- Native Historians Write Back: Decolonizing American Indian History
This collection of previously published essays introduces American Indian historiography through theoretical and bibliographic overviews and specific case studies that demonstrate this approach to studying and writing history. Co-editor Susan A. Miller introduces the collection with two essays–one theoretical, one bibliographical. She suggests that American Indian history incorporates four assumptions: that the cosmos is an animate entity whose components have consciousness; that tribal communities have sovereignty which provides rights to self-determination and to control of resources; that the American mainstream stands in an extractive colonial relationship with tribal peoples; and that historians should take part in the process of decolonization not as absolute return to the past but as attempt to recover lost cultural forms and to adapt contemporary practices from the outside world to local needs. This last assumption leads to a major methodological thrust in American Indian history, its service orientation. Other features of an American Indian historical method include reevaluating conventional documents to expose anti-Indigenous tendencies, emphasizing use of American Indian languages, and asserting the importance of Indigenous sources, including oral tradition. Although the movement toward an Indigenous historiography is relatively new, a significant body of publications is already in print, and Miller’s second essay surveys these works.
The case studies that follow illustrate the principles identified by Miller. Included are works by early figures in the movement and by those who are continuing to provide leadership for Indigenous historians. Some such as Elizabeth [End Page 200] Cook-Lynn’s treatment of an incident from the Santee War of 1862 examine available source material, pointing out biases that occur in the vocabulary of Eurocentric writers (for example, calling the war a “rebellion” or “breakout”). Others such as Matthew Jones’s account of an early encounter of Otoe and Misouria peoples with Euro-Americans illustrate alternative ways of presenting narrative history–in Jones’s case, using Native language as extensively as possible. Winona Stevenson shows how examining Indigenous sources produces a counter-narrative to historical accounts that rely solely on Eurocentric documents. Leanne Simpson demonstrates the importance of Indigenous terminology for abstractions that undergird interactions between local and colonial governments.
Several of the essays take up contested issues in Indian-white relations, especially concerns about land access and ownership, repercussions of competing definitions of criminality, and appropriation for “scientific” study of Native property including human remains. Vine Deloria Jr. provides an overview of the relationship between sovereignty and claims to Indian lands, while Donna Akers examines the particulars of land ownership concepts as related to removal of Choctaws from their traditional homeland. Steven J. Crum shows how both the written record and Native oral history support Shoshone land claims in Nevada. James Riding In looks at the differing concepts of justice that influenced the fates of Pawnees accused of murder in nineteenth-century Nebraska. He also discusses the disposition of the crania of six Pawnees murdered in 1869. Other topics that respond to the approach of Indigenous historians involve issues in gender among the Navajo, examined here by Janet Denetdale, and definitions of community membership relevant to the situation of Seminole Freedmen, a topic treated by Susan A. Miller.
This is a challenging book, but not because the ideas are obscure or poorly presented. Instead, the essays question assumptions about history that most historians, even those who consider themselves sympathetic to the American Indian “side of the story,” accept without question. But even if one does not fully agree with everything concluded by the Indigenous historians represented in this volume or with their ways of reaching their conclusions, the book does suggest that conventional assumptions need reappraisal. While none of the essays deals directly with the history of Texas and only a couple touch on the Southwest, readers of this journal should use this book to freshen their views of what history and historiography involve.