- Indians of the Great Plains
Daniel Gelo, an adoptive member of the Comanche Nation, has arguably written the most thorough and up-to-date survey of the indigenous cultures of the Great Plains available in print. Gelo discusses those groups that inhabited the High Plains and the Prairie subregions, as well as, occasionally, other groups “that ventured onto or influenced the Plains area,” including Shoshones, Caddos, and Apaches (16). Gelo relies heavily on published ethnographies, but also on archaeological, linguistic, and ethnohistorical evidence, as well as on his twenty-nine years of ethnographic fieldwork among the Comanche and other Plains groups.
The book covers an enormous chronological span, from prehistoric times to the present. The bulk of the text, however, consists of a meticulous description of Plains Indians cultures in a somewhat vague ethnographic past that often corresponds to pre-reservation times (dates vary from group to group, with the latest groups entering reservations in the last quarter of the nineteenth century). Gelo highlights the diversity of pre-reservation Plains Indian cultures, as well as the fact that, even if transformed, such cultures remain very much alive in our time. The author generally ascribes the particular practices, beliefs, or processes under discussion to particular native groups, as well as to the pertinent historical period(s) through identifiers such as “pre-horse,” “pre-reservation,” “reservation,” and so forth (again, dates vary from group to group).
Conceived as a tool to teach undergraduates, the book consists of thirteen chapters. The two initial chapters deal respectively with the geographic setting and the prehistory of the region. The penultimate chapter summarizes the history of Plains Indians during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The closing chapter deals with the daily lives of the contemporary descendants of the Indians covered in the book, including important issues such as tribal sovereignty, gaming, land claims, and repatriation. The rest of the book is organized thematically so that each chapter corresponds to a major theme in cultural anthropology: tribal organization, family life, material culture, religion, economy, and so on. In these chapters, the author discusses the most significant sociocultural features of Plains societies, listing the particular groups where specific traits can or could be found, and providing specific examples of variation or exception whenever it is pertinent.
Gelo’s ample pedagogic experience translates into an unusual ability to explain complex anthropological notions concisely and lucidly. The author reflects carefully on the analytical validity of anthropological constructs such as “culture area” and concepts such as “chief” or “tribe,” whose meanings are often ambiguous [End Page 199] given their widespread non-academic usage. The author does not shy away from controversial topics, dedicating particular attention to debunk inaccurate yet widespread stereotypes and assumptions about Plains Indians propagated through captivity narratives, dime novels, Hollywood films, and pseudo-scientific literature.
The book includes three maps, identifying respectively the Plains culture area, its natural features and landmarks, and the approximate location of the native groups at the time of contact with Euro-Americans. It also incorporates a carefully crafted index, and a series of meaningful tables and black and white images. Still, a didactic survey like this could benefit from additional maps reflecting the spatial distribution of selected sociocultural traits, additional comparative tables, color images, a brief lexicon, and a succinct timeline. Editorial limitations are likely responsible for such omissions
All in all, this volume can be profitably used to teach undergraduates, as the author intended, especially in the fields of sociocultural anthropology, ethnohistory, and Native American studies. It also constitutes a convenient shorthand reference for scholars of the Great Plains. Moreover, it is highly recommended for general readers interested in the Indians of the Great Plains or, more broadly, in the indigenous cultures of North America.