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Ethnohistory 47.2 (2000) 469-481

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What’s Your Problem?
New Work in Twentieth-Century Native American Ethnohistory

Frederick E. Hoxie, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900–1940. By Brenda J. Child. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. xviii + 145 pp., appendixes, notes, photographs, bibliography, index. $35.00 cloth.)
Death Stalks the Yakama: Epidemiological Transitions and Mortality on the Yakama Indian Reservation, 1888–1964. By Clifford E. Trafzer. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997. xiii + 278 pp., appendixes, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95 paper.)
The Invasion of Indian Country in the Twentieth Century: American Capitalism and Tribal Natural Resources. By Donald L. Fixico. (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1998. 258 pp., photographs, map, notes, index. $39.95 cloth, $22.50 paper.)
Some Things Are Not Forgotten: A Pawnee Family Remembers. By Martha Royce Blaine. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. xx + 274 pp., preface, illustrations, map, appendixes, notes, bibliography, index. $50.00 cloth.)
Southern Ute Women: Autonomy and Assimilation on the Reservation, 1887–1934. By Katherine M. B. Osburn. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998, xiv + 165 pp., illustrations, maps, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.)
White Man’s Medicine: Government Doctors and the Navajo, 1863–1955. By Robert A. Trennert. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998. xii + 290 pp., photographs, map, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 cloth.) [End Page 469]


I will never forget my first meeting with D’Arcy McNickle. A graduate student fellow at the Newberry Library’s D’Arcy McNickle Center, I ran down the hall to a meeting with the famous scholar. I was late. I entered as unobtrusively as I could and took a seat on the floor in the corner of the carpeted seminar room. Someone else was in the midst of describing his research topic. When he finished, the room was silent. Apparently everyone else had already taken their turn. McNickle leaned forward in his chair and looked over at me. “Well,” he asked, his face disappearing behind a cloud of pipe smoke, “what is your problem?”

McNickle’s question is a helpful guide whenever one is frustrated with a research project that runs off in too many directions (“What is the central focus here?”). It is also a useful way to begin an encounter with a new book—or with six new studies of twentieth-century American Indian life. Before unpacking the pile and describing each author’s “problem,” however, the group’s common characteristics merit some attention.

First, these books are the harbingers of a rich and expanding literature on twentieth-century American Indian experience. Aside from particular concerns discussed within this review essay, these authors deserve high praise for completing something akin to the solo treks that have made Outward Bound famous. Just as ambitious campers set out alone into unfamiliar territory in search of new knowledge, so these scholars have single-handedly explored new terrain and retrieved significant new stories. Venturing in different directions into subjects as diverse as Indian families, Indian health, medicine, women’s experience, schooling, and resource management, these historical adventurers had few sign posts or predecessors’ trails to guide them. (Only Brenda J. Child’s book might be viewed as a response to previous work; nevertheless, she—like the others—approached her project with great originality. Despite the fact that it began as a dissertation, the work was not written at a mentor’s knee.)

Second, these books are timely. We may now reflect on the end of a century that began with the uniform assumption that Native Americans were “vanishing people,” but that ended with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting (despite the Republican-sponsored undercount) an American Indian population figure that represents a tenfold increase in the ten decades after 1900. With the native population of North America arguably having returned to its pre-1492 level, and with Indian concerns and achievements leaping regularly off of the front pages of newspapers in every region of the country, it would seem about time that a period of remarkable&#8212...