In Frederick Hoxie’s “Thinking like an Indian” and Richard White’s “The Middle Ground,” ideals are presented that historians should attempt to have a more balanced view of Indians as a people before placing that culture down in print. The theory is, essentially, the old cliché of being able to walk a mile in another’s shoes to better understand how that person feels about themselves, and how they might fashion their own relationship with current cultures and principles. Both Hoxie and White take the same approach, focusing on how to think like the Indians, to demonstrate the need, and fundamental requirement, of historians to have this ability (to look at another culture as if a part of that culture) before documenting history. With that said, a close look will be taken into Hoxie and White’s writings to best detail how they achieve the ultimate goal of exemplifying how historians must think like the Indians.
To begin with, Frederick Hoxie takes up the challenge that Donald Fixico had left before, to apply better methodologies when relating and understanding the Native American culture with the effect of providing a more balanced and historically accurate account. The proposition is to, in effect, get historians thinking like the Indians. Essentially, to put “yourself in that other position” (Hoxie, 2001, p. 1) before either attempting to understand it, or even write about it. This aspect, in and of itself, is so crucial in attempting to relate a culture that it “is mandatory for teaching and writing a balanced history of Indian-white relations” (p.1).
The main problem, illuminated by Fixico, is that the “academic effort to re-cast American history from the perspective of marginalized actors has fallen short” (Hoxie, p. 1). Indeed, in attempting to accurately re-create history, the academic effort has really only furthered the dangerously inaccurate stereotype of the Native American. Thus, in attempting to think like an Indian in the past, American scholars have fallen short of the overarching perspective, which, according to Hoxie, must take so much more into account. First and foremost that “American Indians have been systematically dispossessed and demeaned for five centuries [and] throughout this period native people have generally resisted and rejected European culture” (p. 2).
Moreover, the very act of attempting to think like an Indian is difficult “because it challenges our fundamental belief that the historical imagination can encompass the experiences of all peoples [and is] threatening because it exposes historians who make the attempt to attack from all sides of the professional battlefield” (Hoxie, p. 2). Thus, in working towards understanding the Native American people, most scholars have fallen short because the basic fundamentals of the act to do so violate the traditional historical perspective that is storytelling in its essential form.
After accounting the Native American historical record to his knowledge and own “Indian” perspective, Hoxie determines that “it seems clear that Native American historical perspectives vary…influenced by political motivation, individual life experience, and historical context, these perspectives suggest that ‘thinking like an Indian’ requires more than projecting oneself back into the precontact tribal world” (Hoxie, p. 13). In this, Hoxie has suggested the one ideal that, in attempting to understand another race, many historians seem to forget: that Indians are people, just like anyone else. They have the same wants, needs, and dreams, but their culture and history is different from most Western Americans, and it cannot be boxed into a short and concise synopsis, and it is that which needs understanding.
Hoxie further suggests that “pointing out their postcontact origins does not, of course, lessen their claim to authority as ‘Indian’ perspectives, but it does suggest that Native American perspectives on the past are products of history as well as of cultural inheritance. There is no essential ‘Indian’ quality that functions across real time and circumstances” (Hoxie, p. 13). In his conclusion, Hoxie essentially is focusing on the “one thing” that would separate the Indian from the white man, which, really, is nothing but his culture. There is no one definable “Indian” quality that would make understanding the Native American culture or people as simple as a single statement. Like most cultures, they require much more immersion to best understand, and more, and most importantly, the historian must remain aware that Indians are a diverse, evolving people with their own ideals and methodologies for living and appreciating life.
In Richard White’s “The Middle Ground,” the same essential ideology applies; to help historians understand that the value to be had in writing about a culture is to first understand, fairly succinctly, how that culture might first think about themselves, and how they might then incorporate their self-image into the traditional, Western American culture, if they do at all. White takes much the same viewpoint that Hoxie does, citing that his own Indian interpretation was done while avoiding “the ethnohistorical technique of upstreaming…a technique of using ethnologies of present-day or nineteenth-century Indian groups to interpret Indian societies of the past…upstreaming has a bias towards continuity” (White, 1994, p. xiv). In this, White is doing his absolute best to write only the facts, without adding bias to the account which would then make the account, in and of itself, worthless as a historical document. Even something so simple as interpreting past events based upon present ideals would break the historical context of the Indian culture.
He writes that “the Indian people I describe in this book have no essential Indianness. They are people who for a long time resolutely fought the European tendency to create them as the other. They asserted a separate identity, but they also claimed a common humanity in a shared world” (White, p. xiv). Because of this, “it is time for historians and ethnohistorians to pay more attention to such creations in the past and their own roles in perpetuating and adding to them” (p. xiv). White, as most scientists now believe, understands that one cannot study a subject without either changing it or adding unintended interpretations to that subject. And, it is in this that he demands the need for caution in studying the Indian people and their culture.
Further, White depicts Indian-European relations in the 1600’s and 1700’s as a brutal and complex time of broken alliances and warfare during which “the real crisis and the final dissolution of this world came when Indians ceased to have the power to force whites onto the middle ground. Then the desire of whites to dictate the terms of accommodation could be given its head. As a consequence, the middle ground eroded” (White, xv). In this, White gives his account, given his own non-partisan Indian perspective, concluding that “in different ways, both Anglo Americans and Algonquians subverted the middle ground in the nineteenth century. The compromises intrinsic in the middle ground yielded to stark choices between assimilation and otherness” (518) and then “the Americans arrived and dictated” (523). In attempting to keep their peace on the middle ground, so to speak, both the Europeans and the Indians had to compromise with one another in ways which never, truly, led to the peaceful relationship that would have been inherent in having access to a “middle ground.” And, in their quick decisions and hasty and violent choices, both the Europeans and the Indians let the Americans step right into the middle ground and vanquish the very ideals that had been proposed for a peaceful existence.
Overall, in Frederick Hoxie’s “Thinking like an Indian” and Richard White’s “The Middle Ground,” methodologies are presented that detail the ideal that historians must have a more balanced view of the Indians that they seek to set down in history before making any such attempt. In this, both Hoxie and White utilize the same theory, even giving their own accounts of Native American history based upon their own Indian perspectives. And, in the end, the only way to “think like an Indian” is to understand the complexity inherent in their nature as humans. They are a direct parallel to the white man: thinking creative beings with hopes, dreams, and desires. And their culture is like any other, complex beyond understanding—but above all, it cannot be stated or simplified as has been done in the past.
Hoxie, F. (2001). “Thinking like an Indian”: exploring American Indian views of American
History. Reviews in American History, 29, 1-14.
White, R. (1994). The middle ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes
region, 1650-1815. New York: Cambridge UP.