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 Newspapers.com, 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: oberg@geneseo.edu Phone: (585)245-5730 Website and Blog: michaelleroyoberg.com

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: www.michaelleroyoberg.com 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.

The Murder Trial of Richard Billings Mohawk and Paul Durant Skyhorse

            On October 10, 1974, George Aird, a driver with the Red and White Cab Company, picked up Holly Broussard, Marvin Red Shirt, and Marcella Eagle Staff outside the Laurel Canyon home of actor David Carradine.  Broussard, a non-native, had joined her Indigenous friends in search of a party they heard was taking place at the Kung Fu star’s house. Carradine was not home. And now, disappointed and high, they hijacked the taxi. Red Shirt drove the four of them to an American Indian Movement Camp in Box Canyon, in Ventura County, near the LA county line. Aird stepped out of his cab after they reached the camp. He was jumped by several men who stabbed him five times. The assailants then dragged Aird into a building where others joined in the violence, punching and kicking the wounded driver. Authorities found his body the next day, about a mile from his cab, stuffed into a three-foot drainpipe. They found him, one sheriff’s deputy said, by following “a trail of blood and hair.” He had been stabbed 17 times in all. Some news reports indicated that Aird had been scalped. Whether that was the truth or not, it was a brutal crime.

George Aird

            I stumbled across the story of George Aird’s murder in the pages of Akwesasne Notes, an “alternative” newspaper published on Mohawk land in New York State. I was reading through Akwesasne Notes looking for material on the Onondagas, about whom I have been writing a book.  Aird’s story caught my attention because so much of the story took place in Ventura, California, the town where I grew up and where, it seemed at the time, nothing ever happened.  I was a kid when the trial took place, but never heard a word about it. As historians, we find the subjects we write about when they strike us, or remind us of a connection to places and people that matter to us.  We also stumble across topics worthy of research by happenstance, while we are looking for something else. This, then, is in part the story of my home town, but also a story of Native American activism, the trial of two AIM leaders each with long criminal records, and the murder of a man who did nothing more than show up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

            Were I to conduct research on the trial for those charged with murdering George Aird, I would make my way home to Southern California. I would read the nearly 20,000 pages of court transcripts. I would try to find the principals involved in the story, and see if they are willing to meet with me and tell their story.  Some of them are still alive. I am, however, unable to do that now.  But I have read the copious coverage of the trial—one of the longest criminal trials in history of the State of California—and have some thoughts I would like to share here.

            There was no shortage of suspects in Aird’s murder. Broussard, 19 years old and white, was charged with robbery.  Marvin Red Shirt and Marcella Eagle Staff were charged with murder, kidnapping, and robbery. All three of them were covered with Aird’s blood when police found them. The trio, however, colluded with police to save their skins. They told the police about two individuals who fled from the AIM camp immediately after Aird’s death: Richard Billings Mohawk and Paul Durant Skyhorse.  They had first taken shelter in the home of Ginger and Frank Sexton, unemployed “Indian Movement sympathizers,” before they left California. Mohawk was easy to find. He was recovering in a Phoenix hospital after getting shot in a bar fight. It had not taken him long to find more trouble. Phoenix police investigating the incident recognized Mohawk from a wanted poster circulated by the Ventura County Sheriffs. They caught Skyhorse the next day. The sheriffs picked up a handful more suspects, all of whom had lived at the AIM camp on 53 Box Canyon Road in Santa Susana.

            The prosecutors hoped to bring the case to trial before the end of the year, but Skyhorse and Billings, acting as their own attorneys, and drawing on the advice of lawyers with whom they consulted, learned how to burden the justice system with a frustrating litany of petitions and appeals.  They asked to have their trial moved from Ventura County to Los Angeles. They did not feel, they said, they could get a fair trial and find an unbiased jury in Ventura. An appellate court denied their appeal, but they took their case to the state Supreme Court.  In December 1975, more than a year after Aird’s murder, the state’s high court ruled that the trial could proceed in Ventura County.

Skyhorse and Billings appealed to their allies. Both had played a role in forming the Chicago chapter of the American Indian Movement.  They called for support. In November 1976, two years after Aird died, Carter Camp of AIM said that their prosecution was part of “an attempt by the FBI, the CIA, and the US Government to destroy the leadership of AIM.” Removed from its context, Camp might come across as hysterical, but AIM activists had good reason to believe the government was out to get them. 

Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellocourt founded AIM in the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 1968, an organization that resulted from the challenges Indigenous peoples faced because of relocation to urban centers. AIM protested police brutality in the Twin Cities by monitoring and filming police patrols as they moved through Indian neighborhoods. They soon broadened their agenda, looking to improve housing and educational opportunities in the cities. Membership grew. John Trudell, a Santee Sioux, brought his considerable charisma to the organization. Russell Means joined AIM in 1970, a strident leader who would soon become one of the movement’s best‐known spokesmen. In October of 1972 leaders from AIM and the National Indian Youth Council began planning for a march on Washington dubbed the “Trail of Broken Treaties.” They occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, the headquarters of the agency many native peoples most closely associated with their mistreatment and marginalization. Four hundred Indians occupied the building, chaining the doors or barricading them with office furniture. The protestors stayed for a week. They stood on the steps of the building, wearing war paint, and carrying weapons fashioned from whatever they could find inside. They readied Molotov cocktails, should police seek to remove them from the headquarters by force. They would die there, if necessary, the occupiers told reporters covering the occupation. And they ransacked the Bureau completely, carrying away tons of incriminating documents that highlighted the agency’s historical mismanagement of Indian affairs. But the Trail of Broken Treaties suffered from poor planning and disorganization. The occupiers achieved none of their goals. The Nixon administration dismissed their calls for fundamental change in federal Indian policy as “impractical.” When the stolen Bureau of Indian Affairs documents began to appear in newspaper columns written by syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, the Nixon administration began persecuting and prosecuting the occupiers and their sympathizers.

Several months after the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the activism of the Nixon years reignited in South Dakota. In January of 1973, a white man killed a Sioux named Wesley Bad Heart Bull outside a bar in Custer County. Local authorities charged the attacker with manslaughter, nothing more, and AIM arrived to protest. Led by Dennis Banks, they asked the prosecutor to consider more serious charges. When he refused, a riot broke out. The protestors set the local Chamber of Commerce building on fire; local police and county sheriffs responded with tear gas and violence. Twenty‐two people were arrested, nineteen of them Indigenous peoples. In the aftermath of the Custer riot, elders at the Pine Ridge Reservation invited AIM to aid them in their struggles against tribal chairman Dick Wilson, the head of an IRA‐based government notorious for its corruption and strong‐arm tactics. Wilson maintained a personal police force, the well‐armed GOON squad (Guardians of Oglala Nation) to control and intimidate dissenters. He had defeated efforts by the Reservation’s residents to impeach him. His authority challenged, he called upon federal authorities for support: federal marshals with automatic weapons came to Pine Ridge, setting the stage for a showdown.

Members of American Indian Movement, aka AIM, stand guard with clubs in front of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building Friday night in Washington, D.C., Nov. 4, 1972. The group of 400 militant Native Americans who have occupied the BIA building since Thursday, have defied orders to leave. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)

Led by Russell Means and Dennis Banks, AIM hoped to bring the attention of the world to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. If they had little familiarity with tribal traditions—both had spent much of their lives in cities—they knew well how to draw the media and generate interest. Late in February of 1973, they and a group of their followers, perhaps 300 in all, occupied the small village of Wounded Knee, the site of the massacre of Sioux Ghost Dancers eighty‐three years before. Most of the occupiers came from the surrounding Lakota reservations, but they received support from their fellow occupiers, among them Kiowas, Pueblos, Potawatomis, Senecas, and many others. Two Rappahannocks who had lived in New Jersey traveled west to join AIM at Wounded Knee. The occupiers had a handful of rifles; one of the occupiers had an AK‐47 with an empty banana clip. Some had served in Vietnam and felt keenly the injustice of the colonial system existing at Pine Ridge, where reservation residents had few rights and no redress. Desperate means called for desperate measures. Wilson’s GOONs and federal forces quickly surrounded the occupiers with an impressive array of the latest military technology: armored personnel carriers, high‐powered rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and armor. The federal authorities fired off more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition during the occupation. In cities like San Francisco and Washington, the Nixon Administration was willing to exercise restraint in its response to Native American protests. Not so on a remote reservation in South Dakota.

On March 11, the occupiers issued a statement declaring the independence of the Oglala Nation. “We are a sovereign nation by the treaty of 1868,” the occupiers said, and “we want to abolish the Tribal Government under the Indian Reorganization Act. Wounded Knee will be a corporate state under the Independent Oglala Nation.” They rejected the “reorganized” government of the Pine Ridge Reservation and objected to a corrupt government out of touch with tribal traditions and willing to harass and violently persecute its opponents. Means and Banks attracted a considerable amount of attention but they could not achieve their fundamental goals, for the federal government would not see to the removal of Wilson, or address the fundamental structural causes of so much misery on Indian reservations. The occupation of Wounded Knee lasted seventy‐one days. At its end, two of the occupiers had died, and one federal marshal received a wound that left him paralyzed. Given the number of rounds fired, that so few were killed and injured was something of a miracle.

The occupiers left Wounded Knee in May of 1973. According to Banks, “Wounded Knee was the greatest event in the history of Native America in the twentieth century. It was,” he continued, “our shining hour.” Leonard Crow Dog, the spiritual leader and another of the occupiers, agreed that “our seventy‐one-day stand was the greatest deed done by Native Americans.” Still, Crow Dog noted, “we never got our Black Hills back, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was not honored, nor did the government recognize us as an independent nation.” In the words of historian Paul Chaat Smith, “there was a clear‐eyed, if often unspoken, acknowledgment that frequently our elders are lost or drunk, our traditions nearly forgotten or confused, our community leaders co‐opted or narrow,” but “they knew only one thing for sure: business as usual was not working, their communities were in pain and crisis, and they had to do something.” AIM brought considerable attention to the problems Indigenous peoples faced. Thanks to the organization’s efforts, many American people became aware for the first time of their nation’s long history of injustices toward American Indians. These achievements were significant.

Still, federal authorities relentlessly harassed and prosecuted the leaders of AIM. After the occupation, Dick Wilson resumed his campaign of repression against what he viewed as outside agitators. This violence led to the killing of two FBI agents in June 1975. After some shady legal maneuvering, a federal court tried and convicted Leonard Peltier, an AIM member, despite significant doubts about his guilt and procedural irregularities at his trial. Peltier remains in prison today. His trial ran parallel to that of Skyhorse and Billings. Protests against Wilson’s regime did little to remove the fundamental problem: the United States, though willing to embrace self‐determination, and to consider piecemeal changes in its policies toward Indigenous peoples, never abandoned the notion that Indians remained wards of the nation. It is important to remember this. The federal government in the second half of the twentieth century favored self‐determination and, in specific cases, implemented programs and policies that addressed historic injustice and the poor conditions under which many Indigenous peoples lived. But it would only go so far. A tension existed, between self‐determination and wardship, between sovereignty and colonialism, that individual Indigenous peoples, tribal, local, state and federal governments, and the federal courts would wrestle with over the coming years. Indigenous peoples survived termination’s direct negation of their political rights, and gained more control over their lives, but the ambiguities created by the conflicting forces of sovereignty and colonialism remained.

The trial still seemed far off in November of 1976. The prosecutors, that month, abandoned their plans to pursue the death penalty. Meanwhile, Marvin Red Shirt, who had agreed to testify for the prosecution in return for five years on probation, disappeared. In December, the Los Angeles Times noted that the case “has been in session more than 100 days, and has yet to come to trial.” This case showed, columnist Pat Anderson wrote in the Times, “the leisurely pace that can be set when defendants without legal training are allowed to act as their own attorneys and also demonstrates the length of time that can be consumed by pretrial motions which in practice are limited only by the funds available to the defense.” It was exhausting. Late in January 1977, Superior Court Judge Marvin Lewis quit the case. “Frankly, I was weary,” he said.

            Skyhorse and Mohawk continued to assert that they could not receive a fair trial in Ventura County. In March of 1977, the county bar association provided them with compelling evidence that this could be the case.  At the annual Ventura County Bar Association Dinner, several lawyers put on a skit called, “The People vs. Tonto,” that made fun of the lengthy pretrial proceedings. The judge and the prosecuting attorney were present. This poorly-thought out bit of racist humor–acted out as AIM activists protested outside–made it seem clear to many that the proceedings could not continue in Ventura. The California Bar Association called for a change of venue, which was granted.

            Skyhorse and Billings continued to pepper the court with motions. Floyd Dodson, the replacement judge, had been defeated in his bid for reelection in Santa Barbara County, just north of Ventura County.  He retired before his term ended, which made him eligible to serve as judge on special assignment. He took the case in Ventura County and, then, followed it to Los Angeles after the change of venue. Skyhorse and Billings argued that his selection effectively disfranchised those voters who had voted to replace him. Proceedings halted, once again, as the Superior Court heard arguments, rejected them and dismissed the motion. In April, they requested spiritual counsel from Ernest Peter of AIM, who they said would help them choose jurors. Though the pair acted as their own attorneys, they were visited by a host of legal experts who offered them advice. The motion gained Skyhorse and Mohawk attention, notoriety, and considerable public interest.

            When jury selection began on April 12, Judge Dodson told potential jurors that the case may require an entire year, “plus or minus six months.” Forty of the first panel of 68 jurors were excused on account of the hardship the length of the trial might impose. Others who experienced hardship, apparently, were the deputies who monitored the two defendants while they were jailed in Ventura. They were happy to see the trial moved to Los Angeles. During the two and a half years Skyhorse and Billings spent in the Ventura County Jail, they threw food, water, urine, and cleaning fluid at their guards.

            As the beginning of the trial approached, both Skyhorse and Billings underwent physicals at County-USC Medical Center They were run down, sympathetic attorneys said, from the effect of using a powerful painkiller called Talwin, which they had been prescribed after a jailhouse beating they received from sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles.

The prosecution began presenting its case in June, 1977.  Marvin Red Shirt had told investigators that he had seen Skyhorse and Billings stab George Aird many times. Red Shirt admitted that he had stabbed Aird as well, but only because the defendants had told him to. But now, on the witness stand, Red Shirt backed away from that story. “In my heart, I know I did not do it,” he told the jury. His testimony was a mess. He contradicted himself. He claimed that he never drank but he showed up at court with a blood alcohol level of .33, way above the legal limit for intoxication. Leonard Weinglass, one of the attorneys assisting the defense, requested a mistrial.  One of the prosecution’s key witnesses was completely wasted.

            Dodson was not about to grant a mistrial, but he must have begun to sense problems in the prosecution’s case with the next witness. Holly Broussard, Red Shirt’s “common-law wife,” could not even place Skyhorse and Mohawk at the crime scene, despite what she earlier had told investigators.  Prosecutors began to search for a possible plea bargain. Carmen Fish, another woman at the AIM Camp when Aird was murdered, said in a taped interview played to the Court that she had seen Skyhorse standing near Aird’s cab on the night of the murder. But in court she told the prosecution that she feared the investigators and told them what she thought they wanted to hear. There were other tape recordings. Dodson ordered played to the jury an audio recording in which Skyhorse’s wife may have said that her husband killed Aird.  Dodson refused to accept a plea deal that both sides agreed to—a no contest plea to second degree murder and a sentence of time served—and ordered the prosecution to continue to present its case. Judge, jury, and defendants visited the murder scene, and spent “a little more than an hour” looking “through the ramshackle building and junk strewn area.” When they returned to the courtroom, Marilyn Skyhorse admitted that she had told investigators that she had seen her husband at the scene of Aird’s murder, but now she argued that the police had coerced her into making that statement. Presented with the audio where she could be heard saying that her husband killed Aird, she said now that she was mistaken. She explained, the Times reported, “that she presumed it was him at the time because one of the three persons she saw at the murder scene was wearing his long blue coat.”

            The prosecution witnesses did little to help the prosecution’s case. Marcella Eagle Staff took the Fifth. She explained that she had missed earlier court dates, she said, because she “was too busy partying.” But Skyhorse and Billings seemingly did not help their case as well. Because of an altercation in the jail, the prosecution requested that the two defendants not be allowed to act as their own attorneys. The court adjourned to hear motions on this matter. Worried about the consequences of the hearing, Skyhorse in June 1977 addressed Dodson. “I can’t help but entertain the notion,” he said, “that this may be the last time I get to speak in this court.”

            He was right. Dodson ruled that the pair would no longer be allowed to defend themselves. They had been too disruptive. It was not until January of 1978 that the prosecution rested its case. They had called 53 witnesses, produced a trial transcript of 17,000 pages. Mohawk and Skyhorse presented a much more economical case. They wanted to show that Red Shirt, Broussard, and Eagle Staff were the actual killers, not them. They hoped to call to the stand two FBI informants—Virginia Blue Dove De Luce and Douglas Durham, a man heavily implicated in attempts to infiltrate AIM.  De Luce, the defense asserted, had invited Skyhorse and Mohawk to the Box Canyon campsite, which Durham had set up early in 1974. Dodson said no. They called a dozen witnesses over eight days. They argued that they fled the crime scene not because they were guilty, but “because of how they perceive the system.” They said it was abundantly clear that Broussard, Red Shirt, and Eagle Staff were guilty, and that they were being framed. They had the victim’s blood on their clothing, and Eagle Staff had the driver’s keys in her pocket. They hijacked the cab, the defense argued.

The case finally went to the jury in May 1978. On the 25th, three and a half years after the murder of George Aird, the jury found them not guilty. Skyhorse looked at the lead prosecutor, Leonard Samonsky, and told him “your frame didn’t work.” Samonsky smiled in response. Skyhorse than said, “You think that’s funny, huh?” He moved towards Samonsky, but the bailiffs intervened. It did not matter, Skyhorse and Billings left the court house, free men, at least for a time.

            Some AIM leaders considered the case a great victory.  “The case of Paul Skyhorse and Richard Mohawk is yet another example of the government’s attempt to destroy and discredit the Indian Movement. So said an editorial writer in Akwesasne Notes. Another wrote that

From behind bars, Skyhorse and Mohawk  have exposed FBI agents, fought the death penalty, police brutality and racism in California. They continue the struggle for liberation behind brutal walls. Their resistance, along with massive public pressure, can keep this conspiracy from arriving at the government’s predetermined  conclusion.”

Richard Mohawk and Paul Skyhorse found themselves charged for a murder that took place two months after Richard Nixon left office. They were incarcerated for the entirety of the Ford presidency and much of Carter’s. These were significant years in American Indian policy. While AIM found itself falling to jagged pieces under the pressure of government persecution, and the Supreme Court laid body blows to the concept of American Indian tribal sovereignty, Congress and the Executive began to enact some of the most consequential legislation for Indigenous peoples in American history.

            I spend some time in Native America discussion the legislation enacted the same year in which Skyhorse and Billings were found not guilty. Acknowledging that in the past the United States had pursued policies that “resulted in the abridgment of religious freedom for traditional American Indians,” Congress in August approved the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which pledged the United States “to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to the access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonies and traditional rites.” AIRFA was limited in its effect by the Supreme Court, but it was an important statement from a government that historically had done so much to eradicate Indigenous religions.

Aware of the growing number of native peoples who belonged to communities that had neither signed treaties with the United States nor been the specific objects of federal legislation, Congress in early October established a set of guidelines for the “Federal Acknowledgment of Indian Tribes” that had not been officially recognized by the government in the past as Indian. The “acknowledgment” statute required that an Indian tribe, in order to be formally recognized as such by the Interior Department, demonstrate that they had “been identified from historical times until the present on a substantially continuous basis as ‘American Indian,’ or ‘aboriginal.’” They needed to demonstrate as well that the members of the community had inhabited a specific area or that they live “in a community viewed as American Indian and distinct from other populations in the area.” The petitioning tribe was also asked to establish that it had “maintained political influence or other authority over its members as an autonomous entity throughout history until the present.” Acknowledgment, the statute read, “is a prerequisite to the protection, services, benefits, from the Federal Government available to Indian tribes.” Such acknowledgment, the statute continued, “shall also mean that the tribe is entitled to all the immunities and privileges available to other federally acknowledged Indian tribes by virtue of their status as Indian tribes as well as the responsibilities and obligations of such tribes.”

Two weeks later, Congress passed the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, which provided grants for the operation of junior colleges on Indian reservations in order “to insure continued and expanded educational opportunities for Indian students.” Native communities had long recognized the importance of higher education, but access had always been a challenge. Cankdeska Cikana Community College, formerly known as Little Hoop College, was founded by the Spirit Lake Dakotas in North Dakota in the early 1970s. The college provided vocational and technical training, but also a curriculum that fostered “the teaching and learning of Dakota culture and language toward the preservation of the tribe.” Other communities established colleges throughout the West early in the 1970s, beginning with Navajo Community College. In response to the passage of the 1978 statute, a number of western tribes established new institutions of higher learning emphasizing a culturally relevant curriculum. Little Big Horn College, founded at Crow Agency on the Crow Reservation, struggled to survive with scarce resources in its early years but grew into a successful junior college. From thirty‐two students during its first semester in 1981, now more than 300 students enroll each term. All take courses in Crow Studies alongside a variety of skills‐based programs and courses designed to prepare them for transfer to four‐year colleges.

Congress in 1978 attempted to address the legacies of some of the nation’s most destructive policies toward Indigenous peoples. Early in November, Congress enacted a series of educational reforms for schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, designed to provide equal educational opportunity for Indigenous children. One week later, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, designed to halt the traumatic removal of Indigenous children from their homes through fostering and adoption. The problem was severe. Dakota Sioux at Spirit Lake, for example, had asked the Association of American Indian Affairs (AAIA) to investigate such removals, and the AAIA reported that of the 1100 Dakotas under the age of 21 who lived at Spirit Lake in 1968, 275 had been separated from their families. In states with large Native American populations, the AAIA found that between 25% and 35% of children had been removed from their homes. Indigenous peoples organized to halt this highly destructive practice, and the battle for the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, according to its best historian, “represented one of the most fierce and successful battles for Indian self‐determination of the 1970s.” ICWA, as it’s known, committed the United States “to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.”

Against these achievements, Skyhorse and Mohawk may not count for much. Leonard Weinglass, who took over the defense after Dodson ruled that the defendants would no longer be allowed to represent themselves, said that the verdict was “a victory for native Americans who have not always fared well in these courts. And I think it’s a victory for all people in this country who are concerned about justice.” Samonsky was angry. He thought he had a solid case, but the witnesses he called seldom said what he expected them to say. Reading the papers, it is difficult to conclude that he was very good at his job. “I’m disappointed for the public’s sake whom I represent,” he said. “I’m still positive that the defendants are guilty of the murder.” But he could not convince the jury that this was so. Samonsky may have felt some vindication when Skyhorse and Mohawk were arrested in 1983 for the robbery of a Security Pacific Bank branch in Los Angeles in which one customer was wounded by a blast from a shotgun. Durant was sentenced to eight years, Mohawk twenty. Skyhorse and Billings were no angels. They had long criminal records. But it is difficult to believe that they killed George Aird.

Someone someday could write a book about this single year in Native America. In 1978 Congress enacted legislation to protect Indigenous nationhood, Indigenous families, Indigenous art, and systems of learning.  The Court, at the very same time, began to disassemble these institutions, a process it could come close to achieving in the coming months. Perhaps my views of this case will change if and when I read the entire trial record. Perhaps the newspapers covered the case poorly. They spent a great deal of time discussing the cost of the case, even though that is not relevant to questions of guilt and innocence. During the time between their arrest and acquittal, Leonard Peltier was captured, tried, and sentenced to two life sentences. Anna Mae Aquash was murdered in 1975. Two months after the acquittal, the Longest Walk began, a movement directed towards an international approach to Indigenous rights. Years mean little as categories of analysis. But the combination of events that came together in 1978 offers a way to see the place of Indigenous peoples in the United States during a short period of rending change. The events of that year have left a decidedly mixed legacy. Winners and losers, to be sure, but mostly losers and losses. Aird’s family? They shrieked in anguish when, after three and a half years, the jury foreman pronounced Skyhorse and Mohawk not guilty. The defendants? They quickly left Los Angeles to face legal troubles in other states. Their lives were no easier afterwards, a consequence of crimes committed across America. And its hard to see what AIM gained from the trial. So much happened in 1978. This is but one part of that larger story. It may have mattered less in the long run, but more people read about this case than they did about any of the court cases or pieces of legislation that came out that year.

Yet Another Threat to Haudenosaunee Land, Lives, and Liberties

I am deeply disturbed, as a historian, by the proposed STAMP development project bordering the Tonawanda Seneca Nation territory.  STAMP stands for the Science and Technology Advanced Manufacturing Park which will be built on the margins of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. It’s another “Buffalo Billion boondoggle,” one journalist pointed out, a manufacturing facility boosted by the Genesee County Center for Economic Development that will, when built, damage wildlife habitat and the ways of living of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. Millions have been spent, but not much has been accomplished yet. A hearing will be held tonight, Thursday, May 11th, at the Fire Hall in the Town of Alabama, New York.

I will leave it to those with expertise in the field to describe the significant ecological and environmental consequences of the project, though they seem quite significant and have not been persuasively addressed by the developer. What I would like to describe to you is the history of this state, and its long history of interactions with Native American Nations. New York could not have taken its current shape without a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession that at times explicitly violated the laws of the United States, and always basic standards of justice, honesty, and equity.

It is history in which the State of New York has consistently attempted to skim the cream off of whatever prosperity develops on Indigenous land; has aided and abetted in the environmental devastation of Indigenous homelands, and pursued on or around Native American communities projects that their NIMBY white constituents refuse to countenance in their own neck of the woods. It is a history of despoliation, devastation, and avarice, that is appalling even without reference to state boarding schools, military campaigns, and dishonesty in its dealing with the Indigenous Nations. Will the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation participate, once again, in this long and, frankly racist history? I hope that they will turn the page, write a new chapter, and look to a better future.

              I am not optimistic.  Governor Hochul has been no friend to the State’s Indigenous peoples. She presides over a state built on stolen land. One thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that there shall never be a meaningful accounting. New York became the Empire State through a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. That’s a fact. Though the Supreme Court declined to do anything about the process, arguing disingenuously that the injuries occurred too long ago to offer a workable remedy, most of the so-called treaties the state negotiated clearly violated federal law.           

Short Eared Owl, one of several species threatened by the development.

Not only were many of these transactions unambiguously illegal, but they were, as the kids say, as shady as hell. The Onondagas and Oneidas, for instance, entered into agreements in 1788 in which they were led to believe they would lease their lands to the State of New York.  Turns out that when the treaty was written by New York officials, those leases had magically been transformed into sales. Dispossession through literacy in English.  Other transactions took place with small number of Indians present, few of whom were the proper people to sign treaties.  And the United States, especially with regard to the Senecas, hardly kept its hands clean.  The 1838 treaty of Buffalo Creek, a transaction designed to expel the Six Nations from New York State, is the most crooked treaty in the history of this country.  That is saying something. Signatories were coerced or threatened, signatures were forged, and alcohol flowed freely.  Meanwhile, both federal and state authorities in New York have ignored the treaty provisions that protect Indigenous rights.  For example, clauses guaranteeing the Senecas and their Iroquois neighbors the right to the “free use and enjoyment of their lands” in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua have been consistently ignored.  They have ignored provisions in treaties guaranteeing Indigenous peoples the right to hunt and fish on the land they ceded to the state. The state has even tried to tax the “per capita” payments the Seneca Nation made to its members from the Nation’s gaming proceeds. It is just one assault after another. 

Northern Harrier, another bird species threatened by the development.

It is worth keeping in mind that the Seneca Nation has never asked for special privileges.  It asked merely that the state of New York follow the rules to which it had agreed. Contracts are sacred, Governor Hochul suggested when she extorted the funding she needed to secure a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, unless they somehow limit her ability to funnel many millions of public dollars to private hands.There is a principle that is very important to Iroquois people.  The People who made up the Iroquois League conducted their lives in accordance with this principle over the centuries. It is called “Guswenta,” and today it is represented by a very specific wampum belt known as the Two-Row, which depicts two parallel lines on a field of white.  The lines represent the Iroquois and their non-native neighbors. They shared the same land, they occupy the same country, but they remain independent and autonomous.  The lines do not cross, and neither natives nor newcomers should interfere in the affairs of the other. Indigenous peoples in this state have kept their part of the bargain.  They have had little choice.  The state, and its colonial predecessors, have not. 

The Indigenous people of this state have faced epidemic diseases, military invasions, the carrying away of their children to boarding schools, and systematic and deliberate attempts to wipe out their culture and take their land. Yet here they remain, developing their communities, looking forward, in a state that has been a steady and relentless adversary.  They hoped the state would play by its own rules.  Governor Hochul always has said no.  She will support the elimination of Native American mascots–that costs her nothing–but when the rubber hits the road she is as Anti-Indian as they get.

So when a developer hopes to gain state support for an exchange of 665 acres of habitat linked by forests and wetlands to the Tonawanda Seneca Nation for fifty-eight acres of non-contiguous land and claims that it is an equivalent property and that the exchange will actually benefit the ecosystem, and when the developer ignores completely impacts on the Nation and its people, it is hard not to be skeptical. What is easy to see is yet another chapter in the State’s long, brutal, and exploitative history towards Indigenous peoples.  The proposed swap is about so much more than economics. It makes a mockery of “consultation,” endangers endangered species, and is so patently inequitable that it is impossible to take seriously.  

              But all of this is very serious.  Industrial development at STAMP will disrupt the Tonawanda Seneca Nation’s ability to engage in the free exercise of their traditional beliefs. By damaging the Big Woods, where medicines are harvested and subsistence hunting and fishing takes place, it threatens directly the health and welfare of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation and the Haudenosaunee, who with Tonawanda’s permission hunt, fish, and gather there too. A long time ago, New York Indians were told to give up their lands in New York for a sliver of desiccated earth in Kansas. The land out there in the west, American officials, New York businessmen, and white racists argued, is just as good as what you have in New York. It’s the same, these promoters of ethnic cleansing optimistically point out. Except that it was not alike at all, just like 58 non-contiguous acres is not at all the same as 665 acres of culturally significant and environmentally and ecologically sensitive land.         

              The Tonawanda Seneca Nation always has resisted the calls of wealthy New York developers, from Robert Morris in the 1790s to today, that they leave their homelands. In the 1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek, the Tonawandas were surprised to learn their reservation had been given up, even though they were not parties to the treaty.  Two decades later they were able to purchase back a portion of the reservation they never had consented to sell. They were ripped off, but they hung on, preserving their culture and their political system within a state that has historically respected that culture not at all. If any number of white people had their way, the Tonawanda Seneca Nation would no longer exist—their language, their religion, the land, their people—all would have been absorbed by the ceaseless State of New York.      

              The DEC will support the state’s long-standing racism towards Indigenous peoples if it supports this habitat destruction. Tonawanda Senecas, you see, want nothing more than for the State of New York to keep its word and leave them alone. This is the case for other Haudenosaunee peoples. But here we go again, the relentless drumbeat of exploitation, avarice, and racism.  Tonawanda claims to the significance of the land and the species that live there are dismissed and shown no real respect.             

              I have been to hearings like the one that will be held this evening in the Alabama Fire Hall in the town of Alabama, New York. There is no meaningful “consultation” at meetings like this: the DEC officials sit at a table, fidget with their phones, as they listen uncomfortably to Indigenous peoples describe yet another assault on who they are and what they hope to become. I hope that this time, the members of the DEC in attendance will listen to what the Tonawandas say, and try to hear the sentiment beside it. I hope that they will put a stop to this ill-conceived and poorly thought-out industrial manufacturing development. I hope that they will break with a horrible history and, in the spirit of trust and reconciliation, seek pardon for the unresolved crimes of New York’s past.

A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History