"Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." - Chief Joseph, Nez Perce, or Niimíipu, "The People"
From the very first time that Europeans set foot in the Americas, Native American peoples have faced the constant threat and reality of violence, oppression, and disgrace. Entire populations were wiped out by disease, which was sometimes done intentionally. Whole towns were burned to the ground, resources were stolen, and deeply rooted civilizations were destroyed without a second thought. What is worse is that the history of these events has rarely been presented from the perspective of the victims. The stories of the European’s exploits in the Americas have always been framed around the pursuits of God, Glory, and Gold and the conquest of an untamed raw wilderness populated by mindless savages, or noble savages, depending on the era. Those stories never mention the despair that must have been and was felt by the millions of people in the advanced civilizations that called that ‘untamed wilderness’ home. Those stories say nothing of the cultures that were wiped out, the ways of life that were forever changed, or the people whose lives were destroyed by European imperialism. What makes this worse, however, is the fact that pointing things like this out has a way of making a person suddenly unpatriotic, as if they are abandoning their country for admitting that the nation that gave them life is not perfect and has stains on its conscience. If, in this case, this is the prognosis; then, so be it, the truth will and must be told.
In these histories, nay these realities, the United States of America played a prominent and extremely guilty role. From King Philip's War and the French and Indian War, during the colonial period, to Pontiac’s Rebellion, in the early days of the republic, to the Trail of Tears during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, to the theft of the Black Hills from the Lakota Sioux; the oppression has been real and lasting. Further, the atrocities stain this country's conscience just as badly as any other act, committed by any other nation, would do to them. Britain's and Holland's actions in Africa were deplorable, and Nazi Germany's actions during what has come to be known to history as, the Holocaust, were unforgivable. One must, however, not forget that the United States has, in its own words, since the early twentieth century, begun work to slowly reverse this trend, and Native American’s living conditions have improved. However, from whose perspective has the story of all of this drama been told, especially from the early days? It has always been from the perspective of detached American historians or the US Government. History is very rarely told from the perspective of the people on the losing end of a conflict. It is almost always told by people who were rarely, if ever, involved in the affairs of the conquered nations, and who are almost always so academically detached that there is never an after thought about how those conquered peoples must have felt. This has been the case with the modern representations of Native American history. The perspectives of Native Americans, themselves, have largely been ignored. This needs to be remedied.
To Be an Indian: An Oral History, edited by Joseph H. Cash and Herbert T. Hoover, was an early step in the right direction. It was their mission to begin telling the story of how Native Americans have viewed their lives in the United States of America, from the perspective of the Native Americans themselves. The book was originally published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., in 1971, but it was later republished with a new introduction from Donald L. Fixico, by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, in 1995. The main primary sources for this book are oral history interviews conducted with Native Americans living west to east from Idaho to Minnesota, and north to south, from the Dakotas to Nebraska. The authors interviewed young people, old people, unemployed workers, employed workers, political leaders, common folk, uneducated persons, college graduates, full-blood Native Americans, and mix-blood Native Americans. The stated intent of this approach to Native American History was to give these people the voice that they had long been without and to put a voice to the faces in photos of people long lost to history.
The interviews in the book were divided into four sections, Things that Guide the People, Reservation Life, Depression, War, and a Revival of Self Government, and Today and Tomorrow. The first section addressed how Native Americans viewed their deep faith, culture, and ancient folklore. It opened with a pictorial presentation of Noah White, who lived on the Prairie Island Reservation and was an expert on the culture of the Winnebago people. The second section discussed how Native Americans viewed the history, present conditions, and the future of reservation life. It opened with a pictorial presentation of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Lakota Sioux and Webster Two Hawk, the Tribal Chairman of the Lakota Sioux. The third section discussed how Native Americans viewed their lives during the Great Depression and World War II. It opened with a pictorial presentation of Cato Valandra, a member of the Lakota Branch of the Sioux and a local political and business leader on the Rosebud Reservation. The fourth section addressed how Native Americans viewed their lives in the fifties and sixties, as the US Economy was peaking and social activism was at an all time high. It also addressed how they saw their future developing. It opened with a pictorial presentation of Merri Pat Cuney, a member of the Sioux tribe who, at the time, was a volunteer teacher with Native American students across the state of South Dakota. She was teaching at places like the Pierre Indian School and St. Paul’s Indian Mission in the town of Marty. She was also a senior, majoring in Criminology, at the University of South Dakota and planned to pursue graduate level course work in History.
Were the authors right to use Oral History methods to gather their source materials? Did they achieve their stated goals? Did the pictorials that opened each section help to augment the oral history interviews? They most certainly were, and they most certainly did, on all accounts. The interviews in the first section showed several things. One can see how rich Native American folklore is by reading over the interview of Jonas Keeble who recounted ‘The Story of the Creation of Man,’ a myth that existed among the Sisseton Sioux long before the arrival of western colonizers. One can see evidence of the existence of a deep religious faith among the Native Americans by reading George Smith’s interview. He, a member of the Winnebago tribe, told the story of ‘The Happy Hunting Ground,” evidence that Native American religion accounted for life after death. Both of these interviews also serve as good examples of the vibrancy of Native American culture.
The second section made it clear how many Native Americans felt about life on the reservation. Felix White, of the Winnebago people, expressed his despair about how much their ancient hunting grounds had shrunk. It was to the point of being unusable, a result of people buying up all of the land for farming. If one read the interview of Paul Robertson, a Santee Sioux, one would find out how Native Americans viewed many government assistance programs as patronizing. He spoke of the in and out nature of the doctors on the reservation. “The experience is what the young doctor wants,” he said, hinting that he did not believe that the doctors were really there because it was where they sought to make their livings. One can also read the interview of Neola Walker, also a Winnebago, to get a picture of the almost perpetually difficult economic life that Native Americans endured on the reservation.
The interviews in Section three did a real good job of showing how Native Americans lived through the depression and WWII. If one read the interview of Ben Riefel, a US Congressman and member of the Brule Sioux, one would quickly find out how difficult it was for Native Americans during the Depression. They needed help and were suffering hard times just like everyone else. Many took help from the government but many also did not. For those that did not, it was a matter of pride. One can see how the programs of the depression benefited the natives by reading the interview of Harold Schunk. He spoke very highly of programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps. One can read the interview of Steve Spotted Tail to get a picture of how Native Americans that fought for their country felt about the way that they were treated when they came home. One can read the interview of Frank McKenzie to look into Native American politics more closely. One can also read the interview of Mabel Trudell to get a sense of the difficulties faced by Native Americans during the depression. She spoke of the sparseness of employment for Native Americans during that era, in that it was much worse than normal. Reading her interview will give the reader the sense that in times of plenty, when the rest of the nation is prospering, Native Americans are usually stuck in a constant state of economic depression. This is because of how little money is invested back into the reservations by both the government and those tribes people who are able to find better opportunities elsewhere.
Section four really did a great job of showing how Native Americans felt about the social upheaval of the fifties and sixties. Two competing images are presented in this section of the text. If one read the interviews of Cato Valandra and Merri Pat Cuney, both Sioux, there would be seen an interested local business man and a bright young activist. One would also see that they both took the approach of working with what little resources their fellow Native Americans had been left with. They used the minuscule resources they were given to create better employment and educational opportunities and social stability for their people. With the interview of Lehman Brightman, an Oglala Sioux, one would find a bit of a different attitude. He was more aggressive in his approach. He wanted to work to resolve the problems that he saw facing the Native Americans, as well; but he, instead of being inclined to work within the system established by the government, sought to make the government conform to the Native American’s ways. He wanted to revive the old Native American traditions rather than attempting to adapt to the present system, something that he felt had already been tried and proven unsuccessful. Ultimately, he achieved a lot less than he had hoped for, and one could tell that he was visibly disappointed, even deeply hurt, by that reality.
What these interviews all show together is much broader. They show a people who, despite years of colonialist oppression, racism, political interference, and pushes to assimilate into white culture, have managed to retain a sense of their Native American identity within their communities. One can see that it is on the brink of disappearing for some, but on the whole, Native Americans are taking control of who they are and what they can be. They also show that, Native Americans, at the time this book was written, were really beginning to be able to gain greater successes in this country. Consider the interview of Lucille Childs, a Mdewaknton Sioux, who had a daughter in the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. The pictures in the text also do a great deal to augment these interviews, in that they put faces to the people being interviewed. They show that Native Americans are real people, who have real lives and real problems, not some racist abstract vision of the noble, but untamable, savage. They can really be helpful, in that, many people are moved more when they have a face to attach to the stories they read.
This book and its methods have also not been in vain, as far as its contributions to the academic world. Since this book’s initial publication, several additional positive texts on Native Americans and their history have been published, many by Native Americans themselves. One such text was The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements, by Hazel W. Hertzberg. It was a history that discussed the vitality of modern Native Americans and their ability to overcome, in many cases, extreme deprivation. There was also Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, by Vine Deloria, Jr. This was a protest book written as a direct counter history to the glory stories of General Armstrong Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn. This book was followed by another oral history text, Wolf That I Am: In Search of the Red Earth People. Put together by Fred McTaggert, it was a look into the lives of the Sac and Fox people of the Great Lakes Region. Much like To Be an Indian, it sought to tell the story in their own voices, rather than the voice of a detached scholar. It is quite obvious that To Be An Indian: An Oral History has had an effect, as it is still in print and used in classrooms, despite being a relatively old text, as a lot can change in forty years. This is also shown by the role that the text has played in inspiring new works. It has also helped to begin a process in which the history of Native Americans has begun to develop into a much more sophisticated genre of historical scholarship that takes the voice of Native Americans, themselves, much mores seriously than it has in the past. It is likely that if it were not for oral history interviews like these ones, many of these people’s memories would be lost to time and Native American history would not be the rich field of study that it is today.