American Indian History from a Different Perspective

Posted: July 22, 2011

I remember growing up attending elementary school in the public system.  We were taught about American Indians from a “white man’s” perspective.  I’m not being critical but that is just the way it was.  I learned about Columbus discovering America and meeting Indians, the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock and meeting more Indians, the first Thanksgiving with Indians, Sacajawea leading Lewis and Clark through the newly discovered West, great chiefs like Geronimo, and finally the massacres of Custer and others by Indians.  Not only that, but our basis of American Indian history was reinforced by Hollywood’s version of American Indians.  Remember the Lone Ranger and Tonto?  A slanted perspective?  No doubt about it, but again that’s the way it was.  Many of us carry the same teachings with us throughout life about the history of American Indians in the United States.  Not only that but these teachings have spread worldwide as Europeans cherish the history of “cowboys and Indians”!  These are the paradigms that are etched in our minds about the way American Indian history evolved.

I would like to present another perspective about American Indian history as told to me by numerous tribal officials and elders.  First, in the eyes of many American Indians, history is not a chronological record but rather a series of events that were experienced first hand by many of their grandparents and great grandparents.  It is what we would call “very close to home”.

Today, an American Indian’s memory might be fraught with broken  treaties, massacres of American Indian women and children, traditional land being taken for non-Indian settlement, removal of tribes hundreds and thousands of miles from their homelands, placement on reservations in inhumane conditions, diet changes resulting in long-term health issues, surrendering rights and freedoms, and so much more.  More importantly, they learned of these events through oral histories passed from generation to generation, not in the public school classroom or from a textbook.  Their ancestors, their great grandparents, most likely lived through these events directly.  Consequently, their memories are long and accurate, often going back centuries.

Tribal leaders and elders have provided me a diversity of opinions about American Indian history.  Some have told me that history is important and needs to be retold to remind government and business officials what the American Indian community has suffered through in order to avoid reoccurrence of the past.  In your dealings with tribes, you may be required to listen to tribal leaders articulate the linkages of past government and business actions, policies, and events toward American Indians which have led to the suspicious Indian community today.  Other tribal leaders will say history is in the past and we just need to move forward and focus on the future.  In either case, you need to understand how certain historical events have shaped these current attitudes.

I cannot put too fine a point on this.  The contrast in these viewpoints of history creates challenges for all of us who have a desire to work effectively in Indian country.  I hope you understand that our perspective of history and an American Indian’s perspective of history may be totally contrary to each other.  For example, you may look at the first contact between Natives and Europeans as an idealistic time of the first Thanksgiving or settlement of the West.  An American Indian may look at it as a time of tragedy and suppression.  The whole point is to help you develop trust with the specific tribe you’re working with.  As you understand history from the American Indian perspective, you are better prepared to avoid repeating those historical events, actions, and behaviors that can get in the way of building the desired working relationship.

You can learn more about how American Indian history affects your ability to build relationships and trust with tribes today in “Working in Indian Country: Building Successful Business Relationships with American Indian Tribes.” Go to our Book Overview Page to learn more.