Frequently Asked Questions

Ethnohistory: Frequently Asked Questions

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What is ethnohistory?

Ethnohistory uses both historical and ethnographic data as its foundation. Its historical methods and materials go beyond the standard use of books and manuscripts. Practitioners recognize the utility of maps, music, paintings, photography, folklore, oral tradition, ecology, site exploration, archaeological materials, museum collections, enduring customs, language, and place names (Axtell 1979, 3-4).

Furthermore, ethnohistorians have learned to use the special knowledge of the group, linguistic insights, and the understanding of cultural phenomena in ways that make for a more in-depth analysis than the average historian is capable of doing based solely on written documents produced by and for one group (Lurie 1961, 83). They try to understand culture on its own terms and according to its own cultural code. It differs from other historically-related methodologies in that it embraces emic perspectives as tools of analysis. The field and it techniques are well suited for writing histories of Indian peoples because of its holistic and inclusive framework. It is especially important because of its ability to bridge differing frameworks and access a more informed context for interpretations of the past.

The definition of the field has become more refined over the years. Early on, ethnohistory differed from history proper in that it added a new dimension, specifically, “the critical use of ethnological concepts and materials in the examination and use of historical source material,” as described by Fenton (1966, 75). Later, Axtell described ethnohistory as essentially, “the use of historical and ethnological methods to gain knowledge of the nature and causes of change in a culture defined by ethnological concepts and categories” (Axtell 1979, 2). Others have focused this basic concept on previously ignored historical actors. Schieffelin asserted, for example, that ethnohistory must fundamentally take into account the people’s own sense of how events are constituted, and their ways of culturally constructing the past (Schieffelin and Gewertz, 3). Finally, Simmons formulated his understanding of ethnohistory as, “a form of cultural biography that draws upon as many kinds of testimony as possible over as long a time period as the sources allow.” He described ethnohistory as an endeavor based on a holistic, diachronic approach that is most rewarding when it can be “joined to the memories and voices of living people” (Simmons 1988, 10).

When was ethnohistory first done?

The actual term “ethnohistory” and its basic theoretical premise was first used in Vienna in the 1930’s by Fritz Röck and the Viennese Study Group for African Culture History. The group emerged as a reaction to the prevailing Vienna School of Culture Historical Ethnology. Their intention was to create models which would allow histories to be drawn out of the ethnological data that they had collected in Africa. The Study Group’s models, however, were never were able to progress beyond certain theoretical frontiers and the movement lost momentum and eventually merged with the sub-field, historical ethnography (Wernhart, 7). Ethnohistory did not reemerge again, until after the war in a slightly different form in the United States. Since the 1950’s the American understanding of “ethnohistory” has evolved as both a discipline and as a technique. This American approach was essentially interdisciplinary with primary emphasis centered on the use of history, ethnology and other fields of knowledge employed to understand a culture in its own terms.

What are some examples of ethnohistory?

Before the 1960s, writers of Native American history wrote about Indians from a decidedly western point of view, relying on printed documents as their primary evidence (Fixico 1997, 118). Since then, important attempts have been made to write better American Indian history. These include: Fenton (1957); Calvin Martin (1978); Axtell (1981, 1985); Trigger (1976); Hoxie (1997); White (1983); Berkhofer (1978); and Jennings (1975). Through their efforts, the Eurocolonial view of the American Indian was replaced by one that was influenced by anthropology. This, in turn, enabled ethnohistorians to represent the frontier more as it was; an interactive and confrontational zone between autonomous social entities, as opposed to a one-sided playing out of Eurocolonial myths of manifest destiny (Simmons 1988, 6).

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