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ETHNOHISTORY. Ethnohistory is the study of cultures that combines cross-disciplinary methods of historical document research and ethnographic studies such as anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and ecology to give as complete a picture as possible of a whole culture. It employs maps, folklore, myth, oral traditions, music, and painting. Ethnohistory usually deals with small groups that do not have written histories instead of with large societies.

First used in Vienna in the 1930s by ethnologist Fritz Röck and the Viennese Study Group for African Cultural History, ethnohistory was not utilized in the United States until the 1950s as a result of the Indian Claims Act of 1946. Evidence used in Native American claims against the U.S. government employed both anthropological and historical reports and was presented at the Ohio Valley Historic Indian Conference. An outgrowth of the conference was the formation of the American Society for Ethno-history, which was established in 1954 and published the first issue of its journal, Ethnohistory, that same year.

Ethnohistory lends itself to the study of the Indian nations in the United States. Historical documents written by European colonists, explorers, settlers, and government officials give a biased and incomplete view of Indian civilizations. Those from literate societies who originally came in contact with Native Americans interpreted Indian actions within their own limited understanding and with the intent of controlling them or even destroying them. Native American ethnohistory is an attempt to give both sides of the story and explore why people in a certain culture made the choices and took the actions they did.

Certainly, Native American histories did not begin with contact with literate individuals who could leave written records. Understanding these old cultures requires understanding the system of principles or rules that gave meaning and shared values to members of each tribe. Furthermore, defining the whole culture of a tribe requires studying various individuals within a tribe whose actions reflect their differences in gender, class, education, ancestry, and other factors.

Throughout American history, non-Indians using historical documents as their primary sources have written thousands of books. As of 2002, scholars were employing more complete records, both written and unwritten, and were producing books that revealed a more complete look at Native American cultures. Leaders in the field include William N. Fenton, James Axtell, Bruce Trigger, Richard White, Frederick E. Hoxie, Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., Francis Jennings, and Donald L. Fixico, among others.


American Society for Ethnohistory. Home page at

Fixico, Donald L., ed. Rethinking American Indian History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Veda BoydJones

See alsoAnthropology and Ethnology ; Historiography, American ; Native American Studies .