Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 2002


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter 2002, pp. 68-69.


Copyright 2002 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The nineteenth-century settlement of the Great Plains coincided with a number of technological developments, including improved railroad equipment, the steel plow, and the agricultural combine. Photography was among these technical developments, ensuring that the process of settlement would be both celebrated and recorded. The history of Junction City, Kansas, is bound up with such technological developments. Located near the junction of the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers, it grew close by the site of Fort Riley in north central Kansas and became a railroad town and county seat by the 1870s. By 1890 the community was prosperous and its economy diversified.

Enter photographer J. J. Pennell. One of the region's many local photographers who established thriving businesses to record family, civic, and commercial life, Pennell operated in Junction City for nearly three decades. More artistic than many photographers, he left a fascinating record of a community both typical and unique. Following an informative introduction by John Pultz, curator of photography at the University of Kansas Spencer Art without a thought to what this has done to Native societies over time.

Given this state of affairs (about which the book is silent), why is it that there are still anthropologists who insist on fashioning or inventing new theories primarily aimed at trying to explain why Native people have such difficulties adapting to the modern world? I think part of the answer to this very old question is clear and simple and staring us straight in the face-and it is called colonialist genocide. If I were asked to write a prescription for social and psychological disaster among Native peoples, something that would surely bring about a near total collapse of their ancient societies, it would go something like this: Initially, I would put them on reservations and take away their art. In this way I would sever them from their mythology, philosophy, history, religion, land, and language in one stroke since all of these are fundamentally integrated or embodied in their social systems through their land and art. Art is the primary means by which they effectuate what is equivalent to Western society's libraries, churches, courthouses, theaters, and schools. I would then legislate laws, enforceable at the point of a gun, of course, which would allow me to replace their accumulated wealth of oral, historical, and spiritual knowledge and traditions with my own special brand of social philosophy, economics, and religions, all based upon a social system relying heavily upon avarice as its most basic social tenet and coupled with the identification of those Native peoples as "primitives and savages." That law would then be enforceable for at least seventy years in such places as government run boarding schools. I would then insist upon using unprovable abstract scientific theories to describe the different versions of reality these ancient peoples harbor towards themselves. Furthermore, I would require everybody to use the same vernacular established by these parochial theorists whenever the subject of the Native American came up, in whatever context.