How have Historians' perceptions of Native Americans changed

In 1997, Kerwin Lee Klein, among others, observed that a wholesale change had occurred in how historians portrayed Native American history. Previously, historians and ethnographers had focused on “the tragedy of the vanishing Indian.”[1] Many Americans, even those sympathetic to Native Americans, argued that Indians ultimately faced extinction. Even though the continued survival of Native Americans undermined this argument, scholars were slow to reject it. The Native American rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s emphasized the persistence of Native Americans.

In the 1980s, this traditional narrative dramatically shifted. Instead of discussing the eventual demise or assimilation of Indians, scholars were accused of radically changing their story and started a “[t]ragicomic or even romantic telling of the heroic reinvention of Native American identity in the face of Euro-American oppression had overwritten ethnographic tragedies.”[2] While this criticism is perhaps overblown, it demonstrated that it was clear that scholars needed to explain the perseverance of Native Americans.

New Approaches to Native American History

Historians had abandoned the assimilation and extinction narratives because they were demonstrably false. Native populations and communities continued to persist and even thrive. Essentially, historians altered their narrative to reflect reality, but a heroic portrayal of Native American could potentially minimize the problems faced by Indian communities and the long history of abuse and neglect. Historians began to search for reasons revealing why Indians continued to endure under such difficult conditions.

While some earlier historians may have overplayed the “heroic reinvention of Native American identity,” several recent historians have written Indian tribal histories which have avoided natural explanations and attempted to create a sophisticated and nuanced body of literature that not only acknowledged Native American survival, but also sought to address the problems which threatened their existence. While each of these historians presents different Native American tribal histories, they seek to show how Indians adapted to monumental changes in their world and interacted with the recent European immigrants. This new literature incorporates cultural anthropology, archaeology, ethnography and history in an attempt to create more accurate, but messier portrayals of Native Americans.

This shift can be seen in several prominent general early histories of Native Americans. These new books fit into three categories: general early histories of Native Americans (Colin Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count, Richter’s Facing East From Indian Country), comprehensive histories of specific tribes (Richard White’s The Middle Ground, Ramon Guiterrez’s When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away, Jeffery Ostler’s The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, Elliot West’s The Contested Plains, Kathleen DuVal’s The Native Ground), and a 20th century Indian history (Charles Wilkenson’s Blood Struggle). While Klein essentially dismissed the work of ethnohistorians, these books have all been influenced in one way or another by ethnohistory and serve as a validation of this approach. Not only have these works been influenced by ethnography, but also each of these works is an excellent example of the new western history advocated by Patricia Limerick.

Rethinking Western American History

In Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Limerick attempted to synthesize the scholarship on the West to that point and provide a new approach for re-examining the West. First, she asked historians to think of the America West as a place and not as a movement. Second, she emphasized that the history of the American West was defined by conquest; “[c]onquest forms the historical bedrock of the whole nation, and the American West is a preeminent case study in conquest and its consequences.”[3]

Finally, she asked historians to eliminate the stereotypes from Western history and try to understand the complex relations between the people of the West. Even before Limerick’s manifesto, scholars were re-evaluating the West and its people, and its pace has only quickened. While each of these stories is ultimately a story of conquest, each of the historians attempted to demonstrate that Native peoples possessed some agency, even when the options were limited. While each of the historians acknowledges the importance of place in their works, westward expansion played a monumental role in their history.

These new works could be described as creating a New Indian history. As examples of the New Indian history these books have several similarities. These historians eliminated stereotypes in their books and attempt to more accurately portray Native Americans and their culture. They utilized traditional sources used by scholars, but several of them sought to incorporate anthropological evidence, oral history and even literary theory to develop a more nuanced and hopeful accurate representation of the native world. They often have explored the fluid nature of Native American tribal identity both before and after contact with the Europeans. They examined the devastating role disease played in the Native American world. Finally, they showed how Indians negotiated relationships with other tribes and European colonists. This paper will examine these similarities and explain why they are important. Ultimately, these works attempt to accurately explain how Native Americans attempted to survive extraordinarily trying circumstances without portraying Native Americans as heroic or tragic figures.

Aside from Blood Struggle, each of the book mentioned above provides an extensive history for each Native American tribes and groups discussed. Two of the books, Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country and Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count, are only concerned with early Native American history. While each of these books relied on sources used by past scholars, each of these historians used these old sources in new ways, incorporated anthropology and even used literary theory to understand Native Americans better. Many of the authors are actively attempting to revise previous historical interpretations of their subjects. While there are numerous examples of these efforts, I have highlighted three different examples which demonstrate how authors have used old evidence to revise old histories or develop startling new conclusions.

In Facing East From Indian Country, Richter analyzed several classic Native American figures from the seventeenth century. Using Pocahontas journals and other first-hand accounts of her life, Richter reconstructed her story very differently than earlier interpretations. Instead of lovesick young women, Richter describes a dutiful daughter who became embittered because she was trapped in a strange world.[4] Pocahontas was attempting to incorporate the English into the native world. Richter suggests that Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe represents “a road of intercultural cooperation not taken.”[5] He believed that Pocahontas’ marriage could have helped create a new understanding of the Native Americans. Richter is clearly attempting to move historians away from traditional interpretations of older sources. He uses these sources to develop theories which were diametrically opposed to the original views. While Richter’s interpretation of the story is somewhat speculative and impossible to verify, it serves as interesting model for reinterpreting old sources.

Gutierrez's When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away also uses traditional sources to reach new conclusions about Pueblo Indians sexual practices. Gutierrez analyzed several sources and determined that “[a]fter feeding, the activity of the greatest cultural import was sexual intercourse.” Additionally, he found that “[e]rotic behavior in its myriad of forms knew no boundaries of sex or age.”[6] These conclusions were drawn from sources that had been utilized before but had not elicited the same interpretation by any other historians. Essentially, Gutierrez speculated about the nature of Pueblo society from a few sources written primarily by outsiders. Gutierrez clearly hoped to redefine the role sex intercourse played in traditional perceptions of Pueblo Indians by reinterpreting past documents in highly original and new ways. Without directly reviewing Gutierrez’s source material, it is extremely difficult to evaluate the validity of his claims. But if his claims are true, they provide fascinating contrast to the sexual practices from their Spanish colonizers.

The Contested Plains authored by Elliot West explains how the horse fundamentally altered the culture of Indians on the Great Plains. West incorporated work from recent scholars to undermine an earlier and hugely influential argument the impact of the horse. The scholar in question, Clark Wissler, argued that the horse did not dramatically alter the lives of the Plains Indians.[7] West argued the introduction of the horse to the Great Plains fundamentally Native American lives. Just feeding and maintain horses required Native Americans to change their village structure and changed where they could live. Horses needed to close to both water and adequate grazing. Horses made it possible for Native Americans to successfully hunt buffalo and convinced the Cheyenne to change their way of life dramatically. Instead of agriculture, the Cheyenne became dependant on the massive buffalo herds of the Great Plains.

These are merely a few examples of how historians of the new Indian history are approaching new and old material. Richter sought to interpret personal diaries and first-hand accounts in fundamentally different ways. Gutierrez sought to reinterpret accounts from third parties to develop new understandings of Pueblo culture. While West relied on more recent anthropological data to revise previously problematic conclusions, these new interpretations can be useful and even compelling, but it is important to understand how and why they have veered away from the original scholarship.

Rethinking the Impact of Disease on Native Americans

One of the most surprising similarities of these books was that each of them highlighted the fluid nature of tribal identity. Native American tribes were not monolithic and isolated groups. Indians maintained strong trade relationships with numerous neighboring tribes. In addition to trading, Indians appear to have been constantly on the move. Several tribes traveled extraordinary distances to resettlement. After the introduction of European diseases, some Indian tribes were almost completely decimated by illness. The survivors of these tribes were often incorporated into neighboring tribes and completely assimilated.

Calloway's One Vast Winter Count describes the Mississippian corn chiefdoms. These corn chiefdoms developed between 900 and 1200 when a global warming trend dramatically increased rainfall in the Mississippi River Valley. During this time the city of Cahokia was founded and became the largest in North America. Calloway describes Cahokia as planned city which built enormous burial mounds. While the social structure of the Cahokia is somewhat opaque, archeologists have described it is a well organized and hierarchal society. It is highly probable that numerous tribal groups were organized into Cahokia social structure. Additionally, Cahokia does not resemble any of the tribes found by European colonists four hundred years later. By the fourteenth century, Cahokia went into a steep decline and was abandoned. Eventually the population of this city was dispersed to smaller surrounding villages and the social structure and hierarchy of Cahokia disappeared. It is not clear what if any tribal identity the Cahokians possessed.

West describes how the introduction of the horse to the Cheyenne and other tribes encouraged them to reject their old lifestyle and relocate to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo. The Sioux relocated from the Great Lakes to Missouri Valley to take advantage of the ubiquitous buffalo. The Arapahoes were originally farmers from Minnesota, but the horse convinced them to move south and west towards the Black Hills.[8] These dramatic moves caused hostilities between tribes and encouraged intermarriage with new groups. DuVal describes how even Africans slaves were also freely incorporated into Indian tribes.[9]

Jeffery Ostler's book The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee describes how the identity of different Sioux tribes was constantly in flux. The Sioux lived in small communities which had specific tribal identifications, but these bands “were constantly splitting, combining, reforming, cooperating, and moving away from one another.” Not only were identities within the Sioux nation fluid, but the Sioux also “absorbed outsiders.”[10] People were absorbed into the Sioux by marriage, adoption or even by choice. Often, Sioux and other tribes would adopt women and children who seized in raids. The Sioux and other Native Americans were surprisingly willing to incorporate past enemies into their tribes.

Essentially, the fluid nature of tribal identity allowed tribes to not only absorb people but entire civilizations. The fluid nature of tribal identity requires scholars to rethink what, if any, permanence of a tribal identity has. Oddly enough, tribal status has been solidified by the reservations created by the federal government. The irony is that these reservations were initially intended to facilitate the assimilation of tribes into the United States. By concretely classifying tribes, the Untied States government has possibly ossified tribal identities. Finally, each of these scholars attempted to examine the relationships between Native Americans colonists without relying on stereotypes or past discredited narratives. They each attempt to explore how different tribes negotiated their relations with Europeans and Americans. Each of these shows that before the creation of the United States, the tribes which survived their encounters with the disease often thrived. It was not until the United States rapidly expanded across the United States in the nineteenth century that these relationships wholly deteriorated.

Relationships between Native Americans and Colonial Europeans

Until the Nineteenth Century, European colonization of the present-day United States was a relatively slow and gradual process. Spanish conquistadors and church missionaries moved into Mexico and the American Southwest during the 16th Century and other Europeans arrived at the start of the 17th Century. At the beginning of the 19th century, most colonists were still concentrated on the eastern seaboard. While Europeans presented a powerful military threat to Native Americans, their initial hold on North America was somewhat precarious. Europeans depended on Native Americans for their survival and Indians began to rely on Europeans for trade goods. Indian/ Europeans relations were often carefully negotiated because colonists could not just simply dictate terms to Native Americans. Initially, neither side could consistently nor completely dominate the other. Over the nineteenth century, these relationships became increasingly one-sided and the aggressive expansion of the United States forced Indians into increasingly untenable situations. Each of these books describe in detail the intricate relationships developed between colonizers and Native Americans to navigate around each other.

Gutierrez describes how the breakdown of the relationship between the Pueblos and the Spanish led to the Pueblo Revolt. In 1681, Pope led a successful revolt against the Spanish in New Mexico. The Pueblo Indians forced the Spanish entirely out of New Mexico. This revolt demonstrated the tenuous nature of Spain’s possession of the American Southwest. Spain was forced out of New Mexico by a depleted and weakened Pueblo nation. From 1638 to 1670, the Indian population had fallen from 40,000 to 17,000.[11] The Pueblo Indians were weakened over a fifty year period by disease, famine and neighboring hostile Indian tribes. Despite these problems, the Pueblos resented the Spanish presence and began to discuss openly discuss rebelling against the Spanish. Instead of attempting to negotiate with the Pueblos, the Spanish attempted to clamp down on dissent and began an aggressive campaign against idolatry. Ultimately, the failure of the Spanish to negotiate with the Pueblos on equal terms led to their expulsion. After a violent and bloody re-conquest of Santa Fe in 1692 by Don Diego de Vargas, the Spanish were forced to modulate their treatment of the Pueblos and fortify their frontier to withstand other European encroachment. After the re-conquest, Spain “protected the legal rights and the integrity of their villages and of their lands” to stabilize the New Mexico.[12]

Richard White’s The Middle Ground, he carefully describes how contact between the Algonquians and the Europeans was carefully regulated. Over a one hundred fifty year period, the Algonquians and Europeans developed strategies to resolve trade disputes, mete out justice, and navigate social issues. The French and British had relatively little control over the Midwest, and they needed to coexist with the Algonquians to preserve their trade relations. The “middle ground” described by White was the sum of these fairly extensive social and trade regulations developed between comparable powers. These regulations persisted even when the dominant colonial power was changed. It was not until the Algonquians were faced with the expansionist United States government did these long term relationships break down. By describing the strict regulations created by colonists and Algonquians, White maintained that the Algonquians maintained more control over their world than previously understood.

While Kathleen DuVal in The Native Ground rejected the existence of a middle ground in the lower Arkansas Valley by stating that the Quapaws dictated “new Indians’ and Europeans ‘ impressions of the region and persuaded them that Quapaw approval and methods were essential to peace.”[13] Indians, not Europeans, “set the terms of exchange, informed by a long history of trade with foreign peoples.”[14] She still emphasized how Indians and Europeans adapted to changes and continually negotiated their relationships to preserve their connection to their land. Before the arrival of American colonists, “French, Spanish and British had adopted local customs” and had maintained the integrity of native lands.[15] Europeans were simply required by the Arkansas Valley Indians to follow native traditions because “Indians dominated” the Arkansas River Valley.

Jeff Ostler’s The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee and Elliot West’s The Contested Plains focused on Native Americans when their ability to successfully negotiate with the United States became increasingly limited. Unlike the Algonquians, Pueblos or Arkansas River Indians, the Cheyenne and Sioux relationships with the United States were becoming tragically unbalanced. The Cheyenne and Sioux did not dominate their land and they could stop the vast numbers of encroaching colonists. Tribal leaders determined that their people potentially faced extinction if they resisted the growing American Empire. Despite these increasingly harsh conditions, Indians still attempted to assert some control over their fate in different ways.

West describes how the Cheyenne had effectively took on the role of “middleman” in an effort to facilitate trade across the plains at the beginning of the nineteenth century.[16] In accepting the role of middleman, the Cheyenne fundamentally altered their lifestyle and their orientation to take advantage of this role, but it was role that the Cheyenne were well suited. Unlike the middle ground described by White, the Cheyenne’s work as middlemen was the relationship between the Cheyenne, the European traders and the United States developed quickly. This rapid development and unstable nature of these relationships occurred because the Cheyenne were forced to deal first with British and French traders and later the American traders in succession. Ultimately, the position occupied by the Cheyenne as the middlemen for trade across the Plains was undermined by the discovery of gold in the Colorado. The addition of thousands of miners from around the world undermined the role Cheyenne played in trans-Plains trade. Unfortunately, the Cheyenne could not transform its role as a middleman into any long-term power. Instead they were quickly rounded and moved to camps where they could be easily controlled by the military.

Like the Cheyenne, the Sioux's commanding position on the Great Plains was undermined by American expansion. By the late 1880s, the Sioux were essentially defeated. They had been shuttled to reservations where they could not feed their families. Even Sitting Bull had come to realize that armed insurrection was hopeless against the United States government. The United States had successfully removed most of the Indians from potentially valuable land and relocated them in isolated locations, such as the Pine Ridge Reservation. Ostler paints a relatively bleak picture of Sioux life on the reservations. Unlike earlier tribes, the Sioux was obligated to accept any terms given to them by the United States government. In response to a seemingly hopeless situation, the Sioux turned to a prophet who promised to eliminate Americans and restore their previous lives.

The Sioux were attracted to the message of a Wovoka, an Indian prophet. Wovoka prophesized that an apocalyptic event was destroying Europeans Americans and they would be permanently removed from Indian lands. Wovoka asked Indians to perform a five-day dances once every six weeks. These dances were supposed to protect the natives from the apocalypse. While Wovoka’s prophesies and the Ghost Dance was primarily a religious movement, it also dramatically altered the relationship between the Sioux and the United States.

The United States government perceived the Ghost Dance as an extremely dangerous religious movement which threatened to destabilize Indian country. Unfortunately, the United States government had never developed meaningful relationships with the Indian communities. Unlike the earlier colonizers, the United States had always dictated terms to Native Americans, and it never felt obligated to understand them. It was difficult for the United States government to evaluate the threat posed by the Ghost Dance because it did not know how to communicate with Native Americans. The government was hampered by poor intelligence and came to regard the ghost dancers as serious security threats. Sadly, the United States government viewed the Ghost Dance as a security threat and sent troops to eliminate this religious movement. Ultimately, the increased military action led to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1892.

20th Century Reorganization of Relationships

By the mid-twentieth century, Native Americans finally begin to renegotiate their relationships with the United States government on more favorable terms. Tribal leaders realized that the federal courts could potentially serve as independent arbiters and resolve long-standing disputes. Native efforts to litigate treaty disputes in federal courts was remarkable because these courts had often ruled against Native American s in numerous other trials in the past. Despite their past performance, the courts altered the balance of power between the tribes and the United States government. Before natives sought redress in the federal courts, they were prevented from enforcing treaties against the United States or state governments. They were simply ignored.

In the landmark United States v. Oregon, Indians in the Pacific Northwest asserted their treaty rights to fish for salmon without a state license and off-reservation land. Not only did the Circuit Court Judge enforce the treaty provisions and acknowledge tribal sovereignty, but he also gave Native Americans the rights to a substantial portion of the salmon run. The Oregon case allowed Native American to renegotiate their relationship with the United States government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs using the treaties originally foisted on them by the United States government. Federal courts expressed a willingness in the 1970s to respect the treaty rights of Native Americans. The rights of Indian tribes depended on the willingness of federal courts to protect the rights of Native Americans. Wilkinson demonstrated how much relations have changed between Native Americans and European colonizers. Initially, they were able to negotiate from a position of strength, but over time their bargain power declined. In the twentieth century, Indians began depending on the authority of United States federal courts to protect their rights and rebuild their communities.

Each of the authors discussed has made serious attempts to advance our understanding of Native American history. They have rejected the stereotypes and grand narratives which tainted earlier efforts. While they have used many of the same sources utilized by an early generation of Native American historians, they have approached these works with a fresh perspective. Additionally, their discussions of the fluid nature of Indian identity and the interactions between Indians, Europeans, and Americans have provided us with a more nuanced and complicated story. Unlike the myths of the vanishing or heroic Indian, each of these books describes people and the choices they made.

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  1. Kerwin Klein, Frontiers of Historical Imagination: Narrating the European Conquest of Native America, 1890-1990 p. 195.
  2. Klein, p. 195. Klein is paraphrasing an argument made by Bruner, a respected anthropologist, about the new Indian narratives appearing in academic literature.
  3. Limerick, p. 22.
  4. Richter at 77.
  5. Richter at 78.
  6. Gutierrez at 17.
  7. West at 345 (fn. 26.)
  8. West at 66-67
  9. DuVal at 81-82.
  10. Ostler at 24-25.
  11. Gutierrez at 130.
  12. Gutierrez at 149.
  13. DuVal at 162.
  14. DuVal at 246.
  15. DuVal at 245.
  16. West at 71.

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