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The College of Liberal and Fine Arts

Thirty Years Among
Plains Indians

Origins of a textbook

The land is great.
When man travels on it
          he will never reach land’s end;
But because there is a prize offered
To test a man to go as far as he dares,
He goes because he wants to discover his limits.

—Kiowa Gomda Dawgyah (Wind Song)

Turning onto a remote gravel road in rural Oklahoma in the summer of 1982, Dan Gelo had no idea where it would eventually lead. His destination was an isolated Native American community that would prove, decades later, to set the foundation for a rewarding academic career. Gelo’s new book, Indians of the Great Plains, is a major milestone on what has become a 30-year journey to document some of the world’s most colorful tribal cultures.

“The first Comanches I met lived near Cyril, Oklahoma. I was told that they lived ‘east of Cyril,’ so I found Cyril on the map and drove down from New Jersey. I drove around knocking on doors until somebody said, ‘Oh, yeah, they live down this road and around that corner,’” Gelo explained. He had traveled to Oklahoma at the suggestion of his mentor at Rutgers University, William K. Powers, a noted scholar of the Sioux culture. Powers had advised that, while there was already much literature about the Sioux, the Comanches were not yet well studied.

“They were very welcoming—some of the most genuine and good-humored people I’ve ever spent time with,” Gelo said.

When the matriarch of Gelo’s first host family, a revered medicine woman, adopted him as a grandson, his immersion in Comanche culture intensified. He returned almost every summer, then during other times of the year, usually living in a Comanche household. He gathered tribal stories, tended horses, learned to sing and dance in the Comanche style, attended ceremonies, and gained some grasp of the fast-fading native language. In 1989 he was inducted into Esa Rosa, a warrior society named for Comanche leader White Wolf, and in 1998 he was named Ambassador to the Comanche Nation by the tribal chairman.

Over the years, Gelo, now Dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts, drew on these experiences to publish books and articles on such subjects as Comanche music and mythology, historical photographs, and Indian geographical knowledge of Texas. He also translated an 1865 Spanish-Comanche dictionary and collaborated on a book of reservation-era photos owned by novelist Larry McMurtry. His research branched out to include other tribes, including the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Wichita, Alabama-Coushatta, Kickapoo, and Tigua. And he was invited to write the Comanche entry in the Human Relations Area File at Yale University, the premier reference resource for world ethnography.

So when Gelo was recruited by UTSA as an assistant professor of anthropology in 1988, he was naturally asked to teach a course titled Indians of the Great Plains. As he taught the popular undergraduate course, however, he became dissatisfied with the available textbooks. “There was a pretty good book, but it was written in the 1950s and hadn’t really been updated,” Gelo said. He began writing highly detailed lectures to fill in the blanks. The lecture notes evolved into what looked like a textbook outline—13 chapters that corresponded neatly with the standard 15-week semester. From these materials, he decided, it would be easy to write his own textbook.

But few things are simple, let alone the creation of a new book. “I thought it would take three years,” he said, laughing. “It turned out to be, I’m sorry to say, about nine years. I felt I had to publish some other things during that time. But the main reason it took so long is that, just as I signed the book contract, I also went into full-time administration. The textbook became more a project for nights and weekends.”

In writing the book, Gelo wanted to take his students beyond the stereotypical images that many of them held about Plains Indians, like the image of the noble, almost superhuman mystic, or in contrast, the whooping, torturing savage. And, as he reminds his students, the Plains Indians are not a people frozen in time. In the text he writes: “Plains Indian people are not defined only by their heritage and history, but also in the ways they have continued to live as a distinctive part of American and Canadian society into the 21st-century.”

Asked about details of Indian culture that surprise students, Gelo mentioned music. He noted that the so-called “nonsense syllables” that Indians pronounce when singing their songs, properly called vocables, actually conform to strict grammatical rules. And, Gelo explained, to the uninitiated ear, the wailing of a Comanche song seems disconnected from the drumbeat that accompanies it. But if you take a recording and slow it down, “the quavering of their voices meshes with the drumbeat. We’re just not used to listening at that micro level.”

“It’s an example of the complexity and sophistication of Indian culture,” he said.

Gaining an understanding of that culture also means accepting sharp contrasts. Some of the primary sources that Gelo references in his book were written by early white settlers who had been kidnapped by Indians as children, often as the Indians murdered their parents. They describe being treated warmly by families who rarely used corporal punishment on children, yet who also initiated them into a brutal raiding tradition.

“It’s true that Plains Indian culture can seem very paradoxical,” Gelo said, “but perhaps we see that paradox in sharper relief when we look at cultures other than our own. I wonder if all cultures are paradoxical.”

As to what distinguishes the new book from earlier texts, Gelo pointed to the inclusion of Native voices. He has included analyses by Indian scholars, illustrations by Indian artists, and traditional prayers and song texts. There are also many translated words in Native languages. Students may find such information challenging to comprehend, but Gelo explained that “these are mostly still living languages, and sophisticated ideas are contained in these words.” Another characteristic that makes the text unique is Gelo’s reliance on his own field notes for examples on such issues as kinship customs and interracial relations.

Gelo’s professional experiences also played a key role in shaping the book. In 1994 he was invited to co-author a series of textbooks for grades 2-6, published by Silver Burdett Ginn. It was the first time an anthropologist was asked to collaborate with historians and geographers, and the project shaped his thinking about how to integrate material about Native American cultures into general education. In addition, there was all of Gelo’s experience in the lecture halls of UTSA; a Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teaching Award winner, he brought a refined sense of what does and does not work in the college classroom.

As Gelo was reminded during the process, though, writing a book is more than just writing up lecture notes and ideas. Photos had to be found, credited, and captioned; maps drawn; and tables compiled to illustrate the factors that shaped tribal life. He created a complete list of the Plains tribes with concise, up-to-date facts about their origins, ranges, population estimates, and languages. After its long gestation, Indians of the Great Plains is finally available from Pearson, and is now being adopted in college classrooms around the country.

Gelo is excited, but not just by the satisfaction of publishing a solid new textbook. “I hope it reassures my colleagues that someone who works in administration all day can still maintain an intellectual life and contribute to his or her discipline,” he said.

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