Sunday, May 11, 2008

Book Review: Citizen Indians: Native American Intellectuals, Race, and Reform

There is so much of relevance in the book discussed below, and in the review, to the range of issues discussed on this blog that it seemed best to simply post the full book review here, with some salient elements highlighted.

Published by (April 2008)

Lucy Maddox. Citizen Indians: Native American Intellectuals, Race, and Reform.

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. 218 pp. Halftones.
$35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8014-4354-7; $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-7342-5.

Reviewed for H-AmIndian by Katherine Osburn, Tennessee Tech University

The Art of the Possible: Indian Activism and the SAI

Lucy Maddox does not really tell us anything new about the Society of American Indians (SAI) in this well-written book. Nevertheless, she provides a wonderful synthesis of scholarship about the SAI, uncovers some obscure stories about the organization, and offers fresh suggestions for how scholars might reevaluate SAI activists. Once maligned for its infighting and deemed a failure for its lack of political accomplishments, the reputation of the society has recently undergone a reassessment among scholars of Native American history and letters. Reflecting a more complex understanding of Native American identity, recent works by historians Peter Iverson, Joy Porter, and Frederick Hoxie have rescued the members of the society from the simplistic binary which defined them as "progressive" Indians with little connection to their "conservative" tribal traditions. Native scholars such as Philip Deloria, Elizabeth Cook Lynn, Robert Warrior, and Gerald Visnor have also uncovered and debated the complex identity of these and other Progressive Era Indian intellectuals.[1] Maddox's contribution to this discourse is to analyze how the activists of the SAI constructed and presented their public identities to white audiences. "I wish to demonstrate," she writes, "the ways in which Native intellectuals, in attempting to create a public, political space for themselves, deliberately adopted, manipulated, and transformed the means already available to them for addressing white audiences, particularly the means of performance" (p. 16). To that end, Maddox analyzes the ongoing "traditions of Native performance" that informed SAI members, the variety of contexts in which Native intellectuals interacted with white audiences, the racial theories that influenced this dialogue, the "specific efforts of SAI to wrest control of Indian performances out of the hands of managerial and paternalistic whites, especially through the dissemination of their own publications," and the works of a few Native writers, which she calls performances "based on a hidden transcript" (p. 16). Maddox locates her subject firmly in the Progressive Era, as the disastrous results of the Dawes Act and their legal status as wards of the federal government created a crisis for Indian intellectuals: how were they to survive and speak for themselves? Maddox answers this question deftly.

Chapter 1 begins with an overview of the familiar venues for performance of Indian identity at the turn of the twentieth century--Indian citizenship pageants in boarding schools, Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West shows, Hiawatha pageants, the 1983 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the Chautauqua circuit. Maddox provides brief bios of many performers in this period, from those more well known to historians, such as Luther Standing Bear, to the more obscure, like Joseph K. Griffis, who played "Tahan the White Savage." Even as Indians performed in these many venues, white observers concluded that these exhibitions confirmed the Indians' passing. "The Indian as an Indian is doomed by the law of the survival of the fittest," wrote one reviewer of Indian exhibits at the St. Louis fair. "The Indian is being evolved into a civilized man. Under our eyes is being performed a mighty drama in the transformation of a race" (quoted, p. 27). Animated by the potential of this "mighty drama" to generate interest in the Wannamaker Department stores, Wannamaker executives sent Joseph Kossuth Dixon and Luther Standing Bear (a veteran of Cody's Wild West Show) to the West to capture the last of the "vanishing" Indians on film and lament them in public performances by tribal elders. The tours began in 1908 and lasted until 1913. The Indians Dixon encountered on this tour, however, boldly stated that they were not, in fact, disappearing, but Dixon and his audience refused to hear this; rather they attempted to raise funds to erect a huge statue in New York harbor to commemorate the extinction of this "noble race." While the discussion of the Wannamaker tours diverts her focus from Indian intellectuals for a significant portion of the chapter, Maddox salvages this fascinating story from the provinces of scholarly articles and provides a new angle on the maddening tenacity of the notion of vanishing Indians. Maddox then discusses how Native intellectuals engaged these issues.

Not surprisingly, SAI members and their supporters disagreed on the value of participating in public displays. Arthur Parker (photo at left), one of the leaders of the SAI, made it crystal clear that Indians performing for white audiences did so "as the coming race, not the vanishing one" (quoted, p. 48, emphasis in original). Parker expressed a blended identity common to SAI members, who had, as he noted in a letter to one man soliciting names of Indian performers for a show, "risen through the old culture and have come into and adjusted themselves to the new culture" and who yet remained "Indians still," combining the best of both cultures (quoted, p. 48). Parker suggested that Indians touring in shows and on the lecture circuit use the occasions to drum up support for the SAI. Moreover, the society also staged its own pageants, which Maddox interprets as attempts by its members to provide their own perspectives on their history and culture and demonstrate their capabilities to speak for themselves. One example Maddox chooses to illustrate this point, however, raises intriguing questions left unanswered. At their annual conference in 1919, several members of the Society performed a play of The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851), written by member Charles Eastman. Readers familiar with the inflammatory message of the original tale are left wondering how on earth Eastman and his wife Elaine Goodale Eastman spun this story in a positive way.

In chapter 2, Maddox engages the question of race. She argues that, as they embraced a blended identity, SAI members challenged racialized and hierarchical views of history and asserted equal membership in the human race. They recast even the most difficult and tragic incidents of Indian history, such as the massacre at Wounded Knee, as part of an ongoing, universal human experience with suffering rather than as examples of the tragic demise of a doomed people. Yet even as the SAI asserted their common humanity with non-Indians, they also claimed to be a separate but equal race. A few SAI writers commented on the racism troubling the nation in the early decades of the twentieth century. Some agreed with Parker that African Americans suffered from more prejudice than did Indians because they had come up from slavery; this meant that Indians could be more easily accepted by the dominant culture. The downside of this, Parker noted, was that Indians had to "give up more" to join the mainstream culture because they had to remake their identities, sacrificing some things of value, while the former slaves only needed to abandon their inferior "darky ways" (quoted, p. 75). Conversely, however, Richard Pratt, who was an associate member of the SAI, argued that African Americans could assimilate more readily than Indians because slaves had been forced to live among whites while Indians had been segregated; this position had support among the full members of the SAI. Ultimately, Maddox notes, the organization did not fully engage the racial debates of the day, perhaps for fear of being "classed with African Americans as part of the country's race problem" (p. 77). Rather, spokesmen such as Carlos Montezuma (photo at left) and Parker preferred to locate themselves between African Americans and European immigrants--the latter also faced difficulties assimilating but had the advantage of being white, while the former suffered from racial prejudice but had been victimized by whites in much the same way as Indians. Maddox then devotes the remainder of the chapter to the writings of minister Lyman Abbott, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis Leupp, sociologist Fayette McKenzie (who helped found the society), and anthropologist Frank Speck, and to Parker's critique of their views. Each of these men argued for the importance of assimilation as a means of survival for the Indian "race." Parker was careful to contend for a "sane middle ground" that embraced both continuity and change in the Indians' racial identity. If this position seems opaque, Maddox suggests, perhaps it is because the term race was, like that of "civilization," a concept so broadly and imprecisely used that it meant virtually nothing by itself. Rather, racial dialogue, like the debate over civilization, was useful mostly in legitimizing the exercise of power. The role of race and racism in Indian history is a controversial issue in ethnohistorical scholarship at this particular moment, and some readers might wish for more direct engagement with the topic, especially with the issue of Indian "blood." SAI members appear to have tossed this term around fairly regularly, but it remains unclear what they meant by it.

What is clear is the forceful manner chosen by the SAI to participate in the dialogue regarding the "Indian problem." Such SAI activism is the subject of the book's last two chapters. SAI members, according to Maddox, encountered the quandaries universal to activists across time and cultures: how to balance the theoretical and the practical; intellectual, cultural, and social gaps between the reformers and the people whom they agitate; how far to push the "system"; the stresses between disparate views of reform; debates over the best tools to accomplish goals; and how to engage and best utilize allies. As educated Indians who often lived far from reservations, SAI activists sometimes were in conflict with reservation Indians who had little patience with theoretical debates but only sought concrete results. Tensions between "moderates" like Arthur Parker, who felt that Indians still needed segregated schools, and "radicals" like Carlos Montezuma, who wanted immediate integration and the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), fractured the group. A second fault line developed over the Carter Code Bill, a piece of legislation that tried to codify conditions for Indian citizenship. Parker supported the bill, while Montezuma insisted that Indians simply be granted citizenship outright. Maddox, however, stresses that Parker allowed a range of opinions to be published in the official organ of the SAI, the Quarterly Journal of the American Indian, which was renamed the American Indian Magazine in 1916. Unlike some previous scholars, Maddox also suggests that these disagreements were less the reason for the organization's failures than were the appeasement of paternalistic white allies whose well-intentioned "reforms" were, in a tragic twist, responsible for much of the "Indian problem." Moreover, the SAI had to grapple with an American public who regarded Indians in general as "vanishing" and incapable of acting for themselves. These stereotypes, in Maddox's view, hindered the organization more than the infighting.

One of her more insightful contributions to is the way in which she frames her assessment of the group's overall achievements. Rather than assuming the position of the outside observer who focuses on an organization's failure to gain reforms, Maddox looks to how members evaluated their own successes and failures. SAI members viewed their achievements more positively than portrayed by previous scholars. According to Maddox, SAI members were not wedded to evaluation that only venerated concrete accomplishments. The founders of the SAI envisioned it as a forum for Native intellectuals to influence policy debates and to challenge stereotypes. "It was always Parker's belief," she writes, "that if Indian intellectuals could demonstrate their ability to articulate a clear set of aims based on universal principles, rather than generating a list of demands based on local injustices and problems, they would gain the respect of white intellectuals and elites in positions of power, and the changes in laws and policies would then follow in due course" (p. 123). Parker believed that the society's actions had indeed altered public perceptions of Indians. He pointed to improved representation in newspapers and magazines and increasing calls for member of the group to speak to white audiences. Moreover, echoing Hoxie, Maddox reminds us that individual SAI members were active in Indian reforms that eventually led to the Indian New Deal.

Maddox's final chapter compares the works of three Indian writers from the period--Santee Sioux Charles Eastman (photo at left), Yankton Sioux Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, and Lakota Sioux Luther Standing Bear. SAI members Eastman and Bonnin were examples of pan-Indian Progressivism while Standing Bear identified himself tribally, critiqued the idea of an Indian Progressive, and kept his distance from the SAI. Maddox does not privilege any one of these authors as the most representative of the Native intellectual, but rather compares and contrasts their individual agendas. Although each had a different focus, all performed their Indian identity in full Sioux regalia. While contemporary scholars might fault this approach for encouraging stereotypes, Maddox argues that the wearing of these items demonstrated "that citizenship and assimilation were not at all the same thing" (p. 129). She also notes that these intellectuals foreshadowed calls for greater self-determination that marked Indian activism in the later twentieth century, and concludes her study with a discussion that links the ideas of SAI activists with those of contemporary Indian writers such as, James Welch, Louise Erdrich, Scott Momaday, Gloria Bird, and Leslie Silko. Maddox identifies four themes that link these generations of writers: the need to bring the Indian perspective to history; the conflicts that sometimes strain relationships between urban and reservation Indians; the "precarious position of Native elders as carriers of traditional knowledge"; and "the necessarily performative nature of Indian address to a white audience" (p. 168). The primary difference between these cohorts, however, is that today's Indian intellectuals are not concerned with appeasing white elites in the way that their forbearers were, but rather speak primarily to Indian audiences.

Citizen Indians is a good a synthesis of scholarship on these important historical figures. Maddox's graceful style eschews jargon and unnecessary abstractions, and the material is well organized into an absorbing and coherent narrative. Maddox covers the relevant secondary literature in a most comprehensive fashion, and pulls together a range of sources and interpretations of the SAI and the tumultuous era in which it tried to make gains. Her primary source analysis is thorough. She utilizes contemporary publications that addressed the organization's actions, the publications of the SAI and its members, the papers of individual members and, with one exception--the proceedings of the first conference--the documents of the SAI itself. In all, this book is a solid contribution to the study of Native American activism and politics.


[1]. For an overview of the society that regards it as a failure, see Hazel Hertzberg, The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1971). Revisionist views of this generation of Indian leaders include Peter Iverson, Carlos Montezuma and the Changing World of American Indians (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982); Joy Porter, To Be Indian: The Life of Iroquois-Seneca Arthur Caswell Parker (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001); Frederick E. Hoxie, ed., Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era (New York and Boston: Bedford St. Martin's Press, 2001); Philip Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Elizabeth Cook Lynn, "American Indian Intellectualism and the New Indian Story," in Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing About American Indians, ed. Devon A. Mihesuah (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Robert Allen Warrior, Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995); and Gerald Visnor, Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1994).

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