The Cultural Transformation of a Native American Family and Its Tribe, 1763–1995: A Basket of Apples. Joel Spring. 210 pp. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996. $39.95 cloth, $17.50 paper.
Joel Spring has written a compelling book, whatever criticisms of it one may have. Its subject is the history of 19th-century European-style schooling as the instrument for Choctaw Indian cultural transformation under the American regime, and, in turn, the role of influential mixed-blood Choctaw families—including Spring's own—in the adoption of such schooling as an instrument of their own social power. The author presents a passionate indictment from the perspective of a professional educator of the effects of this historical trajectory on the personal lives of Choctaws. He also includes a powerful strand of investigation of the Choctaw use of enslaved African labor and racist practices subsequent to Emancipation.
This is an idiosyncratic and personal book that makes no use of major bodies of scholarly literature in history and social theory that touch on and illuminate all these issues. Foucault on the introduction of discipline through schooling and Bourdieu on the sociology of education and its role in creating and sustaining privileged classes come to mind, as does Learning to Labor by Paul Willis. What may be even worse is that there is little reference to the existing literature on compulsory Indian boarding schools. (In consulting just two recent catalogues from publishers with large Native American studies lists I find five titles.) There is no reason why any historical scholar should be compelled to know the Continental social sciences literature in detail, but I was surprised to find so little acquaintance with the historical context. The author is himself, as he explains, a scholar of educational theory, and his exposition of the Lancasterian teaching methods used in the Indian schools is interesting and useful, but it too lacks adequate context.
Spring himself is a descendant of the LeFlore family—perhaps the most prosperous and influential mixed-blood Choctaw family of the 19th century. Therefore he limits the force of his argument temporally in some serious ways because he makes his own family's story the center of his presentation of the behavior of mixed-blood families who collaborated with the U.S. government in the dispossession of full-blood Choctaws. The title tells the reader at once that Spring omits the entire non-English-speaking colonial period from his book. There is no doubt, however, that the reception of Euroamerican culture during subsequent periods cannot be understood without the realization that southeastern Indians in general, and the Choctaws in particular, did not begin their dialectic with that culture in 1763, but had been working against and with it since Hernando de Soto passed through the region in 1539–41. Spring also missed a chance at an ideal comparison because he uses the Cherokee model throughout and ignores the notably different educational experience of the community of mostly full-blood Choctaw families who remained behind in Mississippi.
More troubling, Spring harbors a strangely idyllic and idealized picture of precontact Native American culture in which Native Americans endured only minimal unpleasant work, lived an Edenic existence, respecting and protecting the natural world unstintingly and satisfying "natural" desires without shame. Furthermore in this society all Indians supposedly had contempt for property, material accumulation and rank. These are concepts that simply cannot be sustained in the face of current historical and archaeological scholarship. Although there is no doubt that, as he suggests, the modern industrial world can learn much from the precontact cultural practices of native American groups, the egalitarian tribal structure of the 18th- and 19th-century southeastern tribes that he praises so lavishly was actually an important result of early European contact. The widespread death of Native peoples that occurred because of their exposure to European diseases destroyed most of the distinctly nonegalitarian hierarchical Mississippian mound-building societies that were in place across the region.
This book offers concrete examples of the results of official U.S. and post-removal Choctaw governmental use of education for the molding of Choctaw behavior and the destruction of Choctaw culture. It is not a carefully researched and exhaustive history of these matters, but if it is taken primarily as a personal testimony from a professional educator whose experience in that field also gives him some technical perspective on these issues, many readers may find it a useful addition to the literature on 19th-century forced acculturation of Native Americans.—Patricia Galloway, Mississippi Department of Archives and History