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Uniting the Tribes, by Frank Rzeczkowski.

June 1, 2013

Uniting the Tribes: The Rise and Fall of Pan-Indian Community on the Crow Reservation by Frank Rzeczkowski.  University Press of Kansas (2012), Hardcover, 336 pages.

A well-crafted scholarly history of the unrecognized intertribal relationships among Native American tribes in the northern plains of the United States in the late nineteenth century.

This book is a fine example of the scholarship that has become the norm among historians researching Native Americans.  For decades historians in the USA focused on Native Americans as victims or savages or both and celebrated Anglos “winning of the west.”  Then about 50 years ago, Native Americans and white allies protested and began highlighting the horrors of how this country treated those who lived here originally.  Now serious historians agree that much of what white settlers and soldiers did was indefensible.  Native American history has become a specialty in which historians of various ethnic backgrounds can look more closely at what Indians actually did and what motivated their actions, often challenging our society’s assumptions about our past.  Instead of taking the validity of everything government officials say as absolutely true, they have learned to check those accounts against other sources, and to read them “against the grain.”

Uniting the Tribes shows the value of such an approach.  Frank Rzeczkowski focuses on the northern plains, (today’s Montana, North and South Dakota) where soldiers and settlers were advancing in the last decades of the nineteenth-century and the first decades of the twentieth.  This was a time and place when Native Americans were being increasingly confined to reservations.  Rzeczkowski rejects the customary assumptions about Indian tribes’ hostility keeping them from working together and hindering their ability to counter the white onslaught. Instead he provides evidence for interaction and alliances even among tribes traditionally hostile to each other.  His is an “intellectual history” about Native American understanding of community and identity, concepts which he sees as constantly changing as historical reality required.

In analyzing his topic, Rzeczkowski uses the best of the conceptual tools that have emerged in recent decades.  Instead of unchanging absolutes, he writes of ideas and attitudes being “contested,” of being in need of “constant negotiation.”   Instead of assuming that the recorded words of white agents and soldiers be taken at face value, he asks us consider concepts such as tribe and community as fluid and changing with historically specific conditions over time.  While such conceptual tools grew out post-modernism, he is careful to use them in ways which supplement rather than negate his abundant evidence of what was actually being said and done. 

Although Rzeczkowski is primarily concerned with concepts of community and identity, his research and writing are firmly grounded in the shifting economic and political worlds which his tribes were negotiating.  He relates how the western advance of traders was changing the power structure in the northern plains.  The availability of guns and horses had an impact on tribal structures and on which individuals had power within them.  Life on the plains was changing even before white settlers arrived in the region.

The word “tribe” has long carried assumptions of inferiority and limitation, of being stuck at a level of “social evolution” that cannot compete in the modern world.  Some find it so offensive that they would bar its use.  Rzeczkowski, however, rejects the familair dichotomy between tribal and modern orientation.  He sees value in continuing to use the term to identify large groups of people with a shared language, values, and worldviews.  Such groups had no formal political leader who can speak for them, something white negotiators failed to grasp. Traditionally, tribal boundaries on the northern plains had been shifting and permeable for years.  Within tribes there were bands, also shifting and permeable, where political and military power was more clearly defined.  Rzeczkowski shows that contact and exchange between tribes were firmly in place and could occur even when tribes were traditional enemies or at war.   Taking captives from other tribes meant exposure to their practices and sometimes affection grew across tribal lines.  Horse trading and stealing brought people into each others’ presence.  Around the edges of tribal life, lines of identity were constantly being redrawn.

Warfare by government troops eventually resulted in tribes being restricted to separate reservations.  While one goal was to get more land for white settlement, another was to stop both warfare and peaceful exchange among the tribes.  As Rzeczkowski shows, the government efforts were never as successful as they liked to claim.  With little money, and differing attitudes among their subordinates, superintendents were unable to have total control over “their” Indians.   Visiting among reservations was supposed to be limited by a system of required passes, but instead it was rampant.  As Indians were pushed into wage-earning, they labored alongside members of other tribes.  The spread of peyote religion also united some of them. Speeches and letters from Indian leaders increasingly contained language of brotherhood among all Indians.  As whites became a common enemy, Indians reached out to each other.

At the same time, Indians had become more dependent on government allotments for their survival.  They realized that the traditional practices of welcoming others to join their tribe would now mean more individuals competing for limited government funds.  They began to tighten their requirements for those who would become tribal members.  Material needs and political imperatives became obstacles to developing pan-Indian coalitions.  Tribes and government officials came to rely on the percentage of tribal “blood” to determine who belonged to a tribe rather than evidence that a person was behaving in a manner that showed commitment to tribal concerns.  Belonging to a tribe came to mean receiving certain privileges and rights, not, as had been the case previously, that one accepted responsibilities for its welfare.

While Rzeczkowski’s book deals specifically with a limited time and space, it has implications for the study of other Indigenous peoples around the globle.  Here we see why we need to understand the limitations of the accounts written from white participants and to reinterpret  the past with more nuanced understanding.  Rather than impose strictly defined colonial categories, like tribe, we must figure out how key words and concepts were understood by Indigenous people.  In the process perhaps we can move beyond our own rigidness in defining who is qualified to “belong” and return to an ethic that prioritizes responsibilities over rights.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    June 2, 2013 6:33 pm

    Wow, this sounds like a great scholarly work! I think the more you read about history, the more you want to read about history, mostly so that you can get a nuanced and multifaceted view of the events that happened. One viewpoint is never enough!

    • June 6, 2013 10:21 am

      Right! That is why I became an historian. I think we need a variety of viewpoints to get to a true account of anything.

  2. June 3, 2013 8:53 pm

    This sounds well worth reading, esp since I’ve been curious since King’s discussion of the benefits vs tribe membership in Truth About Stories. Thanks for posting about it, now I have to track it down! 😉

    • June 6, 2013 10:24 am

      I don’t remember that point from Truth and must track it down. Would you like my copy? I am giving away books so I have room for new ones.

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