In 1893, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, Illinois, a bright young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner presented his landmark essay entitled, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Although Turner initially failed to gain widespread attention, his paper would go on to shape our understanding of United States history to this very day.
No doubt Turner’s central thesis hovered somewhere in the cerebral cortex of most Americans, but his genius was in articulating it so succinctly and persuasively. Ascribing to the popular belief in “manifest destiny”— the notion that the United States was divinely ordained to expand westwards—Turner argued that the U.S. was exceptional and that American settlers’ frontier experience shaped the country’s national character. For Turner, and pretty much all professional historians of the time, “the frontier” was a constantly moving boundary that separated Euro-American “civilization” to the east from unsettled, “free land” to the west.
Obviously, Frederick Jackson Turner knew that the American West wasn’t vacant. He grew up in 19th century Wisconsin and studied the various military campaigns against American Indians throughout the West. He was a well-educated man, a scholar who held a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. But ultimately the telling of history is an art form based on perspective. And so it’s important to remember that Turner was also the product of a particular sociocultural background and a Western education. Like most of his peers, and like many people today, he believed that if people were not making use of the land as the dominant society saw fit—by farming, ranching, and building infrastructure like railroads and towns—then it was open and “free” for the taking.
Turner’s conceptualization of U.S. history was a nationalist and ethnocentric one, and whether or not we realize it, he has influenced the thinking of history teachers, lawmakers, and the public since the early 20th century. Collectively, Americans believe fiercely that the United States is the greatest country on Earth and that it holds a special place in world civilization and human history. We may stop short of deifying men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but we idolize them and hold them up as evidence of the country’s impeccable character. Conveniently, however, most Americans forget (or maybe don’t even know) that this nationalist understanding of the American experience, this great story of westward expansion, had casualties—and lots of them. Indeed, a central component of Turner’s thesis and the mainstream narrative of American history is the near complete disregard of North America’s Indigenous peoples.
Frederick Jackson Turner and his enduring legacy is “exhibit A” for why Indigenous peoples’ history is of the utmost importance. Indigenous people, telling their own history on their own terms, is the mortar that binds tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), themselves an expression of sovereignty and self-determination, have an essential role to play in the formation, articulation, and dissemination of historical discourse.
In her feature article, “Emergent and Revolutionary: Telling Native Peoples’ Stories at Tribal Colleges,” Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), president of the American Indian College Fund, traces the origins of Native studies and underscores the unique and central place that TCUs have in the education matrix. At tribal colleges, Crazy Bull says, “We teach our own truth about our experience.” Herself a past educator and administrator at Sinte Gleska University and Northwest Indian College, Crazy Bull’s analysis builds on years of scholarship and experience. She adroitly illuminates the subtleties that distinguish mainstream and tribal institutions. For one, TCUs sit on tribal land, where students and many faculty are at home. But just as important is the key role that elders and other knowledge holders play. Such educators may not hold the same Western educational credentials that are required at non-Native schools, but their experience and wisdom is, and always has been, a central component in the sustenance of Indigenous peoples. In many respects they are the lifeblood of a tribal education.
Clarena Brockie (Aaniiih), the dean of students at Aaniiih Nakoda College, confirms the centrality of knowledge keepers. “For me the storyteller emphasizes the language, places, songs/music and people who are all part of a story that relates history,” she says. “When they tell the story, it is as if you are there, you can feel the breeze or the cold, see the tipis….smell the smudge.” At tribalcollegejournal.org, Brockie presents the story of “Last Star,” a cautionary tale that stresses the Aaniiih values of patience, respect, survival, and strength.
James Treat’s article, “Muscogee Nation Indian Territory: From Oral History to Found Poetry,” further explores the vitality of Native oral tradition. An enrolled citizen of the Muscogee Nation and a scholar of Native history and culture, Treat presents a collection of poems that illuminates Muscogee perspectives on their origins as well as the painful experiences of removal and the government’s repudiation of what had been designated as Indian Territory to make way for Oklahoma statehood. These found poems, Treat says, offer a means by which we can recover Indigenous voices from the past. His presentation here is supplemented by a web-exclusive collection of poems available online at tribalcollegejournal.org.
As Treat’s subjects sometimes reveal, for so many Native peoples the past has been painful. Colonialism and all of its nefarious components have wreaked havoc on Native communities. That legacy—historical trauma—remains with us today, and like a disease it requires our attention, intervention, and care. TCUs are leading the way in establishing curricula that attends to this need. Stone Child College on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, for example, spent three years designing and developing a program that confronted historical trauma head on and prescribed a remedy for individual and community healing. In this issue’s edition of Talking Circle, educator V.P. Allery discusses how Stone Child constructed its program, offering a blueprint for other tribal colleges.
“We have our own history as a people, our own land base, governance, language, and culture. We are not ethnic minorities,” states Bezhigobinesikwe Elaine Fleming in her article, “The Ojibwe Who Slew the Wiindigo”—a point which Frederick Jackson Turner, and the mainstream narrative of American history, misses completely. But as Fleming and the other storymakers in this issue of Tribal College Journal show, TCUs and Native scholars are correcting that narrative and serving as bastions where Indigenous peoples’ history can live and thrive.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal.
REFERENCES Etulain, R.W. (Ed.). (1999). Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.