Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 137-138
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Native Americans through Anglo Eyes, 1880-1940
Reimagining Indians: Native Americans through Anglo Eyes, 1880-1940. By Sheryl L. Smith (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000) 273 pp. $35.00
In Reimagining Indians, Smith takes as her mission the rehabilitation of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular writers who, though ethnocentric, took the position that Indians were valuable and had something important to offer mainstream America. With humor and tolerance, Smith adopts a biographical framework to explore the lives and works of Erskine Scott Wood, George Bird Grinnell, Walter McClintock, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Frank Bird Linderman, Charles Fletcher Lummis, George Wharton James, Mary Austin, Anna Ickes, and Mabel Dodge Luhan. She evenhandedly assesses the careers of these non-Indian eccentrics, simultaneously allowing them the prejudices of their time and critically examining the ways each labored to construct identities for Indians that would enlighten ordinary people as well as influence policymakers. Between the Dawes Act of 1887 and John Collier's Indian New Deal of the 1930s, these writers literally "reimagined Indians" in ways, Smith explains, that contradicted the "images that had transfixed Americans for centuries. Simply put, these writers asserted Indians' humanity, artistry, community, and spirituality" (5).
Smith frames her argument from the vantage point of "cultural history." She is interested in a variety of questions concerning intellectual history, gender studies, anthropology, geography, and ethnography, all of which contribute to her subjects' ability to represent such different groups as the Blackfeet, Crow, Cheyenne, Hopi, and Pueblo. She thinks carefully about how writers' sex and class status influenced their evaluation of Indians as individuals and as participants in larger societies. Some of the women, indoctrinated in the tenets of early feminism, viewed Indians as egalitarian and dedicated to investing women with power. [End Page 137] Many of the men, meanwhile, looked to hunting, warring Indians to reinvigorate flagging American manhood.
As different as these writers may have been in their assessment of Indian cultures, they all shared what Smith identifies as a common dedication to a staunch critique of Anglo-American life. Building on the arguments that T. J. Jackson Lears makes in No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture (New York, 1981), Smith explains that, like Henry Adams and William Morris, turn-of-the-century cultural critics, anti-urban anti-industrialists looked to the American West and found meaning and purpose in the lives of previously despised Indians. Adams and Morris articulated a philosophy that counseled the enlightened to turn from the factory to handcraft, horticulture, and home. The likes of Grinnell, Austin, and Luhan saw in "simple," "primitive" Indians the answer to their profound dissatisfaction with modernity. Smith's writers shared a commitment to rescue the culture of "authentic" Indians from assured extinction. In those cultures, the rescuers reasoned, Americans could find meaning, purpose, and wellbeing.
Unlike some scholars who might have lost their tempers when confronted with some of these thinkers' philosophies, Smith filters out the hogwash and finds the common threads. What is one to do, for instance, with James' thieving and womanizing, and his belief that one of the many things that Americans could learn from Indians was "the art of nasal breathing?" (154). Smith concludes that although James' What the White Race May Learn advanced his "view of the world grafted onto American Indians," it also dignified Indians' customs concerning physical labor, sexuality, hospitality, and honesty. "That Indian cultures have genuine value was no passing thought or rhetorical tool" to James, she writes. "It was a deeply felt conviction" (157).
Though Smith writes this series of interconnected biographies on the basis of a wide range of printed and manuscript sources, she might have reached further into other disciplines. Instead of describing the written, published books of McClintock, who was a photographer, Smith might have assumed an art historian's mantle and spent more time analyzing McClintock's photographs and lantern slides. Similarly, rather than dedicating most of her energy to explaining Austin's life, she...