Comment by Brigitte Pitzl

The American Indian and the Problem of History

As Prof. Timothy K. Conley pointed out in his lecture, Native Americans were portrayed by whites in all kinds of ways throughout history, and reports were shaped by certain images that were allotted to them, but hardly ever had anything in common with the actual ways of life of the various indigenous peoples of North America. Today’s historians who study Native-white history often find themselves in the difficult situation of deciding how big the influence of Native accounts should be on their portrayals of past events.

The book The American Indian and the Problem of History, edited by Calvin Martin and published in 1987, contains an interesting collection of essays that take a close look at American history in reference to the early encounters between Native peoples and white settlers. It addresses the problems historians face when they try to include a Native point of view in their descriptions of American history and emphasizes some crucial cultural differences regarding the perception of time and history.

One difficulty that arises when historical events that relate to Native Americans are reported is that cultural discrepancies, due to contradicting views of life, cannot be neglected if the historian wants to portray the past without excluding Native accounts. Two of the main differences between white and Native cultures, according to Calvin Martin, are that "The Indian was a participant-observer of Nature, whereas we in the Western cultural tradition tend to be voyeurs."(p.28) and that Natives live in "what we would call a mythic world"(p.30):

They are not looking for, nor looking to compose, "history", as it is conventionally understood: the collection and interpretation of facts and data in the service of academic knowledge. Rather they are looking for timeless meanings, for themselves and our civilization. More pointedly, they are looking for connections: connections with nonchronological time in order to experience and know nonsegmented reality […] (p.20)

Consequently, the question arises whether it is actually possible and even necessary to combine white society’s ideas with Native approaches in order to engage in a new way of writing history that takes Native contributions into account as well. While some historians seem eager to reconsider the notions "time" and "history" and try to "see Indian-white history from the inside of the lodges" (p.117), as Frederick Turner put it, others, like Wilcomb E. Washburn, defend the traditional, purely academic approach. He writes:

Because most Indian history is written within the university, and because most university campuses are centers for left-of-center beliefs, most recent Indian history has emerged packaged in what anthropologist Edward Bruner of the University of Illinois has called an "ethnic resurgence" model (1986). From earlier models of acculturation and assimilation, the new Indian history views the present as a "resistance movement," the past as "exploitation," and the future as "ethnic resurgence." Terms like exploitation, oppression, colonialism, resistance, liberation, independence, nationalism, tribalism, identity, tradition, and ethnicity, Bruner notes, are the "code words of the 1970s.(p.92)

As an historian, I will accept nothing on religious faith, on ethnic tradition, […] History to me means a commitment to truth […] Neither Indian history by itself – least of all that parody of history that asserts ideologically the rightness of an Indian point of view merely because it is Indian – nor white history in its now discredited "settlement of the West" form, in which the Indian is merely a surrogate for nature, can stand the test of a bicultural history grounded in the commitment to a non-ethnic, non-religious, non-ideological truth.(p.97)

But what does "commitment to truth" actually mean? Just because certain ways of thinking and portraying past events do not conform to one person’s ideas of true history telling, does not make them less valid or true for other people who might have a very different outlook on life. Keeping in mind that there exists quite a large number of different definitions of "truth", myths can be as true as written historical documents:

In our thoughtworld myth and reality are opposites.[…] In this world one story is real, the other, fantasy. In the Indian way of thinking both stories are true because they describe personal experience. Their truths are complementary.(p.133)

Quite obviously, there are numerous possibilities of dealing with Native-white history, and the whole issue appears to be rather controversial. Some historians deliberately "go Native", while others continue to regard Native Americans as nothing more than the "Other". The important aspect, however, is that The American Indian and the Problem of History provides material for discussion and invites the reader to take a closer and more critical look at depictions of American history, which is essential when looking at roads in or of American culture that can have all kinds of different directions and origins, always depending on the way one looks at them.


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