Anyone who works with Mourning Dove’s texts will stumble across this name at least once or twice: “Jay Miller, PhD.” He edited Mourning Dove’s autobiography and also supplied the intro for Coyote Stories (note: read the comments at your own risk should you click the link).
Who is Jay Miller? He is an anthropologist who specializes in indigenous cultures. He was accepted by the University of Nebraska Press as a competent editor, so should he be automatically trusted? Tough question, and based on his definition of his work to “make sense of native North America,” and the description by his colleagues as a classic anthropologist in “the Americanist tradition,” his work is……a problem (v). The problem is that Miller explains “Indians” through empirical observation, a methodology that Vine Deloria describes in cutting detail in “Anthropologists and Other Friends”:
An anthropologist comes out to Indian reservations to make OBSERVATIONS. During the winter these observations will become books by which future anthropologists will be trained, so that they can come out to reservations years from now and verify the observations they have studied. After the books are written, summaries of the books appear in the scholarly journals in the guise of articles. These articles “tell it like it is” and serve as a catalyst to inspire other anthropologists to make the great pilgrimage next summer (79).
Miller is a capital A anthropologist, check out the blurb from a book celebrating his work:
“Jay Miller is an anthropologist in the old-school Americanist tradition, rescuing, researching, sharing, and writing about cultural contexts, archaeology, history, beliefs, kinship, lifeways, and languages of indigenous peoples across North America”
I didn’t know Indigenous cultures needed “rescuing” (the word screams “salvage ethnography“). I was going to write that Miller didn’t mean any harm, but so what? Even if he didn’t know, his empirical approach to Mourning Dove’s work framed her in stereotypical and damaging ways. Here’s how he describes Mourning Dove as an author:
“[Mourning Dove] led two lives – a public one as Mourning Dove and a private one as a woman struggling to make ends meet. Her public life as a writer is all the more astounding because her formal education was scant, her command of Standard English was faulty, and her companions sometimes unsupportive” (xi).
Her public life as an author is not “astounding” and her education was not “scant.” She did struggle with English but still managed to be published in her second language; Nsyilxcən was her first language. She struggled financially, but Mourning Dove had many allies who supported her both financially and professionally. Miller’s description suggests that Indigenous writing in the early 20th century was an anomaly, a claim that is simply untrue. Sure, print forms of Indigenous lit are not plentiful (although published Indigenous authors were not “rare” or “astounding”), but that’s only one kind of story media!!! There are many other ways to share stories and none should be dismissed.
His colleagues write that Miller followed the Boasian model of anthropology (for which salvage ethnography was a central methodology), which I take to mean that he did a great deal of fieldwork and interacted with his subjects of study. While this model is definitely better than a model of anthropology where cultures (other than Euro-settler cultures) are studied from a distance, he still engages in “Indianology” (a real term, unbelievably, and still in use as of 2013). “Indians” are not an “ology” but living peoples who must be respected and consulted.
I guess the upshot is that if you see anything about Native American, First Nations, or Métis peoples by Jay Miller, be highly skeptical.
What I Cited:
Miller, Jay. Introduction. Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography, by Mourning Dove. Reprint. Winnipeg: Bison Books, 1994. xi-xxxix.
Stapp, Darby C. and Kara N. Powers. Rescues, Rants, and Researches: A Re-View of Jay Miller’s Writings on Northwest Indien Cultures. Published by the Journal of Northwest Anthropology: Richmond, WA, 2014.