The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1998, Volume 44, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Rethinking American Indian History.

Edited by Donald L. Fixico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997. x + 139 pages. $30.00 cloth, $16.95 paper.

Reviewed by Alan Kilpatrick, Professor of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University, author of The Night Has a Naked Soul: Witchcraft and Sorcery among the Western Cherokee (1997).

Rethinking American Indian History is a welcome contribution to reevaluating intellectual approaches to understanding the Native American past. It is rich with contributions like James Axtell’s article which forges through the definitional difficulties of classifying hybridized forms of historical research to celebrate ethnohistory as a vibrant tool of analysis not only for understanding tribal societies but also for understanding the dynamics of industrialized groups worldwide.

Axtell emphasizes the strengths of augmenting strictly archival investigations with such diverse sources as oral traditions, linguistic studies, and iconography. The end game of this approach is to apply “hindsight and objectifying

scholarship” to prior human events and to spawn an “imaginative double vision” This would allow the informed scholar to view the classic Other “not only as they saw themselves” but also “to see them as they could not see themselves, as only we can.”

William T. Hagan traces the emergence of “The New Western History” from a fledgling Yale seminar into a blossoming intellectual movement. Then he offers a bibliographic review of some of its most recognizable figures such as White, Jennings, and Axtell.

The benign neglect of western women by male dominated scholarship is chronicled by Glenda Riley in her contribution on the historiography of women. Like Axtell, she advocates the use of non-traditional documents such as diaries, letters, marriage registers, wills, etc. From this “pluralistic perspective”, the unexamined issues such as domestic violence, divorce, and family desertion become highlighted and add another thought-provoking dimension to the stereotype of the stalwart frontier family.

Not only historians but also anthropologists and archaeologists are targeted by Theda Perdue for their lack of attention to the role of Native American women. Drawing her evidence from groups as diverse as the Plains Dakota, the California Yurok, and the southern Cherokees and Creeks, Perdue offers some insightful examples of sexual differentiation (beyond the usual division of labor) which have been little studied by the male academician: gender differences in seating arrangements, word usage, as well as attitudes toward menstruation.

Angela Cavender’s chapter focuses on the ethical issues of collecting oral data from Native American communities. Cavender stresses the importance of Native “literacy” on the part of the researcher. Beyond the problematic nature of linguistic competency, she also examines the question of who really benefits from the exchange of such information (a question that often make academics blush).

In a summary chapter, Fixico presents a useful bibliographic retrospective of some of the major methodologies that historians, in the last forty years, have employed to understand the Native American. As the millennium approaches, Fixico stresses the need for a closer examination of the dynamics of Indian communities, a microcosmic analysis employing again a pluralistic perspective to integrate such cultural elements as oral and tribal histories, environmental and economic studies, women and mythological studies, etc.

By far, the most provocative chapter in the book is Richard White’s examination of the difficulties of formulating an environmental history of Native Peoples and I have purposely left this effort for last. Rhetorically, he asks two thorny questions: 1) how can the researcher know what “Indians thought about natural world in the past?” and 2) how can a researcher know “how Indians acted in the past to the natural world…” White challenges generalist assumptions that all Indians thought the same or held the same concepts of Nature.

What is one to do? White offers two possible bromides to these perplexing issues. Assuming the Native language is still intact, question one can be illuminated by engaging in ethno-semantics (e.g. putting aboriginal words under the linguistic microscope and discerning the exact meaning of words). This painstaking dissection often leads to the discovery of folk taxonomies and world categorizations or what White refers to as “spatial histories.” However, getting an answer for question two is more problematic since the researcher has to forego strictly chirographic evidence and rely instead on laboratory methods and scientific fieldwork embodied in such activities as: dendrochronology, pollen studies, and GIS mapping.

White may be correct that “we will never recover a pure Indian past” and that all we historians, anthropologists, or archaeologists can hope to achieve is a singular act of interpretation. However, in responding to this bout of pessimism, I ask: what is wrong with that? Interpretation, at least, involves some degree of creativity and insight.

Graham Greene, the British novelist, once wrote that hatred may be nothing more than a failure of the human imagination. What we ultimately discover from studying what we in the west call “history” (the trajectory of documented encounters between Native Americans and their colonizers) is, after all, an enduring testimony to failed imaginations.

In my estimation, Rethinking American Indian History is filled more with lofty objectives than startling fresh ideas. Most “new western” historians might even eschew the work as somewhat dated and redundant (after all, how many times can you advocate interdisciplinary research). But viewed as an “index fossil”, if you will, of late twentieth century historical revisionist thought, it is a useful anthology, one which should find a receptive audience in the college classroom.