Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Diverse Nations

By Dorothy Cole

JUNE 21, 1999:  Donald L. Fixico's Rethinking American Indian History (UNM Press, paper, $16.95) was written by professional historians for other historians and students of history. It sets out a specialty: not a war or a certain timespan, but a particular place and group of people. And therein lies the problem. The central barrier to any volume that tries to take this broad an overview is the incredible diversity of the Indians themselves. I've never seen anyone try to study Iceland, France and Albania as representatives of the same European culture. Yet these three nations have more in common with each other, culturally and geographically, than do the Beothuk, Seminole and Pima Indians.

It isn't about history but about how history is gathered. In their quest to see American Indian culture and history treated both respectfully and accurately, the scholars collected here discuss some promising developments in attitude and methodology. But flaws emerge. One is geographical. The farthest west any of these experts is currently stationed is Oklahoma, and it shows.

When I was a kid in Illinois, we studied "Indians" as part of our U.S. history requirement. We learned about woodland hunters, farmers and gatherers in what became New England and the upper Midwest. We studied place names that came from their languages. None of it was inaccurate, but it was incomplete and highly regional. Half of us dressed as them for Thanksgiving plays; my sister once dressed up as an Indian, in buckskin fringe, for Halloween. We knew there were still Indians living up in Wisconsin and out West somewhere, but we'd never met any personally.

New Mexico is different. What seems like distant history in other regions of the country, most notably in the places where textbooks are published, is part of present reality here, where many of the Southwest Native Americans still live on their ancestral lands. The most recent ethnic controversy, involving a monument to Spanish governor Juan de Oñate, addresses events that predate any Anglo-American interest in the region.

Back in Illinois, we were willing to accept the concept of one relatively homogeneous "Indian" culture. Here in New Mexico the same concept seems outrageous. Here, a Navajo translator can be insulted when asked to interpret for an elderly Apache patient. It's like asking a Russian if he understands Polish. (In fact, the Apache and Navajo languages are about as closely related as Polish is to Russian.)

This slim volume takes the reader from the early travails of James Axtell, who writes about efforts to integrate the ethnohistory of Native people into the general study of American history, to recent trends in the field. While placing Indian history in the context of the American West, all the selections rely on the large volume of material available on plains, woodland and coastal cultures.

Most of the writers are forthcoming and realistic about the perceptual struggles that accompanied the establishment of a new academic sub-specialty. However, in "The Historiography of American Indian and Other Western Women," Glenda Riley attempts to shoehorn the experiences of Indian woman into a feminist worldview. Meanwhile, Riley warns us of the dangers of fragmentation. Fortunately, her bibliography is less muddled than her storytelling.

Dakota historian Angela Cavender Wilson pleads that outsiders not place her culture or other tribes under glass, but even she accepts the central notion of "American Indian" culture as a unified entity. Regardless of climate or lifestyle, these societies have all had to deal with the incursion of Euro-Americans, so history is probably the discipline in which America's Native cultures find the most in common. Still, there are differences. Not only has the range of specifics been wide, but different waves of European colonists arrived with their own varied priorities.

For the most part, these selections carry authority and sensitivity, and all the bibliographies are intriguing. This book would be of use in beginning any kind of historical study. Although focused on the study of pre-Columbian people and their descendants, the warnings contained here -- question your assumptions, be wary of secondary sources and don't get too caught up in university politics -- are important in any specialty.

In the long run, it may be these object lessons that lend the collection its greatest longevity.

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