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Call for Change: The Medicine Way of American Indian History, Ethos, and Reality

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For too many years, the academic discipline of history has ignored American Indians or lacked the kind of open-minded thinking necessary to truly understand them. Most historians remain oriented toward the American experience at the expense of the Native experience. As a result, both the status and the quality of Native American history have suffered and remain marginalized within the discipline. In this impassioned work, noted historian Donald L. Fixico challenges academic historians—and everyone else—to change this way of thinking. Fixico argues that the current discipline and practice of American Indian history are insensitive to and inconsistent with Native people’s traditions, understandings, and ways of thinking about their own history. In Call for Change, Fixico suggests how the discipline of history can improve by reconsidering its approach to Native peoples.

He offers the “Medicine Way” as a paradigm to see both history and the current world through a Native lens. This new approach paves the way for historians to better understand Native peoples and their communities through the eyes and experiences of Indians, thus reflecting an insightful indigenous historical ethos and reality.

ISBN-13: 9780803243569

Media Type: Hardcover(New Edition)

Publisher: Nebraska

Publication Date: 06-01-2013

Pages: 264

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

Donald L. Fixico is Distinguished Foundation Professor of History, Affiliate Faculty of American Indian studies, and Affiliate Faculty in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University. He is the author of numerous books, including The American Indian Mind in a Linear World: American Indian Studies and Traditional Knowledge and The Invasion of Indian Country in the Twentieth Century: Tribal Natural Resources and American Capitalism.

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The Complexity of American Indian History

As it began to get dark on April 12, 1991, three Indians stood on a street corner in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. There was no doubt that they looked Indian. Two of them had long black hair. As people walked by, they stared at the Indians. One lit a cigarette and offered a smoke to the other two, but they shook their heads to decline. The smoker mentioned he was going to quit his habit someday. The long day had ended for the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians, meeting that year in Louisville. All three Native friends who attended the conference were historians with doctorates in hand from universities known for Indian history. We were deeply engrossed in conversation about one of the sessions where we had heard papers presented on Indians.

More people walked past us, but we paid them no mind. We criticized the papers, saying that the non-Indians in the session really did not know enough about Indians. We talked about the tribal differences of our people. One Indian historian said, "There wasn't enough scholarly analysis in the papers." The three of us concluded that American Indian history focused on Indian-white relations but that there were many tribal histories that needed to be included as well. We stood there talking for almost an hour; it was dark as we stood under a streetlight. I was hungry, and I told my friends I was going to get something to eat and go back to my hotel room. One of the other Native historians said he had to leave to meet a friend. The third said he had heard there was a blues band playing nearby, and he was going to listen to some blues.

As we left in our different directions, I thought about what the other people were thinking as they walked by us — three Indians standing on the street corner. Instantly all the stereotypes would come to their minds about Indians, and they might feel a bit tense walking past us. They might only ever have known Indians on television, or through the racist presumptions of Indians being dirty, lazy, and uneducated. I would have bet a million dollars that they would never have guessed we were three Indian scholars of history. Three Indian professors, out of fewer than fifteen Indian PhDs in history in the entire country at the time, were discussing the complexity of Indian history on a downtown street corner as the evening began to cool down.

Real Indian history focuses on how Indian people were involved in experiences from their own perspective and also on understanding the views of non-natives who participated. "How" and "why" Native peoples responded as they did in situations typically called events are significant questions for understanding Indian history. In this light, the present study is not just the history of Indian-white relations. This is not a history "about" Indians from a non-Indian point of view. Instead, it is a history of how Native people have been misrepresented, and this study sheds light on being Indian while expressing an indigenous ethos within a Native reality. In order to understand Indian history, it is necessary to attempt to "see" things from the Native perspective of a tribal community's inside.

In addition, "experience" is more significant to Indian people than "event." Native people describe experiences in their daily conversations or when telling about the past. In contrast, mainstream Americans place more emphasis on events as the text of history. Whether it is through experiences or events, Indians and whites have engaged each other throughout history, whether it was written or told via the oral tradition in stories.

Throughout this book, it is essential for the reader to put aside previous notions about history as a collection of events and to think about history in terms of experiences. In this Native ethos, history is a series of experiences recounted by storytellers through the oral tradition.

Current American Indian historiography represents the field of literature of historical accounts, including oral history, that non-Indian historians have produced about Indians and their relations with other peoples. This broad inclusion also takes in the works of other scholars and writers who have produced accounts about indigenous Americans as well as the writings of early chroniclers and travelers who kept diaries and journals and made reports about the Native peoples of America. It is crucial to acknowledge the oral history and written accounts produced by Native peoples, as they also produced pertinent records that are a part of American Indian historiography. While more than forty thousand books have been written about American Indians, mostly by non-Indians, there are also tribal accounts, works by Native authors, and oral histories that have added significantly to this historiography, although the mainstream academy has failed to appreciate this contribution.

In the discourse throughout the chapters that follow, American Indian history consists of understanding the experiences of Indian-white relations. Indian history is about relationships, including nonhuman relationships. However, in teaching Indian history one typically ends up teaching the history of Indian-white relations. Whatever the course is called — American Indian History, Native American History, Native Studies, or American Indians' History — the hyphenated Indian-white binary predominates, even if only implicitly.

In this equation, looking from right to left, one can imagine the settlers moving from the east toward the west as many of them recorded their travels and wrote about Indians, keeping diaries, describing Native people in their journals, and telling others later about what they saw. In his introduction to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Dee Brown invites his readers to stand up, and he states, "Americans who have always looked westward when reading about this period [the western expansion] should read this book facing eastward."

The equation of Indian-white relations can be used to illustrate that a First Dimension exists in which non-Indians write "about" Indian people, and it is from this dimension that most Indian history has been written.

A Second Dimension can be theorized of scholars analyzing and writing about the "interactions" between Indians and whites. This second door represents the threshold where the mainstream reality meets Native reality. For example, the United States and Native groups have engaged in more than sixteen hundred wars, battles, and skirmishes. This common ground includes the first encounter with Columbus as well as other historical contact situations, such as trade relations, missionaries among Indians, boarding school experiences, and even intermarriages.

This Second Dimension has always been present, but it was not opened in academic circles until the 1970s. Ironically Native peoples have been using this door to go both ways: to enter white reality and to return to their own world as a part of the government's efforts to assimilate them in the mainstream.

A Third Dimension is proposed, which is actually the First Dimension from the Indian point of view, as indigenous people saw whites approaching from the east. This Third Dimension of Indian-white relations involves researching, analyzing, and writing from the inside out, based on Indian views of history. Applying the equation of Indian-white history as outlined in the following pages provides a framework and route for enlightening non-Indians about the Indian perspective.

A key consideration in studying American Indians is to understand their reality and learn how it has changed. It is the "real life" of how people lived, what they thought, how they formed their values, and how they viewed the world of medicine power in all things, including the universe, that is most relevant in writing the history of American Indians in the Third Dimension. This perspective is the Medicine Way of Indian history/experiences. This power-in-everything interpretation consists of the three dimensions as described and uses a binary paradigm of Indian-white relations. The interaction of the three dimensions creates a "cultural bridge of understanding" that becomes more familiar with regular usage. Within this indigenous paradigm is a Native reality called a "Natural Democracy" that contains all things (see the glossary for special terms used in this book). For example, medicine is all around Native people, and it is part of the metaphysical component of Native reality called the Third Dimension. This is the Medicine Way of understanding power. And the three dimensions in the equation in figure 3 illustrate a bridge of cultural understanding that can be crossed by mainstream academics from right to left.

In this sense, understanding the "historic" and "traditional" reality at any point in time becomes the task for historians and scholars from other fields in their efforts to explore, understand, and analyze the actual history/experiences of American Indians.

It is imperative to realize that indigenous reality has changed throughout the course of time and that indigenous communities have had various and sometimes conflicting worldviews. The constant in the Indian universe was and remains change due to adaptation for survival against the forces of nature and other powers, including white settlement. Forces of the universe and external pressures from white encroachment caused an acceleration of changes in Indian life, although the rate varied with the control of cultural evolution possessed by Indians themselves. It bears repeating that such external forces acting on Native communities and causing change occurred well before the arrival of Columbus in the Americas in 1492.

Yet continuity persisted as change occurred within the indigenous communities. The continuity consisted of an evolution of change as the people adapted new ideas and new material items from Europeans, such as the horse from the Spanish, guns from the French, and metal items from the British, to improve their societies.

This continuum was aided by the power of "story," the vehicle of oral tradition as generations of people told and retold stories of myths and legends and of experiences that made them a part of the present. Prophetic accounts of experiences to occur in the future were made a part of the present reality so that the past and the future were entertained in one time continuum. This was the Circle of Life for Native peoples, who believed in cycles of events and whose fundamental philosophy and thought functioned circularly (see glossary).

The survival of Indian people has enabled them to rebuild and adapt their communities and cultures. This ability might be called transformation of cultural adaptive systems. American Indians are indeed products of their environments, and their oral traditions of stories and myths corroborate this adaptive ability. Yet Indian history in the Third Dimension of an Indian reality is about understanding the indigenous ethos.

It is foolish to suppose that there is only one canon or one American Indian viewpoint, which presents us with a question — which point of view do we mean? "Indian perspective" means a point of view from a Native reality — not a specific tribal ethos. Within the indigenous context is a Navajo ethos, a Muscogee Creek ethos, a Mohawk ethos; each Native nation has its own way of seeing. All these ways of seeing represent a collective Indian perspective called the Medicine Way.

It is imperative to acknowledge the presence of more than one category of perspectives — or ways of interpreting Indian history. Standpoints range from that of the academic historian to that of the generic category of Native people, some of whom are also professional historians. American Indians who speak of and write history may be academically trained, and/or are trained in oral traditions, and they include those persons who are historians of their tribes, bands, communities, or organizations. Further discussion still needs to be addressed to determine "whose interpretation is it?" That is, Native people have an inherent right to preserve and/or write their own history, although the gatekeepers of Indian academic history who decide what gets to be published largely continue to be non-Indians. In fact, many non-Indian scholars and writers have made handsome careers from writing books about Indians without giving back something to the Native communities. Some scholars have even tried to keep others from studying and writing about "their" Indians. Yet to be fair, since the 1980s growing numbers of young scholars have become more sensitive to Indian views and Native concerns and now include Indian voices in their work.

Indeed, several historians have boldly attempted to write or compile books on the complexity of American Indian history. Historians and other scholars have produced articles on writing Indian history; some scholars have elaborated on the skills of history and how they feel such skills should be broadened. In his anthology The American Indian and the Problem of History (1987) Calvin Martin compiled many Indian and non-Indian views in essays on the nature of Indian history, which led to his book In the Spirit of the Earth (1992). Martin's anthology consists of essays from various scholars in disciplines that are troubled by bringing together two different kinds of history — one linear from the western thinking and the other circular from the Native consciousness. He called for an Indian perspective in Indian history, while challenging historians to think about history and time beyond their western-mindedness as trained historians. His In the Spirit of the Earth was more meaningful in articulating his view of connecting Native people with the earth, which has produced an Indian-earth consciousness. Although this work is insightful, the aspect that various kinds of medicine powers are always present is shortchanged. How this can be understood is addressed in the following chapters.

Colin Calloway's anthology New Directions in American Indian History (1988) suggested additional ways for other disciplines to approach Indian history. Calloway argued that we should not rely solely on the discipline of history. My own anthology Rethinking American Indian History (1997) left more to be said, although part 1 demonstrated the need for ethnohistory and part 2 argued for scholars to employ additional disciplines in writing Native history. Laurence Hauptman said much about the irony and challenge of writing about Indian people in his Tribes and Tribulations: Misconceptions about American Indians and Their Histories (1995). Hauptman argues that Indian people have been inaccurately represented, and these miscues have produced erroneous and harmful stereotypes about American Indians. Peter Nabokov, in A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History (2002), argues that a history from an Indian viewpoint is too large an undertaking for historians alone and suggests the inclusion of folklorists, anthropologists, linguists, historians of religion, and Indian oral historians. In order to understand the Medicine Way, one must use a transdisciplinary approach to contextualize an indigenous paradigm.

These studies contributed to the need to explore the Native perspective about the Indian version of Indian history. Yet how are non-Indians to engage the Native point of view and its reality for understanding the other side of historical issues, events, and shared experiences? A special edition of the American Indian Culture and Research Journal (2010) on contemporary Native communities argues that Native Studies scholars can provide a better understanding of historical and contemporary events. Based on their insights into their own communities, they can yield an approach from the inside out for presenting research and analysis of the infrastructures of tribal nations.

American Indian history in this light is both a paradox and an enormous challenge, and unfortunately it is typically understood from one's personal point of view. Perhaps it is best to consider the paradox first, and then address the deep myriad of American Indian history.

In the twenty-first century, after more than five hundred years of contact, America's scholars and mainstream society persist in largely ignoring the Indian view of the American experience. This is the paradox and a central part of the problem. Although Indians have recorded their own experiences in the oral tradition of myths, legends, and stories and in pictographs, etchings, and paintings, this information is not meaningfully incorporated into academic history. Ironically, this ethnocentrism on the part of American historians, anthropologists, and other experts who study the American experience prohibits a complete record of Indian-white relations. This unfortunate prejudice has produced a one-sided view from mainstream America (fig. 2, right to left), and the other side, from Indian America, still needs to be heard and included as a part of academic history. So rather than try to solve the entire problem of Native peoples in American history or the American experience, it is difficult enough to attempt to clarify the paradox and complexity of American Indian history.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations viii

Preface ix

Glossary xvii

1 The Complexity of American Indian History 1

2 Native Ethos of "Seeing" and a Natural Democracy 17

3 The First Dimension of Indian-White Relations 41

4 The Second Dimension of Interacting Indian-White Relations 65

5 The Third Dimension of Physical and Metaphysical Reality 85

6 A Cross-Cultural Bridge of Understanding 109

7 Oral Tradition and Language 129

8 Power of Earth and Woman 149

9 Coming Full Circle 173

Notes 185

Bibliography 207

Index 233