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  Written by
  Charlotte Snow

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  Lloyd DeGrane

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  > > Minds at work
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  > > Native Chicago

image: "Native Chicago" headlineContinued... 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."

image: Native-American beaded bag (Lloyd DeGrane)A 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.

In 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."

Tax's 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."

Straus 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.

Such 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."

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