- Their Own Frontier: Women Intellectuals Re-Visioning the American West
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Just as women and Native Americans went neglected for many decades in the histories of the American West, so also have women historians and anthropologists gone unnoticed for their roles in the telling of those stories. In Their Own Frontier, historian Shirley A. Leckie and anthropologist Nancy J. Parezo bring together the biographies of ten women intellectuals—three historians and seven anthropologists—all who sought to find a place within the academic inquiry surrounding Native cultures, even if it wasn't on equal terms with men. The women have been carefully chosen, and their biographers perhaps even more so, as each chapter is written by the scholars who know their subjects most intimately. These include Annie Heloise Abel, by Suzanne Julin; Angie Debo, by Shirley A. Leckie; Mari Sandoz, by John R. Wunder; Isabel T. Kelly, by Catherine S. Fowler and Robert Van Kemper; Marjorie Ferguson Lambert, by Shelby Tisdale; Alice Marriott, by Patricia Loughlin; Ella Cara Deloria, by María Eugenia Cotera; Zitkala-Ša, by Franci Washburn; Dorothea Cross Leighton, by Nancy J. Parezo; and Ruth Murray Underhill, by Catherine J. Lavendar and Nancy J. Parezo.
These biographies are not written as isolated texts, but with the larger purpose of showing how early women scholars moved forward the research and writing of Native American history, ethnography, and anthropology. While many of these women were schooled in the Turnerian interpretations of history that emphasized the progress of white settlement of the American West, each still found ways to be critical of the imperial conquest so destructive to Native peoples (114). All of these women were able to see Natives on their own terms, often infusing sensitivity and humanity into their scientific studies. In fact, since these women rejected prejudicial portrayals in favor of greater "cultural diversity and inclusion," they laid the foundations of more culturally accurate Indian histories of the later twentieth century (197). And with so many of these female scholars being described by their biographers as "clear antecedent[s] of the recent New Western history movement," one is left to wonder how the New Western history was ever really "new" at all (108).
Each of these women implemented anthropological tools, including extensive fieldwork and note-taking, careful archaeological collection, [End Page 303] linguistic studies, and the acquisition of oral histories from their Indian "collaborators" (217). A difficulty for the reader arises from the authors' and editors' interchangeable use of terms like anthropology, archaeology, ethnography, ethnohistory, ethnology, and, in the case of Tisdale's biography of Marjorie Lambert, "ethnoarchaeologist" (198). While students of American history, anthropology, and women's studies would all benefit from the bio-bibliographic approaches to these women's careers, some lay readers might be intimidated by the constant name-dropping of pioneer anthropologists, for whom familiarity may lie with specialists only.
These biographies are useful in showing how these women came of age in the 1930s and '40s when anthropology and interest in Native cultures and origins were reaching new heights. There were growing fellowship and employment opportunities for women with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the Bureau of American Ethnology, or with New Deal programs aimed at anthropology and oral history collection. However, each woman suffered due to overt gender discrimination. Some even had male mentors who were only partly supportive and encouraging, setting up sexist roadblocks to their own students' professional advancement, including refusal to hire them for academic positions, train them in important methods, and offering pay lower than what their male counterparts received (185). Because of lack of mentoring, lack of gender equality, or lack of finances, most failed to achieve the formal education necessary for the...