In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Biography 26.1 (2003) 165-167

[Access article in PDF]
Theodore Rios and Kathleen Mullen Sands. Telling a Good One: The Process of a Native American Collaborative Biography. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000. 365 pp. ISBN 0-8032-4265-4, $60.00 cloth; ISBN 0-8032-9281-3, $29.95 paper.

The author of this book is actually Kathleen Mullen Sands, who in the 1970s interviewed Theodore Rios, a Tohono O'odham (Papago) man, with the intention of writing a "collaborative biography." Although very much an academic analysis of that experience, Telling a Good One could also be considered in itself an autobiography, or at the very least a memoir, of one project in the life of a scholar. Sands's failure to complete the project is the main theme of her book, or as she describes it, "this book is in some sense an [End Page 165] extended admission of incompetence and a long apology to a narrator who expected better of me" (81).

Although a graduate student in literature at the time, Sands embarked on Rios's autobiography with a model in mind that had developed largely within anthropology, where collecting autobiographies of ordinary Native people constituted a form of cultural ethnography. Sands's account describes how, as the years passed, she struggled with the material she had collected from Rios and tried to edit it into a familiar, chronological format, draw out its literary potential, flesh out generalities with interesting stories, and ground events in Rios's life with sufficient details and facts. She also ruminates over her relationship with Rios: how the distance between their cultures, ages, and genders shaped what Rios was willing to tell her, and how the interviews, which she reprints at length, show they were at cross-purposes. These reprinted fieldnotes do effectively illustrate the ways in which Sands's self-proclaimed inexperience and naiveté led her to over-control the direction and content of the interviews, and how Rios politely resisted her with monosyllabic answers to questions he wished to avoid and by giving thorough and lively responses when talking about his life as he wished to present it. Clearly, if Rios had written his own autobiography, without a collaborator, he would have focused on his working life as a rancher, rodeo star, Hollywood western movie extra (also a result of his skill with horses), and miner.

As a historian, I share Sands's chagrin that Rios's reminiscences did not result in a published autobiography, though my reasons differ from hers. Sands never mentions the historical value of Rios's experiences, only the insufficient literary and ethnographic qualities of the interviews. But the lengthy interview excerpts give fascinating, detailed accounts of Tohono O'odham agriculture when Rios was a boy, insight into Indians' participation in the movie industry, and the effects of World War II on Indian labor and migration. It is indeed too bad that the book Rios thought he was contributing to never reached fruition.

While Sands reflects on a myriad of causes for why she could not bring the interviews to published autobiography, she suggests that the main reason was paralysis caused by a shift in political sensitivity. By the 1980s, the angst of self-reflexivity was rippling through anthropology, making it more difficult for academics to consciously and responsibly take cultural and personal information from Native people and put it to their own purposes. A more sophisticated literature deconstructing the processes behind such classic Native autobiographies as John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks and Ruth Underhill's Papago Woman, appearing in tandem with radically different approaches, such as Julie Cruikshank's Life Lived Like a Story, made the Rios-Sands project as originally conceived obsolete and a moral quagmire. [End Page 166]

Although Sands's self-remonstrations make for tedious reading, her book should prove immensely valuable to anyone working on a collaborative autobiography, engaging in fieldwork, or conducting oral histories. By dwelling on her mistakes, she provides a primer for the interviewing process, a primer that would be helpful for any multi-authored writing project, not...