In traditional Native cultures, a person’s word is sacred and history told
by one generation to the next is trusted.
Increasingly in modern American society, Native oral history accounts are
disbelieved until and unless they can be substantiated by documents from
non-Native sources. Some of these sources seem to have full-time jobs
coming up with documents to undercut Native oral history, especially
involving ongoing court cases.
One of the many “Indian experts” on the federal payroll — a Smithsonian
linguist — recently produced a sketchy paper to support his claim that
Indians dreamed up the term “redskins” and that it wasn’t insulting at the
outset. He cited other white men from the 1800s who wrote that Indian men
used that term to describe themselves.
Of course, the words of the Indian men were translated by white men, but
the linguist’s paper does not make that point; and there is no record of
what Native-language words the Native men actually used. Another white man
— a reporter for The Washington Post — made the linguist’s paper a news
story, without making any of these linguistic points.
Native oral history relates that “redskins” originated in the days when
white officials paid white bounty hunters monies for proof of “Indian
One bounty proclamation from the Massachusetts Bay Province in 1755
required “pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of
the [Penobscot] Indians.” It promised to pay 50 pounds for male prisoners;
25 pounds for female or boy prisoners; and 40 pounds for scalps of males
and 20 pounds for scalps of females and boys “that shall be killed and
brought in as Evidence of their being killed.”
Since bounties were paid on a sliding scale for Indian men, women and
children, the bounty hunters had to produce either the whole bodies or the
skinned genitalia in order to authenticate their claim. Scalps from the
heads alone would not provide the required proof of adulthood or gender.
Before Native people located documentation of bounty hunting, that heinous
practice was denied by most non-Native historians and government officials.
Because Native people have not found the documents spelling out that the
bloody custom of skinning Indians resulted in the term “redskins,” many
non-Indians deny there is a connection at all. When and if such
documentation is found, their response is likely to be “so what.”
More and more, the recording of Native history has become a game of
catch-me-if-you-can. In the decades leading up to enactment of repatriation
laws, officials of most federal, state and private museums and universities
vehemently denied that their Indian collections contained Indian human
remains. When that lie was exposed, they tried to downplay the vast numbers
involved, denying that they held more dead Indians than there were living
Indians at the time.
The same “Indian experts” who studied the Native human remains in these
institutions were the very voices of authority that challenged Native
peoples’ claims about the nature of these collections.
American Indian oral histories relate myriad specific instances of
Euro-Americans beheading Native people. But the “experts” and collectors
denied that Native people were decapitated until documents were produced on
the federal “Indian Crania Study” of the 1800s and until the Smithsonian
revealed its collection of 4,500 Indian skulls.
Similarly, the existence of the federal “Civilization Regulations” that
criminalized Indian religions and languages from the 1880s to the 1930s was
denied until a bound copy surfaced in the 1980s.
There was even a white lawyer who was supposed to be on the Native side of
the campaign for repatriation laws who questioned the existence of the
“Civilization Regulations,” telling a mutual friend: “I don’t have a copy
of them. How do I know they exist?”
There used to be a debate about which diseases the Europeans spread to
Native people in this hemisphere. In the ramp-up period to the Columbus
Quincentenary, Newsweek devoted an edition of its magazine to the history
and legacy of the 1492 invasion.
I wrote the “My Turn” column for that issue. Unbeknownst to me, the
Smithsonian Institution was deeply involved in the project and one of its
“Indian experts” reviewed my piece, resulting in a number of changes,
including the deletion of syphilis from the list of foreign diseases.
The “expert” claimed that Indians infected Europeans with syphilis, even
though there is no evidence to support that theory. I was asked if I had
any evidence to support my contention. There are myriad oral history
accounts of syphilis being brought here by the Europeans, but that didn’t
satisfy the “expert” or the editors, and syphilis was deleted.
Not too long after the magazine went to print, there was an announcement
that evidence of syphilis was found in Greece, millennia before Europeans
Tribal oral history was not believed in the Kennewick Man case, either. One
of the ways that federally-paid scientists “proved” in court that the
ancient one was not legally an American Indian under the Native American
Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was to discount the oral history of
his Northwest Native relatives.
The 9th Circuit stated: “Because oral accounts have been inevitably changed
in context of transmission, because the traditions include myths that
cannot be considered as if factual histories, because the value of such
accounts is limited by concerns of authenticity, reliability, and accuracy,
and because the record as a whole does not show where historical fact ends
and mythic tale begins, we do not think that the oral traditions … were
adequate to show the required significant relationship of the Kennewick
Man’s remains to the Tribal Claimants.”
Many Native people are picking up the lazy habit of denigrating Native
histories as “legends,” “myths” and “stories,” and are relying on
non-Native “experts” to record and validate tribal histories. These
practices may adversely affect the outcome of future court cases, as well
as the very way family and tribal history unfolds.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is the president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for Indian