Nancy Shoemaker. American Indian Population Recovery in the Twentieth Century. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999. vii + 156 pp. $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8263-2289-0.
Reviewed by Matthew Bokovoy (Department of History, Oklahoma State University)
Published on H-AmIndian (March, 2002)
The Recovering American Indian
The Recovering American Indian
In the twentieth century United States, the image of the American Indian and indigenous cultural preservation has meant many things to a nation dominated by Euro-American whites. From the period 1900-1915, white Americans saw Indians as impediments to industrial civilization and cultural modernity, thus in need of moral guidance and assimilation to Euro-American social norms. But white Americans also viewed Indians as the romantic "other" in an emergent American modernity: cultures, peoples, and nations that were more "organic," "authentic," and had not lost the informally-organized and spiritual qualities of everyday life absent in the predicament and consciousness of white civilization. In every era after 1915, American Indians became unwilling subjects to the twists and turns of Federal Indian Policy as it was influenced by the national zeitgeist, and to how every successive generation of whites viewed Indian culture and tradition in national memory and public culture. Throughout the last century, American Indians utilized their own resources and the meager funding of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to position themselves better in the market, in politics, in society, and in national life. In the end, American Indians have always practiced their own agency in maintaining and preserving their existence.
Nancy Shoemaker's Indian Population Recovery in the Twentieth Century builds upon the notion of American Indian agency in their own population recovery since the demographic nadir of native American population in 1900, which is estimated to have been 237,196. Using the federal manuscript censuses from 1850 to 1980, especially the more recent post-war public use samples, Shoemaker notes that the Indian population in the United States today has reached pre-contact levels. Historical demographers estimate numbers that oscillate between two and seven million Indians in North America before Columbus' voyage to the "New World." Post-war sociocultural factors of self-identification, born from the collective struggle of racial minorities to achieve civil rights and interracial marriages, has added to the overall population statistics of American Indians as well. The issue of Indian self-activity in their own twentieth century population recovery is significant because it elides the paternalistic view that formerly ascribed Indian population recovery to the success of Federal Indian Policy. Shoemaker looks at the vital statistics and material conditions (mortality, fertility, marriage, economic conditions, and cosmology) of five tribes to account for this population recovery, notably the Senecas of upstate New York, the Cherokees of Oklahoma, the Red Lake Ojibways of Minnesota, the Yakamas of Washington state, and the Navajos of Arizona. The comparison of the five tribes allows regional variety, giving a methodological nod to early twentieth century anthropologists who developed the idea of "culture areas" to account for the real and complex similarities and differences among those who are indigenous Americans. Adding further depth to her analysis of census data, the author compares the five tribes to white and black Americans for each successive era.
Shoemaker believes that the population recovery among native Americans is significant because it not only signals "one of the most important events in American Indian history--it has once and for all vanquished the myth of the Vanishing Indian and laid the foundation for an American Indian political and cultural revitalization" (p. xi). This is an important perception made in her book that should challenge scholars of Indian cultural and social history to consider Indian demography more closely and seriously. Scholars of politics, law, and the economy will be stimulated to think harder about the national political implications of Shoemaker's findings for this special racial/ethnic group governed by a body of law and treaties like no other group in U.S. life.
Shoemaker makes her argument in six taut and concise chapters, with an appendix to aid the reader in understanding intrinsic biases and strategies of using the Federal census and its public use samples. The first two chapters lay the foundation for the study, sketching the problems associated with the historical reconstruction of the pre-Columbian Indian population of North America. The second chapter describes the population histories of her five case study tribes in relation to the cycles of conquest, European administration of their lives, and disease-related mortality. Pre-contact Indian demography started with the early twentieth-century estimates of James Mooney and Alfred Kroeber (too low); to the more recent and controversial estimates of Henry Dobyns (too high); and finally to the consensus in the field revised by Russell Thornton and Joan Marsh Thornton, and Douglas Ubelaker (just "right"). Shoemaker concludes that both the "population decline and subsequent population recovery had origins in some combination of changing mortality and fertility rates" (p. 13).
In chapter three, Shoemaker delves further in fine detail into the mortality and fertility rates of the five tribes in order to explain factors that relate to the pace of Indian population recovery in different regions of the country. Her discussion of Indian marriage, and the cosmology that governs it, is an excellent example of the subtleties of argument. She adds sociocultural qualitative evidence to the functionalist census data to indicate that population recovery originated in Native American society and not Federal Indian Policy. Comparing even the lowest Indian fertility with those of whites and blacks, Shoemaker maintains that "marriage patterns explain why Indian fertility was higher. Indian women married young, and most Indian women married at some time in their lives--though Seneca and Yakama women ended their childbearing early, they married and started childbearing at a young age, making the span of years spent childbearing longer than that for whites and blacks" (pp. 54-55). It is here that the study proves to answer difficult questions not addressed in the most thorough analysis of Indian demography to date, C. Matthew Snipp's American Indians: The First of This Land, which was commissioned by The National Committee for Research on the 1980 Census and published in 1989.
The last two chapters of the book, "The Context for Population Growth" and "Postscript to Recovery," assess the economic and cultural factors for Indian demographic growth, especially the rapid rate of population recovery after World War Two. Shoemaker is skeptical of explanations that prioritize economic and cultural factors for population recovery because of the Euro-American normative standards used to gauge Indian attitudes towards economic independence, intermarriage, the accumulation of wealth, and household structure. She concludes complex household structures were the least favorable to population growth, especially among the Yakama and the Seneca. Looking at the Navajos and Cherokees, Shoemaker suggests that the "key to a quick population recovery may have been to have a lot of contact with Euro-Americans--or as little as possible" (p. 73). The final chapter analyzes the period 1940 to 1980 and considers the urbanization and education of the Indian population; economic disadvantages among Indians, whites, and blacks; and intermarriage and fertility. During this period, American Indians became more integrated in American society, and their overall economic and opportunity structure fit somewhere below that of whites and above that of blacks nationally. Assessing the impact of race and class in structuring American Indian life chances and opportunity, the argument directly contradicts the tenets of the "new racism" and adherents of the "bell curve" who believe that innate biological, cultural, and social factors have limited overall Indian advancement.
Any scholar or scholarly inclined reader who has read socio-structural and quantitative history knows that social science writing is often a yawn. Statistics gain their own agency and act as subjects that express complex historical determinations. This reviewer hoped to see more linkage between quantitative and qualitative evidence in Shoemaker's book, to relate material conditions and the problematic enumeration and reporting of the census to indigenous social and cultural practices or Indian consciousness or cosmology. In addition, the author has not well-theorized the central and subtle implication of Indian agency in her argument, perhaps, I suspect, due to the social science quest for "objectivity" that would make federal policymakers pay attention to her book. But these are very minor omissions in this book.
The real value of the book relates to questions of politics and culture. Scholars in a wide variety of fields and disciplines will find this book essential. Twentieth century scholars who study the representations of American Indians in popular culture or Indian tourism will have to revise their trope of the "Vanishing Indian" and "salvage ethnography" when writing the social and cultural history of Indian imagery and performance in American life. If the nadir of Indian population was 1900, every decade thereafter, for the most part, aboriginal Americans were in reality the "Recovering Indian." And American Indians themselves were responsible primarily for that population increase. In addition, the requirements for tribal membership of all American Indians based on blood quantum, usually one-fourth Indian "blood" but varying from tribe to tribe, raises many difficult questions for critical scholars of race and ethnicity. The administration of recognized tribes by the Department of Interior and the BIA is intensely politicized and exists to compensate American Indians for hundreds of years of war, conquest, and general disenfranchisement and discrimination. Those on the radical edge of critical race studies who would like to retire the concept of "race" altogether should think about the consequences and how their radical agenda may play into the hands of the "new racism." As the only racial/ethnic group governed by a special body of the U.S. Code, American Indians have much to lose, like other groups, if the census questions on race and ancestry are altered in any "race neutral" language or done away with as well. Shoemaker sums it up best when she states: "With European diseases and dispossession of their lands and way of life, Indians came close to not surviving as a people. But they have survived and, indeed, with a current population of two million, are no longer at risk of being remembered in history as the 'vanished' Indians" (p. 103).
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Matthew Bokovoy. Review of Shoemaker, Nancy, American Indian Population Recovery in the Twentieth Century.
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