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  • Native Historians Write BackThe Indigenous Paradigm in American Indian Historiography
  • Susan A. Miller (bio)

The prevailing narrative of American history originated with Columbus and has never been favorable to the American Indigenous peoples. Framed in assumptions of European virtue and superiority and of Indigenous iniquity and inadequacy, the narrative recounts the claiming of a vast wilderness by a brave people who bring enlightenment and civilization to a benighted continent. Although scholars have challenged elements of that narrative—the “virgin wilderness,” for example, and the concepts of “savagery” versus “civilization”—most of them seem to believe that the continent truly was benighted before their forebears arrived, and therefore the story persists in historiography, rooted in a set of stubborn biases built into the Euroamerican worldview and the English language. That story grew out of the colonial posture of Europeans, and even with some of its more obvious anti-Indigenous biases removed, its colonial assumptions and coded implications continue to poison the Euroamerican discourse of American Indian history.

Contrary to the persistent Euroamerican assumption, North America was not benighted when Europeans arrived. Over thousands of years, Indigenous peoples here had developed systems of knowledge that served them well and arguably better than the Euroamerican knowledge that seeks to supplant it. Embedded in those Indigenous systems of knowledge are paradigms of time and the past that are very unlike the European and Euroamerican paradigms. Of course, the assumptions of Indigenous narratives differ from those of Euroamerica. For these reasons, American [End Page 25] Indigenous historical narratives often contradict Euroamerican versions, perhaps irreconcilably. For American Indians in the historians’ discipline, to work within the Euroamerican narrative and the greater paradigm of European (or white) superiority that frames it means rejecting the competing narratives constructed by their own ancestors and still articulated by the traditional people of their tribes.

Rejecting one’s ancestral knowledge and accepting negative images of one’s ethnic identity may be expected to provoke cognitive dissonance and self-hatred, a pathological condition that colonial thought would dismiss as unavoidable. An increasing number of American Indian intellectuals, however, are opting out of Euroamerican lines of thought in favor of a historical paradigm constructed from Indigenous knowledge by Indigenous thinkers. That paradigm frames a global discourse in which Indigenous people consider their common interests in a common set of terms. Here in North America, that discourse has entered tribal governance, activism, entertainment media, and scholarship. In historiography, the advent of Indigenous discourse has been gradual and the discourse remains unrecognized within the discipline, viewed instead as nonconforming examples of the Euroamerican discourse. Nevertheless, it informs a significant and growing literature, part of the “writing back” movement of authors from colonized peoples, so named for Salman Rushdie’s pun “The Empire Writes Back.”

North American Indigenous historiography is still a small body of literature, but its discourse has already provoked enough friction among historians to warrant the present historiographic survey.

The Indigenous Historical Paradigm

The historical paradigm framing Indigenous discourse has roots in 1960s and 1970s writings by intellectuals and activists from Indigenous communities on several continents.1 The North American root is a body of literature by a cohort of Indian writers such as Clyde Warrior (Ponca) and Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) addressing the status and conditions of American Indians. During the 1970s, Indigenous people from around the globe began meeting to discuss their common problems of poverty, political subordination, shrinking land bases, deteriorating environments, and more. Notable among their meetings was a gathering in Alberni, British Columbia, in October 1975, from which emerged the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. Writings issuing from that meeting and other collective Indigenous activity articulated a historical narrative forged from common elements of worldviews of Maori, Australian Aboriginal, Saami, American Indian, and other Indigenous peoples. This narrative asserts Indigenous virtue and colonial misbehavior—invasion, destruction, theft, [End Page 26] murder, atrocity, genocide, and lies—on the part of Europeans and their offspring nations. Since the 1970s, that paradigm has framed the discourse of global Indigenous cooperation as Indigenous activists brought about significant reforms in international law and policy. Testaments to the viability of the Indigenous paradigm include the founding of the United Nations Permanent...


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