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Native Americans through 19th century eyes

December 26, 2004|Joy S. Kasson | Joy S. Kasson is Bowman and Gordon Gray professor of American studies and English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History."

History's Shadow

Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century

Steven Conn

University of Chicago Press: 276 pp., $35

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Shades of Hiawatha

Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930

Alan Trachtenberg

Hill & Wang: 370 pp., $30

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Since their arrival on this continent, Euro-Americans have searched for ways to understand the native inhabitants whose lands they appropriated and cultures they often denigrated. Even while engaging in brutal military conflicts with Indian tribes, 19th century Americans devoured the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper, wept over sentimental Indian novels and plays, flocked to see Wild West shows and populated anthropology displays at world's fairs and museums. In literature, art, popular culture and science, Americans told stories about Indians to satisfy their own longings for adventure and rewrite an uncomfortable history.

Over the course of the last century, much has changed in our understanding of the encounter between peoples on the North American continent. Scholars in Native American studies have brought new perspectives on American Indian history, biography and culture; American Indian voices are heard in books by writers like N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich. Most dramatic was the opening this year of the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. -- an institution developed with the collaboration of native communities throughout the hemisphere that presents Indian cultures as living entities and offers an opportunity to reflect on the complexities of Euro-Americans' thinking about native peoples.

Two timely and illuminating new books help us with this endeavor. Both focus on the 19th century, the period in which American Indians lost political and military independence under the curious eye of American artists, writers and social scientists. Steven Conn's "History's Shadow" is an intelligent and comprehensive look at the place of Native Americans in Euro-Americans' intellectual history during the period bracketed by the Lewis and Clark expedition at the beginning of the 19th century and the Wounded Knee massacre at its close. Examining literature, painting, photography, ethnology and anthropology, Conn mines the written record to discover how non-Native Americans thought about Indians and what influence these ideas had upon the development of American science, social science and history.

As Euro-Americans searched for a framework through which to understand the native inhabitants of the continent, they imposed their own paradigms -- "noble" and "savage," for example -- on the cultures they encountered. Scientists tried to develop classification systems that would place Indians into groups defined by language or physical appearance; religious thinkers tried to determine whether the Indian peoples could be the remnants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel or the descendants of Noah's son Ham. Historians wondered whether the apparent "savagery" of the natives represented the degeneration of a once-civilized people, confirming a cyclical view of history, or an early stage in their development, supporting a progressive historical model. And through all the discussions ran the ominous thread of racialized thinking, the assumption that the native peoples were inferior to the Europeans, and the dominant metaphor of "the vanishing race."

The most fascinating aspect of Conn's book is his account of the rise of anthropology and the ways in which the "scientific" study of culture erased the history of the native peoples as well as the story of Euro-American responsibility for their condition. Additionally, the new field of ethnology achieved wide public acceptance in displays at world's fairs (such as the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893) and museums (such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago). The perspective that the National Museum of the American Indian intends to counter was solidified at the turn of the 20th century by anthropological "authorities" who used glass cases to reinforce racial hierarchy and inevitable extinction. The author of a previous book on museums and intellectual life in America, Conn is well placed to help us understand the significance of the new museum. Its insistence on the speaking voices of living people is a direct challenge to the stories told by the previous century's museums.

In contrast with Conn's summary of the intellectual strands that made up the story of "the vanishing race" as understood by Euro-Americans is Alan Trachtenberg's "Shades of Hiawatha," a splendid study of literary and cultural responses to the American Indian that plunges deeply into the complexities of the interactions between Indians and Euro-Americans.

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