Class Assignment: Write an evaluation of Sioui’s philosophies of Amerindian Autohistory from the perspective of educating non-Indians about Indian cultures. In other words, think about what Sioui is promoting and whether this is the best way to educate non-Indians about Indian societies, cultures, and history.
In his book For an Amerindian Autohistory, Georges Sioui argues that the best way to educate non-Amerindians about Native American history, culture, and society is through autohistory, which is defined in the forward of the book as “Native history written in accordance with Amerindian values” (Trigger pg. x). Using autohistory, Sioui states that his main goal is to “provide modern historical and ethnohistorical (anthropological) science access to an appropriate knowledge of Amerindian values” (Sioui pg. 98). In fact, his book is meant to be an example of the methodology of autohistory although I feel that Sioui’s noble aspirations fall short of making his point.
In reading his introduction, it is easy to identify with the need that Sioui feels for a better way of educating the public about Amerindian culture. Referring to my own education, Native Americans were usually portrayed in two contradicting ways: the barbaric savage or the noble Indian. In addition, Sioui refers to the confusion that he felt growing up when his teachers would describe his ancestors as “savages with no knowledge of God” (Sioui pg. xix). It is not difficult to argue that up until recently, the majority of Amerindian depictions were very biased and almost exclusively written from a Westerner’s point of view. As such, I can sympathize with Sioui’s desire to rectify the negative imagery that has been associated with Amerindians and to retract the exaggerated falsehoods that still linger in today’s educational spheres. However, I feel that the example that Sioui sets up only highlights some of the potential flaws that come with writing one’s own history.
First, Sioui has a tendency within his writing to overgeneralize, assigning his personal values and practices to all Native Americans. It is well-known that there was and still is great diversity between different Native American tribes. Yet, this author’s description leads readers to believe that all Amerindians hold similar customs in areas such as gender roles, religion, morals, and social conflict. By doing so, Sioui undermines the credibility of the history that he is writing because it is based off of his personal experiences. He ignores the potential variability of culture between different tribes and instead chooses to lump all Amerindians into the same category, a mistake that is common in western descriptions of Native Americans.
Second, although Sioui make reference to enlightening anthropologists and historians about Native American culture, his use of terminology and expression of ideas throughout the book show that he has very little interaction and understanding of these fields of study. For example, Sioui often uses the words “values” and “culture” interchangeably without defining what he means by these labels. Additionally, in his autohistory, Sioui expresses his belief that “Native people, instead of being stepping stones for ‘true civilization’ in America, become the guides who will take their white visitors towards Amerindian civilization, a truer and more human one” (Sioui 38). This statement represents a common theme that is repeated throughout the book where Amerindians are meant to share their way of living with the Euroamericans so that they may adopt these practices and begin living the “right” way. This manner of thinking is known as ethnocentricity within the field of Anthropology and is avoided as much as possible in scholarly writings. These oversights often distract or prevent the reader from properly absorbing much of the valuable and interesting information that is available within the text.
Obviously although Sioui’s concept of Amerindian autohistory is intriguing, his execution leaves much to be desired. Yet, this does not mean that the idea of autohistory is necessarily flawed. In fact, I believe that it is crucial that Native Americans take part in the writing and teaching of their history and culture. This involvement would allow Amerindians to feel empowered and connected to their heritage, while hopefully addressing the ignorance that has permeated the mainstream culture. Writing Amerindian autohistory would also allow the public access to information that might otherwise be difficult to obtain and provides a different perspective of American history. However, there are some criteria that must be met in order for autohistory to be an efficient and beneficial tool.
To begin, in order to account for the many differences between Native American tribes, numerous viewpoints and perspectives must be considered when attempting to describe both history and culture. Individuals must realize that they can only contribute their personal experiences and consult accordingly to fill in gaps and contradictions in their knowledge. This collaboration would safeguard against projecting one tribe’s culture onto another and may include other people, historical documents, oral histories, etc. Moreover, I feel that formal education is necessary for those who wish to write autohistory or other scholarly works. Although some may argue that this is ethnocentric, I believe that this would allow the writer to better reach and communicate effectively with their intended audience. Finally, it needs to be recognized that Amerindian autohistory be written without bias if at all possible. I believe that this is a goal which every historian and anthropologist strives to achieve, and these writings should be no exception. One should hope to impart knowledge and understanding without prejudice or ethnocentricity.
Overall, I think that Sioui’s work has potential even if it does not necessarily achieve its desired effect. Nonetheless, I can appreciate that he has such a passion for his culture and that after all that has been done to his people, he still wishes to share his values, beliefs, and customs with others. I respect that he is willing to tackle such a large exploit and that he encourages others to continue where he left off. I have always loved learning about how others viewed the world and being able to get a glimpse of the Native American perspective is both enlightening and enthralling.
In case you wanted more reading, here a few more reviews that I found of Sioui’s book. They may be helpful in order to further evaluate his work.