entered standard English, that the groups so labeled were not identical to their descendants of today, and that redressing the epithets would clutter the writer's prose. Nevertheless, the historian who ignores a people while insulting their ancestors expropriates their history. This is one of those messy value conflicts.
White's disregard for the tribes whose histories he extracts is well within historiographic tradition. His image of long-gone, alien, and ultimately trivial peoples rationalizes his own people's present relations with them. By ignoring the living communities that derive from those histories, White appears to regard their members as irrelevant to the discussion of their own pasts at the standard that the historians' profession upholds. How high is that standard?
In When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846,(18) Ramon A. Gutierrez violates a list of fundamental procedures of the historians' method. He neglects to cite the sources of some of his provocative statements of "fact," for example, and he misrepresents material from sources that he cites.(19) In writing about Native peoples of New Mexico, Gutierrez exercises the historians' license to trivialize significant distinctions: He generalizes the varied ethnographies of the disparate Pueblos into a single composite description, and he cites irrelevant descriptions of non-Puebloan peoples in support of a point about "Puebloan" behavior.(20) Again, one recalls Berkhofer's dictum. Although Gutierrez fails various scholarly standards, he does uphold the historians' cherished superstition that the act of writing launders inaccuracy from an account. His reliance on Spanish colonial sources--mostly Franciscans--to inform his description of sixteenth-century "Puebloan" culture yields a grotesque, unsubstantiable, and highly marketable image of the Pueblos as a set of aboriginal Gomorrahs peopled by naked, screwing women and men who thought of themselves as "two-legged deer."(21) When challenged by historians--both traditional and scholarly--from the Pueblos, Gutierrez insists that he arrived at that description by following the historical method. He dismisses the opportunity to balance Franciscans' distortions with traditional histories from the Pueblos on the ground that unwritten accounts are outside the historian's purview.(22) TedJojola of Isleta Pueblo replies that because the traditional histories kept at the Pueblos are sacred, their accuracy is guarded diligently enough to make them suitable source matter for scholars.(23) Satirizing Gutierrez's method, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz bases an examination of the Catholic past on such observers of Catholicism as Moors, Sephardic Jews, Luther, Calvin, Planned Parenthood, and the Ku Klux Klan, while ignoring Catholic sources on a flimsy pretext.(24)
Despite his mauling of Native history, Gutierrez's colleagues leapt to reward his book. In the New York Times Book Review, Patricia Nelson Limerick declared it "as thoroughly researched as academic history gets."(25) It received at least ten prizes, including one from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association and two from the Organization of American Historians. Only later did careful reviews begin to appear, notably by historians Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Ralph Vigil, and John Kessell, each of whom had examined Gutierrez's sources and found the inadequacies in his use of them.(26) But the book was already a success. By citing (however inaccurately) written sources (however ignorant), Gutierrez had performed an essential rite of the historical method, and his colleagues were satisfied.
Most historians seem to condone Gutierrez's bizarre imagining of Pueblo peoples, and more than one has remarked privately that those who object to his distortions should stop complaining and write their own versions. Historians do not deserve that luxury, however, of dismissing such historiographic distortion as a harmless postmodern exercise. Distorted images have served repeatedly to justify invasions of communities and murders of families, as, infamously, the misconception of the Ghost Dance provided the rationale for the atrocity against families at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. Similarly, this generation has seen atrocities at Pine Ridge, presumably at Duck Valley, and elsewhere rationalized by distorted images of Oglala people and the American Indian Movement. Rather than reward distortions, the community of scholars is supposed to provide a corrective context for an individual scholar's excesses. In the case of When Jesus came, the historians bailed out.
If the prize-winning works by Richard White and Ramon Gutierrez are exemplars of American historiography, then the American historian's Indian conforms to Berkhofer's observation: "the essence of the White image of the Indian has been the definition of Native Americans in fact and fancy as a separate and single other."(27) Historians see the tribal peoples as separate enough to fall outside the profession's usual standards and trivial enough to be lumped into broad nonsensical categories. Under the historians' license, moreover, esteemed scholars fashion images of the tribal peoples from inferior matter, because historians' sources are from outside the tribes (that is, secondary) by definition, and matter deriving from tribal (that is, primary) sources is considered categorically dismissable. Historians reverse the precedence of sources in the discussion of Indians, reviewers look the other way, prize committees reward the most lurid images, the increasingly commercialized scholarly publishing industry calls for more of that toy-Indian product, and by some process of ethnogenetic engineering, monsters like Gutierrez's Puebloan Woman Doll come onto the market. White's Algonquian is better-documented but no less disturbing: That product line leads off with a brown child with a stake through its head.(28)
White's staked child is a documentary image whose use falls well within the standard of historiography. Its murderers are bloodthirsty Native cannibals: Senecas brutalizing Miami children. The prominence of that imagery in the opening pages of a prize-winning work of American historiography challenges the reader to seek other images among the prize-winners to balance the lurid appeal of that one.
Tribal people have never been able to stop the traffic in distorted and sensationalized imagery, but the institutional framework of scholarship might be used to discourage that traffic on the supply side while promoting the development of healthier products. One promising approach frames an article by historian James H. Merrell, who surveyed the literature in colonial United States history published from 1968 through 1988 to determine whether recent findings in ethnohistory were having any influence.(29) He found that his colleagues, with few exceptions, were still repeating debunked myths about colonial America. He epitomized his finding with a biting composite statement in the words of recent writers, who saw the tribes as "part of the landscape" or "savage foes" and were still insisting that Europeans in America had settled a "trackless wilderness."(30) An editor of a Native studies journal would be in a good position to coordinate a periodic review along the lines of Merrell's.
The Cherokee Nation took an effective approach in September 1993 by sponsoring a conference on their own history at Park Hill, Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma. Participants included many of the major scholars who write about Cherokee history. The success of that conference suggests it as a model for Native groups seeking to participate in the discussion of their past.
Finally, historians from the tribes might meet the prize committees head-on by honoring responsible works selected according to responsible standards. A suitable institutional home for such an honor might be found within the tribal college system. The honored writers might be rewarded with something of value other than money, bestowed on an occasion other than a banquet. An annual prize for Indian history, a periodic review, and participation by the nations in the scholarly discourse might provide gates that historians' images of the tribes must pass on the road to the textbooks and into the mind of America.
(1). It is no surprise that American historians differentiate between tribal peoples' history and their own. Americans apply separate standards to tribal and non-tribal people in laws regarding land tenure (unless the common standard is whether one's ancestors were Christians at the turn of the sixteenth century). Americans are governed by a constitution that guarantees freedom of religion to them, while their economic growth dines routinely on the tribes' sacred sites. Even English grammar sets the tribes apart: The "ethnic plural" prescribes a separate rule for pluralizing the names of tribes, separating us grammatically with phrases such as "The Kiowa are...". Yes it do.
(2). Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Cambridge Studies in North American Indian History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
(3). Ibid., pp. 420-68.
(4). White dismisses the living tribes by dismissing the method known as upstreaming (p. xiv). Upstreaming is a method of speculating about the histories of communities of people. The stream is a metaphor for time; upstream is towards the past. The scholar identifies an element of a people's culture and speculates that it might have been part of the culture of their ancestors. Obviously, upstreaming can identify only traits that have persisted. It also provides a valuable check: If a trait is present today, historians who declare it absent previously have some obligation to account for its appearance. In any case, upstreaming is a separate issue from whether one should ignore a people while extracting their history.
(5). The Francis Parkman Prize, named for a man who wrote, "Indian traditions of historical events are usually almost worthless" (quoted in Francis Jennings, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire [New York: Norton, 1984], p. 22, n. 39). Here is a case where American historians might respond to Patricia Nelson Limerick's hope, "[d]efending the integrity of the [history] profession...that one's ethnocentric predecessors can be credibly and rapidly disowned" (The Legacy of Conquest The Unbroken Part of the American West [New York: Norton, 1987], p. 219).
(6). Mark Stevens, "Chief Joseph's Revenge," The New Yorker, August 8, 1994, p. 30.
(7). The newspaper Indian Country Today (formerly Lakota Timer), the electronic newsgroups soc.culture.native and alt.native, and the electronic mailing list Native-L are good sources for the recent history of the Black Hills claim and the dispute over Newe Segobia.
(8). Taboos are persistent too. Patricia Nelson Limerick produced an entire book, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Part of the American West, debunking for Western History the taboo against recognizing the continuity of past into present. Her chapter "The Persistence of Natives" (pp. 180-221) examines the "unbroken past" of the tribes. Her book is a huge success, but her colleagues remain unmindful of the connection between Native past and present.
(9). White, op. cit., p. xi.
(11). Frederick Webb Hodge, ea., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, 2 vols. (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1965 [1907-11]), vol. 1, p. 38.
(12). dames A. Clifton would prefer that we cease noting our tribal identities (which he understands in terms of genetics) in parentheses after our names. (James A. Clifton, "The Political Rhetoric of Indian History," The Annals of Iowa, 3d ser., 49:1,2 , p. 105.) The lamentable detribalization of white people does not obligate us, however, to detribalize ourselves. If we humored him, we could not recognize each other and respond from our respective positions within the network of tribal relations.
(13). Robert F. Berkhofer Jr, The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), p. xv.
(14). Peter Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (New York: Viking, 1991), p. 323, 358-59.
(15). White, op cit, p xi
(16). Hodge, op. cit., pp. 584. "Collectively the Huron...called themselves Ouendat (Wendat)," according to Conrad E. Heidenreich in the Handbook of North American Indians (v. 1-, ed. William C. Sturtevant [Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978-], v. 15: Northeast, ed. Bruce G. Trigger, p. 368). Historian Juanita McQuistion of the Wyandotte tribe] organization in Oklahoma says that her people do not use Huron, but the name is alive in a Huron Place Cemetery that Wyandots maintain in the Kansas City area. For more information about that group of Wyandots she refers a caller to a man who dives in that area and to an Indian center in Kansas City. She also suggests consulting the Lorette Hurons of Canada. A comment posted recently to an Internet newsgroup implies that Wendat is in use at Lorette. The next step in writing about "Hurons" would be to inquire of members of those Kansas City and Canadian communities.
(17). Hodge, op cit., p. 867. According to Roberta Smith at the offices of the Seneca-Cayuga Business Committee in Miami, Oklahoma, the name Mingo is not in use there and is unfamiliar.
(18). Ramon A. Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 15001846 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990).
(19). Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, commentary in "Commentaries on When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 15001846, by Ramon A. Gutierrez," comp. Native American Studies Center, University of New Mexico, American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17:3 (1993), pp. 154-58; John L. Kessell, review of When Jesus Came..., Pacific Historical Quarterly 62:3 (1993), pp. 36465; Ralph H. Vigil, "Inequality and Ideology in Border]ands Historiography," Latin American Research Review 29:1 (]994), pp. 163-64.
(20). Kessell, op. cit., 364; Vigil, op. cit., p. 163.
(21). Gutierrez, op. cit., p. 30.
(22). "Gutierrez Meets His Critics, Nov. 8, 1993," videotape, Native American Studies Center, the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1993. Upstreaming might further this discussion: Gutierrez ascribes certain sexual behaviors to Puebloan ancestors. Puebloan people object that his claims make no sense in terms of present Puebloan conceptions of gender. Rather than invoking the superstitious historians' tenet that excludes unwritten evidence, Gutierrez might attempt to understand Puebloan gender-based behaviors of the past in light of gender-based behaviors of today. He might try to explain, for example, just when and why those libidinous Puebloan women of his conception lost their zest for Catholic clerics.
(24). Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, "When Jan Huss, Martin Luther, and John Calvin Came, the Holy Mother Went Away: Marriage, Sex, and Power in Catholic Culture, 1 A.D. to 1541," unpublished essay.
(25). Patricia Nelson Limerick, "Stop Dancing or I'll Flog Myself," New York Times Book Review, July 12, 1992, p. 21.
(26). Ortiz, commentary, pp. 154 62; Vigil, op. cit., pp. 155-71; Kessell, op. cit., pp. 363-65. For a historian's summary of the reception of When Jesus Came, see John R. Wunder, "What's Old about the New Western History, Part 1: Race and Gender," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 85:2 (1994), pp. 56-57.
(27). Berkhofer, op. cit., p. xv.
(28) White, op. cit., pp. 4-5.
(29). James H. Merrell, "Some Thoughts on Colonial] Historians and American Indians William and Mary Quarterly 46 (1989), pp 94-119.
(30). Ibid., 98-99.
Susan A. Miller (Seminole) is an Instructor in the Department of History and the Native American Studies Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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|Title Annotation:||Writing About American Indians|
|Author:||Miller, Susan A.|
|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1996|
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