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Writing tribal histories: Class mines archival treasures

March 26, 2008 By Brian Mattmiller

UW–Madison historian Ned Blackhawk would argue that there has never been a more fertile time to be a researcher of Native American history, with a surge in scholarly interest and a deep well of subjects “literally waiting to be written.”

Blackhawk is inspiring a new generation of historians to seize this opportunity through his unique research seminar, “Writing Tribal Histories.” The 500-level course, typically a mix of undergraduate and graduate, Native and non-Native students, introduces students to an explosion of new literature and new perspectives on Native communities, then challenges them to research and write their own history of a community or nation.

Photo of Blackhawk and students

History and American Indian studies professor Ned Blackhawk holds a discussion on Native American-related documents and images from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s collection. The student discussion was part of Blackhawk’s Writing Tribal Histories research seminar.

Photo: Bryce Richter

That research most often starts at the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS), widely recognized for being one of the nation’s richest repositories of publications, periodicals and primary source materials on the American West.

Blackhawk, a professor of history and American Indian Studies, says the class has been productive and, in some cases, transformative for students. He notes that several students have gone on to pursue sustained projects based on the seeds of original material they uncovered during the course.

“You’d never teach organic chemistry without a lab. Teaching history and requiring students to get involved with primary sources is the exact equivalent.”

Rick Pifer, director of reference and public services for the Wisconsin Historical Society

“Wisconsin Indian communities are not as understood as they could be or should be,” says Blackhawk, author of the award-winning 2006 book “Violence Over The Land” about the clash of cultures in the early American West. “Much of this history is not lost or destroyed, but simply under-investigated. A few of the most promising projects to come out of this course are from students who have literally stumbled upon subjects that few people have ever broached.”

Omar Poler, a 2006 graduate of the course, had no doubts about his research focus. A member of Wisconsin’s Mole Lake tribe, Poler wanted to better understand the most painful chapter of his tribe’s history: an 80-year span beginning in the 1850s, when the Mole Lake band became “landless Indians,” unrecognized by the federal government and pushed nearly out of existence.

“This class gave me an opportunity to understand a part of my tribal history that I didn’t know at all, this really difficult period where we were being pushed off our land,” Poler says. “The land was being lost, and the resources that people survived on were being lost.”

After the 1854 federal Indian treaties, Poler says, Mole Lake Indians were promised a reservation on land near present-day Crandon, but that promise didn’t come to fruition. Poler says historical documents revealed the federal government’s policy of trying to consolidate Native Americans into fewer and fewer tribes, a practice that hurt the Mole Lake cause.

But Poler discovered additional materials suggesting there were economic forces at work as well. The reservation’s proposed location was right in the middle of a major federal military road that would soon link the massive copper mining operations in the Upper Peninsula with the nearest supply town of Green Bay. “I believe that the military road affected the development of this reservation,” he says.

Being an unrecognized tribe for 80 years was devastating to Mole Lake Indians, who literally had no legal rights to hunt, fish, trap or farm. They were being pushed from one abandoned logging camp to the next, fighting through starvation and disease outbreaks such as tuberculosis.

For Poler, this research took on deeply personal overtones. In some of the scores of correspondence on microfilm between tribal members and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he came across handwritten letters from his grandfather three generations removed, Henry Poler. One letter recounts near-starvation conditions and makes requests for bags of flour and other basic supplies to endure the winter.

Photo of Omar Poler

Omar Poler, a graduate of Ned Blackhawk’s course “Writing Tribal Histories,” searches through microfilm files in the Wisconsin Historical Society. Poler, a member of Wisconsin’s Mole Lake tribe, is conducting research on an 80-year period of the Native American tribe’s history, beginning in the late 1850s, when they were unrecognized by the federal government and without land to live on.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Despite being continually ignored or rejected by federal bureaucrats, Poler says he was impressed by the relentless fight for recognition by Mole Lake tribal leaders — a fight that finally culminated in recognition, in 1937, under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

“I think at some point, they never expected anything would come from the U.S. government, yet they continued to work on behalf of their community to allow them to have a better life and some control over their future,” he says.

Poler says an “activist culture” took root during the landless period and is something he sees reflected in modern conflicts, such as the successful fight for treaty hunting and fishing rights in the 1990s and the recent turning back of the Exxon mine proposal near Crandon.

Poler’s project is one of more than 60 to come from Blackhawk’s class since its first offering in 2005. This spring, another 20 students began the research phase of the class in March with a tour through WHS’s special collections area, and all reported having their research topics chosen.

Daniel Cornelius, a third-year law student, is doing research on land resources and how tribes in particular can become healthier and economically stronger by embracing traditional food practices. That is a major trend on the Oneida reservation, of which Cornelius is a member, and he intends to use the course to reconstruct the traditional Oneida diet prior to European settlement.

Kathryn Gerndt, a first-year graduate student in conservation biology, is doing research in her home department on conservation efforts surrounding the endangered pine marten in Wisconsin. But she is using this class to bring a “cultural dimension” to her work, since the pine marten is a clan animal of the Ojibwe people and has great importance to native culture. She says the tribes have done more work in pine marten conservation than have state and federal agencies.

The odds are pretty good of both students finding at least some archival support at WHS. Rick Pifer, director of reference and public services for the society, says WHS was essentially chartered in 1846 with the goal of becoming “the library of the West.” WHS’s first director, Lyman Draper, put a priority on collecting things right at the point in time they were happening, when you have the chance to get the richest materials.

Early in the 20th century, WHS became a major repository of government documents, a great many of which were connected to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The library’s Native American collections expanded substantially again in the 1970s as the result of the work of periodical librarian James Danky, who put together the most complete archive of Native American newspapers and newsletters in the nation, totaling more than 1,100 titles.

The collective result, Pifer says, is not only a national resource for historians, but a gold mine for faculty such as Blachawk who want to challenge their students through original research.

“You’d never teach organic chemistry without a lab. Teaching history and requiring students to get involved with primary sources is the exact equivalent,” Pifer says. “It’s one of the beauties of classes like this — it’s the laboratory experience of actually mucking around in all this stuff and having to draw your own conclusions and explain it to someone else.”

Blackhawk says current students and researchers of American history can take advantage of a recent renaissance in the study of native history, which has gained critical depth in the last two decades. He says mainstream Native American history had long suffered from “facile, simplistic” portrayals of Indians and a sense they were “peoples without history.”

“The encounter between the hemispheres was so dramatic, so turbulent and so unprecedented from both sides,” Blackhawk says, that a more thoughtful and complicated perspective of native history has only recently emerged.

Another reason for the resurgence in native history is that reservations across the country are experiencing greater political power and economic independence than ever before. In his 2005 essay “Look How Far We’ve Come,” Blackhawk wrote: “The past two decades have witnessed such staggering political and economic reversals that a new epoch in American Indian history is upon us, fueled partly by the rise of Indian gaming, as well as a generation of Indian educational, community and political activism.”

Blackhawk adds: “Indians and ‘the West’ remain among our nation’s most popular and powerful images. Following the past decade of achievement, American Indian historians stand poised to further weave Native peoples into the fabric of our nation’s changing past.”