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Interview by Donald A. Yerxa


A Forest of Time

A conversation with Peter Nabokov about Indian ways of history

In an important new book, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History (Cambridge Univ. Press), Peter Nabokov explores the complexity of American Indian approaches to the past. Nabokov, a professor of American Indian Studies and World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, has drawn on decades of his own research and recent findings in ethnohistory, anthropology, folklore, and Indian studies. The result is an impressive work of transdisciplinary scholarship exploring the complex and varied ways in which American Indian societies make sense of the past.

What are you trying to accomplish with A Forest of Time?

I'm trying to open up a subject that I feel has been neglected if not suppressed. On a most general level, A Forest of Time is about the multiple American Indian interpretations, selections, and uses of the past, depending on which community is telling the story and how it wants to make constructive use of it.

I would like academic historians to become a little more modest when they talk about histories that involve non-European peoples. But in all candor, I think that most of them will respond to these case studies and provocations by ignoring them.

Part of this attitude has to do with the fact that Indian persistence remains a lump in the Anglo-American craw. These folks did not die out, which was the wishful thinking of the "Vanishing Indian" theme around the turn of the 20th century. They persist; they continue to endure; they continue to perpetuate separate histories; and they continue to run rings around the dominant society in the most intriguing ways while insisting on their diversity.

Many non-Indians, I truly believe, sense this as a threat: it's a threat territorially, and I think it's a threat philosophically on some level. It's got to be a threat to a lot of basic tenets of modern American life, whether it be consumerism, American individualism, Christian fundamentalism, territorial integrity, or what have you. And the way Indians sometimes do this; the way they ...

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