Book Review: Cash, Joseph H. and Herbert T. Hoover, eds. To Be an Indian: An Oral History. St. Paul, Minnesota: The Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.

How Does American HIstory Look to Native Americans?

Book on Native Americans From the very first time that Europeans set foot in the Americas, the Native American people have faced constant violence, oppression, and disgrace. Entire populations were wiped out by disease, which was sometimes done intentionally. Towns were burned to the ground, resources were stolen, and whole civilizations were destroyed. What is worse is that the history of these events has rarely been presented from the perspective of the victims. The stories of the European’s exploits in the Americas have always been about God, Glory, and Gold in an untamed raw wilderness. Those stories never mention the despair that must have been and was felt by the millions of people in the advanced civilizations that called that ‘untamed raw wilderness’ home, and whose lives were forever altered.
In these histories, the United States of America played a prominent and extremely guilty role. From Pontiac’s Rebellion, in the early days, to the Trail of Tears during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, to the theft of the Black Hills from the Sioux, the oppression has been real and lasting. One must, however, not forget that the United States has, in its own words, since the early twentieth century, begun work to slowly reverse this trend, and Native American’s living conditions have improved. However, from whose perspective has the story of all of this drama been told, especially from the early days? It has always been from the perspective of American historians or the US Government. These were people who were rarely, if ever, involved in Native American affairs and who were academically detached and people who were more interested in numbers than in people’s lives. The perspective of the Native Americans themselves has largely been ignored. This needs to be remedied.

Here Is a Reliable History

To Be an Indian: An Oral History, edited by Joseph H. Cash and Herbert T. Hoover, is a step in the right direction to begin telling the story of how Native Americans have viewed their lives in the United States of America, from the perspective of the Native Americans themselves. The book was originally published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. in 1971, but it was later republished with a new introduction from Donald L. Fixico, by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1995. The main primary sources for this book are oral history interviews conducted with Native Americans from Idaho to Minnesota and from Nebraska through the Dakotas Region. The authors interviewed young people, old people, unemployed workers, employed workers, political leaders, common folk, uneducated persons, college graduates, full-blood Native Americans, and mix-blood Native Americans. The stated intent of this approach to Native American History was to give these people the voice they have long been without.1
The book was divided into four sections: Things that Guide the People, Reservation Life, Depression, War, and a Revival of Self Government, and Today and Tomorrow. The first section addressed how Native Americans viewed their deep faith, culture, and ancient folklore. It opened with a pictorial presentation of Noah White, who lived on the Prairie Island Reservation and was an expert on the culture of the Winnebago people. The second section discussed how Native Americans viewed the history, present conditions, and the future of reservation life. It opened with a pictorial presentation of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Lakota Sioux and Webster Two Hawk, the Tribal Chairman of the Lakota Sioux.2

The third section discussed how Native Americans viewed their lives during the Great Depression and World War II. It opened with a pictorial presentation of Cato Valandra, a member of the Lakota Branch of the Sioux and a local political and business leader on the Rosebud Reservation. The fourth section addressed how Native Americans viewed their lives in the fifties and sixties, as the US Economy was peaking and social activism was at a high, and how they saw their future developing. It opened with a pictorial presentation of Merri Pat Cuney, a member of the Sioux tribe who, at the time, was a volunteer teacher to Native American students across the state of South Dakota at places like the Pierre Indian School and St. Paul’s Indian Mission in the town of Marty. She was also a senior, majoring in Criminology, at the University of South Dakota and planned to pursue graduate level course work in History.3

Section four really did a great job of showing how Native Americans felt about the social upheaval of the fifties and sixties. Two competing images are presented in this section of the text. If one read the interviews of Cato Valandra and Merri Pat Cuney, both Sioux, there would be seen an interested local business man and a bright young activist, both of whom took the approach of working with what their fellow Native Americans had been left with, in order to create better employment and educational opportunities, and social stability for their people. With the interviews of Lehman Brightman, an Oglala Sioux, one would find a bit of a different attitude. He was more aggressive in his approach. He wanted to work to resolve the problems that he saw facing the Native Americans, but he, instead of being inclined to work within the system established by the government, sought to make the government conform to the Native American’s ways. He wanted to revive the old Native American traditions rather than attempting to adapt to the present system, something that he felt had already been tried and proven unsuccessful.4

What these interviews all show together is much broader. They show a people who, despite years of colonialist oppression, racism, political interference, and pushes to assimilate into white culture, have managed to retain a sense of identity within themselves, with regards to who they are as Native Americans. One can see that it is on the brink for some, but on the whole Native Americans are taking control of who they are and what they can be. They also show that, Native Americans, at the time this book was written, were really beginning to be able to gain greater successes in this country. Consider the interview of Lucille Childs, a Mdewaknton Sioux, who had a daughter in the Ph.D. program at a university in Chicago. The pictures in the text do a great deal augment these interviews, as well, in that they put faces to the people being interviewed. They show that the Native Americans are real people, who have real lives and real problems. They can really be helpful, in that, many people are moved more when they have a face to attach to the stories they read.5

This book and its methods have not been in vain, as far as their contributions to the academic world. Since this book’s initial publication, several additional positive texts on Native Americans have been published, many by Native Americans themselves. Some of these newer texts were, "The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements," a history that discussed the vitality of modern Native Americans, which was written by Hazel W. Hertzberg and published by the Syracuse University Press in 1971, and "Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto," which was a protest book written by Vine Deloria, Jr. and published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1988. This book was also followed by another oral history text, "Wolf That I Am: In Search of the Red Earth People," put together by Fred McTaggert. This was a look into the lives of the Sac and Fox people of the Great Lakes Region.6

It is quite obvious that "To Be An Indian: An Oral History" has had an effect, as it is still in print and used in classrooms, despite being a relatively old text; a lot can change in forty years. This is also shown by the role that the text has played in inspiring new works. It has also helped to begin a process in which the story of the Native Americans is one that has seen a much more inclusive vision of Native Americans develop that includes not just the words of scholars but also the words of Native Americans themselves.


1 Joseph H. Cash and Herbert T. Hoover, eds., To Be an Indian: An Oral History (St. Paul, Minnesota: The Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995), xxi.
2 Ibid, xxii-xxiii, 1-10, 45-54.
3 Ibid, xxiii-xxiv, 111-120, 175-184.
4 Ibid, 232-233
5 Ibid, 196-198
6 Ibid, xv-xvi; Hazel W. Hertzberg, The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1971); Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988); Fred McTaggert, Wolf that I Am: In Search of the Red Earth People (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1976).