The Struggle for Self-Determination: History of the Menominee Indians since 1854

By David R. M. Beck | Go to book overview

a combination of survival of the old ways; creation of new cultural, political, and economic institutions; and re-creation of weakened institutions since earliest contact with Europeans.

Studying survival means rethinking the standard telling of Menominee history. Throughout time Menominee tribal leaders from all walks of life have understood their world in a distinct manner and have worked to ensure the continuation of their way of life. Physical survival has often been a primary focus for individual tribal members, but cultural survival has always been the concern of Menominee leaders. Indeed, for the Menominee, survival has been just the first step in an ongoing process of self-definition. Cultural survival encompasses social, political, and economic aspects of tribal life that preserve core cultural values and use those to shape and reshape both community life and interactions with outsiders. From the years of earliest contact in the 1630s through the establishment of the reservation in the 1850s, the Menominee, despite ever-increasing pressures, fought successfully to maintain their own distinct vision of their present and future and to move—fitfully at some times, full bore at other times—along the crooked path to that tribally defined future.

In more general terms, the craft of writing historical tribal studies is undergoing changes as Indian community perspectives are beginning to be incorporated into their stories. Whereas in the past tribal histories have largely reflected questions more relevant to the larger society—focusing, for example, on federal policy—some of the recent works are beginning to focus on questions arising from within tribal communities.3 The historian Greg Dening has noted that history written from either the political right or left does a disservice to indigenous peoples. From the right, “real history” assumes the primacy of the dominant society’s values, placing the Native community in a position of inferiority until it rises to the level of the colonizer. “The political left,” on the other hand, “tends to believe that ‘real history’ is knowing the enemy in imperialism and capitalism.” This approach objectifies Native people, consigning them either to mere reactive participants or to museums.4

Flawed by analytical shortcomings, both approaches fail to explain Native communities’ survival into the present and the ways that they have shaped their changing worlds in the hopes of securing survival into the future. The actors in the story told here are those who survived and those who both impacted and impeded survival. The voices of all these actors need to be heard in this tribal history. Such an approach requires that the motivations of both the Menominees and non-Menominees who have participated in the history be told.

Because tribal histories are mutual stories between others, it becomes nec-

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