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Manitoba History: Review: Colin G. Calloway (editor), New Directions in American Indian History

by George A. Schultz
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

New Directions in American Indian History, edited by Colin G. Calloway, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, 262 pp., graphs. ISBN 0-8061-2147-5.

Some of the basic premises of this book are at best debatable. It is estimated that about 500 new books and articles on North American Indians appear each year. The contributors to this volume assume that much is chaff. The purpose here is to setup certain criteria to sort out the truly significant scholarship and suggest new directions for research. While it is true that most historians have focused on white-Indian conflicts, Indian resistance leaders, and government policy this does not necessarily make them insignificant nor should they be used as “strawmen” to prove the need for new directions.

Another caveat. As the title suggests this is a book about Indians in the United States, even though a North American experience is assumed throughout. There is one exception. A chapter is devoted to a Canadian topic. Scholarship on the Métis undoubtedly needs refocusing, although it is questionable whether this is the most urgent issue in Canadian Indian historiography.

Part One, on “Recent Trends,” contains six essays that define new areas where there seems to be a significant amount of interest and activity. Predictably most of these fields are currently in vogue in American historiography. In each essay the contributors describe the published literature and raise issues about techniques of research and scholarship and the quality of the results.

In the recent years quantitative history has been regarded in some circles as the wave of the future. Quantitative methodologies have been notably lacking in writing American Indian history. This then is perhaps a logical starting place for new directions. The authors of the first essay, Mellisa L. Meyer and Russell Thornton rightly contend that there is an unequalled amount of government data (census roles, ration lists and registers) relating to America Indians that lend themselves to quantitative studies. In the process this could become the basis for a new Indian history concerned more with tribal social structures and reservation cultures. In fact, extensive quantitative studies have been undertaken on the devastating impact of whiteman’s diseases. Perhaps here and in other areas quantitative techniques have tended to unfocused dabbling instead of sophisticated statistical reasoning.

Again reflecting recent trends in American historiography, the second essay argues for more research and methodologies directed to women’s studies. Admittedly, Indian women have been ignored because of an obsession with male warriors and chiefs. Deborah Welch’s survey indicates many new studies in native women’s history. With this as a base, she argues that the best writing is just waiting to be done.

The only Canadian topic is an essay on new developments in Métis history. Dennis F. K. Madill surveys the growing literature, much of it still on Louis Riel’s rebellions. This indicates to Madill the obvious need to get over the Red River myopia, and grapple with more complex inquiries into regional differences, land claims and constitutional issues. American historians should be told however, that Canadian scholars might not regard Métis history as such a major issue.

The fourth article is again regional but broader based. William Rollings argues for a multifaceted search for new frontiers in writing the history of the American Southern Plains. He makes the obvious point that frontiers have two sides and that Southern Plains history has been written only from one. But this is true of United States history generally which of course strengthens his argument that only when the Comanche, Kiowa, Wichita, and Osage perspectives are mixed into the equation can a true picture of the Southern Plains emerge.

In an alternate scale of priorities a good argument could be made that the fifth essay, “Indians and the Law,” should be first. No other factor so totally dominates Indian life. Historians writing about Indian issues have no option but to attempt to get a handle on developments in American Indian law. Current legal problems revolve around tribal lands and statutes, control of natural resources, jurisdictional disputes at all levels of government, as well as basic human rights. Litigation and legislation has created mountains of paper. George S. Grossman identifies trails through these mountains and provides a highly useful bibliographical guide for the most significant literature.

The final essay in Part One surveys the historiography of Indians of the twentieth century. Here again there is a familiar theme in recent American history, a call for history from the bottom up. According to James Riding In, quite enough has been written about Washington’s agenda. Although federal policy and the Bureau of Indian Affairs exercise enormous power over Indian life little has been done on the impact on Indian communities.

Part Two, “Emerging Trends,” identifies three major areas of Indian history that remain underdeveloped. Douglas R. Parks makes a strong pitch for language study as an integral part of writing native history. He uses the Plains Indians as a case study. Historians frequently falter even at a rudimentary level in using Indian names and words consistently. Parks suggests several models for integrating linguistics in writing history. The historical relationship of language and cultural history are self-evident although the problems are formidable.

For Ronald L. Trosper Economics and History are twin disciplines separated at great risks. Yet Indian economic history is a nonentity despite centuries of Indian participation in a great variety of economic pursuits while adapting constantly to new economic environments. Trosper, an Ivy league trained economist, has worked on programs of economic development on his own Flathead reserve. His essay is not a review of literature so much as a guide for historians to pick and choose from a confusing array of economic models.

The final chapter by Robert A. Brightman argues that modern scholarship on religious change within Indian communities has been devoted almost exclusively to religious systems and ceremonies at the expense of Indian spiritual life and the intellectual “unfolding” of Indian communities. Historians must be freed from absolute categories such as Christian and non-Christian. Brightman organizes his survey in broad regional sweeps of literature and new directions including Canadian areas.

Despite some of its exaggerated claims, this is a provocative book. It does point to new directions but its bibliographical guides will probably provide the greatest benefit. They should be invaluable research tools.

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