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Reprinted with permission of the author, this article appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of NATIVE AMERICAS, pp. 61-62.
Bruce E. Johansen
The two-volume Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas prefaces its treatment of this subject with a defense of the fact that "this history of Native Americans has been written by Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians." Despite a "growing number of Native Americans who are writing about their past," the reader is told, "the professional study of Native American history remains largely the domain of historians and anthropologists Of European descent."
"Professional study" is a problematic phrase here, because Native American authors have been telling their own story in the English language since at least the days of George Copway, who also could run 60 miles a day, roughly two centuries ago. What is one to make of such a statement poised against the literate lives of Arthur Parker, Luther Standing Bear, Gertrude Bonnin, or Vine Deloria, Jr.? In our time, the academic landscape teems with Native people who have the requisite degrees, academic positions and publication records to write excellent encyclopedia entries.
A look at a list of contributors to The Great Peace... The Gathering of Good Minds, a new CD-ROM and resource guide prepared by Working World, of Brantford, Ontario, caused me to reflect on the racial assumptions which seem to have built the Cambridge History. The contents of the CD-ROM and its resource guide also provoked reflection on another attempt by Haudenosaunee people to tell their own story to a diverse audience: the curriculum guide Haudenosaunee: Past, Present, Future. Begun at the request of the New York State Department of Education about ten years ago, drafts of this guide for public-school education were severely criticized by some of the same academic gatekeepers who have trouble finding Native Americans (in this case Haudenosaunee) who tell their story the way the "professionals" think it should be done.
The Great Peace's contributors' list will sound familiar to readers of the Haudenosaunee curriculum guide's many drafts, as it was shuffled through the state education bureaucracy, cut by roughly half, and then jettisoned, unpublished, to the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee. Contributors include many contemporary Haudenosaunee culture bearers.
Creators of the package Raymond Skye (Tuscarora), Jeff Burnham (Oneida), Brenda Davis (Cayuga), and Sheila Staats (Mohawk) state in publicity material that their CDROM, which includes 2,600 screens of photographs, animation, and text, will "serve to share a part of the history, culture, values, and spirituality of Iroquois people from their perspective." The CD-ROM and its detailed resource guide is designed for school or home use on three levels: elementary, secondary and post-secondary.
The resource guide also contains a handy list of "dos" and "don'ts" for respecting Native cultures which will be very helpful to some non-Indians. The list, borrowed from the Haudenosaunee curriculum, urges readers, for example, not to refer to "the first Thanksgiving" at Plymouth Rock, because Native peoples had observed such ceremonies long before the Pilgrims adopted some of them. Similarly, readers are asked not to call Native American creation stories "myths."
The Great Peace has been criticized by Toronto Star multimedia reporter Gerry Blackwell for a purported lack of technical sophistication and high price -- $395 Canadian for institutional use, $199 for personal use. An organization of material that made sense to the CD-ROM's creators strikes Blackwell as chaotic. Blackwell's review says very little about the content of the CD-ROM, nor the utility of people telling their own stories in what they regard as a proper historical and cultural context. Like the editors of the Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Blackwell professes his inability to find a Native telling that suits his technological and cultural tastes. His main complaint is that parts of The Great Peace lack animated bang for the buck. He complains that some of it reads like a book. "We are not Walt Disney," Raymond Skye told me in an e-mail message at the time the review was published. While The Great Peace CDROM is certainly not Disney -- most of the animation and sound is reserved for opening sequences and the sections aimed at children -- it is a wonderful, necessary archive of knowledge from a Haudenosaunee point of view. The college-level material contains a number of insightful essays which contain a unique collection of facts. Reading these, for example, I found reflections I had not heretofore seen of a Russian academic, Alexander Vaschenko, on the debate regarding Iroquois roots of democracy. A number of essays by John C. Mohawk (which were entirely disregarded by the Toronto Star's reviewer) are especially good intellectual exercise. One may explore the origins of wampum, the Peacemaker's story, and many other subjects, including profiles of each Iroquois nation's history and culture. Skye, who says that the idea for the CD-ROM came to him in a dream, uses his talents as an artist as well as a photographer. The environmental bibliography at post-secondary level also is especially well done.
This collection could be utilized by schools and academic libraries across North America to provide a Haudenosaunee counterpart to the piles of books and academic articles that tell the story through the eyes of non-Indian "experts." The Haudenosaunee probably have been subjected to more anthropology per capita than any other people on earth during the last century and a half The Great Peace CD-ROM is a valuable experiment because it adapts indigenous modes of expression to a new technology.
Bruce E. Johansen, Robert T. Reilly Professor of Communication and Native American Studies at the Universiy of Nebraska at Omaha, is author of Debating Democracy: The Iroquois Legacy of Freedom.