The historical narrative about Native Americans confined them to their past. What were the consequences of this harmful and toxic narrative? How are the new narratives challenging the old stereotypical stories of victimization, defeat, and disappearance of the indigenous people?
The history of tribal nations is one of durability, integrity, perseverance and grit through more than 500 years of colonialism. The survival of the Native Americans is one of the extraordinary stories of survival in human history. The American Indians should be considered as peoples with a past and not people of the past.
Conventional Narrative about Native Americans
The conventional and traditional history written by non-Indians denied the Native people of both the present and a future. At worst, Indians were cast as treacherous villains and bloodthirsty savages; at best, as co-conspirators in their own undoing or tragic heroes who valiantly resisted before accepting the inevitability of their demise
As if these portrayals were not enough, there was also a version that depicted the Native Indian history as one that always ended in a physical conquest. These stories about the inexorable conquests were written and rewritten by non-Native historians with different places and different native people as reference points.
Learn more about reasserting rights and tribal sovereignty.
Stereotypical Narrative of Frederick Turner
The single most detrimental narrative about Native Indians was by the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner. He articulated his essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History to an impressive congregation of non-Indian historians in 1893.
Turner presented his frontier thesis as how the frontier was the key to the advancement of the American society. He regretted that the frontier had finally closed and presumed that this would lead to end of the Indian history. Turner created a narrative that picturized Native Americans as problematic and savage.
Charles Sprague’s Version of Native Americans
Charles Sprague, the banker poet of Boston, pigeon-holed Native Indians as degraded offspring who were picturized as victims in the hands of their conquerors. In his oration delivered to commemorate American independence on July 4, 1825, Sprague eulogized what he called the unfortunate fate of the Native Americans.
The excerpts from Charles Sprague’s poem shaped the thought processes of both the Native and non-Native young minds about the Native Indian history.
In the 19th and the early 20th centuries, these versions about the Native Indian history also appeared in academic writings, sculptures, musical scores, plays, moving pictures, and novels. And each of them depicted that the Indians would exit history eventually.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Methods of Recording Native American History
The indigenous people recorded their history through oral traditions and oral histories. So, the Native Americans did have a tradition of recording their past and passing it on to the future generations. For instance, the Iroquois in the Northeast created wampum belts to record complex histories, laws to preserve important events.
The plains people, such as the Lakota and Kiowa used pictorial calendars or winter counts to record history. Personal narratives were recounted using plains Indian graphic during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ledger art was another traditional way of recording history through images inscribed on rock walls, buffalo hides, teepees, and articles of clothing.
The Balancing Act
A repressive historical narrative had been built over the years and a counter-narrative to challenge the same was required. The Native Indians adapted themselves to meet their social, cultural and political challenges.
Native writers, including Samson Occom, William Apess, Christal Quintasket, and D’Arcy McNickle scripted their own first-person narratives. These were completely different from the conventional narratives of Turner and Sprague.
Historian James Axtell splendidly interwove the interpretive framework of mutual encounters into the narrative. Such histories emphasized on diplomacy, exchange, and negotiation unseating the narratives filled with physical conquests and conflicts. The theory paved the path for an alternative perspective of change from the problematic concept of a racist frontier to vibrant middle grounds and borderlands.
Learn more about native transformations on the great plains.
New Perspectives on Native American History
During the second half of the 20th century, both native and non-native historians began looking at history from a different perspective. While some academicians did not look beyond the archives created by non-native historians, others dared to think outside the narratives of the celebratory historians. These scholars started crafting native history from a native point of view.
With the significant increase in the number of native faculty and students in universities after the 1950s, innovative approaches, through American Indian Studies, and ethno history started developing. They were further encouraged by the need for culturally relevant programs and growing demand from native faculty.
Curriculum on American Indian Studies
In the late 1960s, the institutions started including the American Indian Studies in their curriculum. Some of the first institutions to do so were the University of California, University of Minnesota, Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Davis.
Among the founders of American Indian Studies were the Crow Creek Sioux writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, the Powhatan-Renapé and Lenape scholar Jack Forbes, and the Standing Rock Sioux intellectual Vine Deloria, Jr.
The first Convocation of American Indian Scholars was held at Princeton University, New Jersey, in March 1970. The objective of the convocation was to change the perspective on the history of Native Americans.
However, the timeline over which the new historical narratives were created was quite uneven. The progressive works from the 1970s to the 1990s covered four centuries of Native Indian history until the end of the nineteenth century.
Learn more about the native south and southwest in the 1600s.
Eradicating the Roadblocks
The non-Indian historians, such as Charles Sprague and Frederick Jackson Turner created a narrative that the tribal people and their sovereignty would disappear over time and so would Indian history.
Today, their theory serves as a major roadblock to the recovery and renaissance in Native America. The new historical narratives can assist in removing these roadblocks to recovery and renaissance in Native America.
Some of the native scholars offer historical perspectives on their own families, communities, and nations. For native scholars like Jennifer Denetdale and many others like her criticizing history is important to establish the recovery and revival of their community, family, language, and traditions.
Common Questions about Changing the Narrative about Native American History
The Native Americans recorded their history through oral traditions and oral histories. For instance, the Iroquois in the Northeast created wampum belts and the Lakota and Kiowa used pictorial calendars or winter counts to record history.
Charles Sprague was called ‘the banker poet of Boston’. He referred to Native Americans as degraded offspring who were picturized as victims in the hands of their conquerors.
In the late 1960s, some institutions started including the American Indian Studies in their curriculum. Some of these institutions were the University of California, University of Minnesota, Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Davis.