'Reflections on American Indian History: Honoring the Past, Building a Future'
Reflections on American Indian History: Honoring the Past, Building a Future'' (University of Oklahoma Press 2008, 149 pages) is a collection of five essays by academics in the field of American Indian history: Colin G. Calloway, R. David Edmunds, Laurence M. Hauptman, Peter Iverson and Brenda J. Child. (Technically, Child is a professor of American studies.) The authors adapted their essays from papers they delivered at the 2005 Wilma Mankiller Symposium on American History, sponsored by the University of Oklahoma. Mankiller, former chief of the Cherokee Nation, supplies the book's introduction.
While the symposium's focus was broad - Native history in the 20th century - familiar themes emerge in these pages, including identity, adaptability, sovereignty, the economy, education, language revitalization and gender. Taking the direct approach, Calloway's essay addresses a good number of these ''unresolved issues of the past'' under sections labeled accordingly. As Albert L. Hurtado, who edited the work, points out, the value of these essays lies in showing ''how these leading scholars think about Native American history today.''
The general readership is within its rights to flee from works featuring professionals dissecting their own trade. Done poorly, such examinations can yield insider, self-aggrandizing results. That is not the reality here, thankfully. Instead, these essays invite readers into a relaxed, thoughtful, sometimes funny and sometimes personal conversation (with footnotes) from the field's most accomplished historians.
What this book does well is put ideas on the table and then leaves it to the reader to pick them up or let them lie. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of the symposium, or perhaps it is simply a shared trait of these selections, but the authors don't come across as intent on doing a whole lot of convincing. As most enjoyable conversations do, these essays travel from theme to thought to story and then continue on their way.
Child, an Ojibwe, begins her essay by considering a jingle dress that Mankiller once received as a gift from a tribal chairman when she visited the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota. From this personal recollection, Child moves in and between subjects, including a history of the Jingle Dance and the regalia itself, the significance of sound, the modern pow wow, the work of ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore, and the traditional collection methods of maple syrup.
In traveling up and down these avenues, pointing out interesting sites along the way, Child elucidates the healing power of women in the Ojibwe culture. Similarly, Iverson employs a playful tone in his essay about the new reality American Indians have succeeded in creating for themselves. (Or, put another way, the image of the dying Indian they have finally shed.) He strengthens his work with commentary on the movies, neighborhood street names, snow cones, rodeos and reservation basketball.
Edmunds and Hauptman offer two of the book's most thought-provoking essays. Hauptman, fascinated with how ''Native peoples consciously and subconsciously construct their own views of the past,'' explores the significance of Oneida collective memory, some of it unverifiable by scholars. Focusing on three enduring stories from the Revolutionary War era, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, Hauptman concludes that verifiable or not, these stories reflect the Oneida desire to ''remain culturally distinct'' while at the same time ''to be recognized and included in the larger sweep of American history.''
Edmunds, using composite characters drawn from research, approaches the slippery subject of identity by considering the concept of ''progressive'' and ''traditional'' Indians. Such labels are often misguided and unhelpful, but as Edmunds demonstrates, the qualities of a progressive Indian a century ago are not unlike those of a traditional American Indian of today.
If the book has a weakness, it is the unevenness in the complexity of its ideas. Meaty ones such as those above appear alongside elementary ones. (We're told, for instance, that gaming is not a panacea for all the troubles in Indian country.) In a sense, however, this range of thought invites a wide readership to this volume. Those possessing a deeper understanding of American Indian history will appreciate the relaxed tone with which familiar authors deliver new understandings. The book's introductory and conversational qualities will serve those newer to the study of American Indian history. Its humor and the personal nature of the narration are a treat for all.
Jill Ingram is a freelance writer in Asheville, N.C.