Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects

By Dinwoodie, David | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects


Dinwoodie, David, Anthropological Quarterly


Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects.

Russell Thornton, ed. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press., 1998, xvii+443 pp. Things "native" quite obviously present special interpretive challenges for a society founded on a fusion of colonialism and anti-colonialism, the latter in the form of a natural rights doctrine. Indeed, in the United States, since many of our powerful and revered institutions seem to have been built in pairs to counterbalance and in a certain sense abet these respective operative principles, albeit in ever more "naturalized" forms, the interpretation of things "native" finds no firm ground. At one level Studying Native America, edited by Russell Thornton, addresses the formidable challenges to "studying" those peoples who have long been imagined by Westerners to epitomize "natural man," within what some describe as a turbulent post-colonial context. At this level, the book represents an impressive and unprecedented overview of current and historical scholarship on Native North America.

At another level, the book is an attempt to elevate the status of the relatively new discipline of Native American Studies within the academic setting. The book is meant to demonstrate that recent work has overcome the limitations imposed by the essentially political character of the discipline at its inception. Certainly this much is achieved.

Both attempts are legitimate and the book offers much to each. However, the attempt to address two such closely interrelated themes suffers from the fact that the two themes are neither carefully delineated nor differentiated. At times they are confused with each other, leaving the reader uncertain as to the overall purpose of the book.

The book consists of fourteen articles arranged in four sections. The first section, entitled "Native Americans Today," includes Russell Thornton's "The Demography of Colonialism and 'old' and 'New' Native Americans," Raymond D. Fogelson's "Perspectives on Native American Identity," and Bonnie Duran, Eduardo Duran, and Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart's "Native Americans and the Trauma of History." Thornton presents an overview of the issues in Native American demography, touching on the question of the precontact population, the surge in census numbers from the early 1960s to the present, tribal membership requirements, and urbanization.

In observing that "blood, land, and community remain the sine qua non for legal recognition as tribal Indians, whereas other identity markers tend to be employed more flexibly" (p. 41), Fogelson emphasizes the view that Native American identity is "neither singular nor monolithic but has many dimensions that may be usefully separated for purposes of analysis" (p. 40).

Duran et al argue that British and American colonization have resulted in long term psychological traumas. They argue that a version of "the survivor syndrome," a syndrome identified among the children of Holocaust survivors, is prevalent among Native Americans. They suggest that two approaches, hybrid therapy and healing ritual therapy, have special promise.

The second section, "The Development of Native American Studies," consists of a single substantial article by Russell Thornton, "Institutional and Intellectual Histories of Native American Studies." Thornton reviews Native American education from its earliest beginnings to the emergence of Native American studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He observes that Native American studies originally defined itself "in reaction to the intellectual traditions of studying Native Americans, rather than [as] a positive force in its own right" (p. 94), but that Native American studies, like other disciplines, now has a responsibility to define itself in intellectual terms. One of the chronic problems with the field has been low numbers of Native American faculty. He disagrees with those who argue that Native American studies faculty should be exclusively Native American but concludes that anything less than 50% would be unacceptable. …

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