Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 16 Number 2
January 1977


Michael B. Husband

Dr. Michael B. Husband is Associate Professor of History and Planning Coordinator of the Indian Studies Program at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.

TWENTY-TWO years ago, the popular frontier chronicler Bernard De Voto stressed the influence of the American Indian upon our national culture and its neglect by historians: "Most American history has been written as if history were a function of white culture—in spite of the fact that till well into the nineteenth century the Indians were one of the principal determinants of historical events" (see Note 1).

A perusal of the historical literature on American Indians supports De Voto’s assertions. Until recently, the "Indian point of view" has been noticeably absent from both textbooks and popular literature. American Indians have traditionally been romanticized and mythologized by non-Indian writers, and many volumes purporting to be "Indian history" are in fact simply records of white-Indian relations rather than the long history of Indians in North America.

There is, of course, much more to Indian history. Wilcomb Washburn and others have given considerable thought to the problem of writing Indian history; perhaps too little attention has been given to teaching a course in this area.

Because of the sizeable urban and reservation Indian population in and around Sioux City, I have offered a course in American Indian History at Morningside (Iowa) College for the past four years. A knowledge of native North American cultural diversity, an understanding of the varying interests, goals, concerns, and status of American Indian people, as well as a perception of cross-cultural value and goal orientations is essential if one is to approach such a course with any expectation of meaningful accomplishment. I have found that outlining and adhering to some specific learning objectives can provide meaning and structure to a course.

It is useful to devote the early class meetings to such topics as precontact Native American political and social organization, major traditional misconceptions about Indians, as well as some thoughts regarding the Indian and the mainstream of American history. A discussion centering around the European and Indian views of man and nature, an analysis of the concepts of "savagism" and "civilization," the matter of Native North American cultural diversity, and, a comparative study of European Indian policies provide essential background.

The selection of texts is a major challenge; the best general treatment of American Indian history is, in my opinion, Edward Spicer’s A Short History of the Indians of the United States (New York: Van Nostrand-Reinhold Co., 1969). Spicer, an anthropologist, views Indian history as dynamic rather than static, and his book proceeds largely from the standpoint of Indian-Indian relations, treating white-Indian relations as only one aspect of American Indian history. Spicer counters the myth of the "vanishing American," and demonstrates that the development of Indian life involves a great deal more than response to white policies. This approach contrasts, for example, with that of historian William Hagan, whose brief, but comprehensive and popular American Indians (University of Chicago Press, 1961) proceeds essentially from the standpoint of white-Indian relations. Hagan’s generalized study is important. But Spicer’s ethnohistorical insights offer the reader a much wider perspective. Spicer and Hagan, when assigned together in an Indian history class, can be a stimulating study in contrasts. Supplemental readings, representing varying points of view, can complement basic texts nicely. I’ve enjoyed success with Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk’s classic autobiography, Vine Deloria’s thought-provoking Custer Died for Your Sins, as well as The American Indian: Past and Present, a reader edited by Roger Nichols and George Adams which seems to encourage student analysis and evaluation of some major historical and ethnohistorical interpretations.

A year or so ago, I realized that the entire matter of the Indian and the frontier in American history required considerable revision. Although Frederick Jackson Turner, father of the famous frontier thesis which explains the advance of the frontier on the basis of civilized progress and development, and many of his followers gave little thought to the influence of the American Indian upon American civilization, the Indians’ continued presence throughout our colonial and national history has given the American experience a special coloring. Turner’s frontier thesis is largely an interpretation of EuroAmerican white history, and has little to do with Indians, Blacks, Mexican-Americans, or other minorities. Historian Wilbur Jacobs suggests that

we revise certain of our traditional ideas about the frontier in American history with a hope of seeking a balance to offset some of the widely accepted interpretations that have repeatedly appeared in our textbooks and in many learned journals. (see Note 2)

Indeed, students ought to be made aware of what Oliver La Farge once called the "myths that hide the American Indian." Students and teachers should be encouraged to seek out misconceptions, factual errors, and questionable interpretations in the books they assign and read; such volumes as Textbooks and the American Indian (San Francisco: The Indian Historian Press, 1970), can provide ideas as to the criteria for such judgments. Roy Harvey Pearce, in his Savagism, and Civilization: A Study of the Indian in the American Mind (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), explains how the various 17th and l8th century European views of the Indian as a "noble savage" gave way in the 19th century to a perception of Indian culture as a "fallen" stage in the development of civilization. This redefinition of the Indian as an inferior being served as a philosophical rationale for official and unofficial Indian policy.

Among the multitude of new books on American Indians which have emerged recently are several volumes of Indian oratory, that is, history from the point of view of individual Indians, particularly tribal leaders, who experienced and made it. Such materials offer invaluable cultural and historical insights to the student studying white-Indian relations throughout American history (see Note 3).

A few additional suggestions which may make the teaching of American Indian history a more meaningful and objective experience for all involved--Indian and non-Indian students alike--includes: a firm grasp on current events, be it legal developments or the current status of reservation life, essential to an understanding of the Indian experience; numerous Indian journals, newspapers, and newsletters are readily available (see Note 4) and films are legitimate teaching devices (see Note 5). Members of several Northern California tribes, in a film entitled The Way of Our Fathers, discuss historical methods of Indian education and an equally engrossing film, Forty-Seven Cents, documents the attempts of the Pit River Indians to protect ancestral lands. Whenever and wherever possible, Indian resource persons should be invited to the classroom to offer their perceptions.

Varied Resources Available

Teachers should emphasize the varied interpretations of Indian history among American scholars at the present time. Alden Vaughan’s interpretation of the Pequot War, Douglas Leach’s views on King Philip’s War, Bernard Sheehan’s analysis of Jeffersonian Indian policy, Francis Paul Pruncha’s startling reassessment of Andrew Jackson’s Indian policy and John Greenway’s infamous essay entitled "Will the Indians Get Whitey?" (National Review, March 11, 1969) may be unpopular in many circles, but they do represent points of view which students should be encouraged to (see Note 6). Dee Brown’s popular Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), which more than any other recent book stressed the Indian history of the American West, has nevertheless aroused criticism for its alleged unilateral polemicism. Crimsoned Prairie: The War Between the United States and the Plains Indians During the Winning of the West (1972), by S. L. A. Marshall, a retired Army officer and military historian, is a spirited rebuttal of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and similar books. Students, I feel, should be encouraged to read both books.

The study of American Indian history ought, of necessity, to be interdisciplinary in approach. Some reference to such volumes as Bahr, Chadwick, and Day’s Native Americans Today: Sociological Perspectives (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), encourages students to draw conclusions as to the relationship between current trends and problems among American Indians and the historical experience. Leslie Fiedler’s The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein and Day, 1968), is a thought-provoking literary examination of the impact of the Indian upon the American psyche. Fiedler explains the roles which Indians have played in American literature and popular culture before the advent of the New Western, such as Little Big Man, wherein the "savage" is the wise and moral philosopher and Custer emerges as the fool he may have been. N. Scott Momaday, in his Pulitzer prize-winning House Made of Dawn, has approached his tribal history through literature (see Note 7).

Oral History Can Be Valid Tool

Perhaps the most promising key to a "new Indian history," however, lies in the area of oral history. Oral history as a modern technique for historical documentation has gained increased respectability as numerous institutions and groups across the nation have set up oral history projects aimed at the collection and preservation of the views of individuals who have contributed significantly to American life, or who have been in a good position to observe it. The oral history process, including interviewing and the transcribing, cataloguing, storage, and utilization of oral testimony, assures scholars of this and succeeding generations of the availability of important primary source materials.

In recent years, many scholars have come to realize the value of the oral history process to the study and teaching of American Indian history. But oral history is not new to the area of American Indian history. In the 1930s, Grant Foreman supervised a program in Oklahoma designed to encourage Indians to voice their recollections and attitudes for the record, and Stanley Vestal, who made use of oral testimony in his biography of Sitting Bull, made reference to his techniques of interviewing Indians in his New Sources on Indian History, 1850-1891, published in 1934 by the University of Oklahoma Press. Black Elk Speaks (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), stands as a classic Indian memoir, and other noteworthy volumes, usually Indian recollections recorded and edited by anthropologists, include Sun Chief: The Autobiography of a Hopi Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), Son of Old Man Hat: A Navajo Autobiography (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), Paul Radin’s Crashing Thunder (New York: Liveright, 1927), Mountain Wolf Woman (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), and more recently, Cheyenne Memories (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), and Pitseolak (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972), the personal narrative of an Eskimo artist compiled from recorded interviews. Anthropologist E. Adamson Hoebel’s study of the Cheyennes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966) was written with the help of tribal elders still living when he did his field work.

The oral history process can provide major primary source materials for Indian history, which, when used in conjunction with the documentary records that exist, may give students a new, and perhaps more balanced perspective. Wilbur R. Jacobs, in calling attention to the Indian side of Indian-white confrontations, notes that "oral Indian history tapes, available by the hundreds at several centers for Indian history in the West, show clearly that Indian historical traditions greatly vary from white accounts, although chronology and many points of fact closely tally with white records . . ." (see Note 8).

There is a marked tendency among many Western scholars to distrust oral tradition as history. Just because the documents are missing, as De Voto noted, we have frequently assumed that in some cases there was no history at all (see Note 9). There are, of course, limits to the uses of oral history; interviews often cannot yield much in the way of formal history beyond the informant’s memory span. Interviews with contemporary Indians reveal not only views on current issues, but the Indian perception and interpretation of history as well.

The need for more Indian-oriented sources was translated into action in 1967 when Miss Doris Duke granted funds to several state universities, including New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Illinois, Utah, and later Florida, for the purpose of establishing oral Indian history projects and, ultimately, setting up regional archives for transcribed interviews for the use of scholars and the Indian people (see Note 10).

The American Indian Historical Research Project at the University of New Mexico, with which the writer was associated as a research assistant from 1967 to 1970, has resulted in thousands of typed pages of material relating primarily to Pueblo and Navajo history and covering a wide range of topics, from descriptions of 18th century Anglo-Indian relations to Indian views on current political and economic issues. The American Indian Research Project at the University of South Dakota includes interviews with many persons representing several Northern Plains tribes as well as with non-Indians who are involved in Indian affairs. The program is now available on microfilm, and To Be an Indian, a book of interviews from the collection edited by Joseph Cash and Herbert Hoover of the project staff and published in 1971, is a stimulating volume for teachers, students, and others with an interest in cultural values, reservation life, federal Indian policy, and the Indian interpretation of history.

Other Disciplines To Contribute

The oral history process clearly provides the opportunity for a closer working relationship between the historian and the anthropologist, to both the teaching and writing of Indian history. It should be noted that many cultural anthropologists, as well as historians, have devoted considerable attention to detailed studies of the effects of Anglo culture upon the Indians, and perhaps not enough attention to the effects upon American culture of our historic contacts with Indians. Nevertheless, anthropologists in general, and ethnologists in particular, have traditionally taken a more relativistic point of view with regard to cultural values than other scholars, and many have been staunch supporters of Indian causes. If Indian history, in textbooks and in the classroom, is to become more than a record of Indian-white relations, cooperation between the disciplines seems necessary. Historian Robert Berkhofer notes:

If white assumptions about racial superiority and the multifarious activities that this belief took in relation to Indian societies provide the basic theme of a history of white-Indian relations, then the central theme of a new history of Indians ought to be the remarkable persistence of cultural and personality traits and ethnic identity in Indian societies in the face of white conquest and efforts at elimination or assimilation. By concentrating on this latter theme, the historian moves Indian actors to the center of the stage and makes Indian-Indian relations as important as white-Indian ones have been previously. (see Note 11)

In urging closer cooperation between anthropologists and historians, Berkhofer also says that,

Anthropologists used evidence gathered in the field from live informants, for their assumptions about cultural persistence justified the use of present-day information to describe past events. Historians, on the other hand, went to the library in search of books and manuscripts because they believed that change invalidated any evidence but that derived contemporaneously to the event studied. Historians, therefore, generally treated Indian history as a record of Indian-white relations regardless of whose "side" they considered morally correct. (see Note 12)

"In short," writes Berkhofer, "American Indian history must move from being primarily a record of white-Indian relations to become the story of Indians in the United States (or North America) over time," and a course entitled "American Indian History" should deliver what the course title implies (see Note 13).

With the current movements within the American Indian community for a greater emphasis on the perpetuation of traditional values and customs, the value of oral history as a means of cultural preservation seems clear.

If one can accept the premise that history should be told by those who experience it, if one can impart to one’s students both the Indian and Western concepts of "history," if one can encourage students to ponder the richness and diversity of American Indian history, and if students are exposed to alternate interpretations of the total American historical experience, an American Indian history course can be rewarding and meaningful.


1. Introduction to Joseph K. Howard, Strange Empire (New York: Morrow and Company, 1952), p. 8.

2. Wilbur R. Jacobs, "The Indian and the Frontier in American History--A Need for Revision," Western Historical Quarterly, IV (January, 1973), p. 43.

3. See W. C. Vanderwerth, Indian Oratory (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971); Virginia I. Armstrong, I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians (Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc., 1971); and Wayne Moguin (Ed.), Great Documents in American Indian History (New York: Praeger, 1973).

4. Such publications as The Indian Historian, Wassaja, Akwesasne Notes, Journal of American Indian Education, American Indian Law Newsletter, Education Journal (published by the Institute for the Development of Indian Law), as well as various tribal and government publications are useful.

5. See Bibliography of Nonprint Instructional Materials on the American Indian (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1972).

6. See Alden T. Vaughan, New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965); Douglas Leech, Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip’s War (New York: Macmillan, 1958); Bernard Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973); and Francis Paul Pruncha, "Andrew Jackson’s Indian Policy: A Reassessment," Journal of American History, LVI (December, 1969), pp. 527-539.

7. Indian literature is a helpful teaching-learning tool. See: Jerome Rothenberg (Ed.) Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1972); Frederick W. Turner III (Ed.) The Portable North American Indian Reader (New York: The Viking Press, 1974); Shirley Hill Witt and Stan Steiner (Eds.) The Way: An Anthology of American Indian Literature (New York: Vintage Books, 1972); Hartley Burr Alexander (Ed.) The World’s Rim (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967); William Brandon (Ed.) The Magic World: American Indian Songs and Poems (New York: William Morrow & Company,: Inc., 1971); George W. Cronyn (ed.) American Indian Poetry: An Anthology of Songs and Chants (New York: Liveright, 1962); John Vierhorst (ed.) In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971).

8. Jacobs, Western Historical Quarterly, IV, p. 54.

9. See Jan Vansina, "Once Upon a Time: Oral Tradition as History in Africa," in Felix Gilbert and Stephen R. Graubard (Eds.), Historical Studies Today (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1972), for a stimulating discussion of the oral history process as it relates to "oral civilizations" in Africa.

10. See Joseph Cash, "A New Dimension in Indian History," in Daniel Tyler (Ed.) Western American History in the Seventies (Ft. Collins: Colorado State University Educational Media and Information Systems, 1973), pp. 46-49; Richard N. Ellis, "The Duke Oral History Collection at the University of New Mexico," New Mexico Historical Review, XLVIII (July, 1973), pp. 259-263; Julia A. Jordan, "Oklahoma’s Oral History Collection: New Source for Indian History," Chronicles of Oklahoma, XLIX (Summer, 1971), as well as guides and reports issued by the various Duke and other oral history projects. Mary Ellen Glass, The Oral History Projects of the Center for Western North American Studies: A Bibliography (Reno, Nevada: Desert Research Institute, 1966), includes some material on Indian activities.

Those with an interest in Indian oral history should be aware of the hundreds of interviews in the American Indian program of the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, and the American Indian Oral History Collection, available on audio tape and published under the auspices of The Library of American Indian Affairs.

11 Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., "The Political Context of a New Indian History," Pacific Historical Review, XL (August, 1971), pp. 357-358. For a discussion of trends in the historical literature on American Indians, see Wilcomb Washburn, "The Writing of American Indian History: A Status Report," Pacific Historical Review, XL (August, 1971), pp. 261-281.

12. Ibid., p. 359.

13. Ibid., p. 357. See also William T. Hagan, "On Writing the History of the American Indian," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, II (Summer, 1971).

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