Trauma-Informed Teaching in Native American History

In conversations with colleagues across the country at the American Society for Ethnohistory meeting in Tallahassee, one thing we all agreed on was that our students seem to be reading less, and reading less closely. Participation in class discussions had declined, as had attendance.  I was disappointed in myself in that I had not succeeded in breaking through, in getting students to engage with the material and do the reading, but I was reassured, I guess, that I as not alone. Still, I had to try something new. 

It went really, really well.

We were discussing some particularly brutal stories from the Plains Wars during the Civil War Years, beginning with the Dakota Uprising in Minnesota and closing with the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. They could read about both events in Native America, but I wanted them to go deeper into the material.  I recently read a fantastic article by historian and artist Taylor Spence called “Rethinking the Colonial Encounter in the Age of Trauma.” He is a great historian. His essay appeared in a really useful volume entitled The Routledge Companion to Global Indigenous History. Both the article and the book are well-worth your time. Spence suggested to me a new way to teach this subject, a trauma-informed approach that could lead students to feel deeply the impact of the events they were reading about.  Following Spence’s lead, I assigned them Waziyatawin’s “Grandmother to Granddaughter: Generations of Oral History in a Dakota Family,” which appeared in the American Indian Quarterly back in 1996. Waziyatawin (Angela Cavender Wilson) wrote a searing piece of family history. I suggest you try it in your courses.

Waziyatawin’s grandmother, Elsie Cavender, had received a story from her grandmother that she shared late in life.  She told Waziyatawin of the family’s forced march after the Dakota Uprising, and how soldiers, in an act of irrational and senseless violence, murdered Elsie’s great-great-grandmother. It’s a brief essay, and Elsie Cavender’s account is roughly a page and a half.  I asked my students to tell me what happened. They gave me a competent summary of the story.  The Dakotas were marching towards imprisonment at Fort Snelling.  They confronted white people in towns “where the people were real hostile to them.” They white people threw rocks, and poured scalding water on them.  They camped at night, living on rotten provisions provided by the army.  They marched onward. They moved too slowly.  The soldiers grew angry, and stabbed Elsie’s Grandmother’s grandmother with a saber. She bled to death on a bridge. When her family returned later, the body was gone, but they saw dried blood on the wooden planks.

I told the students I wanted more. Go deeper. Summarizing what you read, after all, is no great achievement. Spence suggested that the students attempt to imagine deeply what it would have been like to be present when those soldiers murdered an elderly woman for no reason at all. So I told them to think of their senses. If they were on the bridge where the killing took place that day, what would they have seen, heard, smelled, tasted or felt?

My students jumped into the assignment. You would smell the rotten provisions the soldiers distributed, one student observed. The relentlessly irritating sound of the squeaky wagon wheel, another pointed out. They would have heard that. The dust, the sight and smell and sound of the cattle would have been difficult to miss.  They were rolling now, but they were staying away from the violence.  It took them a bit, but they got there. The soldiers’ profanities, their angry, barking orders in a language the Lakotas did not understand; the screams in response to unbelievable and senseless violence; the blood pouring from a mortal wound.


We had spoken early that day about the reliability of oral testimony as evidence. One student predictably and appropriately suggested that it might be like the old game of Telephone, as a story changes as it is passed from one hearer to another. But think of each of the sensory events you just identified, I told the students.  I asked them to think of their earliest memories. What made those memories particularly powerful? Each of them, individually, affected the senses in a memorable fashion.  Each was easily capable of etching itself into the minds of successive generations of storytellers. The events that Waziyatawin recalled for us, I suggested, were of the sort that would not be easily forgotten.

We are not supposed to teach history in a way that makes our students feel bad about who or what they are. We should not make them feel guilty or uncomfortable about the past. That is what lawmakers in a growing number of red states have demanded. They have proscribed the teaching of certain topics. They have singled out the 1619 Project, and the histories of slavery, and racism, as topics that should not be taught in ways that make white people feel uncomfortable. These right-wing politicians have said much less about Native American history, but clearly they would be bothered by things I teach in my classes: the Paxton Boys, for instance, or the massacre at Gnadenhutten. These politicians are calling for an education fit for sociopaths. They want students to feel nothing but love of country.

My students felt badly about the history they read that day.  Again, some of them had tears in their eyes. When they read Silas Soule’s account of Sand Creek, in which he describes the mutilation of dead Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children, well, they felt this as well.

            But here’s the thing. They felt badly, to be sure, but they did not feel ashamed of their race. They did not feel guilty or responsible for the crimes of the past. This is what the Republican dingbats miss.  My students felt connected to people very different from them who lived a century and a half ago. They understood the meaning a past event at a much deeper level than they may have done previously, and the emotions were heavy indeed.  They grieved. They had, I would argue, learned a lot.  I sent a message to Dr. Spence to tell him how well his class exercise went, how much my students learned, and how thankful I was for his good work.

Let’s say you are walking down a crowded city street.  Your foot catches a person walking in front of you, and they trip and almost fall. Without thinking, if you are a decent person, you apologize. You are not debasing yourself when you do this. You worried that you might have hurt somebody, that they could have fallen and been injured. It’s not about you. You apologize because you are not a dick, because you care about other people, because you worry that your actions could have caused for someone pain or sorrow. You say you are sorry because you felt sorrow.

I have thought about this a lot when I teach. Why do we say sorry? I want my students to appreciate the past on its own terms, to feel a connection to the people they read about.  The students in my class obviously could not undo the past.  They could not apologize or express their sorrow to the Dakota woman murdered on that bridge. But they did understand something at a deeper level than they might otherwise have done, and that made them wiser and more capable of understanding other people.  They felt empathy. And they cared about this particular piece of the past more deeply that they would have done if I had merely told them about the Dakota Uprising and Sand Creek. They may not remember much of my class a couple of years from now but I am confident that they will remember this.

SUNY: Where BIPOC Too Often Means BPOC

Discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion on too many college campuses are shallow and ineffective when it comes to Indigenous people. For instance, Ricardo Nazario-Colón, SUNY’s Vice-Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, recently sent out a memo to SUNY campuses across the state, with his thoughts on the importance of Native American Heritage Month.

            “We should take this moment,” he writes, “to recognize the profound contributions, rich cultures, and interminable spirit of the First Peoples of this land.” Nazario-Colón wants to remind his SUNY colleagues “of the deep-rooted connections we all share with the Earth and each other.”

            Some of your students will read this and ask, “who could possibly object to that?” Your Indigenous students are likely to ask, “Who’s We?”

            Dr. Nazario-Colón, like me, is an employee of a state that systematically stole Indigenous lands; dragged Indigenous children off to a boarding school that did not close until the late 1950s; sought to eradicate Indigenous languages, culture and religion; and attempted to destroy and dismantle the League of the Iroquois. New York could not have become the Empire State without a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession that at times explicitly violated the laws of the United States. SUNY, as an institution, resisted late until the last century the efforts of Haudenosaunee people to secure sacred objects squirreled away in its collections. Nazario-Colón implicitly accepts the monstrous logic of Justice Ginsburg’s Sherrill decision. Yes, we took your land, but it happened too long ago for us to worry about now.

            Dr. Nazario-Colón hopes that “in our journey to deepen our own understanding and acceptance across differences” that we will strive to identify “the core values, emotions, and aspirations we all share.” Doing so, he believes, “fosters unity, solidarity, and a sense of common purpose.” That’s a nice sentiment, but it is far too limited, and Dr. Nazario-Colón has in effect written a perfectly tepid settler-colonial manifesto that fills every square on your DEI Bingo Card. We stole your land. We attempted to destroy your culture. We denigrated your religion. Our Founding Fathers invaded your homelands, burned your towns, raped your women, and murdered your children. We openly and enthusiastically forecasted your extinction and looked forward to your disappearance as a people. If New York had its way, its Indigenous population would no longer exist. But, Hey, let’s get along! Maybe we can even have some “Reconciliation”! But we will not talk about our lies, our crimes, and agreements we have broken. We will not talk about the corruption, deceit, bribery, and dishonesty employed by the State officials who extracted cessions of Indigenous land.

The Worst Territorial Acknowledgment in the history of the world recently was visible at SUNY Geneseo. It is covered now.

Let’s all get along. Let’s make sure we “see” each other. We may celebrate the “indomitable spirit” we tried to crush, but we will not do any of the heavy lifting, really, to make things right. “We want to learn about you,” Dr. Nazario-Colón suggests. “We want to treat you well.”

“We want our lands back,” Indigenous people might reply. We want SUNY to be a welcoming space for Indigenous peoples, with free tuition, room, and board, and a commitment to hiring Indigenous faculty. We want you to put up or shut up.  There have been some exceptions—at SUNY-ESF for example, or with the University at Buffalo’s exciting Indigenous Studies program. But SUNY, as in institution, has shown little interest in any of this. It never really has, and most campuses, like mine, have administrators in charge of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging who do nothing meaningful about this issue.

The problem, of course, is bigger than Dr. Nazario-Colón. His message nevertheless reflects the emptiness and ineffectiveness of so much DEI rhetoric on college campuses, where too few people in too many positions of power at too many schools know way too little about Indigenous peoples, their histories, and their cultures. As a non-Indigenous scholar writing and teaching the history of Indigenous peoples, I find the result galling and offensive, especially on a campus like mine, where we are so closely connected historically to New York’s drive to dispossess and drive Senecas, Oneidas, and Tuscaroras out of the Genesee Valley. You might say that SUNY favors that sort of equity and diversity that costs it nothing, that they are bargain-basement crusaders too cheap to make a real difference. But it’s not about money. It would have cost Dr. Nazario-Colón nothing, after all, to do the work to write a message worth the time it takes to read. The real problem is that they have always been satisfied with gestures empty and performative. The real problem is that they have never adequately shown that they care.

I Read the Colorado Boarding School Report So You Don’t Have To

And, Dear Reader, I feel some ambivalence about it. If you follow the news from Indigenous America at all, you likely heard about the report. It received widespread attention. Dr. Holly Kathryn Norton, the Colorado State Archaeologist, wrote the report for History Colorado, part of a state-mandated investigation of boarding school history in the state. Norton was assisted by a team of researchers. Norton and her colleagues focused most closely upon the Grand Junction Indian School, also known as the Teller Institute mostly in the state, and the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School. The first was an off-reservation federal boarding school. The latter stood much closer to the reservation community it wished to serve.

Children posing for a picture outside the Fort Lewis boarding school.

Much of the coverage of the History Colorado report was written by people, I suspect, who did not read the report in its entirety. Had they done so, they might share my desire that Dr. Norton had been more thorough, energetic, and creative in the execution of this important work.

What the investigators did find will not surprise historians familiar with the long history of federal Indian boarding schools. The founders of the Teller Institute, for instance, had trouble finding qualified faculty, staff, and administration. The school’s first doctor was known for his “bad character,” even if Norton provided no specific examples demonstrating precisely how. The school’s first superintendent “used unethical methods of recruiting students, even by the standards of the day,” but, again, no evidence is provided for the reader to see precisely what he did.

Families described poor food, substandard buildings, filth and cold. The 600 students who attended the Teller Institute over the course of its twenty-five year existence, and their parents, found the school wanting in many ways. Norton points out that the Teller Institute was “plagued with runaways,” though those students stories are not told in the detail they deserve. Students at the Teller Institute did hard labor. They dug the cesspool that stood near the school, and they lived under the supervision of parsimonious administrators seemingly far more interested in the health of the institution than its students. In one particularly revealing story, a federal agent at Fort Defiance asked the Teller Institute superintendent to return Navajo students to their home. Their parents wanted them back. The superintendent reluctantly gave in, but provided the students with train fare that got them only as far as Durango. According to Norton, they had to ride bicycles to get them the final 150 miles home. Norton’s report would be so much more valuable with more stories of this sort. I want to learn about awful administrators, but also about the students and their families.

The Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School received students from its opening in 1892 until 1909. In total, nearly 1100 students passed through its doors, drawn from twenty different Indigenous communities and nations. Like the Teller Institute, it faced significant turnover in its administration. The superintendent who served the longest was the school’s most notorious. Dr. Thomas Breen oversaw Fort Lewis from 1894 to 1903. A serial abuser of women and girls, according to contemporary reporting in Denver newspapers, his tenure was one prolonged scandal. According to Norton, “the story of the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School under Breen and the failure of the federal government to protect Native children is a microcosm of the deep neglect that was visited on the children by the government throughout the entirety of the school system”(67).

Again, this point is asserted rather than demonstrated. Throughout, the Colorado report is cursory in its coverage. The author makes reference to archival collections, but because she does not quote from them, her arguments are not well-supported and powerfully presented. We learn little about the tuberculosis outbreak at Fort Lewis, or the damage done there by infections of trachoma, even if we know, thanks to the fantastic work of Professor Michaela Morgan Adams, that parents forcefully resisted the boarding schools, advocated powerfully for their children, and served as powerful and compelling critics of institutions that failed to care for students.

Similarly truncated is the chapter that covers the “children who did not return home.” Ever since the discover of 200 unmarked graves outside a residential school in Canada, this has been viewed as the most important driver of new interest in the history of boarding schools, and efforts to uncover truth in the name of state’s achieving reconciliation. Thirty-one children died at the Fort Lewis school during the 18 years it was open, thirty-seven at the Teller Institute, a figure which included the daughter of the school’s carpenter, a teacher, and a former student.

Norton mentions that the surviving records for the schools are in poor condition. They are, presumably, difficult to read and work with. Nonetheless, I wish the History Colorado team had done more. Boarding schools were institutions, and the institutional component is the easiest part of their histories to research. Schools were bureaucracies, and they generated paper: records historians can use to reconstruct precisely how they worked. But they were also the site of dramatic moments in Indigenous peoples’ lives. Students who went to boarding school list among their most powerful memories seeing their parents crying, even though at the time they did not understand the source of those tears. Students unquestionably suffered from home sickness, loneliness, privation and abuse. The consequences of the treatment they received may continue to plague their families, a problem scholars now refer to as “intergenerational trauma.” But neither students, nor their families, stood by idly. They engaged these institutions, insisted that their children receive just treatment, and called for their return when they felt things were not going well. In our efforts to recount the history of boarding and residential schools we must make sure we place front and center the Indigenous peoples who survived those institutions the federal government dedicated to their destruction. We make choices about the stories we tell, and as scholars we need to own that. And because we want to persuade the millions of Americans who know nothing about these institutions to understand the injustices that happened there, and the ambivalent feelings many Indigenous peoples express about the boarding school experience, we need to tell these stories effectively and powerfully. We should not shy away from the darkness, and not hesitate to tell the stories of resistance and accommodation to these institutions in all their wondrous complexity.

What You Need to Read, September 2023

I hope this finds you well. Classes have begun at Geneseo, the students are back on campus, and now it is time to begin balancing all the tasks facing the college professor.  This is your quarterly installment of “Things You Need to Read.” Hope you find this helpful.  As always, if I have missed anything, please do not hesitate to let me know about that.

Aune, Stefan. Indian Wars Everywhere: Colonial Violence and the Shadow Doctrines of Empire, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2023).

Brown, Hana E. “Administrative Burden and the Reproduction of Settler Colonialism: A Cast Study of the Indian Child Welfare Act,” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 9 (September 2023), 232-251.

Carlose, Ann M. “The Country They Built: Dynamic and Complex Indigenous Economies in North America before 1492,” Journal of Economic History, 83 (June 2023), 319-358.

Collar, Amanda. “Indigenous Peoples’ Limited Access to Reproductive Care,” Annals of Internal Medicine, March 2023.

DasSarma, Anjali and Lindford D. Fisher, “The Persistence of Indigenous Unfreedom in Early American Newspaper Advertisements, 1704-1804,” Slavery and Abolition, 44 (June 2023), 267-291.

Davis, Elisabeth. “’Any Violation of this Arrangement’: Catholic Negotiations at the Carlisle Indian School, 1883-1918,” Pennsylvania History, 90 (Summer 2023), 321-443.

Dwider, Maraam A and Kathleen Marchetti, “Tribal Coalitions and Lobbying Outcomes: Evidence from Administrative Rulemaking,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 53 (September 2023), 354-392.

Edmunds, R. David. Voices in the Drum: Narratives from the Native American Past, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023).

Friedman, Joseph, Helena Hansen and Joseph P. Gone. “Deaths of Despair and Indigenous Data Genocide,” The Lancet, 401 (March 2023).

Glancy, Diane and Linda Rodriguez, eds., Unpapered: Writers Consider Native American Identity and Cultural Belonging, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2023).

Hoagland, Serra J. and Albert Steven, Wildlife Stewardship on Tribal Lands: Our Place is in Our Soul, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023).

Keeler, Kasey R. American Indians and the American Dream: Policies, Place and Property in Minnesota, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2023).

Kiser, William S. “The Business of Killing Indians: Contract Warfare and Genocide in the U.S-Mexico Borderlands,” Journal of American History, ## (June 2023), 15-39.

Krupat, Arnold. “The Wheelocks and the Clouds at Odds: Some Differences Among Red Progressives in the Early Twentieth Century,” American Indian Quarterly, 46 (Fall 2022).

Leroux, Darryl, “State Recognition and the Dangers of Race Shifting,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 46 (no. 2, 2023), 53-84.

Mauro, Hayes Peter. The Art of Americanization at the Carlisle Indian School, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2023).

Midtrød, Tom Arne. “’A People Before Useless’: Ethnic Cleansing in the Wartime Hudson Valley, 1754-1763.” Early American Studies, 21 (Summer 2023), 428-459.

Monnett, John H. “The Collapse of Cheyenne Supremacy on the Central Plains,” Nebraska History, 104 (Fall 2023), 128-145.

Olson, Greg. “A ‘Rebellious District and Dangerous Locality’: Cherokee Soldiers and Refugees in Neosho, Missouri, 1862-1863,” Missouri Historical Review, 117 (July 2023), 235-253.

Parins, James W. Literacy and Intellectual Life in the Cherokee Nation, 1820-1906, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023).

Peyton, John T. “’The Land We Have We Wish To Keep’: Miami Autonomy and Resistance to Removal in Indiana, 1812-1826,” Indiana Magazine of History, 119 (June 2023), 139-176.

Schmader, Matthew F. “Pueblo Resistance and Inter-Ethnic Conflict: The 1540-1542 Vazques de Coronado Expedition to the Middle Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico,” Kiva, 89 (June 2023), 167-191.

Stockel, H. Henrietta. Salvation Through Slavery: Chiricahua Apaches and Priests on the Spanish Colonial Frontier, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2022).

Toups, Eric. “Indian Men and French ‘Women’: Fragile Masculinity and Fragile Alliances in Colonial Louisiana, 1699-1741,” Early American Studies, 21 (Summer 2023), 353-379.

Treuer, Anton. Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but were Afraid to Ask, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2023).

Van de Logt, Mark. Between the Floods: A History of the Arikaras, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023).

van Deusen, Nancy E. “In the Tethered Shadow: Native American Slavery, African Slavery, and the Disappearance of the Past,” William and Mary Quarterly, 80 (April 2023), 355-388.

Van Gorder, Megan. “Uncovering Comparative Indigenous Inquiries at the Homewood Boarding School in Peoria County,” Illinois Heritage, 26 (July/August 2023), 11-12.

“Five Civilized Tribes”: When and Where did the Phrase Originate?

The origins of the “Five Civilized Tribes” label for the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles has long puzzled me. I am pretty certain that I used the phrase in the Master’s thesis I wrote in the late 1980s at Cal State Long Beach.  I know that some of the historians I cited in that work did so, too. Grant Foreman published Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians in 1953, and R. S. Cotterill The Southern Indians: The Story of the Civilized Tribes Before Removal a year later, both with the University of Oklahoma Press. But what are the origins of the phrase? Who used the phrase first? When, and why, did they do so?

            I always had assumed that it originated with the opponents of Andrew Jackson’s policy of “Indian Removal” in the 1820s and 1830s. Foreman and Cotterill used the phrase in this context. Supporters of the Cherokees, and the Cherokees themselves, boldly proclaimed the progress their Nation had made on the march towards “civilization,” and used this as a strong argument for remaining upon their lands in the American southeast. The Nation’s newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, contained stories and statistics on the number of spinning wheels and oxen, and acres under cultivation, on the Nation’s lands.  No wandering savages, the Cherokees were native southerners, as “civilized” as the planter elite, and ought to be allowed to stay where they long had been. That the phrase might fit for this period seemed to make sense.

            Turns out I was wrong about that. I looked through the books on my shelves. The phrase seems to have come along well after the Cherokee removal had taken place.  I searched the Library of Congress American Memory collection. The Continental Congress received a petition from the Brothertown Indians referring to the “partly civilized tribes from the east end of Long Island,” but that’s different.  Members of the legislative and executive branches spoke frequently of the importance of “civilization” and “civilizing” the Indians, but not with specific reference to the Cherokees and their southeastern neighbors. I looked through Google Books as well, but nothing there preceded the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Indian Office records housed at the National Archives, now digitized, show that the phrase did not come into use until after the Civil War as well. The earliest newspaper article containing the phrase, according to a search of, did not appear until 1871.  A Kansas newspaper reported on a visit to the “five civilized tribes” in the Indian Territory, and fear that the region could be further inflamed by an Indian war. The second article using the phrase appeared in 1873, in Kansas, in a discussion of the “question” of Indian citizenship. It mentioned “what are called the five civilized tribes,” so named because “for the last generation they have not depended upon the chase for subsistence, but have cultivated the ground.” The way the phrase was used in these two articles make it clear that it was around earlier, but I have not determined how early.

           It does seem, however, that “Five Civilized Tribes” came into common usage during the Concentration and allotment era, as a way to contrast the “civilized” Nations relocated to the Indian Territory with their “savage” or “wild” neighbors who had to be compelled to move to reservations.  C. E. Boudinot, featured in that 1873 article, told General Sherman and others in Washington that the Board of Indian Civilization’s “concentration” policy of placing “wild Indians in the territory of the civilized Indians would be “disastrous to the civilized minority” of Indigenous peoples in the region. Americans referred to the Cherokees’ “civilization” frequently. It factored in discussions of the allotment of their land, for instance. The “civilization” of these Indigenous peoples, government policy makers asserted, made them fit candidates for allotment. They already were civilized. They knew how to work their lands. They no longer needed the antiquated nonsense that was, in Americans’ view, Indian tribal governments. Cherokees seem to have used the phrase to suggest that, indeed, they were civilized, that they had survived the trauma of removal, and they had settled in and were fine as they were. Because they were so like their white neighbors, they did not need their lands broken up and divided, and Americans could rest assured that they would not join with the hostile Plains Nations, so unlike them in so many ways. Their civilization could, in different hands, be used to argue for their dispossession or the integrity of their relocated community.

            This obviously is a cursory look at a complicated question.  But it sends home the message that it is always worth while to think about the words and phrases they use, where they come from, and why they are deployed by those who make use of them.

Historical Methods: The Carlisle School

At Geneseo, we do not offer the US and Western Civ surveys. Instead of focusing on coverage, we emphasize and teach the analytical, writing, and research skills of the discipline. All majors are required to take two sophomore seminars. The first is in research methods, the other historiography. The courses are taught by all the department faculty in an area of their specialty. This coming semester, I will be offering the research methods course on the history of American Indian boarding schools. The syllabus follows.

History 302           Fall 2023

Research: American Indian Boarding Schools      

Instructor: Michael Oberg Meeting Times: MW, 8:30-10:10, Fraser 104 Office Hours, MW 12:30-1:45, Doty 208 Email: Phone: (585)245-5730 Website and Blog:

Required Readings:             Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.

David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928, revised edition, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020).

 Genevieve Bell, “Telling Stories Out of School: Remembering the Carlisle Indian Industrial Schook, 1879-1918,” Ph.D diss., Stanford University, 1998 (Available on Brightspace).

  Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 10th Edition, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020).

Course Description:  This section of the history department’s required course in research methods will focus on American Indian boarding schools, part of a systematic assault launched on Indigenous identity beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. There are Boarding Schools still open today.  The heyday of the Boarding School Era ran from 1879 until 1918, the years when the Carlisle Indian Industrial School operated in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Tens of thousands of young Native Americans passed through these institutions, and they played a highly significant role in shaping Native American identity today.  Over the course of the semester, you will read about these institutions, learn and apply your research skills to studying them, and produce a significant work of original, primary source research based upon the sources you will read.  Because of the availability of sources, we will focus on Carlisle, the largest of the federally-run schools.

By the end of the semester, I would like you to have improved and developed substantially in the following areas:

  •             * Your ability to write clearly, correctly, and persuasively in English * Your ability to identify, locate, and analyze secondary sources related to your research question.
  •             * Your ability to construct and advance an argument supported by primary source research.
  •             * Your ability to debate complicated historical topics verbally in a seminar setting.

Participation: I want to emphasize the importance of participation. I view my courses fundamentally as conversations and these conversations can only succeed when each person pulls his or her share of the load.  This seminar relies on your contributions, and our conversations will depend on your thoughtful inquiry and respectful exchange.  We are all here to learn, and I encourage you to join in the discussion with this in mind. Participation is more than attendance.  As you will see from the attached grading agreement, after four missed classes you will not be able to earn any grade higher than a D for the course. 

Discussion Schedule:

28 August          Introduction to the Course                          Reading: Rampolla, Chapter 1; Adams, Preface, Prologue; Oberg, “Just Kids.”

30 August          The Long Legacy of Federal Boarding Schools Reading: Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, May 2022. This is a long document. Do your best to read and digest those parts of its contents that interest you.

6 September      What Can We Know About Federal Indian Boarding Schools? Reading: Rampolla, Chapter 2; Adams, Part One; Images of the Carlisle Boarding School

11 September     What Can We Know About Federal Indian Boarding Schools? (continued). Reading: Adams, Part Two; Carlisle Publications (Under the “Indian School Titles” tab, click on “Carlisle Arrow, The (1908-1917)” and then click “Apply.” Read, cover to cover, any two editions of The Carlisle Arrow. Poke around through other publications as well so that you arrive at some familiarity for the sorts of public documents Carlisle produced.

13 September     What Can We Know about Federal Indian Boarding Schools? (continued). Reading, Adams, Part Three; Carlisle’s bureaucracy and record-keeping.

18 September     What Can We Know about Federal Indian Boarding Schools? (continued). Reading: Adams, Part 4 and Conclusion; Carlisle Student Records (Pick any Nation from that drop-down menu.  Read at least 5 student files and be prepared to talk about what you learned.  Make sure you choose student records from different years). Please provide me with a list of the students whose files you read by Sunday at noon.

20 September     Mandatory Individual Conferences                           Reading: Rampolla, Chapters 4-6.

25 September     Topic Statements and Preliminary Bibliography Due! Reading: Rampolla, Chapter 7; Brenda J. Child, “The Boarding School as Metaphor,” Journal of American Indian Education, 57 (Spring 2018), 37-57.  This article is available through JSTOR. Please download a copy, read it, and have it with you in class. Child provides the perspectives of an Indigenous historian writing about residential schools.

27 September     Research Updates:  What have you learned, what have you added to your bibliography, and how has your research progressed?  You will be prepared to speak for at least five minutes, and to field questions from your classmates. Reading: Frank Vitale IV, “Counting Carlisle’s Casualties: Defining Student Death at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1879-1918,” American Indian Quarterly, 44 (Fall 2020), 383-414.

2 October          Mandatory Individual Conferences

4 October          Setting Things Right: Discussion of Apologies, Acknowledgments and Reparations Reading: Oberg, “Your Territorial Acknowledgment is Not Enough;” Elizabeth Ellis and Rose Stremlau, “Land Acknowledgments: Helpful, Harmful, Hopeful,” Perspectives on History, 60 (November 2022), 24-26 (on Brightspace); Sarah Deer, The Beginning and End of Rape, (St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Chapter 4 (Brightspace)

11 October        Progress Reports: What have you learned, what have you added to our bibliography, and how has your research progressed?  You will be prepared to speak for at least five minutes, and to field questions from your classmates. Reading: Mikaëla M. Adams, “`A Very Serious and Perplexing Epidemic of Grippe’: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 at the Haskell Institute,” American Indian Quarterly, 44 (Winter 2020), 1-35. (available on America: History and Life).

16 October        Other Residential School Projects: Reading: Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project; Sherman Indian Museum Collection; National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (University of Manitoba).

18 October        Child Removal in Comparative Perspective Reading: Margaret Jacobs, A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), Excerpts, on Brightspace.

23 October        Progress Reports: What have you learned, what have you added to your bibliography, and how has your research progressed?  You will be prepared to speak for at least five minutes, and to field questions from your classmates                         Revised Bibliography Due

25 October        Mandatory Individual Conferences

30 October        Opening Paragraphs Due.  Please bring enough copies for everybody in the class.

1 November      Mandatory Individual Conferences

6 November      Outlines Due.

8   November    Mandatory Individual Conferences

13 November     Progress Reports: What have you learned, what have you added to your bibliography, and how has your research progressed?  You will be prepared to speak for at least five minutes, and to field questions from your classmates

15 November     Mandatory Individual Conferences.

20 November     Outings Reading: Kevin Whalen, “Indian School, Company Town: Outing Workers from Sherman Institute at Fontana Farms Company,” Pacific Historical Review, 86 (May 2017), 290-321.

27 November     Discussion Drafts

29 November     Discussion Drafts

4  December      Discussion Drafts

6 December       Discussion Drafts

11 December     Final Papers Due

13 December     Meetings: Discussion of Final Grades


  1. Topic Statement and Initial Bibliography Due:  In a solid paragraph, describe the topic on which you would like to conduct research this semester, and a construct a preliminary bibliography in proper format listing the primary and secondary sources you will need to answer the questions you are asking. You can not have a thesis yet: you have not done the research necessary for that. But you can have a sense of the question, or questions, which you would like to try to answer. Due 25 September.
  2. Revised Bibliography Due: You should demonstrate that you have competently used JSTOR, America: History and Life, and the citations and bibliographies in the scholarly sources you have read to expand your bibliography.  Due 23 October.
  3. Opening Paragraphs: Please bring a draft of an opening paragraph. I assume you will likely make changes to this as you move forward and complete your project, but I do want you to bring something so that we can discuss writing and how to engage your readers most effectively. Due 30 October.
  4. Outlines Due.  Bring copies for everyone in class.  The more detailed your outline, the better. Due 6 November.
  5. Discussion Drafts:  A complete draft of your paper with footnotes accurately cited.  You will submit it on a Google Doc that will go on a shared drive accessible to your classmates.  We will read each draft closely, make suggestions, and work to improve your paper.
  6. Final Draft: This should require no elaboration.  Your final draft, formatted properly, is due on 11 December.  Because of the narrow span of time between our last meeting and the final exam period, I cannot allow any extensions for the final draft.

History 261, Native American History, Fall 2023

It has been several years since I’ve taught the Native American history survey course at Geneseo, and at the end of this month, I will be teaching it for the first time with the new edition of the textbook Peter Olsen-Harbich and I published last fall. As I have mentioned in earlier posts on this blog, I no longer give grades on student assignments. Drawing inspiration from the teaching of Cate Denial at Knox College, I develop a rubric in collaboration with the students. In meetings at the end of the semester, and with reference to this rubric and the extensive comments and suggestions I will have written on the students’ work, students assign themselves a grade for the course. Usually, about half the students enrolled in the course are history majors, and the rest enroll to fulfill some part of the general education requirements, which have recently undergone a thorough revision at Geneseo. Any questions or criticisms, please let me know in the comments below. I am aware of the funky formatting below, but I have not been able to figure out an efficient way to make what I have included below look like the document that I will make available to the students on the college’s clunky learning management system.

History 261                         American Indian History                               Fall 2023

Instructor: Michael Oberg                                                                              Meeting Times: MW, 10:30-12:10, Newton 21 Office Hours: MW 12:30-1:45                                                           EMAIL:  oberg@geneseo.ed Phone: (585)245-5730 (office) Website and blog: The website and blog are designed to complement the textbook. There is a review section for each chapter of the textbook.  Click on the “Manual.”

  • Required Readings:   
  • Michael Leroy Oberg and Peter Jakob Olsen-Harbich, Native America: A History,    3d. ed., 2022.  
  • Colin G. Calloway, ed., Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indian Views of How the West Was Lost, 2d. ed., 2017.
  • Frederick E. Hoxie, Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era, 2001.
  • Francis Paul Prucha, ed., Documents of United States Indian Policy, 3d ed, 2000.                                            
  • Additional Documents and Articles available on JSTOR and as noted below.

Course Description:  This course surveys the history of Native Americans in the region that ultimately became the United States.  It traces the effects and consequences of the European “Invasion of America,” analyzes changes in and among native cultures in response to the arrival of Europeans, as well as native responses, resistance, and accommodation to European colonization.  We will examine the role of Native Americans as players in the intercultural, imperial politics of the Colonial Period, their    involvement in the American Revolution, and their response to the westward expansion of   Anglo-American settlement in the decades after the American Revolution.  We also will explore the historical background of the problems, issues, and challenges facing Indians in contemporary American society, and, in outline, the challenges posed to native peoples by Settler Colonialism. We will discuss the genocide that Indigenous peoples experienced and survived.          

Participation: In my view participation is more than attendance. I expect you to arrive at each class meeting with the readings completed and that you will be ready to discuss what you hare read. This is not a lecture course, and your contribution to our discussions is an important part of the learning experience. Though participation is more than attendance, attendance is critically important.   As you will see from the attached grading agreement, after four unexcused absences you will not be able to earn any grade higher than a D for the course. If, for some reason, you are unable to attend a class, please let me know in advance.

            Writing Assignments:  On two occasions over the semester, I will read your journals.You will write each week on short topics I assign you, but also on current events and on  any outside reading you choose to do.  I will provide you with these writing prompts in class.

I will also assign two short take home writing assignments, of no more than 1500 words in length. I will pose for you a number of broad questions that will force you to consider widely what you have read to that point in the semester, develop an argument and an effective answer, and to present that answer in writing with grace and style. 

With any of these assignments, I encourage you to let me know if you have any questions.  You should be clear on what I expect of you before you complete an assignment. Please use office hours, and if you cannot make these make an appointment to see me. I want to encourage you to ask for assistance and advice with your assignments.

I will write extensive comments in your journals and essays.  I will also make comments on these papers about your class participation.  I will ask you challenging questions, offer what I hope you will view as constructive criticism, and encourage you to push yourself as a writer and a thinker. But I will not give you grades, in the traditional sense, on this work.

I want you to benefit from this course. On the date of our first class meeting, we will discuss the standards for the class.  You and I will work together to arrive at a set of expectations for the sort of work that will earn a specific grade.   In your final journal, and in individual meetings or phone calls scheduled during Finals Week, we will discuss how well you think you did in meeting the agreed upon standards, and what your grade for the course ought to be. 

Discussion Schedule

28 August        Introduction to the Course

Reading:  Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, Introduction, Chapter One.

30 August        The Columbian Encounter                                                                

Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 23-32; Columbus’s Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, 1493; The Requerimiento;

Also, have a look at the Re-Envisioning Greater Cahokia Story Map. Students interested in Native American languages might look briefly at the materials placed online by the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island.  

6 September    When Indians Discovered Europe

Reading: Harriot, Brief and True Report  and John White Paintings of Algonquians on the Outer Banks.            

11 September  The Shatter Zone

Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 33-44;  Some images from John Smith’s Generall Historie are available here; Take a good look at John Smith’s Map of Virginia as well. Also, read the poem from Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony  available here. For students who have the time and some familiarity with Disney’s “Pocahontas,” I encourage you to take a look at “Missing Mataoka,” which includes an alternative audio track to be played as you watch the Disney film.  Take a few minutes to read John Rolfe’s letter to Sir Thomas Dale, justifying his decision to marry Pocahontas.

13 September  The Shatter Zone, Continued.                                        Reading: Oberg and Olsen Harbich, Native America, 49-59; Treaty of Middle Plantation (1677). Please read as much as you can of John Eliot’s Tears of Repentance, a history of his efforts to bring Christianity to Indigenous peoples in southern New England.

18 September The Iroquois League and Confederacy. 

Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native American, 44-49, 59-79;Daniel K. Richter, “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience,” William and Mary Quarterly, 40 (October 1983), 528-559 (Please locate this article on JSTOR, download a copy of it, and makes sure you have a copy with you on your computer for our discussion. If you are unfamiliar with JSTOR, please ask for assistance. Look on the library webpage and click on databases). One of the most important primary sources used by Professor Richter in this well known essay was a collection of writings by French Missionaries to New France known as The Jesuit Relations.  You may follow this link to the Relations. I would like you to check Professor Richter’s sources occasionally, and look at how he uses his evidence.

20 September Life Behind the Frontier

Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 80-98; Samson Occom, “Short Narrative;” “The Confession of Samuel Ashbo of Mohegan” and Temperance Hannibal’s Narrative, dated 7 February 1754. 

25 September  Native Americans and the Wars of the Eighteenth Century                 Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 98-109; Proclamation of 1763.

27 September  The American Revolution Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 110-129; Michael Oberg, “What’s So Great About the American Revolution?” and “No Mercy.”

2 October        What Do We Make of the Revolution and Native Americans?                        Reading:  Jeffrey Ostler, “’To Extirpate the Indians’: An Indigenous Consciousness  of Genocide in the Ohio Valley and Lower Great Lakes, 1750s-1810,” William and  Mary Quarterly, 72 (October 2015), 587-622 (JSTOR)

4 October        Indians and the New American Empire               Prophets of the Republic                       Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, pp. 129-157; Prucha, Documents no. 1-21.

11 October    Native Peoples and Long Knives                                Reading:  David A. Silverman, “The Curse of God: An Idea and its Origins among the Indians of New York’s Revolutionary Frontier,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 66 (2009): 495-534 (JSTOR).

First Paper Due

16 October      The Mechanics of Dispossession: Or, How Chenussio Became Geneseo               Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 157-161; Prucha, Documents, Document no. 27, 29-34, 36-38; 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua; 1797 Treaty of Big Tree; Oberg, “The Treaty of Big Tree: Let’s Follow the Money”; and “Chenussio: The Indigenous History of Livingston County.”

18 October      The Removal Crisis                                                                   Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, pp. 162-174; Prucha, Documents, 39-45, 50.

                        First Journal Due

23 October      The Indians’ West                                                               Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 175-190; Calloway, Hearts, Introduction, Chapters 1-4.

25 October      The Indians’ West, Continued                                        Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, pp. 190-204; Prucha, Documents, nos., 51-66; Calloway, Hearts, Chapter 5; Angela Cavender Wilson (Waziyatawin), “Grandmother to Granddaughter: Generations of Oral History in a Dakota Family,” 20 (Winter 1996), 7-13 (JSTOR).

30 October      The Plains Wars: Concentration and Enforcement    Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 204-214; Prucha, Documents, 67-81, 83-85; Calloway, Hearts, Chapters 6-8.

1  November   Reformers and the Indian Problem                                Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, pp. 215-227; Prucha, Documents, no. 82, 97-98, 101-102, 104, 124; Hoxie, Talking Back, Introduction; Calloway, Hearts, Chapters 9-10.

6 November    Wounded Knee Reading: Black Elk Speaks, (excerpt, available here); And this website based on Historian Justin Gage’s We Do Not Want the Gates Closed Between Us. (Take some time to understand Gage’s argument about the Ghost Dance movement and its consequences.

8 November    The Nation’s Wards                                                                                  Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 227-247, Prucha, Documents, nos., 105-112, 117-118, 120-123, 125-129, 132-134, 137; Calloway, Hearts, Chapters 11-12; Hoxie, Talking Back, Ch. 1-3.

13 November  The Boarding School Experience                       Reading: The Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

15 November  The Search for American Indian Identity                    Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, pp. 247-263; Prucha, Documents, nos. 136, 138-144; Hoxie, Talking Back, Chapters 4-7, Afterword.

20 November  From Termination to Self-Determination                 Reading: Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, pp. 263–275; Prucha, Documents, nos. 145, 147-149, 151-160, 162-163

27 November  The War on Native American Families. Reading: Magaret Jacobs, “Remembering the ‘Forgotten Child’: The American Indian Child Welfare Crisis of the 1960s and 1970s,” American Indian Quarterly, 37 (Spring 2013), 136-159; Oberg, “Texas is Making Me Crazy.”

29 November  The Struggle for Sovereignty:  1978                                        Reading: Prucha, Documents, nos. 167, 169-187; Oberg and Olsen-Harbich, Native America, 275-284;

4 December    Native America in the Era of Self-Determination Reading: Oberg, Native America, Chapter 10; Prucha, 189-190, 201, 204, 207, 210-211.

Second Journal Due

6 December    Native Nations and the Supreme Court in the 21st Century Reading:  McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020); Halland v. Brackeen (2023) (read Gorsuch’s concurrence and Thomas dissent).

11 December  Final Class Meeting: Where Do We Go From Here? Reading: Oberg, “The Trump Administration and American Indian Policy: A Post-Mortem” and Michael Oberg and Joel Helfrich, “Why Deb Haaland Matters.”

14 December  Final Writing Assignment Due, 8:00AM

18 December Meetings to Discuss Final Grades

Come To Geneseo, Give Us Money, Look at the Sky

            A long time ago when Bob Newhart hosted Saturday Night Live, he did a bit during his opening monologue in which he spoofed early television travel documentaries. Newhart played the role of the narrator, describing his expedition into the wilds of Peru.  He described his arrival at villages inhabited by Indigenous peoples who “were quite superstitious.” The arrival of Newhart’s party, the story went, coincided with a total solar eclipse. In response, “the natives began to beg us to please return the big red ball in the sky. Which we did of course. It just shows you there are lighter moments in even a trip as serious as ours.”

            The entire premise of Newhart’s routine rested on the audience’s assumption that the Indigenous peoples were unsophisticated rubes, completely unable to understand celestial phenomena.  Of course Indians would wonder what happened to the sun during an eclipse, because they could not possibly know any better.

    I have thought about this routine a lot, as the Great American Eclipse approaches in April of 2024.  This total solar eclipse will be visible across much of upstate New York, and my college’s money makers are hoping to draw people to campus to witness the event.  (Reminders of how cloudy, cold and wet Aprils in Upstate New York can be are completely unwelcome).  Even some of our own promotional materials—shown to prospective students during an admitted students weekend–made reference to primitive peoples’ befuddlement at the appearance of eclipses. I wonder, however, if we are being too uncritical, and too dismissive of the sophistication of Indigenous peoples’ understandings of the stars, the skies, and all that they contain.

            Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, said once that a solar eclipse stopped the war between the Lydians and the Medes. The warring parties saw the eclipse as a sign they should make peace. In the Bible, darkness at noon figures prominently in the Passion Narratives, a portent of doom if we look to the Old Testament Book of Amos which, for instance, the Gospels copied in the telling of the Crucifixion. The death of the English king Henry 1 in 1133 shortly after an eclipse may have helped spread the superstition that eclipses could be bad news. In Plains Indian Winter Counts, Indigenous historians recorded coments and eclipses. They were events worthy of note.

Some People think that Eclipses are apolyptic events that portend evil. Some people think hardly at all.

So, two stories. In his account of the year he spent at the first Roanoke Colony from 1585 until 1586, Thomas Harriot described the coastal Algonquians’ reaction to the English newcomers. They could not tell whether the English were “gods or men,” Harriot said. The Carolina Algonquians felt this way because of the inexplicable disease that seemed to accompany the English, the “invisible bullets” that the English were somehow able to fire with lethal accuracy at those who offended

them. The technology the English carried with them, items that seemed “so strange to them, and so far exceeded their capacities to comprehend the reason and means how they should be made and done, that they thought they were rather the works of gods than of men, or at the leastwise they had been given and taught us of the gods. Which made many of them to have such opinion of us, as that if they knew not the truth of god and religion already, it was rather to be had from us, whom God so specially loved than from a people that were so simple, as they found themselves to be in comparison of us” further encouraged this feeling. Finally the English arrival closely followed some significant astronomical events: a comet, for instance, and an “Eclipse of the Sun which we saw the same year before in our voyage thitherward, which to them appeared very terrible.”

That was what Thomas Harriot heard in the 1580s. So let’s jump ahead to 1925, for an event that the Brooklyn Citizen said took place on the Onondaga Nation in central New York. The Onondagas were gathered in the Nation’s Longhouse that January to commemorate their mid-winter rites. And then:

Interrupted in the midst of their annual ten-day penitential and atonement sacrifice by the eclipse of the sun, Indians at the Onondaga Reservation were crazed by fear. Darkness descended on the Indians as they were gathered in the famous old Longhouse to offer up the sacrifice of the White Dog to tehir God in atonement. As the light turned blue and then purple, they rushed from the buildings and led by an old chief, began firing at the eclipse. As the last shot rang out, the moon passed from the sun and the purple light began to fade. In a few moments it was normal again, and the Indians returned to the Longhouse, confident they had driven away the evil spirit.”

Think about these two stories. Think about how the authors know what they know. Think about which of them ring true to you. If I were to ask you to identify the story you thought most likely to be untrue, which would you choose? One, or the other, or both?

I suspect you might choose the second one. But I am skeptical about the first one as well. Harriot did not see the Indians’ reaction to the comet or the eclipse. The idea that Indigenous peoples were easily befuddled by astronomical phenomena is not entirely convincing to me. If we assume that freaking out at the sight of an eclipse is a sign of savagery, and a sign of possessing a lack of sophistication, and possessing a great deal of stupidity, it is not surprising perhaps that some writers might use an eclipse as another racist trope describing Indigenous backwardness. The sun disappeared, and the Indians wondered if it would ever come back!

But isn’t there another possibility? Isn’t it possible that Indians observed eclipses, saw the sun disappear, and then return, and then understood that eclipses were not all that big a deal. If I am right about this, it is entirely possible that Indians did not freak out at all at the sight of an eclipse. They might have said, “Huh, that’s weird,” and went about their day.

Don’t understimate Indigenous peoples. Do not underestimate people who, as the anthropologist Lynn Ceci asserted long ago, knew to time the planting of their corn by the appearance or disappearance of the Pleiades. Indigenous peoples watched the sky closely. The evidence that this is true is so abundant. There is, as well, abundant evidence showing the sophistication of Indigenous observations of the cosmos. The astronomer Anna Sofaer called buildings at Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest “cosmological expression through architecture.” Some Indigeous peoples could predict astronomical events with great precision. So come to Geneseo. With 165 sunny days per year, there is slightly less than a 50% chance that you will be able to see the eclipse clearly, but what the hell. You could go to Dallas and be almost assured of a sunny day, but we don’t judge. I do ask, however, that you not perpetuate unproven stereotypes about eclipses, and that you not diminish the wisdom of the peoples whose lands you will be visiting the moment you arrive.

Did Sunny White Murder Mika Westwolf? (Updated)

A bit more than two months ago, 22-year-old Mika Westwolf was struck by a Cadillac Escalade cruising along Highway 93 near the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.  Tribal police found Westwolf’s body on the side of the road around 4:00AM.  She was pronounced dead at the scene. The vehicle, driven by a non-Indigenous woman named Sunny White, did not stop after the accident. There is a march scheduled next week to shed awareness about Mika, and the broader scourge of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women. According to a story in the Daily Mail, 239 people have been killed along this stretch of road since 2021. That is an incredible figure.

            Westwolf, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation, was a talented and bright young woman. She was an athlete, an artist, and an advocate for Indigenous peoples, one of four selected from her nation to visit a Sherpa community in Nepal as part of a cultural exchange program. She had been walking along the side of the road, a bit north of the town of Arlee. She had been at a bar called the 4-Star Bar, but had left to retrieve her cell phone, which she believed she had left at home (it actually was in her brother’s car).  Her family wants answers, but they have found little reassurance from the Montana Highway Patrol. The lead investigator, Trooper Wayne Bieber, left Mika’s family convinced that her case was not in good hands. Trooper Bieber seemed not to know the basic facts of the case, and seemed inclined to believe that whatever happened that night, Mika was at fault.  Bieber told the family that walking along the shoulder of a road while intoxicated was illegal in Montana. The state police seemed uninterested in investigating Sunny White at all. She had been arrested shortly after the accident, but released soon after, pending toxicology reports. Bieber assumed that Mika was drunk, and that therefore Sunny White did not commit a crime. That first assumption has not been confirmed, and the second one is absolutely false.

            I stumbled across Mika’s story during a summer when I have been trying to complete a history of the Onondaga Nation, which I have been working on now for several years. I could not help but notice the parallels between Mika’s death and the deaths of so many Onondagas over so many years on the Onondaga Nation Territory. Like the road Mika traveled, the routes through the Onondaga Nation territory were dangerous. Onondagas died with disturbing regularity on the roadways passing through their Nation. George Van Every, for instance, one of the oldest of the Nation’s chiefs, was killed in September 1933 when a bus struck his horse-drawn buggy. He was an important figure on the Nation’s history.  Too many Onondagas were struck and killed by too many inattentive drivers.  Jesse Lyons told the House Indian Affairs Committee that “since we allowed them to build highways across our reservation, 30 Indians have been killed by automobiles and not a white man has been prosecuted.”That was in 1935.  Louis Beckman, a veteran who had just received his honorable discharge after serving in World War II, and his friend Olive Sullivan, were killed walking along South Salina Street in the very early hours of one morning in February 1946. The driver who struck them was not charged.  Anna Mae and Alice Jones, aged seven and eleven, received a total of $5750 in damages after a negligent driver passing through the Nation struck them that same year.  Howard Hill, a Carlisle alum, died after a car driven by his neighbor Andrew Pierce struck and killed him in 1950.  And in November 1950, 68-year-old Jamison Thomas died after a car struck him as he pulled a wood-laden cart along a road in Nedrow, near the reservation.  He had joined the circus at the age of fourteen, was a skilled horseman. He lived alone, a life-long bachelor. He followed the traditional religion and instructed many of his neighbors on its central tenets. The men who bore his coffin to the burying ground read like a who’s who of important Onondaga leaders. Many had attended boarding school. Theodore Thomas, the Tadodaho George Thomas, Ike Lyons, Albert White, and Henry Homer.  They were old men now, and they felt his loss. And it just goes on. Oren Lyons, 47, was killed when hit by an automobile driving on Route 11A on the Nedrow reservation. Martin Moses, a 6 year old, was killed on September 5th, 1957 “when struck by an automobile on a road in the Onondaga Reservation south of Syracuse.”

            With the one exception when damages were paid, no one was ever punished in these accidents.  They were deemed natural, part of the normal course of business. Poor people walked. People with more money drove. Sometimes the latter struck the former, and sometimes the former died. Nothing to see here, the authorities seemed to suggest. Best to not be poor. Best to not walk along the roadway.

           And that is what seems to be the case in the Mika Westwolf case. Nothing criminal, in the eyes of the state police, has occurred.  If Westwolf was intoxicated, as the Trooper Bieber seemed to suggest, she may as well have had it coming. It’s infuriating.

I lived in Montana for four years in the middle of the 1990s. I was struck during my time there by how casually racist statements about Indigenous people were made. Native Americans were drunks and reprobates. Their deaths and their disappearance seemed natural, and certainly it was beyond the power of white people to prevent it from happening. The racist attitudes held by many Montanans toward Indigenous peoples could justify their deaths. An Indian woman hit by a car late at night? Of course she was intoxicated, because Indians drink too much. The logic is reductive and violent.

Despite the racism, I had a great fondness for Montana. I learned to teach there. For the first time in my career, I had a significant number of Native American students. I still follow news from the state. And I have read, frequently over the past years, about the number of MMIW cases that have taken place in Montana. The state remains a dangerous place to be Indian. This pains me greatly.

            And it also stinks to high hell, because you do not have to read very much to determine that Sunny White is a monster. Although law enforcement officers have resisted drawing what seems like so real a possibility, this case could easily be a hate crime. Of course accidents happen. Sometimes they truly are tragic, terrible events beyond anyone’s control. But Sunny White was a reputed drug user with a criminal record, and an avowed White Nationalist.  To dispel any doubt about this, she named her two children “Aryan” and “Nation.” That a hateful racist could hit a young Indigenous woman with her car and keep going is sickening, but it should not surprise any of us.


The death of Mika Westwolf underscores the urgent need for even more decisive action on the part of federal authorities to address the continuing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous persons. In this case, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the state police are incompetent or, worse, that they are covering up a terrible crime. We need more data, to be sure, but beyond that, we need a commitment to the simple principle that the lives of Indigenous people, whatever the racists and the dingbats and the goons believe, are as valuable as the lives of any one else. In Montana, certainly, that this principle is widely held remains very much in doubt. There is a Go Fund Me Page established by Mika’s family. Help if you can.

What You Need to Read, June 2023

Happy June! The campus is closed, the end of the kids’ school year approaches, and the weather is wonderful. Seems like a waste to be sitting in a basement office trying to catch up on all the things I would like to have done during the year. But service beckons. For those of you hoping to keep your teaching up to date, or researching a new project, or trying to dream up ways not to be replaced by an AI application, here are some readings for you to think about. Enjoy, and if you think I missed something, please feel free to let me know.

Ablavsky, Gregory and W. Tanner Allread. “We the (Native) People?: How Indigenous Peoples Debated the U.S. Constitution,” Columbia Law Review, 123 (March 2023), 243-318.

Bennett, Zachary M. “’Canoes of Great Swiftness: Rivercraft and War in the Northeast,” Early American Studies, 21 (Spring 2023), 205-232.

Booss, John. “Fear and Betrayal: Smallpox and the Turning Point of the French and Indian War,” New York History, 103 (Winter 2022/2023), 246-269.

Brablec, Dana and Andrew Canessa, eds., Urban Indigeneities: Being Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2023).

Crossley, Laura. “’An Exhibit as Will Astonish the Civilized World’: Seeking Separate Statehood for Indian Territory at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” Journal of the Gilded Age & Progressive Era, 22 (no. 1, 2023), 20-40.

Dixon, Brad. “’In Place of Horses’: Indigenous Burdeners and the Politics of the Early American South,” Ethnohistory, 70 (no. 1, 2023), 1-23.

Downey, Allan. “Indigenous Brooklyn: Ironworking, Little Caughnawaga, and Kanien’kehá:ka Nationhood in the Twentieth Century,” American Quarterly, 75 (March 2023), 27-50.

Edmunds, R. David. Voices in the Drum: Narratives from the Native American Past, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023).

Finn, S. Margot. “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen: Bringing Indigenous and Homesteader Foodways into the Contemporary Kitchen,” Indiana Magazine of History, 119 (March 2023), 83-89.

Fixico, Donald L. “The Crazy Snake Movement and the Four Mothers Society,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, 100 (Winter 2022/2023), 388-409.

Flaherty, Anne F. Boxberger, Presidential Rhetoric and Indian Policy: From Nixon to the Present, (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2023).

Glancy, Diane and Linda Rodriguez, eds., Unpapered: Writers Consider Native American Identity and Cultural Belonging, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2023).

Gonzalez, Michael. “The Enduring Flame: Stress, Epigenetics, and the California Indian, 1769-2000,” American Indian Quarterly, 46 (Fall 2022), 299-322.

Jacobs, Michelle R. Indigenous Memory, Urban Reality: Stories of American Indian Relocation and Reclamation, (New York: New York University Press, 2023).

Johnson, Tai Elizabeth, “The Shifting Nature of Subsistence on the Hopi Indian Reservation,” Agricultural History, 97, (no. 2, 2023), 215-244.

Kane, Maeve. Shirts Powdered Red: Haudenosaunee Gender, Trade, and Exchange Across Three Centuries, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2023).

Keeler, Kasey R. American Indians and the American Dream: Policies, Place and Property in Minnesota, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2023).

Kelly, Elias. My Side of the River: An Alaska Native Story, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2023).

Krupat, Arnold. “The Wheelocks and the Clouds at Odds: Some Differences Among ‘Red Progressives’ in the Early Twentieth Century,” American Indian Quarterly, 46 (Fall 2022), 271-298.

Kugel, Rebecca. Making Relatives of Them: Native Kinship, Politics, and Gender in the Great Lakes Country, 1790-1850, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023).

Lavin, Lucianne and Elaine Thomas, eds., Our Hidden Landscapes: Indigenous Stone Ceremonial Sites in Eastern North America, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2023).

Martini, Elspeth. “Dangerous Proximities: Anglo-American Humanitarian Paternalists in the Era of Indigenous Removal,” Western Historical Quarterly, 53 (Winter 2022), 379-404.

Metcalf, R. Warren. “Lambs of Sacrifice: Termination, the Mixed-Blood Utes, and the Problem of Indian Identity,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 91 (no. 1, 2023), 23-36.

Newell, Margaret Ellen. “’The Rising of the Indians’: Or, The Native American Revolutuon of (16)’76,” William and Mary Quarterly, 80 (April 2023), 287-324.

Nielsen, Marianne O. and Barbara M. Heather, Finding Right Relations: Quakers, Native Americans, and Settler Colonialism, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2023).

Pluth, Edward J. “The White Red Men: The Improved Order of Red Men in Minnesota, 1875-1920,” Minnesota History, 68 (Winter 2022-2023), 134-143.

Ray, Kristofer. Cherokee Power: Imperial and Indigenous Geopolitics in the Trans-Appalachian West, 1670-1744, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023).

Rivaya-Martinez, Joaquin, “The Unsteady Comanceria: A Reexamination of Power in the Indigenous Borderlands of the Eighteenth-Century Southeast,” William and Mary Quarterly, 80 (April 2023), 251-286.

Rivaya-Martinez, Joaquin, ed., Indigenous Borderlands: Native Agency, Resilience, and Power in the Americas, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023).

Roberts, Alaina. “Black Slaves and Indian Owners: The Continuous Rediscovery of Indian Territory,” Journal of the Civil War Era, 13 (March 2023), 87-104.

Steinke, Christopher, “Indigenous Waterways and the Boundaries of the Great Plains,” Journal of the Early Republic, 42 (Winter 2022), 1-27.

Steppenoff, Bonnie. “Banishment and Loyalty: Jesuit Priests in Early Ste. Genevieve, 1759-1785,” Missouri Historical Review, 117 (October 2022), 1-13.

Taylor, Jessica. Plain Paths and Dividing Lines: Navigating Native Land and Water in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2023).

Teeters, Lila. “’A Simple Act of Justice’: The Pueblo Rejection of U. S. Citizenship in the Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of the Gilded Age & Progressive Era, 21 (October 2022), 301-318.

Theobald, Brianna, “Dobbs in Historical Context: The View from Indian Country,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 97 (Spring 2023), 39-47.

Van de Logt, Mark. Between the Floods: A History of the Arikaras, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023)

Vigil, Kiara M. “Language, Water, Dance: An Indigenous Meditation on Time,” Signs: A Journal of Women Studies, 44 (no. 1, 2023), 168-182.

Wakefield, Kyler J. “Native American Voting Rights in Utah: Federal Policy, Citizenship, and Voter Suppression,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 91 (2023), 4-22.

Whitt, Sarah A. “’An Ordinary Case of Discipline’: Deputizing White Americans and Punishing Indian Men at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1900-1918,” Western Historical Quarterly, 54 (Spring 2023), 51-70.

A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History