The “publish or perish” mantra that college professors are saddled with mandates a scholarly tone that can seem dense to a general reader, potentially deterring laypeople who might be drawn in by a more accessible presentation. And academic presses risk losing sales on tomes that only attract scholars or devoted aficionados of a given topic.
Viking Penguin has been bridging that gap with a series, the Penguin Library Of American Indian History, created so scholars could write about their areas of expertise in a style designed for general readers, according to general editor Colin G. Calloway.
The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground (Viking 2010), by Jeffrey Ostler—one of six books in the series—recently proved its non-academic mettle by being chosen as a finalist for the Pacific Northwest Book Award (PNBA). The book highlights the history of the Lakota Indians and their struggle to retain a connection to their homeland, the Northern Plains of the Black Hills in South Dakota.
It was indeed labeled “very readable” by the PNBA Awards Committee, which said that Ostler “captures the story of the Lakotas with such clarity that it provides enlightenment to many Native American tribal experiences of the past 200 years,” according to the committee’s website.
Ostler’s first book, The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, won the 2004 Caughey Western History Association Prize for Western U.S. History. While he wasn’t one of the five authors to win the PNBA Book Award, he was among 16 in the running.
The series sheds light on many facets of Indian relations with the settlers and, later, U.S. officials, beginning with The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears, by Theda Perdue and Michael Green, with an introduction by Calloway. Calloway also wrote the second book in the series (both published in June 2008), The Shawnees and the War for America, which details the Shawnees’ 50-year “war of territorial and cultural resistance for half a century,” the book’s website says.
American Indians and the Law, by N. Bruce Duthu, edited by Calloway, and Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier by Timothy J. Shannon (which Calloway also introduced and edited), followed in 2009. Ostler’s book was the second to come out in 2010. The first was Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi, by Timothy R. Pauketat.
In a March 14, 2008, interview Ostler discussed the series and its attempt to reach broader audiences with a less scholarly and more straightforward way of writing.
Stepping back from his academic roots enabled him to “communicate across a little bit of a greater distance” while “realizing that there are a lot of intelligent readers out there who are interested in American Indian history,” he told Steve Shankman, director of the Humanities Center at the University of Oregon (UO).
Ostler, a UO professor since 1990, said his interest in the American West stemmed from growing up in that region and noted that his first interest was in environmental history.
“That then led to more of an interest in the diversity of the peoples and their history in that land,” he said, adding that from there it was a natural progression to writing about Native issues.
“When I started teaching I realized it was increasingly important to talk about all of the people of the American West,” he said. “Critical to that was the history of the American Indians. In part it was recognizing a deficiency in my own understanding.”