When history professor Clyde Ellis decided to move to southwest Oklahoma and live among the Kiowa and Comanche communities some 25 years ago, he did so to learn more about the disappearance of Indians, a concept he had learned as a history student in college.
“Historians in the 1970s and ’80s had been largely concerned with how native people had been pushed around, assimilated and eventually made to disappear, or if not to disappear to become insignificant,” Ellis recalls. “When I moved to Indian country, I was immediately struck by how that narrative did not match what I was seeing.”
Amid their struggles with economic and political issues, Ellis found in the Indian communities interesting expressions of identity, culture, community and tribe that had somehow escaped the attention of many historians. By taking a closer look at these new expressions, Ellis discovered that American Indians have in fact fully embraced American values, modernity, social and cultural traditions but without losing their own ethnic and cultural identities. He points to boarding schools, which historians have long considered simply instruments of Western assimilation. While these schools did inflict pain on Indian children, Ellis found that schools became complex instruments of positive change, a place to learn skills useful for their community as an Indian institution.
“Here is an example of how an institution that was designed to be white and middle class was in fact more complicated,” he explains. “Indians came out of those schools with skills, ideas and values that are not necessarily fully white and certainly not necessarily an indicator of having lost their identity as native people.”
Ellis’ research focuses on understanding how Southern Plains American Indian communities have negotiated changes in ethnic and cultural identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. He has published extensively on boarding schools, Christianity and powwow culture to examine how traditional practices and values have been maintained despite change and accommodation. He is currently writing a book on the history of Americans’ fascination with Indian lore and culture and has begun preliminary work on a comprehensive history of North Carolina’s Indian people.
Through his scholarship, Ellis says he wants to counter the “white, mainstream, middle class, master narrative” about the American experience that tends to limit the experience of other ethnic, cultural, racial or religious groups to certain periods in our history. In the case of American Indians, for instance, “we often want them to be part of this romantic, nostalgic past,” he says, “and letting them change is a difficult concept (for us) but they do it – they creatively select and accept or reject elements of their own cultures and of cultures around them.”
If nothing else, Ellis says, the Indian experience teaches us that there are many ways to be American, because despite being different from the mainstream community, Indian communities are still part of it in terms of their political identity and their sense of who they are in the modern world.
“We’re not all alike and Indians aren’t all alike,” he says. “Just because you give up certain traditions or take on what might seem to be really untraditional, wildly new ideas doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a Comanche or a Crow or a Lumbee or a Kiowa.”