In his office at Flathead Valley Community College, E B Eiselein, a 65-year-old author with a long, grey pony tail, pulls up an image of the Lone Dog Winter Count on his laptop.
photo by Paul Peters
Dr. E.B. Eiselein, an anthropologist and professor, is 14 books into a series that documents a year-by-year history of Native American life.
The photo shows a large tanned buffalo hide with small, hand-painted horses, people, tepees and other symbols spiraling out from its center. Many Northern Plains tribes used these “winter counts” as a way of recording events and keeping track of the passage of time. Each winter, another image would be added to the spiral to serve as a visual cue for tribal members, who would later use the hide to orally recount their history.
The winter count on Eiselein’s computer, created by Lakota member Lone Dog, covers the period of 1800-1970, and is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C.
Eiselein is a Kalispell native and a member of the Anishinabe tribe, more widely known as the Chippewa. He is also a Flathead Valley Community College anthropology professor, and the college’s interim multicultural coordinator, charged with advising student clubs and organizing outreach programs for the community and local schools.
Inspired by winter counts—and the important stories they tell—he’s also a prolific author. To date, Eiselein has written more then 14 reference books on Native American history, published under his Native American name, Speaks Lightning. One of his books provides a chronology of federal actions concerning tribes; another looks at tribal spirituality. The rest give a year-by-year accounting of what happened to tribes across North America, throughout their history.
This month, through his own publishing company, Western Textbook, Eiselein is releasing Indians of Missouri
. In March, he’ll publish Indians of the Central Plains
and Indians of the Southeast
. Within two years, Eiselein hopes to have covered all tribes in North America.
Writing reference books on Native American history is something Eiselein says he resisted for a long time. He was frequently asked to apply his background in anthropology—he has a doctorate in the subject from the University of Arizona—to the study of Native American culture.
“My answer to that was always no, that’s personal, not professional,” he says.
In fact, until the 1990s, Eiselein’s work in anthropology was purposefully steered away from academics.
“I’m not an academic. I didn’t go to school for anthropology to teach anthropology,” Eiselein says. “My whole career has been focused on what’s usable and useful.”
For him, that meant media consulting. Eiselein helped pioneer the field of “media anthropology,” which he says “simply looks at the roles that mass media play in human society.” He went on to do consultant work for a public radio station in Tucson, Ariz., helping it figure out what its audience was, and how to reach it. He eventually began doing the same type of consulting for newspapers, which he continued to do until he retired three years ago.
But Eiselein says he changed his mind about academic work in the early 1990s, when a Blackfeet tribal elder, Long Standing Bear Chief, took him aside, offered him tobacco, and asked him to use his anthropology know-how to write books about Native Americans.
“In my tribe, and many tribes, when you’re asked to do something by an elder, you basically have to do it,” he says. “I didn’t have much choice.”
Eiselein says that with his books, he wanted to avoid what he calls “drums and feathers” romanticism of Native Americans. Instead, he looked at the broad culture of the many tribes that populated the continent. At one time, he notes, there were “well over 500 separate and distinct tribal cultures within the United States.”
But, he says, “We’ve got this image of the tepee and the horse and the Plains Indian warrior—and that wasn’t what the people were like.”
Eiselein says it was the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West shows that initially promulgated the stereotype that all Native Americans were like the Plains Indians, with their ponies and buffalo hunts.
But from 1492 onward, the Indian people in what are now the lower 48 states “would have gotten the majority of the calories they consumed from crops they raised. They were farmers, not hunters, and most of them lived in permanent villages.”
While popular culture tended to lump all Native American cultures together, Eiselein also feels the available literature tended to focus on unique or solitary events in particular tribes. The result, he says, are books that read as if the tribes were going through history separated from each other, and that particular events—say, forced relocation—only happened to individual tribes.
But, he says, “I’d go to the next tribe and find the same thing and I’d say, ‘Wait a minute, we have these similarities running across all of these different tribes. Yes, we have some unique history, but we also have a common history.’”
So Eiselein decided to write about all of the tribes and, like the winter counts, do a year-by-year chronology of their evolution, starting not from when Europeans arrived on this continent, but from the earliest archaeological records.
Originally, he says, he wanted one book, “Winter count of everything.” But he soon realized that wouldn’t work.
“Essentially what I wound up with was too much stuff,” he says. “The winter count events that I’ve got right now, if I were to put them out right now, we’d have 1,200 to 1,500 pages.”
As a lifelong media consultant, Eiselein says he also took stock of his audience. “I’d really like to have the books in libraries and be available, because they’re really much more of a research tool. What I want is a quick and easy reference of need-to-know information by year, or by tribe, or by topic.”
Essentially, Eiselein is creating a winter count. Native Americans from all tribes will use it, he hopes, in passing along their history.