Disciplined Hearts: History, Identity, and Depression in an American Indian Community
by Theresa DeLeane O'Nell, Anthropology '85
(University of California Press, 1996)
I always welcome research on contemporary Native American life. Few people, beyond this population itself, know very much about the lives of Native Americans today. Sociologist Jeanne Guillemin has made the observation that in the popular imagination, "Indians [a]re located in another dimension of time--the past." In an interview I conducted a few years ago in San Francisco, the director of the local Indian Center reiterated this view, by explaining to me that people do not accept "Indians" as such,if they are not wearing "beads and feathers." She added, "We are not accepted by non-Indians as a contemporary people."
To expect contemporary Native Americans to live as their ancestors did is no different from expecting African Americans to do the same, and yet no one would think that African American identity rests on the adoption by contemporary blacks of the dress and lifeways of their African ancestors. Whatever reasons most Americans have for thinking of "Indians" as part of a mythical past, or as a people frozen in time, this image of Indians presents a number of problems for the current Native American population. Theresa DeLeane O'Nell's book highlights some of those problems, by linking identity, culture, and depression among the members of the Flathead Tribe of Montana.
O'Nell brings many facts about modern reservation and Native American existence to light. Her book offers a comprehensive overview of various aspects of this existence, from structural (economics, social provisions) to cultural (communality, kinship) factors. One factor which is often unknown to most Americans, but is an important issue in the lives of Native Americans living on reservations or other areas where they are the principal racial minority, is the factor of racism and discrimination they encounter from whites. Rarely does one hear about this issue with respect to Native Americans, but it is an ongoing reality. (I have found this to be true in my own field research among Native American people, both on reservations and in urban areas. For these individuals, racism is manifested in much the same way as it is for African Americans--from violence against them, to discrimination in housing and jobs.) If one is to gain a greater understanding of Native Americans, these factors must be taken into account, and O'Nell is to be commended for including them in her study.
O'Nell focuses on issues of identity and culture among the Flatheads in order to contextualize their experiences of what she calls "depressive like affect." Her project is to apply a culturally-specific analysis of the symptoms associated with this condition, and to avoid a direct adoption of Euro-American notions of depression as a framework for understanding the particular ways in which depression-related emotions are experienced among the Flatheads. In constructing her analysis, O'Nell devotes a significant portion of her book to a discussion of Indian identity.
"Indian" identity is a much-contested topic among academics, Native americans, and members of the general population. Questions about this identity start from the basic issue of categorization, i.e., is "Indian" identity racial, ethnic, or cultural? But this identity is also questioned in terms of its history, its inclusiveness, and its relationship to other identities concerning Native Americans, such as tribal identities, or its usage compared with such terms as "Native American," "Native," or tribal names. Unfortunately, O'Nell does not examine these questions and issues in relation to her discussion of "Indian" identity,and she seems to frequently conflate "Indian" identity with Flathead (tribal) identity. Part of the problem here is that the author doesn't adequately contextualize her research with the Flatheads in terms of other Native American groups, or in terms of the general Native American population.
To her credit, O'Nell does examine the contested nature of what it means to be "Indian" among the group she studies, focusing on the anxiety and confusion among Flatheads concerning their status in relation to what she refers to as "real Indians." (This is not a problem only for the Flatheads; in my own research among the Chippewas of Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, "Indian" is neither a clear nor agreed upon identity.) The root of confusion around this identity is the contradiction inherent in the concept of "Indian" itself. The principal contradiction derives from the image of "Indians" as static cultural entities (an issue which O'Nell draws attention to) who, in order to claim this identity, must live and dress like their ancestors of past centuries. Since "Indians" have not lived in a social and cultural vacuum in this country and the US government has made aggressive and concerted efforts to destroy indigenous culture, these individuals simply cannot live up to such a conception of what an "Indian" is.
A second contradiction is the lack of clarity as to whether "Indian" is a racial, ethnic, or cultural identity. This only adds to the confusion for individuals about the meaning of this identity. O'Nell correctly points out that the issue of "authenticity" for Flatheads (and I would say, for Native Americans in general) as "Indians" creates a state of insecurity regarding their feeling of "belonging," the condition of belonging being one which O'Nell asserts is critical for the Flathead people.
Herein lies one of the problems with this book. O'Nell attempts to place Flathead "depressive-like affect" in the context of Flathead culture. Yet, because she does not provide comparative studies as at least a backdrop for her analysis of Flathead "depression," I found myself asking if and why the issues of identity and belonging were particularly unique to the Flatheads. (In fact, there are considerable similarities between O'Nell's findings about the Flatheads and my findings about the Turtle Mountain Chippewa with respect to many issues, including cultural ones. For example, the communal nature of the reservation society, the extended-kinship system, the value of caring for others and sharing among the community, are all qualities which I found among Turtle Mountain Chippewa.) Beyond Native American groups, the reader is left wondering if much of what O'Nell concludes regarding Flathead depression is applicable to other groups, such as African Americans, particularly concerning the meaning and effects of racism for them. Thus, it is the specificity with which she frames her analysis to the Flathead experience which is problematic, and which could have been remedied by offering at least some comparative research with other groups.
There is one other problem with this study concerning methodology and data. O'Nell does not provide a schedule of the questions she asked her interviewees (of which there were thirty-three), nor is there any detail on the specific characteristics of these individuals. In a footnote, the author claims that she made an "effort to achieve a balance" in terms of age and other characteristics for her sample, but adds that she makes no claims as to the "representativeness" of this sample. This qualification is troublesome given the fact that, throughout her book, O'Nell makes sweeping generalizations about the Flathead Reservation population concerning her research findings, presumably based on this sample. Moreover, she often makes assertions about subjective Flathead feelings, for which she provides no evidence. The reader must therefore take on faith that O'Nell's attributions of certain thoughts and feelings to Flatheads are based on research evidence which is not presented. The lay reader may overlook this, but for a social scientist, it represents a critical flaw in the presentation of the research.
There is a great deal of worthwhile information contained in O'Nell's book, and her study does shed light on some important issues concerning Native americans. Additionally, her project is a sound one, in that she does question the universal application of psychological concepts developed in one culture to other cultures. Nonetheless, the book as a work in social scientific research, suffers from serious shortcomings. Particularly when studying groups who have been misrepresented in research due to the racism or ethnocentrism of the social scientific community of the past, it is of paramount importance today for a researcher studying such groups to carefully substantiate her claims and findings about them. Unfortunately, the author fails in this critical task.
--Paula Frederick, Department of Sociology
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