Seven Myths of Native American History: An Interview with Professor Paul Jentz

I first met Professor Paul Jentz at the World History Association annual conference in Savannah, Georgia in 2015. Alfred J. Andrea and I were serving as co-series editors of the newly formed Myths of History Series for Hackett Publishing, and Al wanted us to meet as he had been very impressed with Paul in his previous dealings through the WHA and elsewhere. Paul had a unique charm and cerebral wittiness that made him every bit as likable as Al had suggested. More significantly, he understood and appreciated the goals of the Myths of History Series well, which focuses on producing works that dispel popular historical myths and are geared toward use in the college or university classroom.

After meeting and speaking with Paul in Savannah, we came away very impressed and, after some follow up emails, Paul submitted a book proposal that resulted in a book contract. Later in the process, as Paul began to submit chapters, we were especially happy with the quality and clarity of Paul’s writing. Indeed, as I read through the rough drafts of various chapters, I was, at times, finding myself dispelled of myths about Native American history that I had previously embraced on some level. Our appreciation for Paul’s work was confirmed when Hackett sent the manuscript to important outside readers, including Colin G. Calloway at Dartmouth College and Andrae Marak at Governors State University, who noted the following:

“Jentz’s Seven Myths of Native American History is a wonderfully nuanced examination of the most common misconceptions that North Americans have held, and often continue to hold, about the original inhabitants of this continent. Jentz’s book does an especially good job of weaving in the cultural productions—fiction, poetry, movies, and television shows—that created and sustained these myths. This approach allows students and members of the general public alike to become more critical consumers of cultural productions about Native Americans.”  —-Andrae Marak, Governors State University

“Seven Myths of Native American History will provide undergraduates and general readers with a very useful introduction to Native America past and present. Jentz identifies the origins and remarkable staying power of these myths at the same time he exposes and dismantles them.” —- Colin G. Calloway, Dartmouth College

Paul’s involvement in world history is extensive, as he has previously served on the WHA’s Executive Council and as chair of its Conferences Committee. He also served as Founding President of the Midwest World History Association (2009-2011) and as founder of The Middle Ground: An Online Journal for World Historians. Consequently, Al had been impressed, unsurprisingly, with Paul’s energy and commitment as a historian, and saw him as an ideal potential contributor to Hackett’s Myths of History Series. But perhaps the most significant aspect of Paul’s background (for the purposes of the series) is that he is a professor at North Hennepin Community College; thus, his career has involved significant teaching responsibilities and extensive engagement with first and second-year undergraduates, who are more likely to hold the myths that our series attempts to dispel. Consequently, he wrote his book with his students in mind and the understandings they bring into the classroom at the start of each semester as they relate to Native American history. This is precisely why Al and I, as series editors, desire teaching historians as authors and why we think Paul’s book is exceptionally well suited for the Myths of History series.

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Above Image: Book cover image of Seven Myths of Native American History, available for pre-order from Hackett.

I asked Al for a comment about Paul that I might include here and he noted the following:

“Paul and I met at an AHA conference in New York City a few years ago. We Bostonians know that NYC is the heartland of the Evil Empire (AKA the Yankees), but that nothstanding, this conference proved to be serendipitous because of my meeting and talking with Paul at a reception hosted by the World History Association. It was immediately clear that he is a committed historian, whose wide-ranging interests signal him as a fellow-traveling world historian. At the same time, as is true of all scholars in the field of world history, he studies the macro through the lens of the micro and vice versa. In his case, the micro is the complex history of North America’s First Peoples.

How, one might ask, does being a world historian, namely someone who has a global vision of human history, give that person a privileged look into the history of North America’s First Peoples? Well, as you read this book, you will discover that, when relevant, Paul Jentz steps outside of the somewhat restricted areas of US and Canadian history and is able to demonstrate with clarity the cultural/intellectual baggage that European settlers brought to North America– ways of perceiving and relating to the world that had a profound impact on the ways that they saw and dealt with its aboriginal inhabitants.  The consequences of those interactions are with us today.

 Beyond being a committed world historian and a dedicated student of American Indian history, Paul has a well-deserved reputation as an impassioned and deeply caring instructor–something I learned during my three trips to the campus of North Hennepin Community College, where Paul is a highly respected member of the faculty. Given these qualities, Paul was the natural person for us to approach when we decided that our Myths of History series needed a volume on the many myths surrounding American Indian history and culture. To our great delight, he agreed to take on this daunting task. The result has far exceeded our already high expectations and standards. Paul has always made me proud to call him “colleague” and “friend.” Now he makes me proud to say that he is one of our series’ premier authors.” —-Alfred J. Andrea, Professor Emeritus of the University of Vermont

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Above Image: Paul and Al, a few days before their trip to Turkey in 2010. They attended a WHA symposium at Istanbul Şehir Üniversitesi.

I asked Paul if he would be willing to answer some questions about his new book for my blog and he kindly agreed.

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Question 1: Could you begin by telling us a little bit about your background? Why did you become a historian and what led to your interest in Native American history?

History was not my first choice.

I came up through poetry, perhaps largely thanks to a precocious letter I sent– when barely a teenager–to Tom McGrath, one of the finest poets in the country, who generously responded with words of encouragement and advice. Through his mentoring and lifelong friendship, three of his lessons continue to guide me now as a historian who believes that rigorous scholarship must be matched by rigorous attention to the craft of writing: less is more (the law of parsimony), but sometimes more is more; poetry must be written at least as well as prose (though I now reverse this); and language without music is dead language. I knew about Tom because he lived only a few miles down the road from the North Dakota ghost town in which I was raised. He taught at a small liberal arts college in Moorhead, Minnesota, so naturally I started my undergraduate work there, where I met another North Dakotan, Mark Vinz, an extraordinary poet from whom I learned the importance of spirit of place, which can be explained as writing from a rooted center, wherever or whatever that center might be, a principle that I transfer to my work as a historian as I attempt to immerse in whatever time and place that I happen to be researching and writing about. Of course, historians must always proceed from a foundation of sound scholarship, but the stories they tell about the past based on that scholarship depend upon their skills as writers. History is a species of literature. If you don’t know how to tell a story well, that’s a dead story, an insufferable history through which to plod. Completing a trifecta of influences from those years in Moorhead, film scholar Ted Larson (whose extensive film vault garnered national recognition) grounded me in film history and criticism, and imprinted upon me the power of narrative and its infinite structures. I finished my undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota. There, under the tutelage of Joycean scholar Chester Anderson, I thought that Joycean studies would be just the ticket; however, by the time I started my graduate work in English, I realized that the world could likely do without any miniscule contribution I could make to that already overburdened field and focused instead on narrative theory. With an English MA, I taught full time as an English adjunct at St. Cloud State University for five years when it occurred to me that it might be fun to get an MA in history. Having defined myself as a writer who taught English, I never thought I would be anything else, so I saw the history MA merely as an end in itself. Then, not a month after I had my new degree in hand, a tenure track position in history opened at North Hennepin Community College in Minneapolis. Curiously, I had been teaching a few English classes there at the time. How then I received that tenure position continues to strike me as the result of a mighty circuitous route to becoming a professional historian. My next step, to enter a Ph.D. program, began to solidify this strange new identity. Through my teaching and ongoing research, it became increasingly clear to me that to more fully engage in my specialty as a nineteenth century Americanist, the study of Native American history appeared paramount. This led me to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, there to study under Cary Miller, whose book, Ogimaag: Anishinaabeg Leadership, 1760-1845, I found both riveting and transformative. Here was someone whose exacting scholarship also possessed a quality I long valued—that of a story well told. As it had been for a number of years before entering the program, American Indian policy history remains my central focus. On a more granular level, I am making a specific study of gift giving and kinship in western Great Lakes diplomacy.

Writing Seven Myths of Native American History provided me with a means to focus my range of skills, training, and predilections that had formerly seemed eclectic. That mix must include my five-year fulltime and five-year part time tenure as a television director, and the courses on popular culture that were thrown my way to teach at St. Cloud State University—experiences neatly packaged as “how I spent the decade of the 1990s.”

But all these experiences–actually, I should say everything in my life since my undergraduate years up to today–would have been empty had I not shared them with my wife and best friend, Gayle. We first met in a Shakespeare class at Moorhead State College. A few years later, we moved to Minneapolis, where we pursued our careers as teachers. Gayle had trained as an English teacher and finished her graduate work at the University of Minnesota. Indeed, we taught together at North Hennepin Community College for ten years, where I continue to teach world history, U.S. history, and American Indian history.

Paul and Gayle

Above Image: Paul and Gayle, who have been married since 1983.

Question 2Why did you want to write this book? Why is it needed?

I can address the first of these two questions best by expanding on a few areas introduced above. My interest in popular culture–the exploration of which stands central to the book—stems from the training I received while earning my MA in English at the University of North Dakota. As noted, I studied narrative theory, and with semiotics as my watchword I applied the scholarship of theoreticians (the usual suspects: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Michael Riffaterre, Roland Barthes, and Didier Coste) to the production and consumption of popular culture. Now, before going any further, I must point out that not a single page in Seven Myths of Native American History contains the slightest semiotic whiff. But the experience of my study left me with a deepened understanding of the cultural and historical power of popular culture. Moreover, the areas on which I focused in my training included Wild West shows, vaudeville, film, advertising, and popular and literary works of fiction and poetry—all areas central to my exploration of cultural productions as conduits for the dissemination and perpetuation of historical myths about Native Americans.

Now, for one long settled as a nineteenth-century Americanist, yet as one who arrived at this specialty through an aforementioned circuitousness, another bend in the road took me through a history MA program at St. Cloud State University in which I focused on nineteenth-century Russian history, having arrived there through an abiding interest in Russian literature. But I studied Russia through the lens of world history. From that point onward, however much my study of Russian history has since become of secondary or tertiary interest to me, the world historical approach has led me, and continues to lead me, to the discovery of the connectedness of the human past. Ideas, material goods, and people in groups large and small have been nearly forever moving and changing through mutual influence over time across lands and oceans. Thus, as my book examines the transcontinental and transoceanic history of interactions between Native Americans and Europeans, and later Euro-Americans, the lens, or lenses, of world history allow me to reframe evidence and to discern and clarify lines of cultural influence. Indeed, as I trace throughout my book, many of the myths about Native American history arose initially in European antiquity, made their North American landfall with the first European colonists, and remain part of the cultural landscape today after having passed in a relay-fashion across generations through the influence of multiple forms of mass media and popular culture.

Moreover, Indian policy–my Ph.D focus–serves as a central facet in my book, as North American colonial, and later national, Indian policies instituted at government levels often stood predicated on erroneous conceptions about Indians themselves. Policies for Indian removal, the reservation and reserve systems, and the boarding and residential school systems generally assumed that Indians lacked the intellectual, moral, and cultural capacities required for navigating modernity. Moreover, Indian policy commonly served the interests of settler colonialism at the expense of Native American interests. As White settler populations expanded, they often relied on assistance from their governments. Federally instituted reservations and reserves in the United States and Canada answered the settler’s needs. Settlers benefited because land formerly designated Indian Country became available to them. Myths simplify the world, hence their attraction. Premised on convenient myths, Indian policy often entailed lethal consequences for Indians. Conjunctions between the history of Indian policy and historical myths about Indians run throughout Seven Myths of Native American History.

Why is this book needed? I work with undergraduate students, so I had the opportunity to use my lectures and class discussions to help me clarify ideas in the book. The classroom serves as an excellent laboratory that way. What worked in the classroom helped me to shape the book and to make it both approachable and useful for an undergraduate audience. And because the book is designed not for a select audience of specialists but rather as an introduction to a number of issues in Native American history, it will be equally valuable for the general reader as well.

Question 3: What is a “myth” in the context of your book? Can you give us an example of a popular myth related to Native American history and how it emerged? Broadly, what causes various groups to embrace certain historical myths related to Native Americans?

Myths about North American Indians originated as colonial products inherited by North America’s nation-states. In part, the popular appeal of myths about Indians speaks to a desire for a simple history driven by heroes and villains; also, the Indian as Other perpetuates the civilization/savage binary that assures the “civilized” individual’s sense of superiority. Cultural accretions over half a millennium in the making provide the generation to generation links that have kept these myths alive. This book focuses on seven such myths—myths that have served as convenient tools for persons and groups with various and often conflicting agendas. The quest for access and claim to the land and its resources has often driven politically and economically powerful individuals and groups throughout North American history, and these power centers had the most to gain by perpetuating derogatory and wrongheaded notions about Indians as wasteful and unworthy of the land on which they had lived for thousands of years.

Question 4: Could you provide a brief overall summary of the myths considered in your seven chapters? 

The seven myths include the Myth of the Noble Savage, which conjures images of fierce but chivalrous horse-mounted warriors and virtuous Indian princesses, while the Ignoble Savage myth, to the contrary, portrays Indian men as violent, ignorant, and drunken clowns and Indian women as drudges and sluts. The notion that North America offered only wilderness to be conquered by European colonizers led to the Myth of the Wilderness, in which Indians figured as nonpersons, as part of the landscape. The mythic vanishing Indian faces certain doom as an unsustainable relic of the past who must give way to westward expansion and the advance of civilization. Mythic authentic Indians exist frozen in time in feathers and tomahawks, living in tipis surrounded by totem poles. The Myth of the Ecological Indian idealizes each Native American as instinctively at home within the natural world, with inherent gifts for living there in harmonious balance. Finally, the Myth of the Mystical Indian refers to the commercial exploitation of Indian religious practices by non-Indians, a process that turns the Indian into a static mythologized image of comforting spiritual wisdom.

This book considers post-1492 North American history as a story of interwoven human relationships carried on across half a millennium of contact between North America’s Indigenous Peoples and European colonists and Euro-North Americans. Across time, political, religious, and academic institutions, as well as the multiple forms of print and broadcast media, have shaped White North American ideas about Indians. In all areas—race, religion, gender, and class—expectations about North American Indians, past and present, have often been viewed through the distorted lenses of myth and stereotype. The clarifying work of replacing wrongheaded notions about Indians with historical facts remains ongoing, work undertaken throughout Seven Myths of Native American History.

Question 5: Which of these myths do you think is the most widely held? Which is the most pernicious? Which might be the most controversial? All of them are important, but which do you feel stand out in the ways I describe here?

Perhaps the mostly wildly held myth is the Myth of the Authentic Indian. Instantly recognizable, often as the one wearing the feather, and likely speaking in halting English, the Western movie Indian and the broadcast Indian conformed to a single type that lived in the Wild West–itself a myth–and could not survive outside of it. Manufactured for decades in films, radio programs, and television shows, the Authentic Indian thrived as a commoditized image. The Myth of the Authentic Indian persists today. To many, the Indian somehow remains incompatible with modernity. Perhaps the myth provides a subtle—or not so subtle—means for continuing to control Indians by conceptually limiting their ability to participate fully in the twenty-first-century world. The myth locks Indians away into a set of stereotyped roles. As mere relics from a bygone era, their presence in modern career paths or professions appears anomalous. Authenticity is imposed upon Indians by cultural forces that have historically looked into Indian Country from the outside and then passed judgments, in manners alien to Indians themselves, on who is and who is not an Indian.

The most pernicious myth is probably the Myth of the Ignoble Savage. Propelled by the political, economic, and social agendas of the federal government and its citizens, the Myth of the Ignoble Savage demonized Indians in order to justify their removal. The myth proclaimed that Indians did not develop the land in accord with American standards of agriculture, which entailed single-crop cultivation, domesticated livestock, fences, and, above all else, private, and titled landownership. Rather, according to the stereotype, Indians merely wandered across the land freely as hunter-gatherers, living a hand-to-mouth existence that contrasted with the settled towns, villages, and farmsteads valued by Euro-Americans. White society often demanded that Indians recognize the sanctity of private landownership if they were ever to achieve a “civilized” state. The myth also identified Indians as sinners lost in wicked religious practices. Far from enjoying the fruits of Christianity, they stood in league with Satan and worshiped him in bizarre rites. Perhaps a few Native souls could be saved through missionary efforts, but Christian salvation could occur only apace with the abandonment of an entire cultural apparatus. Simultaneously, others advocated for the right of Indians to maintain their cultures wholesale, but to enjoy those rights elsewhere. The Myth of the Ignoble Savage supports White cultural interests. Constitutionally incapable of surviving in the modern world, dependent on government handouts, Indians know only how to eke out a marginal livelihood as lazy beggars maddened by alcohol.

Arguably, the most controversial myth is the Myth of the Ecological Indian. According to it, primitive yet virtuous dwellers of forest and plain, Indians always lived in harmony with the earth. Certainly, deep beliefs about the relationship between humans and the earth itself are found throughout Native American societies. However, beliefs inform, but they do not comprise the actual environmental history of Indians anywhere in North America. Too often the popular imagination substitutes a system of beliefs for history itself. The Myth of the Ecological Indian paints a noble portrait. The historical picture, however, represents the engagement of North America’s Indigenous Peoples with multiple environments across the continent that exist not in steady balanced states but in dynamic states of flux that often bring unpredictable and dramatic change. Moreover, Indigenous Peoples altered their landscapes through irrigation works, building projects, fires, and deforestation. Not stereotypes or myths, but human beings make history, and like human beings anywhere, Native Americans historically possessed neither more nor less than their share of judgment about their world. They lived with both the intended and unintended consequences of their actions. Dispensing with the Myth of the Ecological Indian makes room for Native American environmental history to speak for itself. That history of experimentation and technological innovation that yielded new crop varieties and expanded arable land bases also includes a record of resource depletion caused by either human activity or environmental change, or by a combination of the two; thus, Indigenous societies needed to continually reinvent themselves to survive. The Myth of the Ecological Indian freezes that history. In effect, the myth creates a mere Indian caricature.

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