|Historian Studies Native
Americans Through The Eyes Of Others
|From western savage to
counter-culture icon, generations of white Americans have painted Indians to their likeness. Perceptions of Native
Americans and their evolution in U.S. history form the basis of research conducted by Professor of History Sherry Smith.
The author of two books on the way the outside world perceives Indians, Smith is writing her third book on the
subject, which looks at how hippies and other young white radicals venerated Indians and supported their political
and economic goals.
Hand-colored engraving by George Catlin, from
Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North
American Indians (London, 1866), vol. 2, p. 55, plate
157. Courtesy SMU’s DeGolyer Library.
Notions about “Indianess” have shifted over time. During the frontier era, Smith says most
Anglo-Americans wanted to conquer and assimilate Indians into the dominant white society. By the turn-of-the-
century, however, those attitudes began to change after several Eastern writers published their firsthand accounts
of living among the Western tribes.
Smith set the stage for her current research by exploring these champions of
Native American culture in her book, Reimagining Indians: Native Americans
Through Anglo Eyes, 1880-1940. They include Mabel Dodge Luhan and Charles Fletcher Lummis, who spent time with Indians in the Southwest,
and Walter McClintock and George Bird Grinnell, who turned their attention to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest
and Northern Rockies. They celebrated their Indian experiences in lecture tours, essays, poems, best-selling books
and national magazine articles.
“They weren’t really academics or anthropologists or ethnographers.
They just went
out West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and ingratiated themselves with Indian communities,” Smith says.
“Because their books were widely read and influential, they helped us understand what I would call modern Anglo-
American ideas about Indians.” The ideas paved the way for a new federal Indian policy in the 1930s that scrapped
assimilation programs and promoted cultural preservation.
A second revival of white interest in Indians occurred in
the 1960s and 1970s, Smith’s focus for her forthcoming book, tentatively titled Discovering the Nations Within.
During those decades Indian activism exploded on the nation’s consciousness with the 1969 occupation by Native
Americans of Alcatraz Island to protest federal Indian policies and the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.
Young whites began experimenting with Native American customs, but Smith says they appropriated more in appearance
than in substance. They adopted Indian hairstyles and clothing and were attracted to the tribal communal living
arrangements. In their eyes Indians were romantic figures living free of conventional American mores.
of the New Left, however, took the Native American rights movement more seriously and became involved in their
political struggles. Taking up the cause célèbre, actor Marlon Brando refused to accept the Oscar in 1972 for his
role in “The Godfather,” sending Sacheen Little feather, who read Brando’s statement protesting discrimination
against Indians in films and in government policy. “The role of non-Indian peoples in advancing Indian affairs was
significant, which does not diminish the role that Native Americans played,” Smith says. “But demonstrations of
support by celebrities such as Brando as well as student activists became defining moments that helped fuel support
from Congress and the courts.”
In the 30 years since, support has increased greatly among non- Indians to restore
Indian treaty rights, sovereignty, and self-determination, Smith says. “Given the demographic reality of the number
of Indians in this country, how non-Indians perceive Indians has been critical” to their political and economic
development, she adds.
While conducting research for this book, Smith says that she was surprised by several findings:
The strong involvement of the churches in the movement for Indian rights and the interesting dynamics that
emerged between Indians and African Americans. “Some assume there was a natural affinity between the two minority
groups, but the relationship was really more complicated,” she says. “Native Americans sometimes felt that their
efforts were subsumed by the civil rights rhetoric from African Americans, because with Indians it’s always been
about treaty rights and regaining land and control that had been promised by the U.S. government.”
researching the way non-Indians view Indians while working on her dissertation for her Ph.D. at the University of
Washington. Her adviser suggested that she should investigate Army officers and their wives who were settling the West in the 1800s and what they thought about Indians.
The result was The View from Officers’ Row: Army Perceptions
of Western Indians. Smith also continued that approach with Reimagining Indians, attracting the attention of the
Organization of American Historians, which awarded her its James A. Rawley Prize for the best book on race
relations in 2001.
For her work, Smith has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has
been a Fulbright scholar in New Zealand and received awards and fellowships from the American Historical
Association, the Beinecke Library at Yale University and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. SMU also named her a 2004-05
Ford Research Fellow.
In addition to her research on Indians, Smith has published Sagebrush Soldier, her great-
grandfather’s diary from the Indian Wars of the 1870s. She also edited a volume of essays,
The Future of the Southern
Plains, the result of a symposium on the Southern Plains presented in 2002 by the Clements Center for Southwest
Studies in Dedman College (see article on page 21). It featured historians, climatologists, oil economists and
geographers discussing the region’s past and future trends affecting its growth. Smith, who serves as the associate
director of the Clements Center, is organizing a symposium on “Indians and Energy in the Southwest: Exploitation or
Opportunity?” for spring 2008 at SMU.
“The Clements Center seminars are designed to have at their core a question
that not only has historical significance but also resonance today and some implication for regional or national
policy,” she says.
Smith, who teaches courses on the history of Native Americans, 19th-and 20th-century Western
history and women in the American West, says she came to SMU in part because of the Clements Center and its national
regard among historians. The other draw was History Professor and Clements Center Director David Weber, an expert on
the U.S. Southwest and its borderlands prior to 1848.
“David is highly respected, not only as a great scholar but
also a really terrific person,” Smith says. “There’s nothing better than working in an environment with other people
who share your interests so you can carry on a meaningful conversation and share your ideas and your network. It
adds so much to your scholarship and teaching.”
For more information:
Clements Center Broadens Scholarship of Southwest
His-oo-san-ches (the Spaniard), hand-colored
George Catlin, in Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and
Condition of the North American Indians (London, 1866),
vol. 2, p. 67, plate 172.
Little evidence exists today of Smeltertown, a now-extinct Mexican community that existed from 1887-1975 at the base
of the American Smelting and Refining Company’s copper smelter in El Paso, Texas. Although company and professional
photographs record the significant role that Mexican workers played in the plant’s daily operations, they
reveal male centered communities defined by work.
Monica Perales, assistant professor of history at the University of
Houston, is examining how personal family photographs illuminate how the women of Smeltertown articulated and
defined meanings of community in their daily lives.
Perales has spent the academic year with SMU’s Clements Center
for Southwest Studies as a Summerlee Foundation Research Fellow for the Study of Texas History, completing a
manuscript on Smeltertown for publication. She is one of four Research Fellows currently supported by the Clements
Center, which provides fellowships for senior or junior scholars in the humanities or social sciences who are
conducting research on the Southwestern United States and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The fellowships enable the
scholars to complete book-length manuscripts.
Established in 1996, the Clements Center promotes research,
publishing, teaching and public programming in a variety of fields related to the American Southwest.
The Center also
awards research grants to SMU graduate students to travel and conduct work that focuses on Southwest topics. In
addition, through grants and research opportunities, the Clements Center offers support for Ph.D. students in the
William P. Clements Jr. Department of History.
Since its creation a decade ago, the Clements Center has increased SMU’s regard among historians nationally, as evidenced by its increased faculty and graduate student participation
in sessions at the recent Western History Association’s annual meeting, says David J. Weber, Robert and Nancy Dedman
Professor of History and director of the center.
“One of the joys has been seeing the ways that the Clements Center
and the Department of History have worked in tandem to deepen the intellectual life of the SMU community, yet also
make an important impact beyond it.”
For more information on the Clements Center: