restricted access Sovereignty’s Challenge to Native American (and United States) History
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Sovereignty’s Challenge to Native American (and United States) History

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that at about the same time that Russell Means coined his famous slogan “If you want to be sovereign, you have to act sovereign!,” historians and anthropologists launched the movement for a “New Indian History” that largely ignored that term. Over the past forty years academic authors have transformed how indigenous peoples are presented in the nation’s classrooms. Teachers, journalists, and popular authors have now (slowly but inexorably) replaced hapless victims and gaudy warriors with nuanced, three-dimensional figures who have voices, ideas, and strategies for survival. History has become more “real,” even though the historical actors presented in classrooms and television documentaries rarely use the term “sovereignty.” By contrast, the tribal governments that seemed so beleaguered and discouraged in 1970 have blossomed dramatically into sophisticated conglomerates that dispense an array of social services to their members, operate business enterprises, and bravely defend their treaty rights in both courts and legislatures. Poverty, exploitation, and ill health persist—and the Washington Redskins are still hanging on to their racist name—but there is no question that in Indian country, attitudes have changed, and sovereignty has a tangible meaning that it lacked forty years ago.

It is not surprising that there would be a gap between academics and everyday folk, but in this instance the difference between the image presented by tribal histories and the reality of modern communities strikes me as the reverse of what one might expect. Typically (at least from this academic’s perspective) scholars should be ahead of the public for whom they are writing. After all, they spend their time looking for (and finding?) trends and ideas others have yet to see. One might suppose that over the past four de cades the academics would be emphasizing the power of sovereignty in Native life, while Indian people—wrapped up in their daily concerns—would not. So what gives? Why is “sovereignty” palpable in Indian communities while so often ignored by historians?

One explanation could be the fact that academic writers don’t write primarily for a native audience. Operating in a world of commercial and [End Page 137] university-based publication, teaching largely non-Native students, and responding to scholarly traditions whose origins are far from indigenous, historians and anthropologists have written for a broad public audience and, quite naturally, have framed their stories in relation to conventional narratives of American or global cultural history. In short-hand: academics generally speak about Indians to an invisible audience, not for them or even to them. But there is more to it than that.

The New Indian History was born at a specific moment and in a particular intellectual setting. It is not possible to recite a detailed genealogy here, but it is fair to claim that among historians, the inspiration for a new approach to the Native past came from the social history movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Writing when the civil rights movement was still active, these scholars sought to tell history “from the bottom up,” and thanks to them, Indians soon joined the women, slaves, working people, and new immigrants who competed with the usual suspects—the Founding Fathers and the nation’s military heroes—for the attention of historians and their students. Anthropologists shared some of this idealism as young practitioners arriving on the scene during the age of decolonization challenged the discipline’s complicity in the enterprise of empire. Historically minded anthropologists—ethnohistorians—were also fighting an internal disciplinary battle: synchronicity versus a diachronic view of culture. The synchronics stressed material culture, patterns of kinship, and the persistence of cultural traits. The diachronics urged their colleagues to view indigenous people as people with history and to understand cultures in the context of their times. From their perspective, cultures lived in time and were therefore contingent, adaptive, and inventive. The genius of Native American culture was its ability to persist through shifting regimes and the conditions imposed by colonialism.

The New Indian History, then—produced by both historians and anthropologists—was a project that countered the assumptions of the past by...