First of all, welcome, to the rather overwhelming number of new people who have made their way to this blog in the past few days. I know there are a lot of people commenting that Native American history gets the treatment it does because of lack of writing and use of oral hisory, so I wanted to address: where does knowledge of indigenous history come from? How is it that “we” (multiple we‘s really: academia, laypeople, Natives, non-Natives…) know things about indigenous history? The difficulty, of course, being that the history of the Americas has been on an institutional level told with the voices of Europeans and their descendants as the protagonists, with indigenous people only included marginally as necessary to tell the European-American story.

The major sources of indigenous history are

  • oral histories of indigenous people themselves
  • written records kept by non-Natives and Natives
  • archaeological data

Each of these has its own merits and challenges and each plays a different part in telling indigenous histories.

Archaeological data

Archaeology is key to indigenous history before about 1500, since before then there are very few written records and oral history tends to be less detailed the further back you go. You find a site, do some careful digging, record everything you find, and draw some conclusions. And then you have century-long debates over how to best interpret the things you found.

There are a couple of difficulties with using archaeological data for writing indigenous history. The data you get is not what people think of when they think of history–it’s generally a lot of burials, foundations of old houses, and a truly astounding amount of pottery shards. And you examine the stuff found in different places and over time and try to draw conclusions about what happened. Which is difficult, for many reasons. First of all, archaeological “cultures” (groupings of similar artifacts) don’t necessarily match up with linguistic, ethnic, or national cultures. And even with archaeological cultures, there’s often a lot of debate about whether the culture is a correct interpretation, because ultimately it comes down to archaeologists looking at the data and interpreting it, which different people might do differently, and it’s inherently tied to assumptions people have about the past. For instance, it was previously taken for granted that the mounds of Mississippian and Hopewell people couldn’t possibly have been made by indigenous people, just because of the assumptions white people had about Native Americans.

Archaeology in North America also has a rather rocky history with indigenous people themselves. It has historically been closely linked to the theft of indigenous property and the desecration of indigenous bones, and archaeologists have often worked in complete isolation from actual living Native people, not considering the fact that it was their ancestors they were digging up. Happily there has been an increase in recent years of archaeologists working in collaboration with Native people–the Art Institute’s book Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand on pre-contact eastern woodlands people, for example, included work by a number of people descended from Mississippian and Hopewell people and showed how living elders were collaborating with archaeologists and art historians to get a better understanding of artifacts.

The fact is that there’s an enormous amount of material in North America that has not been excavated yet, but there’s also quite a bit that has been done. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned since coming to college, it’s mostly kept in university libraries and written in language that no one but a specialist can understand. So although there’s a wealth of information, it largely hasn’t been disseminated into the population at large, and certainly is very difficult for indigenous people themselves to get a hold of–to the extent that many people don’t even realize it exists. One of my major goals is trying to get some of this archaeological knowledge out and available to the indigenous people whose history it is a part of, so we can take some control over our own histories.

Written records

This is what people think of when they think of history. (Especially books). The majority of historical information in existence on Native people comes from sources written by non-Native people. These records include journals, poems, letters, reports, and more. There’s sometimes a tendency to think of written records as being more “objective” than other kinds of evidence, but most historians would tell you that there’s all kinds of factors you have to consider when you’re looking at a written source: who wrote the document? Why did they write it? Who were they writing for? The background of the creator, the social milieu, their agenda for writing… All of this is especially important when you’re looking at sources written by people about indigenous cultures who are not actually from that culture. If you’re looking to write history from an indigenous perspective like I am, these records are essential because they provide flashes of indigenous people from particular instances of time, but a lot of care has to be taken in coming to understand the indigenous side of the records.

There are also written records made by indigenous people themselves. These go back into precolumbian times in records like the screenfold codices of Mesoamerican people, as well as other kinds of sources that some academics don’t like to call “writing” but are clearly at least writing-like records of history, such as the birch bark scrolls made by Anishinaabe people and other Algonquian speaking people in the northeast. There’s also a plethora of sources written by Native people after the arrival of Europeans, in colonial languages as well as indigenous ones. There’s too much to even start to list, and it’s all depressingly ignored by a lot of people–but the fact is that Native people started writing down their stories in the Roman alphabet practically as soon as they were introduced to it, and these sources continue to today. They too have to be carefully examined–certainly the kind of Native people who had access to the resources for writing needs to be looked at (for instance, many early records come from Native converts to Christianity, which is obviously not going to best represent the viewpoint of indigenous people who refused to convert). But these play a crucial role in getting indigenous viewpoints into history.

Oral history

Oral history gets a lot of crap from historians and laypeople alike, because there has long been an attitude that oral history is not “real” history, which is written down in books. Increasingly historians are recognizing that oral history is not inferior history, just a different way of keeping history. The list goes on and on about why people don’t think oral history “works”: it’s unreliable, it’s all just mythology, it’s all been forgotten because of colonization. In the end, this mostly just comes out to the same effect of stubbornly refusing to accept oral history as a legitimate way of telling history. And this is a major problem, because oral history is the primary place where indigenous people have maintained sovereignty over our own histories.

Like with archaeological data and Native-made written records, people, both Native and non-Native tend to vastly underestimate the amount of information that exists in the form of oral history. It’s true that colonization, through the deaths of so many people and the attempts to convince survivors that their history is without value, has done a lot of damage, but there’s an incredible amount that has survived. It covers greater time depth than you’d expect, too. For instance, a lot of oral history was collected from elders in the very early 1900s. If you’ve got an elder whose about 90 years old in 1900, they may remember things their elders told them when they were kids–people who were in their 80s in 1825 or so, who were born in the mid-1700s. In the book “The Cheyenne Nation” there’s a story in which members of one military society, in 1982, recite a two-hour list of grievances with another society, going all the way back to events that happened in 1837. Native politics, they never change 😛

There are a lot of cases of indigenous people with oral stories about past events and migrations and ways of life that were initially dismissed as entirely made up but in recent years have been validated by archaeology (e.g. the origins of the Nahua people in the American Southwest, the Dhegiha migration from the Ohio River valley, Choctaw stories about Nanih Waiya and the mound builders). Like with written sources, you need to make sure you understand particular pieces of oral history. Unlike written sources, which freeze a particular moment in time for future generations to see, oral history is a demonstration of what things are deemed so important that they manage to be told even years later.

In many ways the analysis of oral history is not, at a structural level, significantly different from analyzing written history. In both cases you need to examine who is speaking, to whom, why… but while academia has developed over a great span of time very precise ways of picking apart written history, the serious academic study of oral history is much younger, and the same kind of technical understanding doesn’t quite exist. This is especially an issue for indigenous people, because in many (if not all) communities, oral histories are part of very complex traditions unique to that particular community. If you’re listening to a Cree story, you’re not going to be able to fully understand it and what it is doing on a meta level if you’re not familiar with the genres of Cree speeches (acimowina, atayohkewina, wawiyatacimowina, kakeskihkemowina), the stylistics of the language used, the allusions to what is assumed to be known by the listener. If you don’t know that, it’s going to be like trying to analyze a piece of literature without any knowledge of the format of novels, nonfiction, letters, newspapers, etc., or the poetic traditions of Europe, or Enlightenment philosophy, or any of the cultural knowledge held in common by your average American.

Putting it all together

So you get all this information, and what do you do with it? A lot of it is contradictory, or vague, or difficult to piece together. There are endless debates about the accuracy and the ethics of linking archaeology with oral history with historically recorded people with modern indigenous nations.

Personally, my ultimate goal is returning the power to indigenous people to tell our own histories. We are deprived of control of our own history on so many levels: through government and private ownership of ancestral remains and objects, through the lack of Native voices in popular history, through the poor education given to indigenous youth, through the delegitimization of indigenous ways of telling history. The only place we have kept sovereignty over our own history is amongst ourselves, in the stories our grandparents tell us and we tell each other. For that reason, I tend towards the view of using archaeology and written records to illuminate the oral and written traditions of Native people, rather than the other way around as many academics do it. Because at the heart of it, indigenous history belongs to indigenous people–people not only deserve but need to know their own history. So my priority is returning it to them where it has been forcibly severed from them.

It’s a messy project, for sure. It’s all well and good to say “let’s do this!”, but the actual work of putting this all together and making sense of it is really tough, and there’s not a lot of people who want to or have the skills to properly mix these three rather different fields of archaeology, written history, and oral history. You’ve got academic archaeologists with detailed understanding of their particular specialty, you’ve got the historians who work with all the tiniest documents you’d never imagine exist, you’ve got tribal historians whose knowledge would astound you, but they all tend to exist in isolation from each other. The work of getting a full view of indigenous history in North America involves managing to put all these things on the table with people who know how to interpret them, and to put indigenous people in charge of understanding and telling their own history.