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Disciplinary Approaches to Native Cultures

Updated on October 10, 2012

The study of Native American culture has been examined and researched throughout the course of history in the United States. Historians and anthropologists have both dedicated parts of their studies to the discipline of Native American culture. By studying the culture, the language, politics, and kinships within the various tribes; historians and anthropologists created ethnographies detailing the various traditions amongst the different tribes. Although there are similarities between the two disciplines, there are also many differences between the research and approach to studying Native American cultures.

The study of Native American cultures is at best a difficult area of study. “American Indians are composed of hundreds of cultures that have has self government, territory, and associated form of community from time immemorial.” (Lobo, Talbot, & Morris, 2010, pg. 18) With the vast amount of tribes that speak a different dialect, have different systems of government, different systems of kinship, and different traditions; it seems almost impossible to be able to research and examine every single tribe that existed or still exists within the United States.

Historians approach the studies of Native Americans as a branch or a derivative of American Colonial history. “American Indian history has developed as a subarea within American history. (Lobo, et al, 2010, pg. 19) This has not allowed for much historical review until the 1970s. “During the 1970s there was an outpouring of historical works about American Indians, often within the context of military and policy mistreatment.” (Lobo, et al, 2010, pg. 19) American Indian studies remained a subarea of American history up until the 1990s when a more defined discipline was created.

Anthropologists approach American Indian studies in a different way. “Anthropology’s eclectic combination of holistic, cross-cultural, and evolutionary approaches emerges most clearly when anthropologists focus on tribal, or non-state cultures.”(Bodley, 1985, pg. 13) They see American Indian history as a chance to see how modern man came to be. “We can certainly learn a great deal about the nature of present world crises by carefully comparing our own situation with related aspects of history.” (Bodley, 1985, pg. 13) Like historians, research and examination of the Native American had a revival. “Many anthropologists have reengaged the study of American Indian societies and are researching contemporary language revival, cultural and political change, tribal federal recognition, intellectual property rights, repatriation, economical development, urbanization, tribal cultural resource management and other issues.” (Lobo, et al, 2010, pg. 19) It was not until the 1930s that historians and anthropologists came together to study Native Americans.

A new term was coined in the 1930s that applied to anthropologists and historians alike who studied each other are field; ethnohistory. “The ethnohistorians focused on detailed histories and cultural studies of social and cultural exchange.”(Lobo, et al, 2010, pg. 19) Yet, it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that the field was created. “During the 1930s and 1940s, anthropologists and historians began to develop ethnohistory-a synthesis of historical documentary and anthropological ethnographic approaches-and established a society for the study of ethnohistory in 1954.”(Lobo, et al, 2010, pg. 19) Both these disciplines helped to give life to the American Indian Studies. “History, anthropology and ethnohistory had dedicated subfields, or primary interests, in the study of American Indians.” (Lobo, et al, 2010, pg.20) It was this interest that created a need for the multidisciplinary approach to American Indian Studies.

American Indian Studies began in the 1970s. “When American Indian Studies programs emerged in the 1970s, there was already a large amount of literature about American Indians in many fields.” (Lobo, et al, 2010, pg. 20) Native American Studies is different from historical, anthropological, and ethohistorical view points in that it is from the views of the American Indians themselves. “American Indian Studies seeks to create a discipline of study about social and cultural changes that encompasses the point of view of American Indian people and their community. (Lobo, et al, 2010, pg. 18) This is a big change from the classical approach of research and observation that most anthropologists practice when in the field and is vastly different than the historical aspect of simply researching documents due to the fact that many tribes still embrace an oral history rather than a written one. “Our lessons are from ‘oral’ historians.’ As a people we have been taught, for all seasons, to listen to these stories and to apply the lessons within the stories to everyday life.” (Lobo, et al, 2010, pg. 56) Though it is a different approach to studying Native American history and culture, it allows for a powerful insight that historians and anthropologists who have not been born into the tribal system understand the subject better.

All the different disciplines and approached to studying American Indian history and culture can only help to add to the research, examination, and observation of the field of American Indian Studies. By working together under the ethnohistory umbrella, historian and anthropologists can come together and fully understand and study this field. The accumulation of American Indian Studies as well as historical and anthropological methods can only help to enhance this field further.


Bodley, J.H., (1985) Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Lobo, S., Talbot, S., & Morris, T.L. (2010) Native American Voices: A Reader. Boston: Prentice Hall


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