American Indian Renaissance 

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Wednesdays, 1:00-2:30 p.m.   6-week course begins 5/11

In 1900 knowledgeable Indians and settlers expected that descendants of contemporary Indians would endure indefinitely, but that Indian cultures would soon disappear and never reappear. From what was then known and knowable, this was a sensible expectation which, however, has now been falsified by a 20th-century Indian cultural renaissance. Befitting the large number of existing traditional Indian cultures, the renaissance has been a many splendored thing. This course  will focus on the themes of agency, creativity, self-worth, resilience, and syncretism characteristic of that renaissance. Suggested reading:  David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Native America from 1890 to the Present, ISBN 978-0399573194. Steve Piker, as an anthropologist, has held a career-long interest in Native Americans. He  taught for 44 years at Swarthmore College and has offered several courses at three Maine senior colleges.

A)  The Imperial Expansion of Western Europe, 15th to 19th centuries
  1. Re extent, the magnitude of this expansion was unprecedented in the history of our species.  By1900, every part the world – excepting only Japan, Thailand, and a couple of small Himalayan kingdoms – either  was or had been a colony of  European nations
  2. The relationships between the European colonizers and native peoples took many forms.  The one that fits the U.S. situation to a ’t’ is SETTLER SOCIETY.  In settler societies, the colonizing settlers displace, dispossess, and decimate the indigenous peoples, occupy almost all of  the land, and impose their government on the entire territory.  Perforce, for settler societies, an enduring question must be…..  what relationships will develop between the newly hegemonic settlers and the surviving remnants of native populations?  This is the primary issue of our course
  3. Of course, in the world wide picture of European colonialism, settler society is more or less, not all or none.  Settler society has most fully presented in four nations:  U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Interestingly, for all four, the settler impulse originated in the same place and time, viz., 17th and 18th century Great Britain.
B)  In what became the U.S., some important features of native peoples pre 1492
  1. They presented a vast multiplicity of cultures, lifeways, and languages.  Their respective identities were grounded in the experiences of these differences, not in a shared sense of ‘Indian-ness’
  2. There was much contact and association among different ‘tribes’ or cultures, involving especially, e.g., trade, warfare, migration, population transfers…….which entailed……..
b)  ongoing awareness of and openness and flexibility and receptivity to cultural differences
c)  ongoing creativity in reconfiguring traditional life ways

3. (a-c, just above)continued bigly after first arrival of settlers, settlers becoming part of these transcultural processes.  But, for Indians, the processes were timeless.  Indians were already real familiar with them when European settlers first appeared and proliferated and spread from sea to shining sea.


C)  Settler society comprised a catastrophe for the native peoples overtaken by it.  Briefly, to indicate the nature and magnitude of the catastrophe
  1. Population.  Of course, there are no census data for native populations in the region of the lower forty eight in 1492.  Estimates put it at five to ten million, probably closer to ten than to five. In 1900, when there were census data, it was a few hundred thousand.
  2. Territory loss.  In the region of the lower forty eight, Indians were dispossessed of upwards of 95% of the territory they had occupied in 1492
  3. ACCULTURATION…….  Culture change can occur in lotsa different ways, of which acculturation is one.  When a cultural group undergoes acculturation, its traditional lifeways are rendered no longer viable, entailing widespread demoralization within the group.  The tragedy……. The remembered traditional  lifeways remain compellingly meaningful to acculturated natives, but have become substantially impossible to enact.  What next?  For American Indians, the story of the 20th century contains the answer to this question.  Our suggested reading, David Treuer’s THE HEARTBEAT OF WOUNDED KNEE, tells this story.
D)  Along the way, interspersed with the pre 1900 catastrophe for Indians, examples of durable mutually more or less satisfactory interfacing and mixtures of Indians and settlers presented.  However, none of them lasted.  The subject of another course?
But – and this is at the heart of our course – multiple new iterations of Indian/settler mutual accommodation arose and proved viable in the 20th century…… involving vitality expressions of Indian creativity, and conserving distinctive Indian cultural identities…….
Re which, a couple of important considerations…….
  1. 1)  From here and now, re distinctive identity what REALISTICALLY is desirable and possible for Indians?  For openers, how usefully might one construe ‘identity’?  A couple of perhaps useful – and I think complementary, not conflicting – ways to come at this.
a)  The identity of a person or a group is what the person or group members believe and feel it to be, e.g., I/we are Indians; I/we are black;  I/we are Jewish; I/we are (a nationality)
b)  Alternately, the shared lifeways of a group comprise its identity.
N.B., for large demographic groups – e.g., all four groups just named – shared identity in the sense of (a), just above, is likely to co-exist with big differences in lifeways

2)  SYNCRETISM……. an important concept for this course.  A, e.g., culture or religion of identity is syncretic if different parts of it have different cultural pedigrees.  Today, Indian identity in most of its several iteration is syncretic, Indian/settler.  The 20th century American Indian Renaissance has been in significant part  a multiplex exercise in Indian/settler cultural syncretism.  So also, of course, as ‘renaissance’ connotes, has it been a multiplex exercise in the reconfiguration of distinctive Indian-ness.  Trying to grasp how the two have co-occurred……. that’s the name of our game