American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review

By Roger L. Nichols | Go to book overview
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9
Historians and Indians

ROGER L. NICHOLS

Throughout American history, the pioneer advance into frontier regions has meant different things to the various groups and individuals who experienced this process. Some looked hungrily to the West for opportunity. A few allowed the tide of settlement to sweep them along to new circumstances, while still others virtually ignored these events. Often overlooked in discussions of triumphant settlement was the fact that the resident Indians experienced the frontier movement as often as did the intruding white pioneers. For the tribal people, the frontier experience brought some economic opportunity, as well as social and political development. More often, however, it meant painful physical uprooting, epidemic disease, rapid and often overwhelming economic changes, and frequent social disintegration. The occupation of North America by the Europeans produced a new world for Indians and whites alike, one that differed substantially for these two peoples.

Despite their modest numbers and frequent exclusion from American society, Native Americans continue to receive more attention than any racial or ethnic minority in the country except blacks. The fascination that historians and ethnologists have for Indian people has resulted in a veritable flood of articles, books, and papers. Although they recognized that Indians and relations with them were of major significance to many aspects of frontier settlement, historians developed their interpretations slowly. At the beginning of this century, they still depicted Native Americans as dangerous savages, another obstacle in the physical environment. Such views changed gradually to the present recognition of Indians as an ethnic minority seeking just treatment within a pluralistic society. Clearly both the historical events and the current position of Native Americans within the general society pose continuing challenges to existing patterns of historical analysis.

Scholars have gathered vast data about Indians and demonstrated a willingness to strive toward fairness and understanding, yet their studies have generated few

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