Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century

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Encylopedia of the American IndianEdited by Alexander Ewen and Jeffrey Wollock
University of New Mexico Press (2015)
536 pages

Review by Bradley Shreve

Over the past 25 years, 20th century American Indian historiography has become increasingly detailed and voluminous. Generally speaking, that’s good news—except that keeping up with all of this scholarship requires an inordinate amount of time and a lot of money (or library visits). This new offering from the University of New Mexico Press is a concise yet comprehensive resource for anyone interested in recent American Indian history, politics, and culture.

The 20th century was in many ways one of the most pivotal periods for Native people across North America. Following a century of protracted warfare, allotment, and a concerted effort aimed at assimilating American Indians and, in the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “pulverizing the tribal mass,” the 20th century was critical. A good portion of the first few decades saw the government continue with its assimilation policies and attempts to eradicate Indigenous languages and culture. However, federal policy lurched in the 1930s with the advent of the Indian New Deal and a radical reversal in the governments’ conceptualization of Indigenous languages and cultures, self-determination and sovereignty, and in its view of the tribe as a social unit. Of course there remained many detractors, and with the growing tide of civic nationalism following World War II, the government returned to assimilationist policies such as Termination and Relocation.

The editors of this volume maintain that modern American Indian history really began in the 1960s. That’s when Native peoples began forming powerful intertribal organizations to advocate on their behalf and to influence federal policies. Since then there has been a clear shift towards greater sovereignty and self-determination, and a reaffirmation of the importance of Indigenous culture and revitalizing Native languages.

Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century consists of hundreds of entries that cover myriad topics, figures, policies, organizations, etc. Most entries are succinct and include suggestions for further reading. There is also a wealth of end matter, including an appendix of historical, cultural, and political maps,  a chronology of pivotal events, a bibliography, an index, and a listing of entries organized by tribe, activity, and—for the biographical entries—year of birth.

To be sure this is a valuable resource, but inevitably with a book of this scope there are shortcomings. The editors obviously cannot include every single figure, event, group, or policy, but sometimes their selection seems random and superfluous. For example, the encyclopedia includes Wilson D. Charles, an Oneida athlete who participated in the 1932 Olympic Games, but lacks Lionel Bordeaux, one of the most important figures in 20th century American Indian education. Similarly, there is an entry for Redbone, a Native rock band from the early 1970s, but nothing on the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. This is not to say that the entries for Charles or Redbone should be deleted, but rather to illuminate glaring omissions.

Despite this criticism, every tribal college and university library should have this encyclopedia in their stacks. Students and faculty alike will find it an invaluable resource.


Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., taught history at Diné College and is currently managing editor of Tribal College Journal.

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