Monday, May 6, 2013

Interview with Bruce E. Johansen, Author of Encyclopedia of the American Indian Movement

What prompted you to write The Encyclopedia of the American Indian Movement? What "message" do you want to communicate?

Kim Kennedy White, the acquisitions editor for race and ethnicity, asked me to write an encyclopedia about the American Indian movement. Her idea excited me because I have known some of the principal people over many years.  I decided to include both AIM, as well as many allied groups that also fought for Native American rights beginning in the 1950s. People from many of these groups often made common cause.

For example, I was a member of Leonard Peltier’s first defense committee during the late 1970s, in Seattle. I also was the first to write about his case in a national venue (The Nation, September, 1977). My first book (Wasi’chu: The Continuing Indian Wars, 1979) described events during the “reign of terror” at Pine Ridge from 1973 to 1976.  I had witnessed some of the fishing-rights activities in Puget Sound as a reporter at the Seattle Times, and knew many of the participants. Kim’s invitation made me revisit all of this in a new way, as history.

What I want to communicate is the story of people deciding to demand justice and enforcement of treaty rights, and to do it in an historical context that enables everyone to understand a time that has influenced subsequent events.

What was the highlight of your research? In the course of your research, what discovery surprised you the most? What surprises readers/others the most about your research?

The highlight was learning more, as an historian, about people and events I had known or experienced, and reading other authors’ work on the same subjects. I have written, for example, about sterilization of American Indian women, and the effects of uranium on Navajo miners – both of which became objects of protests that brought them to a halt. My favorite part of writing is discovery of new information, followed by weaving of text. The book includes many personal stories that should make it more readable.

How did your research change your outlook on the American Indian Movement?

The research enriched my outlook more than changing it.

How have people reacted to your book and/or the ideas you set forth? Is it what you hoped for, or is there more work to be done?

Just about everyone I have told about this book wants to read it cover-to-cover, which is very unusual for an encyclopedia.

What's next for you?

I am writing and editing the Encyclopedia of American Indian Culture: From Canoes to Pow-wows with Kim. Also, I am writing two books in the Puget Sound area, one on the revival of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, another on an amazing multi-ethnic organization, El Centro de la Raza that people re-built with their own hands in an abandoned school in Seattle. Both of these books are specific applications of the kind of self-determination that developed during the time that AIM was active.  El Centro and the Muckleshoots have been allied since the fishing “wars” of the 1960s and 1970s; the Seattle area is very multi-ethnic, and many people have been given to developing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideas of a “beloved community” that crosses ethnic lines. Both books thus are relevant to the United States as a whole because  we are becoming more ethnically diverse every day. El Centro was founded mainly by Latinos led by people who want to appreciate their own culture as well as everyone else’s. I’m Norwegian-American, and their historian.

Bruce E. Johansen is Jacob J. Isaacson University Research Professor In Communication and Native American Studies University of Nebraska at Omaha, having worked there since 1982, meanwhile producing 37 books, mainly in Native American studies and on environmental subjects. These include The Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology (2 vols., 2009), Global Warming in the 21st century (3 vols., 2006), and as co-editor (with Barry M. Pritzker) of the 4-volume Encyclopedia of Native American History.

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