The Tule River Tribal History Project: Evaluating a California Tribal Government's Collaboration with Anthropology and Occupational Therapy to Preserve Indigenous History and Promote Tribal Goals

Article excerpt

Postcolonial and indigenous scholars suggest that creating alternative histories is a necessary activity for Native peoples in their recovery from the destructive emotional, behavioral, and political effects of colonial domination. The literature on history-making as a restorative process has focused on mental health, reversing negative representations of indigenous people in mainstream histories, and using Native histories to reclaim land and rights. In 2004, the Tule River Indian Tribe of Central California initiated an innovative history project to engage tribal elders in contributing historical information about themselves and their families for preservation by the Tribe. Theories and methods from postcolonial scholarship, anthropology, and occupational therapy (and its academic discipline occupational science) focused the Tule River Tribal History Project on providing meaningful and enjoyable activities-creating family trees, a tribal photo archive, interviews with elders, social gatherings and community discussions, and a website. The products were made available to participants in digital and printed formats. Copies have since been archived by the Tribal Council and also made available for tribal use at the Towanits Education Center on the Tule River Reservation. Pre-test and post-test survey data indicate: (1) the tribal elders' high valuation of the history-making activities; and (2) the positive impact of the program on social integration and spiritual well-being.

Key words: Native Americans, postcolonialism, indigenous, aging, intergenerational trauma, historical trauma


In 2004, the Tule River Tribal Council undertook an innovative project to preserve the history of the Tule River Tribe. The Tule River Tribal History Project was implemented by integrating the expertise of three sets of partners. These included: (1) the Tule River Tribal Council, and the Tule River Tribal Elders as a membership organization within the Tribe; (2) an anthropological consultant; and (3) a staff of occupational therapists. The task for anthropology was to provide a scholarly framework to key periods, events, and literature related to the tribe's history, to help access archival records, and to broker relationships and the flow information within the tribe. The anthropologist was a figure known to members of the community for about 30 years. The task for occupational therapy was to quickly and effectively facilitate tribal elders' participation in the project by engaging them in history-making activities.

The rationale for the tribal history project, and more information about its interdisciplinary background, appear in recent publications (Frank 2007; Frank et al. 2008; see also Frank, Block, and Zemke 2008; Frank and Zemke 2008). A particularly salient part of the rationale focuses on anthropology's increased collaboration with tribes to achieve indigenous goals (Field 1999, 2004; Lassiter 2005a, 2005b). In the present article we turn to an evaluation of the Tule River Tribal History Project and the relationship of its findings to claims made by postcolonial and indigenous scholars regarding the importance of history-making to indigenous well-being (Duran, Duran, and Yellow Horse-Brave Heart 1998; Duran 2006; Duran and Duran 1995; also Mihesuah 1998; Smith 1999).

Overview of the Tribal History Project

The Tule River Tribe is comprised of about 1 ,500 enrolled members. Of these, about 500 members live on the reservation in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, in Central California, about 15 miles from the city of Porterville. The reservation is in the San Joaquin Valley, about midway between Bakersfield and Fresno. At the time of the tribal history project, there were 118 tribal elders (defined as tribal members age 55 or older). Over half of the tribal elders (N=(A) participated in the project by returning an initial ("pre-test") survey designed to determine their attitudes toward tribal history and the anticipated tribal history project. …