Book Review: Plains Indian History and Culture

PLAINS INDIAN HISTORY AND CULTURE by John C. Ewers is a collection of essays and articles from the author from 1967 to 1994. Ewers lacks no qualification here. He has served as the first curator of Museum of the Plains Indian on the Montana Blackfeet Reservation and has written and edited several other books related to Plains Indians.

Ewers is quick in his essays to set the record straight regarding the 20th century trend toward revisionist history. In his opening salvo, he points out that there are more American Indians alive today than there were in the mid-1800’s and possibly at any time in their history. Though he readily agrees that the American Indian was dealt a lousy hand in the annals of American history, he equally points out that the “Indian – good, white settler – bad” mantra that has overwhelmed the teachings of white/Indian relations is also far from the truth. As he explains at the conclusion of his first essay, “I do not believe that Custer died for my sins. Nor do I believe that historians or anthropologists should try to expiate their sense of guilt by rewriting history of the American West so as to portray all Indians as red knights in breechclouts, or all white as pantalooned devils.”

Throughout this series of splendid essays, you can almost feel yourself sitting in a lecture hall, hearing Ewers as he delivers his findings. Because the lectures were given at various times, there is to some degree, a certain amount of repetitiveness, but it hardly detracts from this fine collection of work. The essays themselves have some extent of similarity. For instance, Chapter 1, “When Red and White Men Met” covers some of the same ground as found in Chapter 3, “The Influence of the Fur Trade upon the Indians of the Northern Plains”. But then, you find essays on totally unrelated matter, such as Chapter 6, “Symbols of Chiefly Authority in Spanish Louisiana”.

Ewers deftly debunks countless revisionists myths throughout the book. Not the least of which is the notion that the white man disrupted some sort of harmonious utopian coexistence among the red tribes. The reader finds in elaborate detail, factual evidence to the contrary. That’s not to say that Ewers holds the Indians solely accountable for their demise, but he does point out, for example, that very few Indians took advantage of the opportunity to adapt to changing times and meld into a sedentary existence of farming or ranching when that opportunity was clearly available.

This is an outstanding collection of essays and Ewers expertise on the subject matter is clearly evident from start to finish. The book concludes with 40 pages of notes and detailed bibliography providing ready resources for further study. Of the many books I have read pertaining to the American Indians, this is certainly one of the most objectively presented works I’ve found. A great addition to your bookshelf.

Monty Rainey

About montyrainey

Public Speaker and District Manager. Mission: To empower and inspire others professionally, personally and spiritually to elevate their lives to a higher level.
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