Journal of American Indian Education
Volume 3 Number 2
THE CIVILIZATION OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN
Between James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather Stocking Tales and Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, a century of neglect—some say dishonor—elapsed during which scant attention was paid the American Indian in biography, in history, and in fiction. It would have been hard to find an Indian hero in the 1920s. The novel had him appearing mostly as villain. In history the perspective was almost always from the vantage point of the white, and usually to the disadvantage of the white man’s red antagonist. The movies, which had displaced the dime novel as the most favored of popular entertainment, depicted the Indian as foil for the Anglo-American’s deeds of derring-do.
But as the decade of the 1930s began, it became clear to many students of our history that something would have to be done about a heroic segment of our population. The stimulus was less one of protest against the exaggeration with which most American institutions had been expressed up to that time, as a direct outcome of the Great Depression, than it was of serious historical reevaluation.
The need, clearly, was for a whole series of ethno-historical studies, carried out on a broad front stretching from the old Northeast to the California Southwest. Without such an effort, the main course of our history would continue to appear in distortion. Moreover, it would require of its writers a direct reversal of the techniques they had previously employed. They would have to get inside Indian groups and look out at developments. Indian institutions, customs, habits, and attitudes would have to be investigated and understood. Somehow, the doctrine that "history is a record of progress" would have to be reconciled with the now dawning fact that the destruction of a culture is not necessarily a social gain—certainly not for those who lose it.
It was in such an emerging climate of historical opinion that the University of Oklahoma Press began its work on the Civilization of the American Indian Series. It was conceived by Joseph A. Brandt, who had become the Press’s first director in 1928. It was made concrete with the publication of Grant Foreman’s pioneering book, Indian Removal, published by the Press in 1932. Foreman, a retired attorney living in Muskogee, Oklahoma, had devoted a number of years to the study of the Five Civilized Tribes, who, during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, had been forcibly removed from their homes in the Southeast to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Gathering his materials at the sources, knowing the tribesmen from his own legal work among them, Foreman wrote a sobering account of the tragic uprooting of thousands of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Creeks from the states of Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Mississippi. Thirty-two years later, his book continues actively in print and remains one of the landmarks in American historical research on the Indian.
An equally significant book, more dramatically written, appeared in the Press list a few months later, entitled WahKon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road, the work of John Joseph Mathews of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, himself a part-blood Osage. It was quickly chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club and appeared on the reading tables of thousands of Americans in all parts of the United States.
The impact of these two books and of others not written originally for the Civilization of the American Indian Series—notably La Farge’s Laughing Boy, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, and Stanley Vestal’s Sitting Bull Champion of the Sioux, published in 1932--was immediate and far reaching. On another front, Alfred Barnaby Thomas, a former student of Herbert Eugene Bolton’s, had already begun to look into the long-neglected relations between colonial Spaniards and Indians in the Southwest. His translation and edition of the de Anza documents from the eighteenth century appeared in the series as Forgotten Frontiers.
From these developments it became clear that the new historical trend affecting the Indian was well on its way. It promised to humanize individual Indian leaders and to set the Indian in the mainstream of historical evaluation, relating Indian groups and their geographical areas to social and cultural reality.
It would be a mistake, however, to assert that the Civilization of the American Indian Series combined all of the historical and ethnological virtues early in its career. People—even the most skilled among the historians of Oklahoma and the Southwest—had to learn the techniques of ethnographic interpretation, the uses of oral history and eye-witness accounts, the cross-checking of white documentary sources against Indian remembered history, and the patience required of those who seek history in a tribal setting.
But there was no better place in America at the time for a large-scale assault upon Indian history than in Oklahoma. Sixty-seven tribes were either represented in its population or were historically associated with its development. The state was only 25 years away from Indian Territory days. More than 150,000 of its people were to some degree of Indian blood. Yet there were then (as now) no Indian reservations in its entire area (Indians had acquired land in severalty and citizenship as a preliminary to statehood in 1907). Being an Indian in Oklahoma carried no social or political disabilities. The writers of the new Indian history possessed an infinitely important point of view: they had no racial prejudice toward the Indian.
As editors, neither Joe Brandt nor I (my responsibility for the series began in 1938, when I succeeded him) had any fixed notions about the kind of book which should go into the series. But the most desirable type was not long in developing: it was the work of Angie Debo, of Marshall, Oklahoma, who wrote it as a doctoral dissertation in the University of Oklahoma. It was entitled The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, and it appeared in 1934. To its author went the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association. Here was a book which examined the linguistic stock of the tribe under discussion, produced information going back to the shadowland between prehistory and history, and then related the development of the tribe down to the close of its independent political existence as a nation in 1907. As one read it, one had the feeling of proceeding along interior lines—seeing events from inside the tribe, rather than from a purely Anglo-American perspective. The adjustment to this point of view was made easier by the fact that many Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes were reading Greek and Latin when white settlers in the nineteenth century couldn’t sign their own names. Highly developed political and cultural institutions were everywhere to be seen. The designation of "civilized" had not been given these five Indian tribes without cause.
And so, from Miss Debo’s pioneering effort, came the pattern for dozens of books which were ultimately written for the series. As the list slowly grew, it became evident, however, that not all of the Indian nations would lend themselves to the same type of treatment historically. For the Five Civilized Tribes there was an abundance of both Indian and white documents (since many tribesmen were writing excellent English, French, or Spanish as early as the last half of the eighteenth century). The plains and woodland Indians of the West had gone through no such process of acculturation. And the mesa and desert dwellers—Pueblos, Navahos, and others—even after four centuries with Spaniards and Mexicans—were basically without written records, except as they were kept by their conquerors or were reflected in their material culture and ceremonials.
Gifted researchers gradually appeared, authors like George E. Hyde, who had started his career as George Bird Grinnell’s research assistant on the plains tribes; John Adair, a highly trained ethnologist, working on the Navaho and Pueblo silversmiths; Alice Marriott, who proved herself brilliantly at home with both the Kiowas and the Pueblos; Walter Collins O’Kane, a distinguished entomologist turned student of the Hopis; Joseph Epes Brown, the student of Siouan religious expression; William T. Hagan, historian and student of the Sac and Fox; and Ernest Wallace, the historian, who teamed very effectively with one of America’s best known ethnologists, E. Adamson Hoebel; and many others.
The record now stretches to seventy stout volumes, dealing with Indians, past and present, from the High Andes in South America to the frigid backlands of Labrador. The effort to recapture the history and life of the Indian, now already a third of a century old at the University of Oklahoma Press, may need to go on for at least half a century more. The reasons are pretty plain.
In the limited area of our own state, we still do not have ethnohistories of all of the Five Civilized Tribes. For the plains groups, we have brilliant books on such obvious tribes as the Cheyennes, Kiowas, Comanches, and Osages, but little or nothing on the Pawnees, Caddoes, and Poncas. And there are more than a score of others. The ambitious student of the subject needs to do no more than examine Muriel Wright’s fine one-volume encyclopedia, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma, to find an abundance of subjects needing attention.
For the West as a whole, there are scores of additional tribes as yet without ethnohistories. And for the eastern area of the United States we have still to make clear the worth and the challenge of historical research which will produce books on familiar Indian names from the earliest period of our colonial history down to the close of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. For the former we need more investigators of the strength of John C. Ewers and George E. Hyde, E. E. Dale, Donald J. Berthrong, Alice Marriott, and A. M. Gibson; and for the latter, more like Grace Steele Woodward, Edward Hamilton, and R. S. Cotterill.
The question is often asked me, "Who may write one of these histories?" The answer is fairly simple. Anyone may address himself to a major task in Indian history who possesses some understanding of historical method and archaeological and ethnological data and is willing to search deeply for the truth. For many years, the need for a soundly conceived and written history of the Cherokee Indians offered a great opportunity to professional historians in our country. But the achievement went to an energetic and gifted housewife in Tulsa, Grace Steele Woodward, whose performance in The Cherokees has won for her the frank admiration of students everywhere.
To a retired railway locomotive engineer, Frank Gilbert Roe, goes the credit for a highly significant interpretation of The Indian and the Horse. This book reflects but one of the many needs for research and writing in areas as widely separated as Indian ceramics, design, silver and other jewelry, fabrics, architecture, bunting, religion, and folklore.
In many ways, the most consistent bodies of information are those now contained in the series on the Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs, the work of many highly skilled researchers, most notably J. Eric S. Thompson, whose studies of Maya civilization and language are among the great achievements of our era. The break-through in this area of historical and ethnographic writing came with a friendly inquiry sent me by the late Sylvanus Griswold Morley, a world figure in Maya research then living in retirement in Santa Fe, who was suddenly struck by what was going on at Norman. He was eager to see translated into the English language what many have since identified as the first book of the Americas.
Popol Vuh, which is central to any understanding of the intellectual achievement of Indian civilization in the Western Hemisphere, may be compared with Beowulf. It is the sacred book of the ancient Quiche Mayas, dating from perhaps a thousand years before Columbus, written originally in glyphs by the Indians of highland Guatemala. It appeared in English translation, carried out by the late Adrian Recinos of Guatemala and Delia Goetz of the United States, with an introduction by Morley, in the Civilization of the American Indian Series fifteen years ago. Taken with Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s An Album of Maya Architecture, J. Eric S. Thompson’s The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, and Alfonso Caso’s The Aztecs, it tells us how majestic the gifts and accomplishments of the American Indian really were—when Europe was still deep in the Middle Ages.
For the Incas, the work of the Spaniard, Pedro de Cieza de Leon, dating from the Conquest and never really edited, organized, and translated for English-speaking peoples, was long considered by a limited number of students as a foundation account. Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, then resident in Peru, was willing to produce an edition which would bring together the scattered chapters on the subjects about which Cieza de Leon had originally written, making them consecutive; and Harriet de Onis agreed to do the translation. The result is a book which tells truly what the Incas, both in the highlands and in the lowlands, were doing at the time the Spaniards arrived; their institutions, beliefs, material culture, and political and military organization.
To Cieza’s account has been added during the past year a modern synthesis, the work of Burr Cartwright Brundage of Florida Presbyterian College, After many years devoted to the study of the highland Incas, he produced Empire of the Inca, by all odds the most successful of the recent attempts to reconstruct Inca civilization.
The puzzles for the lands north of Mexico invite the zeal of countless archaeologists and students of history. In the Museum of the University of Oklahoma is a quartz crystal beetle taken from Spiro Mound in eastern Oklahoma. Whence this near-perfect primitive gem? In the great collections of the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art at Tulsa are countless articles of great beauty—jewelry, pipes, maces, ceramics, statuary—and an obsidian figuerine quite as striking as the Spiro beetle, but from a site eight hundred miles to the northeast. To students of Indian life and culture, the challenge, ever continuing, is unmistakable.
Anglo-Americans and lbero-Amenicans now know more fully the stake they have in understanding the life and work and history of the first Americans. In the years to come, we hope that the Civilization of the American Indian Series will offer them further installments in a great story of the original inhabitants of our land, whom we are less inclined to identify as primitive than we were half a century ago.