v28 #1 Collecting to the Core

Francis Paul Prucha’s The Great Father and Native American Studies

by J. Wendel Cox  (Assistant Librarian and Archivist, Special Collections, University of Arizona Libraries;  Native American Studies Editor, Resources for College Libraries)

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL)

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD


On July 30, 2015, Francis Paul Prucha died, aged 94, bringing to a close a life as a historian, educator, and Jesuit.  For many scholars and students of Native American studies, Prucha’s works are an integral part of intellectual life and resources of frequent resort.  It is difficult to imagine the contemporary study of American Indian history without his scholarship.  Yet Prucha’s place in Native American studies is not without controversy.  His work, as he frequently pointed out, was concerned not with the histories of Indigenous peoples but with the formulation of federal policy toward them.  His arguments, presented in a manner some described as cool or detached, exasperated readers, none more so than his challenging assessment of Andrew Jackson and the removal of southeastern tribes.  Some scholars regarded Prucha’s dispassion as exemplary; others criticized it as glossing over or evading the depth of cruelty, violence, and deprivation visited on Indigenous peoples.

Prucha is one of the few authors severally represented in the current Resources for College Libraries core collection for Native American studies.  Only the late scholar and activist Vine Deloria, Jr. is more represented.  David E. Wilkins, a leading contemporary scholar of American Indian law and politics, once admonished readers in a review of a Prucha work to clear a space on their shelves — but also to save space for a soon-to-follow work by Vine DeloriaWilkins’ image of Prucha and Deloria side-by-side was appropriate at the time.  It remains so today: they were contemporaries, a contrast in perspectives, yet both deeply learned, prolific scholars with wide-ranging interests.  Their works complement and counterpoint each other, representing the foundations of Native American studies created by a generation during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  Wilkins recommended what is the most durable and valuable of Prucha’s more than twenty works: a two-volume history of U.S. federal Indian policy entitled The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians, published in 1984 by the University of Nebraska Press.1  The Great Father was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in history and was awarded the Ray Allen Billington Prize by the Organization of American Historians in 1985.  An abridged version, without much of the earlier edition’s scholarly apparatus, followed in 1986.2  While the abridgement has value as a concise, accessible edition, the full, two-volume edition is the more complete expression of Prucha’s arguments and an indispensable reference work.  Prucha’s footnotes throughout The Great Father are invaluable, and often as engaging as the narrative itself.  His thirty-page bibliographical essay, largely concerned with the form and nature of relevant sources, is essential for any serious researcher.  The Great Father is also available as an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Humanities ebook, and in digital form it has particular utility for librarians, faculty, and students alike in need of ready reference or the power of keyword searches.3

The Great Father’s two volumes present a chronological narrative of U.S. Indian policy from its Colonial foundations to 1980.  It was intended, Prucha explained, as a comprehensive history, and it incorporates, as he acknowledged, material from several of his earlier books — including American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, 1790-1834; The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783-1846; American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865-1900; and The Churches and the Indian Schools, 1888-1912 — which dealt with the formulation of policy during the early national era and after the Civil War.4-7  Volume 1 ends with the nominal close of violent conflict and concerted assimilation efforts in 1880.  Volume 2 continues from the late nineteenth century through much of the twentieth century.  Prucha’s survey of twentieth-century U.S. federal Indian policy was a departure for him, and the second volume’s narrative turns on the “Indian New Deal” era of Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier (1933-45) and the retreat from more than one-and-a-half centuries of Indian assimilation as the avowed object of policy.  Collier’s manner was consistent with the paternalism Prucha discerns throughout the history of federal policy.  Nevertheless, his objectives — to end assimilation and build the institutions of tribal self-determination — were unprecedented.  Collier was relentless, patronizing, and manipulative in his effort to see tribes subject to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) write their own constitutions and create representative governments.  Yet these same IRA institutions became important instruments by which tribal peoples have shaped their communities, and they continue to interact with the federal government on a nation-to-nation basis to this day.

Prucha argues throughout The Great Father that federal Indian policy was characterized by an unwavering paternalism, which sought to end an inevitable clash between Natives and newcomers through concerted assimilation.  Frederick E. Hoxie, currently Swanlund Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, incisively observed at the time that Prucha’s approach afforded little place for more complex and contingent relationships, ones where the objects of federal policy — Indigenous peoples — were themselves subjects and agents in their own history.  Prucha’s story of the failure of assimilation policy would not — and could not — account for the power of Indigenous resistance and perseverance.  Thirty years later, the durability and dynamism of today’s tribal peoples make this all the more plain.

Looking back at The Great Father and assessing its continued relevance is an exercise in understanding the nature and context of the work itself, and the way in which subsequent scholarship altered the field of inquiry.  Subsequent generations have realized much of what critics of The Great Father glimpsed as the future of Native American studies.  Those conversant with the successive literature of Native American studies will read Prucha’s work with a running interior dialogue, one testament to the vast and rich scholarship of more recent decades and its influence on the scholarly discourse.  A critical reading of The Great Father also affords instructors the opportunity to explore the process, craft, and philosophical underpinnings of historical practice with students, especially those undergraduates undertaking their own research.  Librarians will cherish it as a guide to sources.  Students at all levels will continue to use it as a resource for the basics of federal policy.

No one was more suited to write a comprehensive history of federal Indian policy than Francis Paul Prucha.  No single subsequent work has superseded The Great Father, and none likely ever will.  The Great Father represents a particular, pivotal moment in Native American studies.  It would not be written today.  Yet in ways real, imagined, and compelling, it is rewritten in parts by most every new work in Native American studies concerned with tribal sovereignty.  Today’s scholars — many members of, or descended from, Indigenous peoples themselves — neither feel the need to challenge Prucha’s assumptions, nor neglect the enduring importance of his contributions.  As today’s scholarly interests focus on the ongoing fashioning and elaboration of tribal sovereignty, historic policy and politics remain fundamental.  Where Prucha saw tribal sovereignty effaced over time, the writing and rewriting of the story of Indigenous peoples, never more attuned to sovereignty and self-determination than now, will still find use again and again for Prucha’s most enduring work.


  1. Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.*
  2. Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians.  Abridged edition.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
  3. Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians.  Abridged edition.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Humanities E-Book, Ann Arbor: MPublishing, University of Michigan Press.  http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.00563.0001.001
  4. Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, 1790-1834. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.
  5. Prucha, Francis Paul. The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783-1846.  New York: Macmillan, 1968.*
  6. Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865-1900.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.*
  7. Prucha, Francis Paul. The Churches and the Indian Schools, 1888-1912.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.


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