Going Indian

By Garroutte, Eva | Plains Anthropologist, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Going Indian


Garroutte, Eva, Plains Anthropologist


Going Indian. James Hamill. University of Illinois Press, Champaign IL, 2006. ix + 216 pp., appendix, bibliography. $ 40 (Cloth), $20 (Paper).

James Hamill is an emeritus professor of anthropology, recently retired from Miami University in Ohio. A previous book (Ethno-Logic: The Anthropology of Human Reasoning) has dealt with how patterns of logical reasoning may vary across indigenous cultures including the Navajo, the Ojibewa, and the Mende. His current book, Going Indian, turns its attention to the diverse Native peoples of Oklahoma. Hamill's analyses are largely based on historical documents-the Indian Pioneer Papers from the late 1930s and the Doris Duke Collection from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both of these extensive collections contain extraordinary interview material from American Indian respondents in Oklahoma. Hamill supplements sampling from these historical sources with nine of his own contemporary interviews with American Indian people.

The book's thesis revolves around the author's observation, early in his research investigations, that "Oklahoma, unlike other places in the Indian country, was one place where there really were Indians" (p. ix). By this assertion, Hamill seems to mean that the unusual history of Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) has given rise, in our own time, to a pan-tribal or generically "Indian" ethnic identity that differs from his experience in other tribes. As he elaborates, his past research had involved"people.. .who considered themselves Navajo, or Ute, or Ojibewa, and resisted the association with other Native American peoples that the idea 'Indian' carried with it." In Oklahoma, by contrast, the author reports, "people did consider themselves Indian, and their lives were filled with formal and informal institutions that reinforced peoples' Indianness. Indian professional groups, Powwows, Native American Church, sewing circles of Indian women, Indian research associations, and Indian social service agencies are parts of the everyday lives of Indian people throughout Oklahoma" (p. x).

Reasoning that the indigenous inhabitants of North America did not, at the time of European contact, consider themselves a single people, Hamill classifies contemporary Native Oklahomans under the category of "ethnic groups with no historical antecedents" (p. xi). He then dedicates the book to explaining the origin and development of their generalized "Indian" identity, attempting to show how contemporary understandings may have roots in the experiences and stories of Indian people in earlier periods. Toward this end, he examines his sampled historical interviews, paying special attention to experiences that respondents construct as markers of Indianness-symbolic boundaries that set off Native people, as a class, from non-Indians. Narratives that draw his attention include discussions about forced relocation and imposed educational experiences, ideas about Indian "blood" and blood quantum, and descriptions of religious and ceremonial practice.

No one who has lived in Oklahoma could overlook the kinds of intertribal social organizations and institutions that captivate Hamill and prompt him to characterize Oklahoma as the site for a florescence of a historically new, "Indian" ethnicity. Clearly, this context does foster a rich and unique profusion of possibilities for successful interactions across tribal lines. In Oklahoma, no one is surprised to find Indian churches, powwow clubs, Indian chambers of commerce, and even "Indian units" of mainstream organizations such as the Shriners. All of them embrace people from any and all Native tribes.

At the same time, one is compelled to point out that, even in Oklahoma, intertribal differences (not to mention intertribal grievances) can be pronounced and important. Anyone who suggests, for instance, to a Yuchi that he is actually a Creek, or observes to a Comanche that she is no different than a Cherokee will invite an extended discussion, if not a rather more intense interaction.

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