Straus first became interested in Native-American history and
culture as an undergraduate at Barnard, after reading E. Adamson
Hoebel's The Cheyennes: Indians of the Great Plains (Holt,
Rinehart & Winston, 1960). She says she was so impressed by the
Cheyennes' highly organized and sophisticated society, running
on different rules from her own, that she chose to write her B.A.
paper on the tribe. She then decided to pursue graduate work in
anthropology at the U of C, where she read another eye-opening
book, Vine Deloria Jr.'s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian
Manifesto (Macmillan, 1969). Now
regarded as a classic repudation of white society's stereotypes
of Native Americans, Deloria's book includes a withering chapter
that mocks the methodology and the purpose of anthropologists.
"It would be wise for anthropologists to get down from their
thrones of authority
and PURE research and begin helping Indian tribes instead of preying
on them," he concludes. As a young anthropologist just starting
out, Straus found Deloria's words impossible to ignore. "I
was sensitive to that criticism," says Strauss. "I found
an answer in Dr. Sol Tax's work."
specialist in the social anthropology of Native Americans and
founder of the journal Current Anthropology, Tax, PhD'35,
advised Straus on her doctoral thesis. The late professor is credited
with establishing the practice of action anthropology in the 1950s
while conducting fieldwork with his Chicago students among Fox
Indians in an Iowa settlement. Tax and the students found evidence
of internal dissension caused by outside pressures from the white
community and wanted to help ease the tension. But realizing it
was not their place to enforce changes, they instead provided
advice as the tribal members defined their own problems and sought
solutions. Working in this manner, they helped the Fox devise
a plan that led to the creation of educational programs, a community
center, and a crafts business.
June 1961, Tax took the practice of action anthropology further
when, working with the National Congress of American Indians,
he organized the American Indian Chicago Conference, held at the
University. The eight-day conference, funded by grants from the
University and private foundations, drew hundreds of Native Americans,
representing more than 80 tribes. The conference included a celebratory
powwow and produced a declaration calling for the federal government
to provide aid to help Native Americans address worsening conditions
on reservations. A teenager at the time, Straus recalls watching
the proceedings from a distance, realizing that "something very
important was going on there."
example helped Straus reconcile her desire to study Native Americans
as an anthropologist with Deloria's call for a more participatory
approach. "Tax had respect for the integrity of communities and
of people other than himself during the era when the idea of the
melting pot was popular," says Straus. "He understood and learned
from Native-American people that this was not the way it was going
to be. He had a message and he converted me. Much of anthropology
at that time was into applying organizational and theoretical
frameworks to subjects. He was into learning from people what
needed to be learned rather than approaching them with set ideas."
says she views a major theme of her work as the education of non-Native
Americans about Native-American culture and life. She ticks off
the facts she thinks every U.S. citizen should know about Native
Americans today: "Indian" is a legal and political status, not
a race. Indians have essentially a dual-citizenship status. Tribes
all have separate governments. They have their own tribal constitutions.
They are different from each other, but have some things in common
because of their relationship to the federal government. They
are contemporary people. They do not have strong numbers--there
are only about two million Native Americans in the United States--but
they can speak effectively about their concerns. They are very
diverse, and more than half live in urban settings. They are not
all rich because of casinos.
facts are important for the public to know, she says, because
"with broad powers in regard to Indian tribes held in the U.S.
Congress, tribal rights become everyone's responsibility."