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  • Evolving Voices of DissentThe Workshops on American Indian Affairs, 1956–1972
  • Paul McKenzie-Jones (bio)

In 1956 Dr. Sol Tax of the University of Chicago began a groundbreaking anthropological experiment that eventually had major repercussions on American Indian education, the increasing political and sociocultural awareness of young Indian college students, the birth of the Red Power activist movement, and the fight for tribal self-determination. An average of thirty young American Indian college students were selected to attend the first Workshop on American Indian Affairs, a six- week-long summer immersion course in history and anthropological theory. In the mainstream educational setting, these students were still being taught that their cultures were dying and their ancestors were savages. The workshop classes were designed to connect with the students on a more intellectually and culturally sympathetic and empathetic level than mainstream education did. Part of what made this experiment so groundbreaking was that it occurred during the height of the “termination” era, when the federal government pressed ahead with legislation to end its federal trust relationship with Indian nations in an attempt to fully, and finally, assimilate Indian peoples into mainstream US society. The cultural and sociological focus of the workshops was in direct opposition to this aim. Rather than assimilate young Indian students, the workshops were intended to rejuvenate their cultural pride and identity. The experiment was so successful that the workshops lasted until 1972. By this time, however, the students were so engaged with the learning process and the workshops had evolved to such an extent that it was the students, rather than the educators, who dictated how and what should be taught. [End Page 207]

Action Anthropology and Educational Experimentation

When Dr. Tax crafted the workshops, he enlisted the help of his graduate students Robert “Bob” Thomas and Al Wahrhaftig as educators and moderators of the experiment. He envisioned the workshops as being a practical extension of his concept of “action anthropology” and, as such, the ideal intellectual approach toward Native peoples. As Wahrhaftig explained, “Action anthropology held that by intervening in a community in such a way that new alternatives can be created without co-opting the power to incorporate only such alternatives as are perceived by its members to be beneficial, anthropologists can observe ‘values in action’: they can simultaneously study and help.”1

Tax saw the workshops as a template for the future direction of American Indian students and wished to compile enough data to present to the Bureau of Indian Affairs as proof of his success. He intended to create his own “community” of students from across a variety of cultural backgrounds, ranging from traditional immersion to almost complete assimilation into US society. His plan was to offer each student the same educational information and opportunities within the controlled settings of the classroom and then track the student’s successful integration into the worlds of education, tribal politics, or business. It did not take long, however, for the human factor of his subjects to steer the experiment in a direction beyond his control. Tax received financial backing from the Reverend Galen Weaver of the Board of Home Missions of the Congressional and Christian Churches; Indian “reform groups” or “friends” such as the Indian Rights Association; the Association on American Indian Affairs; Arrow, Inc.; the Mission Groups of the Protestant Denominations; and private foundations such as the Emil Schwarzhaupt Foundation, Inc. As the final plans for the first workshop fell into place, Tax convinced fellow anthropologist Robert Rietz and sociologists Murray Wax and Rosalie Wax to join him in this experiment. Crucially, according to Rosalie Wax, the experiment also had the full endorsement of the National Congress of the American Indians, which she claimed alleviated some, if not all, tribal suspicions of the motives of the non-Native anthropologists.2

The early emphasis of the workshops was very much upon the literal interpretation of “workshop.” The educators focused upon the aspect of [End Page 208] “students producing something,” in this case a newsletter, under faculty oversight. Murray Wax and Thomas also devised a strategy of presenting the courses on two simultaneous, or counterpointed, levels, which became the template for subsequent workshops. The essential intent...


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