Thomas, Robert Knox
|Tribe name: Cherokee|
Born: 1925 Died: 1991
Occupation: anthropologist, educator
From: Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century.
A Cherokee born in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, where his mother was visiting, on November 26, 1925, Robert Knox Thomas was raised in Oklahoma. His parents, Florence and Robert Lee Thomas, were both Cherokee, and he was brought up in a traditional Cherokee manner. He was taught Cherokee healing traditions by his grandmother and aunt, who were herbalists and midwives. As a young man, Thomas came under the influence of George Smith, a Cherokee ceremonial leader and friend of the family. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines and saw service in World War II. He fought in the battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific and then spent time in New Zealand, where he came to know same customs of the Maori people.
Thomas was mustered out of the service in 1944 and became a horse wrangler in the Midwest and Canada, where he befriended a number of Chippewa and Métís. He moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he met and married a Tohono O'odam woman. He received his B.A. and M.A. (1954) from the University of Arizona and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where he worked with anthropologist Sam Stanley. Thomas was an active member of the Chicago Indian Center, the most important urban Indian center at the time.
Thomas was one of a group of anthropologists and sociologists from the University of Chicago, including Sol Tax, Rosalie and Murray Wax, Robert J. Havighurst, Frederick O. Gearing, and Robert Rietz, who worked to change the direction of Indian affairs during the Termination period in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1956, Thomas and Stanley compiled data for an important map, showing the location and distribution of the Indian population in the United States, that was published by the university's anthropology department. From 1957 through 1958, Thomas conducted fieldwork among the Cherokee in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. Thomas became a leading figure in the summer Workshops on American Indian Affairs, serving as director of the second session in Boulder, Colorado, in 1957, assistant director in 1961, and regular lecturer thereafter. With the same group, he helped organize the famous 1961 American Indian Chicago Conference, and he had a close relationship with Ponca activist Clyde Warrior (an active participant in both the 1961 and 1962 Workshops) and with the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) in the 1960s.
The workshop staff found that most Indian students suffered from confused identity and loss of cultural moorings, knowing little of their history and culture and internalizing media stereotypes. In the workshops, they strove to give students a clearer sense of Indian identity by explaining both Native and mainstream American cultures objectively. The response was very positive. Ironically, it was this mainly non-Indian staff who were able to reawaken a sense of self-confidence in Indian identity and understanding of Native values and history in the largely acculturated students. Thomas, however, actually played the central role. Cree-Flathead social scientist D'Arcy McNickle, who observed the evolution of the workshops from 1960 through 1963, described Thomas as having "most influenced the shaping of the workshop as a center for discovery and understanding. The teaching faculty looked to him for intellectual challenge, while the students responded by improving academic performances… [He was] equally capable of reaching students and encouraging them to stretch their intellectual grasp." Thomas's students would come to form the nucleus of the new Red Power movement.
By 1961, Thomas was professor of anthropology at Montieth College, Wayne State University, Detroit. He coined the term internal colonization to describe the situation of American Indians and other indigenous peoples in the modern world, and his writings, especially the article "Colonialism: Classic and Internal" (New University Thought, 1966/67 issue), played a seminal though underappreciated role in the development of the militant prosovereignty movement of the 1970s.
Thomas helped establish a traditional activist organization in Oklahoma, called the Five County Northeastern Oklahoma Cherokee Organization, later known as the Original Cherokee Community Organization. The group began to assert Cherokee hunting and fishing rights and tackle other longstanding grievances.
In 1967, Thomas attended a unity conference at the Tonawanda Seneca Reservation in upstate New York. The conferences, conceived by Tuscarora activist William Rickard,sought to bring a traditional religious slant to activist organizing. Impressed by the combination of spirituality and grassroots organizing, Thomas organized a similar gathering in Oklahoma the next year. He began working in Canada, joining with Wilf Pelletier, an Odawa from Ontario, and Ian MacKenzie, a progressive Anglican priest, in an attempt to establish an ecumenical movement that would embrace all religions, including traditional Indian religions, in an effort to recognize Indian rights.
As a field anthropologist, Thomas worked with the Sac and Fox of Oklahoma, the Sioux of South Dakota, and the Cherokee of North Carolina and Oklahoma. In the 1960s, he was codirector of the Carnegie Corporation Cross-Cultural Exchange Project, studying literacy and education process among Indians, especially the Oklahoma Cherokee. He also edited the monthly Indian Voices, published by the University of Chicago. Thomas was a Newberry fellow in the 1960s, and from 1975 he was an active member of the board of directors of NAES (Native American Education Services) College, essentially a descendant of the workshops; its academic degree program for Indian students has been accredited since 1984. From 1981 until his death, Thomas was director of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Arizona at Tucson.
In 1991, suffering from a tumor in his lungs and in his brain, Thomas, confined to a wheelchair, took sick leave and returned to Oklahoma, where he stayed for about a month. He was returning to Arizona in August 1991 when he passed away on the road while traveling through the Texas panhandle. According to another passenger, Thomas was looking out the window and the sun was setting; just before he died, he turned and said, "Beautiful."
Robert K. Thomas was in a unique position to aid in cultural communication. As a traditional Cherokee fluent in the Cherokee language, yet well educated in the Western sense and fully conversant in the theories and techniques of anthropology, he was a highly knowledgeable and sophisticated thinker and a gifted teacher. His efforts to combine traditional Indian thought with grassroots social organizing influenced a host of young Native activists and had a major impact on the political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which in the end transformed the lives of Indian peoples throughout the country.
Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):
Ewen, Alexander and Jeffrey Wollock. "Thomas, Robert Knox." Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2014. American Indian History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE43&iPin=ENAIT511&SingleRecord=True (accessed August 28, 2015).
Other Citation Formats:
Modern Language Association (MLA) Format
American Psychological Association (APA) Format
Additional Citation Information