Putting the "Vanishing American" into the Twentieth-Century U.S. History Survey

By Hewitt, William L. | The Historian, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Putting the "Vanishing American" into the Twentieth-Century U.S. History Survey


Hewitt, William L., The Historian


In striving to be relevant and to provoke and sustain student interest and enthusiasm, teachers of U.S. survey courses make many decisions about content and materials. Students invariably show interest in Native Americans, if only because their curiosity has been piqued by films such as Genmitno, The Last of the Mohicans, and Dances With Wolves. This interest presents the history instructor with several questions: If I lecture about representative tribal cultures before European contact, which tribes do I include? As I must cover European settlement in the "New World," how much time do I spend on this? How much time do I devote to Amerindian-Euro-American relations in subsequent lectures? There are also important historiographical considerations, including the sources to be used for lecture ideas and material, and which books to assign for students to read.

Questions about the inclusion of Native Americans also occur toward the beginning of the second half of the U.S. survey, but are probably not considered after the instructor completes nineteenth-century topics. In short, coverage of Native Americans usually ends with the obligatory textbook chapter on the Plains Indians, which inevitably stops with the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Native Americans might be subsequently mentioned in a paragraph on the "Indian New Deal," the Indian Reorganization Act, the termination policy during the Eisenhower years, and possibly the Alcatraz occupation and Wounded Knee D. The historian Terry P. Wilson wonders: "Why has so much of the American historical profession exhibited reservations about including Native Americans seriously and prominently in narrative and analysis?" (1)

There is a solution to this conundrum. Recent biographies of noted Native Americans, as well as Native-American autobiographies, can provide survey instructors with an opportunity to use diverse materials. For example, biographer Michael F. Steltenkamp offers a more complete portrait of Black Elk than John G. Neihardt's classic. In his Black Elk Holy Man of the Oglala, Steltenkamp describes the traditional holy man to 1900, as Neihardt had done, but he rounds out the remainder of Black Elk's life until his death in 1950. Steltenkamp reveals that in 1905, Black Elk converted to Catholicism, and subsequently served as a devoted catechist and missionary to his tribe. His prominent role in both Indian and Catholic religions highlights the complexities and dilemmas faced by Native Americans trying to bridge two worlds. (2)

A transition for understanding the place of Native Americans in modern American culture can be seen in The Hunt for Willie Boy: Indian-Hating and Popular Culture. James A. Sandos and Larry E. Burgess retell and correct the story told in the film The Hunt for Willie Boy, about the Paiute-Chemehuevi Indian, Willie Boy, who was the object of a 1909 manhunt after he killed his potential father-in-law and abducted his intended bride. The authors pick up a theme running through American history described by Richard Drinnon as "the metaphysics of Indian-hating and empire building," portraying "civilization over savagery." Sandos and Burgess see the power of the myth in the popular culture's portrayal of the Willie Boy episode, and how understanding it might provide an image of the Indian "freed from a white storytelling dominated exclusively by Indian-hating." (3)

Indians in popular culture can be presented in an entirely different way by using material from Ben Yagoda's Will Rogers: A Biography. Although Yagoda discusses Rogers' Cherokee heritage only briefly in the first thirty-five pages, he shows how Rogers rose from a Wild West show trick rider and roper to become a household name. Rogers' wit and wisdom can provide a prism through which to see American politics and society in the early 1930s. Rogers did not blame President Hoover for the depression. As he observed, "Mr. Coolidge and Wall Street and big business all had their big party, and it was just running out of liquor when they turned it over to Hoover. …

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