WHOSE FACTS AND INTERPRETATIONS?


Louise Laruse, Spokane


This Web Site is designed to accompany courses I teach (at both Cabrillo and Hartnell colleges) which deal with the First Americans, a.k.a. the native (or indigenous) peoples of North America, a.k.a., the North American Indians. It is NOT meant as a substitute for class lectures or the assigned readings from the texts. Rather, it contains information which I hope will be of use to my students in their attempts to come to a fuller understanding of the indigenous peoples of North America. The lectures explore the history of the native peoples, beginning with their first appearance and continuing chronologically to the present. Interwoven with this historical account are ethnographic descriptions of selected First American societies (both past and present).

Attempting to discuss the vast evolutionary history and cultural diversity of the Native American peoples is both a daunting task and humbling prospect, as well as lying beyond the scope of any one course. Therefore, I will make some generalizations, exclude some time periods, and discuss in detail only certain societies and certain events and experiences. I make no attempt to include those Native American groups who lived in what came to be called Mexico (except for those groups whose original homelands included territory now claimed by both the U.S.A. and Mexico).

Furthermore, since I am writing from an outsider's perspective, I cannot accurately represent Indian desires and interests, I make no pretense to do so, and I have no desire to do so. Michael Dorris, Modoc Indian author, offers some sound advice on the problems associated with studying the cultures and histories of America's indigenous people. He notes that whether we are Native or not, whether we hail from the U.S. or not, we never approach the study of any aspect of America's indigenous peoples with a blank slate. We all carry a host of assumptions and expectations unconsciously internalized, codified, and given "validity" and meaning through exposure to countless Hollywood westerns (from the John Wayne "The only good Indian is a dead one," to the "noble savage" of Dances With Wolves), T.V. programs, novels (including those of Tony Hillerman and James Fenimore Cooper), by childhood cowboy-and-Indian games, and by admonitions from our parents to "stop acting like a bunch of wild Indians." From these multiple sources come our deep-seated images of "Indians:" be they the noble "redman" (think of Squanto or Saccajaweya) or the bloodthristy savage (Pawnees in Dances With Wolves or Mohawks in Last of the Mohicans). We must acknowledge that we begin our inquiry into Native history, not from some neutral point, but many steps back, and we bring to our inquiry a whole host of stereotypes, biases, and prejudices.

Also, it is important for you to remember that anthropologists (and that is what I am) are all-too-human and our interests and scholarship are intricately connected with our biases and prejudices. I freely admit that I am not objective and I do not present "facts," rather I offer information about First Americans according to my interpretation of the facts, interpretations which reflect my biases and prejudices. However, I try to present information that I believe to be both accurate and non-exploitative. If you find materials associated with this web site which you believe to be inaccurate, or offensive to or exploitative of North America's First Peoples, please e-mail me [crsmith@cabrillo.cc.ca.us]. Also, all of the opinions expressed here are mine and not those of my employers, Cabrillo and Hartnell Colleges.

Evaluating Web Sites

There are several thousand sites on the Web which contain information concerning North America's indigenous peoples. Many (such as mine) claim to contain accurate information about the Native peoples. However, some sites contain information that is not only inaccurate and damaging, but extremely offensive to North America's indigenous peoples, especially those sites that portray North America's indigenous peoples as more than human (the "Noble Savage" stereotype) or less than human (the "Ignoble Savage"). Also, many sites claim to be authored by a Native person (when in fact the author is a non-Native masquerading as an Indian), or they are authored by either Newagers or by Wannabis, that is, someone who has "discovered" their "Native heritage" (usually Cherokee or Sioux or both). These are offenses for which there is no punishment severe enough. As an example of what I'm talking about look at Julia White's web site. Ms. White claims to have "discovered" her "American Indian" heritage and writes articles for Connecting Spirit magazine, articles which discuss "Indian" history. May the Great Spirit help us if Ms. White gets better known. Her work is full of major inaccuracies regarding North America's First Nations (such as her erroneous discussion of the territorial extent of the Chumash) as well as extremely offensive language (such as her reference to members of the Powhatan confederacy as "ruthless savages").

How does one critically evaluate a site whose author claims either to be an "Indian" or to present accurate information on the Native peoples? An excellent starting point for critically evaluating "Indian" web sites (or any web site) is Elaine M. Cubbins site Techniques for Evaluating American Indian Websites. Elaine is a Sihasapa Lakota (Blackfoot Sioux), holds a Master of Arts Degree in Information Resources and Library Science, and is a Ph.D. candidate in that field. I STRONGLY SUGGEST THAT YOU VISIT HER SITE.

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Anthropology 7 Homepage | Preface | Syllabus
Brief Historical Overview | History: Before European Contact | History: After European Contact
Regional Lifeways

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Last Update: 11 November 1999