Jean O’Brien vividly remembers the moment she decided to become a historian. It was in the early 1970s, and O’Brien, then a young teenager, learned that the University of Minnesota had established the first-ever academic program in American Indian studies.
by Kate Tyler
“That shaped my life,” says O’Brien, now an acclaimed scholar and teacher of U.S. colonial and early American Indian history. Her interest in Native American history “came out of my family history,” explains O’Brien, who as a girl in Faribault often visited her grandmother on northern Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation, where her mother had grown up.
“Like many other Indians, my grandmother’s family had lost all of their land … and I grew up hearing those stories,” says O’Brien, seated in her campus office at a desk wedged in among shelves nearly bursting with colorful books and papers. “To have the University give American Indian studies an institutional place … even at age 14 or 15, that felt huge to me. It gave Indian history legitimacy as a thing I could do.”
More than that, says O’Brien, she’d found her vocation—“the Puritans I study would have said ‘calling,’” she offers with an infectious laugh. Inspired, O’Brien “read everything I could find about Native American history,” including Vine Deloria’s 1969 book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, which galvanized a generation of activists. The young O’Brien went on to Bemidji State University and then to the University of Chicago. There, in her very first graduate seminar, she stumbled across some documents suggesting that American Indians in Natick, Massachusetts, had not been crushed into extinction by colonialism—contrary to what most scholars had maintained.
“There was clearly an intriguing story there to be told, a big story, and I wanted to tell it,” says O’Brien. She leavened her Ph.D. work in history with ethnohistorical insights from anthropology, gaining the tools to sift her story out of 17th- and 18th-century deeds, wills, and other vital records. Continuing her research after she joined the Minnesota faculty in 1990, she went on to produce the landmark book Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650–1790 (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
The volume details a complex story of Indian resistance and perseverance in early New England that helped shatter what O’Brien calls “the scholarly and popular myth of the vanishing Indian”—the view that Native people in New England, dispossessed of their lands by European settlers, had become extinct by the end of the 18th century. Instead, as O’Brien shows, “Native peoples remained bound to each other by kinship across the landscape, and they found ways to maintain their identities and cultural practices by reconfiguring them over time.”
O’Brien’s book, critically hailed as “a masterful social history,” became an instant classic. Prominent historian James Merrell says Dispossession by Degrees “has taken its place on the short shelf of indispensable works on Indians in New England and, more, as a work with much to say about wider patterns of resistance and resilience in the colonial world.”
O’Brien will soon complete a second major book, following on the heels of many articles, essays, and conference presentations. Tentatively titled “First and Lasting: New England Indians In and Beyond the 19th-Century Local Imagination,” the new book draws on local histories, pamphlets, and even folklore to illuminate the stereotypes and imaginary constructs that led New Englanders “to equate cultural change with cultural loss,” O’Brien explains, “and thus to see Indians as part of
the past, not as part of the present
O’Brien says her second book, like her first, “is inspired by my desire to help break silences and fill gaps in the historical narrative.” Yet books, she insists, “are only books. Even important books on shelves get dusty.” With a keen sense of indebtedness to the pioneering scholars who came before her, she takes an exceptionally broad view of her responsibilities as a public university professor.
“I would define myself as someone who is passionate about history, and absolutely clear about the vibrancy and importance of Indian people in the past, present, and future,” says O’Brien. “It’s not just about my own research. It’s also about teaching and mentoring, helping to create new opportunities for students and scholars. And of course, they’re all interconnected.”
Both in and beyond the classroom, O’Brien cuts a wide swath. Her courses cover topics ranging from U.S. colonial social history to American Indian historiography to early 20th-century American culture. She is also a sought-after mentor, with scores of student advisees in history and in such far-flung fields as geography, education, journalism, and the classics.
Students heap O’Brien with accolades, and she returns the compliments. “I love my students,” says O’Brien, recently honored with the U’s highest graduate teaching award. “I think you can go a long way as a teacher when you focus on engaging students in a shared process of teaching and learning.”
O’Brien’s passion for nurturing emerging scholars finds many outlets. From 2000 to 2003, she served as chair of the American studies department, where her innovations dramatically increased student diversity. Undaunted by even high-level multitasking, she also made weekly trips to Chicago during this same period to oversee the launch of a new national organization, the American Indian Studies Consortium (AISC).
The AISC links together 13 major Midwestern universities to offer seminars, fellowships, and research opportunities for emerging scholars of Native American history. Few of these institutions have any American Indian studies program at all, O’Brien notes, much less one as venerable and robust as Minnesota’s. “Yet all have resources and strengths that, pooled, create in essence a mega graduate program” in the field. O’Brien wrote the AISC’s bylaws, helped hone a proposal dazzling enough to wrest funding from a dozen deans, and steered the consortium’s early development.
More recently, O’Brien has been working with colleagues from several universities to create the first national professional organization devoted exclusively to American Indian and indigenous studies. The organization will develop out of a series of conferences, culminating with one at the University of Minnesota in 2009. Fittingly for O’Brien, that conference also will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the creation of the U’s American Indian studies department—the very event that propelled her into academic life.
She has, she concedes, “sometimes found it challenging to juggle so many commitments. But I go to the spring conference of the AISC and see all of these students and faculty together, sharing work and exchanging ideas—it’s incredibly useful and energizing. I absolutely believe that those kinds of interactions are what make for great scholarship and great teaching. I have all kinds of colleagues doing things by themselves. This is better.”