Iroquois Chiefs Montage - Charles Bird King, Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees, 1821,
Native Americans and American History
by Francis Flavin - US National Park Service
Historiography and the Study of Native Histories
Historiography” is not the study of history. Instead, it is the study of the writing of history. The
way in which an individual, a people, or a nation writes its history reveals much about those who
wrote it. The past itself does not change, but the way that people interpret it does. The elements
of history that are emphasized or downplayed, and the value judgments assigned to them, all
change—reflecting the writer’s own personal and cultural biases.
Of course, Native American history is subject to these historiographical shifts. In fact, it
can be argued that no character in the pantheon of American historical figures has been cast and
recast, interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted more frequently than the American Indian.
For example, popular depictions of Native American history from the nineteenth century have an
Anglocentric perspective. Writers narrated the country’s history from a White American
perspective, often celebrating America’s “winning of the West” with the national self-confidence
characteristic of the era. It was deemed a “good” thing that American civilization overspread the
continent and supplanted the less developed, “savage” native inhabitants.
In contrast, the 1960s witnessed a significant historiographical shift in how America
viewed its past. The civil rights movement drew attention to the often difficult plight of ethnic
minorities in America; the anti-war movement depicted the U.S. military not as defenders of
freedom but as imperialist aggressors; the environmental movement forced people to
contemplate alternative lifestyles that were less destructive of nature; and the hippies rejected
traditional White Anglo-Saxon Protestant values and attempted to create an alternative culture.
Those who interpret the past are often influenced by the social, cultural, and political issues of
their own time, and these issues often prompt them to reconsider long-held assumptions within
the context of those newly-arisen issues. Not surprisingly, the changes of the 1960s influenced
historians, writers, film-makers, and other Americans—causing them to view Indians in an
increasingly sympathetic and favorable light. They perceived Indians as a historically-oppressed
minority victimized by imperial conquest and as a dignified, peace-loving people who lived
harmoniously with nature. Furthermore, they became increasingly critical of Europeans,
Americans, and the United States government. Over-dramatizing things a bit, some people replaced the old understanding of “White man good, Red man bad” with “Red man good, White
Revising history like this challenges people to contemplate the past from new—and often
provocative—viewpoints. However, replacing one simplified stereotype with another doesn’t
necessarily lead to better understanding. Nevertheless, after a wave of revisionism has run its
course, historians often find themselves in the enviable position of being able to blend the best of
the old with the best of the new, and produce more nuanced, thoughtful scholarship. This is
precisely where today’s historians of Native America find themselves, and they have produced
some first-rate Indian histories.
Still, there remain significant limitations to understanding Indian history. The most
notable is the problem of written sources. Native American peoples, up until the nineteenth
century or later, were generally pre-literate. They transmitted memories of the past orally—but
famines, wars, and diseases extinguished not only people, but Indian histories as well.
Consequently, centuries of Indian history have been irretrievably lost. Furthermore, during the
contact and post-contact eras, many of those who documented Indian life—trappers, traders,
missionaries, explorers, travelers, government officials, and scientists—were of European
descent, and their writings reflected White cultural biases and interests. Although the Indians
may have been the subject of these writings, the writings often reflected a non-Indian
One solution to the dearth of written sources is “ethnohistory.” Ethnohistory, which
emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, is a methodology that blends anthropology and history. It
encourages its practitioners to use historical sources to answer anthropological questions and,
conversely, to use an understanding of a culture and its dynamics to answer historical questions.
What results is not necessarily “history from an Indian perspective,” but rather a history that is
sensitive to a tribe’s culture. In the second half of the twentieth century, scholars increasingly
employed ethnohistorical methods to produce commendably sophisticated studies.
The shortage of histories from an Indian viewpoint has been slowly but steadily remedied
as time has progressed. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries native peoples either
created texts of their own or allowed their testimonies to be transcribed by others. And, in the
last several decades, greater numbers of historians of Indian descent have written their own
histories, and are enriching the field of Indian history by adding long-absent native voices.
When studying any area of history, first-hand accounts provide the reader a level of
understanding and a certain “feel” that is sometimes absent from synthetic accounts. Native
American history is no exception, and those studying it will benefit from reading these first-hand