Local author explores Native American culture in her writing


A brilliantly colored painting shows a warrior on an American paint horse hunting a buffalo, an activity fundamental to the survival and culture of the Plains Indians who inhabited the prairies of North America before the near extinction of the buffalo following the expansion of settlers in the West.

This work by American artist George Campbell Keahbone has been proudly displayed in the Sonoma home of Valerie Sherer Mathes for 50 years. It vividly depicts a declining 19th century activity in the lives of Native Americans, who were Mathes’ passion and focus as a teacher, writer, and researcher.

“Unfortunately, audiences get their story of India from TV and movies, and the portrayal is not accurate. been to defend their homeland against white intruders,” she said.

Even as a girl growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Mathes had an interest in Native American cultures, but that grew exponentially when her family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“Every time we went to Santa Fe, the plaza was full of Pueblo Indians and Navajos selling their wares,” said Mathes, 80. “My father knew several of the chiefs from nearby pueblos, so we attended dances. Also, when I was living in the freshman dorm of my freshman year at the University of New Mexico, I befriended two young Indian women who lived across the street from me. …I’ve always loved Indian art and jewelry and started collecting at an early age.

Mathes has built an impressive career as a historian of American Indian history; she has published 10 books and dozens of articles on the subject and has won several awards. She also taught courses in American Indian history and other subjects in the social science department at City College of San Francisco for 50 years, beginning in 1967.

She began teaching in college after earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history from the University of New Mexico. Her interest in American Indian history led her to establish a semester-long course on the Pueblo tribes.

“Then when I organized my two-semester Indian history course, I had to include all the tribes,” Mathes said. “So I started in the East and moved west, researching and learning about as many tribes as I could. I believe I can safely say that at a time when I was still teaching, I could explain to students the history of the “five civilized tribes” (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek or Muscogee and Seminole) as well as I can Navajo and Apache.

“I have, however, focused most of my writing on the missionary Indians of Southern California, mainly because I have continued to follow in the footsteps of (reformer Helen Hunt) Jackson.”

During a sabbatical, she toured the southwestern Anasazi (Pueblo) sites, visiting and taking hundreds of photos of archaeological ruins such as Mesa Verde National Park, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, all in New Mexico.

“Teaching was the best gig in town,” she said. “It’s the only job I know where you can reinvent yourself every semester. I never tire of teaching. The only reason I finally retired was because the drive from San Francisco to Sonoma had gotten so awful.

written words

Mathes began writing about Native Americans in 1975 when her article, “A New Look at the Role of Women in Indian Societies,” was published in American Indian Quarterly. She gradually shifted her writing from Native American women to Native reformers—those who embraced, by choice or by force, the dominant white culture.

“Because I’m not Indian, I felt more comfortable writing about white women who joined the Indian reform movement,” she said. “I was never challenged by my students, but I definitely felt more comfortable.”

Mathes entered the doctoral program in history at Arizona State University in 1981, studying with the eminent scholar Robert A. Trennert, who specialized in the Native American reform movement of the late 19th century. Mathes graduated in 1988, with a thesis on the reformist legacy of Helen Hunt Jackson. It was published two years later in book form by the University of Texas Press, becoming the first of its academic tomes.

Jackson was an American poet and writer who became an activist and sought to improve the treatment of American Indians by the U.S. government in the second half of the 19th century. She greatly expanded Mathes’ interest in American Indian reform efforts.

“Jackson basically led me from topic to topic,” Mathes said. “But once I was introduced to the Women’s National Indian Association, I seemed to gain a real desire to tell their story. The association is so embedded in Indian history that scholars of women’s history have ignored it.

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