Still Native: The Significance of Native Americans in the History of the Twentieth-Century American West

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Western Historical Quarterly






Western Historical Quarterly, Utah State University

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When Frederick Jackson Turner looked at American history in 1893 he considered Native Americans to be of little significance. He demonstrated more interest in the process of heroic, white yeomen hewing out a corridor of civilization in an environment that all but overwhelmed them, transforming them from immigrants into Americans. Indians were Indians, part of that wild frontier environment. They posed "a common danger" and served as "a consolidating agent in our history," faceless obstacles to be overcome and subdued in the process of westering.

Common wisdom and events of the day seemed to justify Turner's perspective. After all, Indian populations were at their low ebb, a vanishing vestige of the frontier experience. Turner's contemporaries saw the breakup of Indian reservations and the final promise of assimilation through allotment and agrarian settlement as an eventuality-the ultimate realization of Euro-American belief in the unilinear progress of peoples from savagism to civility.

One hundred years later, some Americans voice essentially the same attitudes-that modern Indians are unimportant in the larger picture; that they are obstacles in the development of the American West; that they must assimilate or disappear; and that the answer to the Indian problem again lies in abrogating their special relationship with the federal government. James Watt, Secretary of the Interior during the Reagan years, was only the most visible of those lamenting reservations and Indians as examples of the "failure of socialism," stumbling blocks in the development of the West. While Turner tried to sell a theory and Watt tried to sell everything, both tried to sell the idea that this was an Indian rather than a non-Indian problem, one fueled by persistent misperceptions and political agendas dismissive of modern Native American cultures and realities.

Let me suggest six broad areas of significance for Native Americans in the history of the twentieth-century American West and, by extension, the history of the nation. The first four areas of significance-persistence, land, resource development, and political power-are overlapping and interdependent. The fifth and sixth areas address larger cultural issues-the persistent symbolic value of native peoples, and the scholarly contributions emerging from Native American history and literature. By no means comprehensive, I expect these suggestions to stimulate discussion by focusing attention on issues of importance for both scholars and Indian peoples.


Originally published by the Western Hisorical Quarterly at Utah State University. Publisher's PDF and HTML fulltext available through remote link via JSTOR.
Note: This publication was reprinted as a book chapters in - Retrieving the American Past and A New Significance: Re-Envisioning the History of the American West.