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  • Native America Writes Back:The Origin of the Indigenous Paradigm in Historiography

In recent years, certain American Indian scholars in the Western History Association have expressed dissatisfaction with some of the organization's practices and the attitudes of some of its members toward tribal people; and certain non-Indian members have expressed resentment of those complaints and declined to address the tribal minority's concerns. The friction within that organization is documented in the archive of the list serv H-West, which hosts a discussion about western history. The Western History Association is such a small organization that its internal disputes would hardly matter except that the western history specialty nurtured the fledgling field of American Indian history for years before the rest of the profession embraced it and continues to host a large discussion of Indian history at the association's annual conference.

The friction within the organization has made the conference less pleasant for some scholars and may have damaged research programs and careers, but its real importance is that it reflects a significant contest over the character of scholarship on the American Indian past. At the core of the discord is a development that has gone almost entirely unnoticed: A small cadre of American Indians in the discipline have rejected the consensual narrative of American history and the Euroamerican paradigm that frames it to develop a separate and competing narrative. Donna L. Akers (Choctaw), Myla Vicenti Carpio (Jicarilla Apache), Jennifer Nez Denetdale (Diné), Lomayumtewa Ishii [End Page 9] (Hopi), Susan A. Miller (Seminole), James Riding In (Pawnee), Winona Wheeler [Stevenson] (Cree), Waziyatawin Angela Wilson (Dakota), and perhaps a few others are producing an American Indigenous historiography framed in a paradigm that emerged from global Indigenous1 activism in the 1970s. During that period, Maori, Australian Aboriginal, Hawaiian, Saami, and North and South American Indian activists and intellectuals found a collective voice to express a list of issues common to their communities. While finding positions that all could support, parties to their discussion assembled common elements of Indigenous worldviews into a paradigm that provides a comfortable framework for the discourse of Indigenous rights. Both discourse and paradigm have been moving into scholarship ever since.

This article describes that Indigenous paradigm, focusing on four central concepts: Indigenousness, sovereignty, colonization, and decolonization. Then the article explores the Indigenous research methodology that has developed within the discourse; and distinguishes Indigenous historical narrative and methodology from those of the competing paradigm and discourse in American historiography. The article concludes with a survey of works that form the paradigm's American root and a summary of events leading to the emergence of Indigenous discourse at the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in 1975. (A separate article, "Native America Writes Back: The Indigenous Paradigm in American Indian Historiography" will examine the use of Indigenous discourse by North American Indians who have been trained in departments of history.)

The Global Indigenous Paradigm

The key distinguishing assumption of the Indigenous paradigm is that the cosmos is a living being and that the cosmos and all its parts have consciousness. Spirits recognized in Indigenous worldviews are real and powerful within the material world. Because the scientific and many other non-Indigenous belief systems reject that reality, agents of non-Indigenous institutions and governments ignore spiritual realities, often offending spiritual entities. Consequences of such behavior can injure Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.

Environmentalism based on this assumption holds that a living, conscious being enjoys health or suffers illness. Ethics demands respect for the needs of such a being. Legal theory following this logic views any human practices that degrade the environment as assaults on a par with physical assaults on humans. Political discourse within this paradigm assumes that the invasions and occupations of Indigenous lands have oppressed not only Indigenous peoples but also an untold number of spirits and the conscious land herself. The rights violated in such cases are not only the prior collective rights and human rights [End Page 10] of the people on the land but also the rights of spirits and the right of the land to hold and nurture her human communities according to her natural preferences. Today...

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