Reflections on teaching Sioui’s Autohistory

This is the third time I have started ANT 358 by reading and discussing Georges Sioui’s For an Amerindian Autohistory. Each semester I teach the course, I go back and re-read his book and go to the notes/discussion guideline from the previous time I taught the course. As I was doing so last week, I noticed that each time I have found myself finding a deeper understanding of Sioui’s message and as a result agreeing more and more with him. The work is no doubt polemical, as Bruce Trigger notes in the forward and as Sioui himself I’m sure would agree, but the theoretical and resulting applied themes within the work are incredibly important to consider for any scholar studying any portion of the Native American experience, past or present.

There are still parts of Sioui’s argument I do not agree with. He creates a strawman of anthropology based on a 1950s version of the field. His broad brush approach to both Amerindian and Euroamerican cultures and values undermine his arguments. But, I would argue those are not the critical components to this work. The critical component is the constant underlying message that the Native American experience has been a critical component of the formation of American and Canadian societies, yet that has not been acknowledged. In fact, it has been actively and willfully ignored and suppressed at times. Sioui makes the argument that this process has been one of the most egregious crimes against Amerindians. This is because this biased history has been used in court cases and in legislation to oppress and repress Native Americans. This is clearly shown in Sioui’s ludicrous tale of being arrested for destruction of wildlife when making a sapling hut in a provincial park mere miles away from sections that were clear cut for industrial purposes. If Wendat history were taught accurately and effectively in Canadian schools, would this event have ever happened? This is a relatively small-scale example, but the same principles can easily be expanded to question larger policies and actions taken by private and government organizations. Examples include Greenpeace protesting Makah whaling, states attempting to tax Native American-owned businesses, and the U.S. procedure for a nation to become federally recognized. For Sioui, these are directly related to the telling of history. Education about Native Americans is woefully inadequate at all levels of education in America. The primary goal of this course is to try to remedy this with the hope that these students and those that they educate, formally and informally, use a more balanced telling of history when it comes time for them to make important decisions that affect other peoples’ lives.

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