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Some Thoughts on Sovereignty and Activism in Native America

I have been thinking a lot about a quote from Angela Russell, a citizen of the Crow Nation in Montana who participated in the African American Civil Rights Struggle, but who was also inspired by Native American protests like the “Fish-In” movement in the Pacific Northwest, where Indigenous peoples courted prosecution under state fish and game laws to demonstrate their commitment to their federal treaty rights.  Reflecting on what she saw around her in the 1960s and 1970s, she wrote “that it was the Indians who probably originated demonstrations and public protesting.” She could think of “countless examples in Indian history of demonstrations and protest.”

Say We Are Nations 1st edition 9781469624808 146962480X
Russell appears in Daniel Cobb’s Say We Are Nations, a book I use in my Indigenous Law and Public Policy course.

          I like this quote a lot, as simple as it is, because it forces us to think about what we mean when we talk about Native American activism, in terms of content, chronology, and context.  If you take a second, and think about the images that come to mind when you read the word “activist” or “activism,” I am willing to bet that the images that come to mind do not embrace the breadth and depth of the Native American experience.

            So, activism.  What does it mean? And what does it mean in the specific context of Native America?  As members of political communities the existence of which long predated the United States, they quite often have organized, and protested and fought to protect and defend their nationhood, their sovereignty, and their very identities as members of native nations.  At times this has taken forms that will likely be familiar to all of you, images similar to what came to mind when I asked you to think about the meaning of the word “activism”: protest and demonstration designed to either bring attention to an issue or to provoke a tension, in Martin Luther King’s words, that makes clear the fundamental injustice of the current state of affairs in a given time and place. We saw examples of this nearly a century ago when Haudenosaunee peoples joined in something called the Indian Defense League of America to cross the Lewiston Bridge over the Niagara River between New York and Canada to demonstrate their treaty right to cross and re-cross the international boundary without interference or impediment from settler states.  You have seen it in the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1960 and 1970, the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973, and, more recently, at Standing Rock in 2016 and now at Oak Flat in Arizona. These all share in that they were big, dramatic, attention getting events.

            Daniel Cobb, a fine historian who has written extensively about this subject, defined activism as “politically purposeful acts.”  That is a broad definition, perhaps too broad, but useful nonetheless for understanding the long history of Indigenous peoples’ assertions of their continued right to exist in a society that sees them as little more than a part of the past, or as a source of raw materials, or a stockpile of romantic images about the past cashed in or exploited to serve the needs of white people, or the occupiers of lands laden with mineral wealth and fossil fuels who need to get off and go away so that we can feed our societal addiction to petroleum.

            Activism in Native American communities, in an American society that challenges their very right to exist, questions their nationhood, and in the not so very distant past invaded their homelands, dispossessed them, removed from them their children, infected them with diseases, and destroyed the basis of indigenous economies, can take many forms as they challenge those forces that have done so much damage and try to undo the lingering demands that colonization makes through the exercise of sovereignty and self-determination.

            I write about the Onondagas.  Over the centuries they have weathered invasions of their homeland, infectious imported diseases, attempts to dispossess them, and eradicate their entire culture and, yet, they still are there.  In the face of state and federal policies they have consistently asserted a powerful autonomy and live lives of independence.  It is an incredible story. If any number of people had had their way, the Onondagas would no longer exist. They would be gone. But there they are. Challenging the settler state; asserting autonomy and functional independence—this activism is significant and challenges the status quo. Assertions that we are still here, despite all the US and the state has done, are significant acts.  There are others.

Native History: AIM Occupation of Wounded Knee Begins - Indian Country Today

            The Red Power movement—Alcatraz, the BIA takeover, and Wounded Knee—along with a notion that Native peoples are victims and helpless and tragic– has received so much attention that it has obscured the other varied efforts of native peoples to act on the principles of self‐determination, sovereignty and nationhood, to promote the interests of their communities. Women in Native American communities in the 1960s, for example,  organized and marshaled evidence to counter something called the Indian Adoption Project, which resulted in part in between 25 and 35% of Native American children being removed from their families, either into the foster care system or adoption.  This movement by Native American women was arguably the most successful activism of the era, pushing Congress to enact the Indian Child Welfare Act, a measure of great significance in the preservation of Native American families, even if it remains under siege by conservative evangelicals who continue to see Native American families as degraded, debauched, and unfit.

            All sorts of activism. And then there is the quiet work of asserting sovereignty and defending nationhood. These, too, are politically purposeful acts. The Cherokees, for instance, used the award money it received from the Indian Claims Commission to assert itself as a regional economic power. The Cherokee Nation in 1967 built a hotel and restaurant on its land, and employed its own people in the construction and management. A tribal complex followed, which included an arts and craft center and tribal government offices. In 1969, the Cherokee Nation founded Cherokee Nation Industries to provide jobs in manufacturing for Cherokee Nation citizens.   Landless and urban Indians in Washington, in a powerful 1973 report that charged the state government with carrying out a campaign of “ethnic genocide by assimilation,” and supporting the process of “destroying our identity,” announced that they would hold on to “the scraps and parcels” of their culture that remained and to work “as earnestly as any small nation or ethnic group was ever determined to survive and retain its identity.” They were critical of better-known activist groups like AIM, whose protests indeed garnered for them much attention. Unlike AIM, they did not see protest as the way to better their nations.  They spoke of institution‐building. Because the Puyallup Reservation was so close to Tacoma, the tribal government had created a number of programs for the urban Indian population: the Indian Education Center, established in 1971, with representation coming from the Puyallup, Nisqually, and Muckleshoot communities; the Tacoma Area Native American Center (TANAC) incorporated in 1972 “with the express purpose of providing community organization for Indians and Alaskan Natives which in turn would promote unity and cooperation among all Indian people”; and groups for Native American students at Tacoma Community College. There were a host of organizations in Seattle: service organizations like the Chief Seattle Club, the Seattle Indian Center, and the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation; education and employment programs, advocacy groups, legal aid, health, and recreation.  This is sovereignty in action. And it has occurred all over North America.

Always Indigenous — Chief Seattle Club

            Native peoples have used that sovereignty to create and reinvigorate communities, revitalize language and culture, provide for the well‐being of their people, engage in sustainable economic development, and lay plans for a future in which they will play an important role in American society. The United States, and state and local governments, today routinely express their willingness to support self‐determination. This in itself is a significant break from a not‐so‐distant past when federal officials anticipated the disappearance of tribal governments and the assimilation of native peoples into the American mainstream. At times, non‐Indian Americans speak of justice, of building long‐term relationships with their native neighbors. But the recent past has shown as well that despite the significant accomplishments of native peoples in governing their communities and promoting their people’s interests, the promising signs of cooperation, and the increasing presence and acceptance of native peoples on the national stage, that in general non‐Indian Americans will support freedom and autonomy for native peoples only to the point where the exercise of these rights begins to threaten their own interests. Native peoples can meet this challenge. They have little choice. For nearly half a millennia, Europeans expressed their expectations that native peoples would disappear. For much of the nineteenth century, American policy‐makers anticipated Indian extinction. And even within the last half‐century, American officials looked towards the “termination” of American tribes. No longer. Sovereign tribes are stronger today in terms of their culture, their economic strength, their governing capacity than they have been for a long time. They are more active in defining and shaping their identities—with all the ambiguities and complexities that accompany that endeavor—than at any time in the past. I close, then, with a statement that would have been difficult to express at earlier periods when missionaries spoke of converting and transforming Indians, or when soldiers plotted to burn their fields, or reformers carried off their children to boarding schools, or settlers and bureaucrats swiped their lands: native peoples have a future that Native peoples have shaped for themselves, through their own actions, and their own activism.

This Year

Monarch butterflies used to gather in the park half a mile from where I grew up, in numbers too great to count. They hung like orange jewels from the gray-green strands of Eucalyptus leaves.

A lot of my youth took place in that park. I rode through it on my bike to and from the junior high school and, later, on my way to work at a number of those crappy jobs one gets as a teenager. I played baseball there. But for me it’s the monarchs. They gave to that place meaning.

I moved away from Ventura many years ago. The butterflies are mostly gone now. According to a recent report from the Xerces Society, an advocacy group focused on invertebrate conservation, only 1914 Monarchs were recorded overwintering on the California coast. Xerces Society volunteers canvassed 246 roosting sites from the North Coast to Baja California in the south. “This critically low number follows two years with fewer than 30,000 butterflies–the previous record lows–indicating that the western Monarch Butterfly migration is nearing collapse.” The Xerces Society has been watching this migration for decades. The most recent data show “a 99.9% fall from the numbers of monarchs in the 1980s, when butterflies filled trees from Marin County to San Diego County.”

California is changing. Every time I go back it seems drier, hotter, and more desperate. I still see the scars from the catastrophic fires that devastated the town late in 2018. It is difficult to live there unless you have money. Homelessness is rampant. RVs sit in the lots at the park, a place for those who are struggling to scrape by to set up base camp. There are costs associated with all of this. Southern California is so different from what I once knew. Maybe the butterflies are a small matter, but their decline seems emblematic of so much else. The reasons for the devastating drop in the Monarch population are easy to see and entirely avoidable: loss of overwintering, migration, and breeding habitat and the use of pesticides.

Some historians will tell you that they study the past. There is truth to that, of course. But I think it is more on the mark to say that we study change: how and why, and with what consequences.

There has been so much change over the last eleven months. Early in March of last year my mom had a serious stroke. No stroke is well-timed, but having one at the beginning of a global pandemic was particularly devastating. The stroke took place early in March. I flew out to visit. I flew back to New York on the 12th, and everything shut down the next day. After three months in a locked-down rehab facility, as the residents started to fall ill and die from Covid, we moved my mom home. The cost of 24/7 care was enormous and unsustainable, and when Covid hit both my parents late in December, brought into the house by one of the caregivers, we decided again to move my mom, this time out of the house she has called home for sixty years and into a board and care facility. My parents made it through COVID–thanks to the help of a family friend who owned a scuba shop in the harbor we were able to get my dad the oxygen he needed more quickly than the doctor could order it. And we are hopeful we have made the right move. We cannot know for sure and like so many people, we are wracked with uncertainty.

I know we have it better than many millions of people.

I think back over the past eleven months. I think of what has happened since March. George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter protests across the country; the presidential campaign, and its strange, violent conclusion. I think of the constantly increasing death toll, and the millions of people grieving. And the assault on the Capitol building less than a month ago. These are events of significance. I do not doubt that one day students in high school and on college campuses will read about them, if we still have history classes then.

But his past year has made my world much smaller. What are the events that mattered in my own life? A stroke, fraught trips across the country in the midst of a pandemic to try to help, my own bout with the disease from which I am still recovering. And the effect of this crisis on my parents.

Within two weeks of my return to New York, we reached the painful decision to put our dog Bonehead to sleep. It caused a lot of stress and sadness, the days preceding this decision.


We adopted him from the shelter in 2010, an angry and tweaked-out stray with bug eyes, a lantern jaw, and a bad attitude. We named him Stitch, because of how he looked. Gradually he grew into his real name, because of who he was. He never took food from a plate. Sometimes he tried to be nice, and to be playful, but it was never really in him. He was afraid of fireworks and thunder until he lost his hearing. He continued to speak with the ghost of the old man who died in our house many, many years ago. And if you came up to him to say hi with your dog, he would jack you up. Whenever I left town, his anxiety kicked in and he would get the worst case of the shits. He was not a nice dog, and he was a lot of trouble. But after a year like this one, I am feeling like maybe this long 2020 finally won a round, and landed a couple of hard punches. We’re reeling.

During the week I spent in California I pushed my mom in her wheelchair through the park. I scooped up avocados that the wind had knocked down. I know cargo shorts are out of fashion, but sometimes you have to stash things, you know? Avocados, for instance, or cool rocks. I saw a few Monarchs flying around, but nothing like before. Nothing was the same. On my last day I walked out to the backyard, and checked out a few ratty looking milkweed plants. I saw one Monarch caterpillar, munching along, working his way through his cycle before one of a number of possible predators picked him off. Maybe it’s a hopeful sign.

Good Luck, Buddy.

Amy Coney Barrett’s Constitutionalism is a Fraud

            Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett argues that the Constitution and its amendments ought to be interpreted in the manner its creators intended. Originalism, the name for the legal theory to which she subscribes, has its adherents who believe that they can intuit the farmers’ intent from the close reading of the nation’s charter documents and the context in which they were written. But originalism has always been a problematic and ahistorical approach to legal interpretation, because so much of the meaning of the Constitution was contested, ambiguous, and unclear at the time it was written.

            This point is amply borne out by the Indian affairs clause of the United States Constitution.  Article I, Section 8 contains a list of powers that “we the people” bestowed upon the legislative branch of the government. Among those is the right to “regulate commerce…with the Indian tribes.”

            But what does “commerce” mean?

            The first federal Congress, in an attempt to add some flesh to these bare bones, enacted in the summer of 1790 the first of a number of “Trade and Intercourse” acts. These laws asserted federal control over non-native Americans and attempted to regulate their conduct when they engaged in commerce with Indian nations. Traders who wanted to engage in the Indian trade needed a license from a federal agent and so on. But there is nothing in the sparse language of the Constitution, or the subsequent legislation defining that language, that gave to the people of the United States power over the internal workings of Indigenous Nations. Yet, over many decades, the United States has seized control over more and more aspects of life in Native American communities, finding justification for this “plenary authority” in Article I, Section 8. “Commerce” now means pretty much everything and anything.

            Judge Barrett has said nothing about Indian affairs during her relatively short legal career, and it never came up in the questions she avoided answering during her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  But Judge Barrett has made clear her immense respect for Justice Antonin Scalia. During his tenure on the court, tribal interests prevailed only a fifth of the time. Scalia wrote five majority opinions on the subject, all of which were defeats for Native American interests. Yet in each of these cases, the language of the Constitution provided no clear guidance.

            Scalia’s closest intellectual partner on the Court had been Justice Clarence Thomas, who has said very provocative things about the Indian Affairs clause. In 2004 Justice Thomas upheld the constitutionality of a law that allowed Indian tribes to prosecute non-member Indians, but he was troubled by the Court’s arguments. 

            Thomas could not accept the Court’s assertion “that the Constitution grants Congress plenary power to calibrate the ‘metes and bounds of tribal sovereignty.’” He could not “locate such congressional authority in the Treaty Clause. . . or the Indian Commerce Clause.” A decade later, in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013), Thomas again considered the constitutional basis for plenary power, this time in a case involving the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.  “Although the Court has said,” he wrote, “that the central function of the Indian Commerce Clause is to provide Congress with plenary power to legislate in the field of Indian affairs,” neither the text nor the original understandings of the Clause “supports Congress’ claim to ‘plenary’ power.”  The contested adoption proceedings at the heart of the Baby Girl case involved neither commerce nor tribes, and Thomas believed that “there is simply no basis for Congress’ assertion of authority over such proceedings.”

            In 2016, in the case of US v. Bryant, Thomas once again wrote that Congress’s “purported plenary power over Indian tribes,” rests on shaky foundations.  “No enumerated power–not Congress’ power to ‘regulate commerce…with Indian tribes,’ not the Senate’s role in approving treaties, nor anything else, gives Congress such sweeping authority.” And in a 2017 dissent in a case involving the Secretary of the Interior’s decision to take 13,000 acres of Oneida land in New York into trust, Thomas again criticized the Court’s Indian Commerce Clause rulings.  Allowing the federal government to take land within a state into trust on behalf of an Indian tribe, Thomas argued, could not be supported by any language in the Constitution, and it would have shocked the “Founding Fathers” to “find such a power lurking in a clause they understood to give Congress the limited authority to ‘regulate trade with Indian tribes living beyond state boundaries.”

            Justice Thomas defined “commerce” narrowly. If Congress had no acceptable justification for its claim to plenary power, Thomas believed that power must exist in some other entity.  For Thomas, it seemed to be with the states.

            What does “commerce” mean, and what did it mean in 1787, when the Constitution was ratified, or in 1789 when it went into effect? It is difficult to say. Various “Founders” disagreed and changed their opinions over time. Justice Thomas has pointed out that the Court’s Indian Commerce Clause rulings are built on a fiction, that they stand without justification in the Constitution’s language. Plenary power may rest on nothing more than brute force. No principle, no historical document, can justify it.  Many of Justice Thomas’s colleagues disagree. They argue that Article I, Section 8 does indeed grant to the federal government “plenary power” over Indian affairs.  The Founders used the word “Commerce.”  They provide little support for those who see in the Constitution what can best be understood as an extralegal, and extra-Constitutional, extension of federal authority over Indian affairs. 

            Judge Coney Barrett’s commitment to discerning an original meaning to the Constitution conveniently ignores all the gray areas, those realms of law and constitutional interpretation where the matters under consideration have been contested ever since the document first was written, debated, and ratified.  Originalism is a scoundrel’s argument. It will be used by the new Supreme Court majority to injure women, people of color, and our friends and family in the LGBTQ community. We could talk about abortion, or the right to marriage, or the very practice of judicial review itself, the Constitution does not always speak clearly to us.  Originalism, a most tendentious way of deducing its meaning, is a flawed approach that has been used as a lever to prop up the power of the federal state to do, in the end, as much or as little as it wants.

What You Need to Read, June 2020

You have finished a rough semester. Libraries are still closed. Some interlibrary loan services are available, and school will return in some form in the fall. Here is your summer reading list to help keep you up to date on what is coming out in Native American History.

Adams, Mikaela Morgan. “‘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.

Bates, Denise E. Basket Diplomacy: Leadership, Alliance-Building, and Resilience among the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, 1884-1984, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

Bethke, Brandi. “Revisiting the Horse in Blackfoot Culture: Understanding the Development of Nomadic Pastoralism on the North American Plains,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 24 (March 2020), 44-61.

Bigart, Robert J. Providing for the People: Economic Change Among the Salish and Kootenai Indians, 1875-1910 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

Bigart, Robert and Joseph McDonald, “You Seem To Like Our MOney, and We Like Our Country”: A Documentary History of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai Indians, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020.

Blanton, Dennis B. Conquistador’s Wake: Tracking the Legacy of Hernando de Soto in the Indigenous Southeast, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020).

Britten, Thomas A. and Charles Trimble. Voice of the Tribes: A History of the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

Cahill, Cathleen D. “‘Our Democracy and the American Indian’: Citizenship, Sovereignty, and the Native Vote in the 1920s,” Journal of Women’s History 32 (Spring 2020), 41-51.

Carr, Kurt W., et. al, eds. The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

DeCoster, Jonathan. Conflict and Accommodation in Colonial New Mexico, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Duwe, Samuel. Tewa Worlds: An Archaeological History of Being and Becoming Pueblo in the Southwest, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2020).

Gage, Justin. We Do Not Want the Gates Closed Between Us: Native Networs and the Spread of the Ghost Dance, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

Gagnon, Celese Marie and Sara K. Becker, “Native Lies in Colonial Times: Insights from Skeletal Remains of Susquehannocks, 1575-1675,” Historical Archaeology, 54 (March 2020), 262-285

Galler, Robert W., Jr., “Converting the Missionaries: The Transformation of Benedictine Priests at Crow Creek,” South Dakota History, 50 (Spring 2020), 48-79.

Glassow, Michael A., et al., Goleta Slough Prehistory: Insights Gained from a Vanishing Archaeological Record, (Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History 2020).

Hall, Philip S. and Mary Solon Lewis. From Wounded Knee to the Gallows: The Life and Trials of Lakota Chief Two Sticks, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

Hall, Ryan. Beneath the Backbone of the World: Blackfoot People and the North American Borderlands, 1720-1877, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Headman, Louis, and Sean O’Neill, Walks on the Ground: A Tribal History of the Ponca Nation, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

Hedren, Paul. L. “Who Killed Crazy Horse? A Historiographical Review and Affirmation,” Nebraska History, 101 (Spring 2020 ), 2-17.

Hilbert, Vi, Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound, 2nd ed., (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020).

Humalajoki, Reetta. “‘Yours in Indian Unity’: Moderate National Indigenous Organizations and the US -Canada Border in the Red Power Era,” Comparative American Studies, 17 (no. 2, 2020), 183-198.

Johnson, Andrew D. and Carolyn Arena. “Building Dutch Suriname in English Carolina: Aristocratic Networks, Native Enslavement, and Plantation Provisioning in the Seventeenth-Century Americas,” Journal of Southern History, 86 (February 2020), 37-74.

Killsback, Leo. A Sacred People: Indigenous Governance, Traditional Leadership, and the Warriors of the Cheyenne Nation, (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2020).

Lappas, Thomas John. In League Against King Alcohol: Native American Women and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, 1874-1933, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

McNally, Michael David. Defend the Sacred: Native American Religious Freedom Beyond the First Amendment, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).

Michna, Gregory. “The Long Road to Sainthood: Indian Christians, the Doctrine of Preparation, and the Halfway Covenant of 1662,” Church History, 89 (March 2020), 43-73.

Navin, John J. The Grim Years: Settling South Carolina, 1670-1720, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2020).

Nielsen, Marianne O. and Karen Jarratt-Snider, eds. Traditional, National, and International Law and Indigenous Communities, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2020).

Ruediger, Dylan. “‘Neither Utterly to Reject Them, Nor Yet to Drawe Them to Come In’: Tributary Subordination and Settler Colonialism in Virginia,” Early American Studies, 18 (Wintero 2020), 1-31.

Saunt, Claudio. Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, (New York: Norton, 2020).

Senier, Siobahn, Sovereignty and Sustainability: Indigenous Literary Stewardship in New England, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

Silverman, David J. “Living with the Past: Thoughts on Community Collaboration and Difficult History in Native American and Indigenous Studies,” American Historical Review, 125 (April 2020), 519-527. Be sure to read as well the replies to Silverman’s review by Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Philip Deloria, Jean M. O’Brien, and Christine De Lucia.

Stofferahn, Steven A. “‘Down Too Deep’: Father Pius Boehm, From Reluctant Missionary to Devoted Caretaker at Crow Creek, 1887-1935,” South Dakota History 50 (Spring 2020), 25-47.

Thornton, Russell and Jamie Geronimo Vela, comps., NAGPRA and the Repatriation of Native American Human Remains and Cultural Objects, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Timmerman, Nicholas A. “Contested Indigenous Landscapes: Indian Mounds and the Political Creation of the Mythical ‘Mound Builder’ Race,” Ethnohistory, 67 (January 2020), 75-95.

Toth, Gyorgy. “‘Red’ Nations: Marxists and the Native American Sovereignty Movement of the Late Cold War,” Cold War History, 20 (May 2020), 197-221.

White, A. J., et. al., “After Cahokia: Indigenous Repopulation and Depopulation of the Horseshoe Lake Watershed, AD 1400-1900,” American Antiquity, 85 (April 2020), 263-278.

Woodard, Buck. “An Alternative to Red Power: Political Alliance as Tribal Activism in Virgina,” Comparative American Studies, 17 (no. 2, 2020), 142-166.

The Coronavirus Pandemic and Native American Communities: A Current Events Reading List

I have just completed reading the first batch of papers from my course on American Indian Law and Public Policy. I require all the students to complete a current events project. The requirements for the assignment is that they have 20 sources (which I have defined broadly owing to the students’ inability to in-person library research or make use of Interlibrary Loan); that they consult with me on the topic beforehand (most did so before the campus shut down); and that they try to write about ten pages. I cannot cover everything in class and, I tell the students, this is an opportunity for them to learn more about a subject that interests them. The added bonus is that I always learn a thing or two from their projects.

This semester, for obvious reasons, a number of students focused on COVID-19 and the Coronavirus and the impact of the epidemic on Native American communities. Because many of you who teach Native American history will have students interested in this issue, particularly with students’ awareness of the long history of epidemic and chronic disease in Indian Country, I decided to compile a bibliography of articles that you and your students might find helpful. This is not exhaustive, and I am sure that we may have missed some stories, but I hope you find this helpful. It is only a first step. Beginning tomorrow I will tweet out all the stories documenting Indian Country’s confrontation with the COVID-19 pandemic that I manage to stumble across. Be careful out there, and stay safe.

Abourezk, Kevin. “’We Are Staying on Top of It’: Oglala Sioux Tribe Declares Coronavirus Emergency.”, March 11, 2020.

Agoyo, Acee. “’Lives Are at Risk’: Coronavirus Cases Continue to Grow in Indian Country as Tribes Push for Action in Washington.” Indianz, March 19, 2020.

Acee Agoyo, “Trump administration moves slowly on coronavirus funding for Indian Country,”, March 23, 2020,

Acee Agoyo, “Coronavirus relief coming to Indian Country with passage of bipartisan legislation,”,March 26th, 2020,

Acee Agoyo, “Indian Country plunges into uncertainty as coronavirus reaches their communities,”, March 18, 2020,

Acee Agoyo, “Indian Health Service works to distribute more coronavirus funding to tribes as cases continue to grow,”, March 24th, 2020,

Barrera, Jorge. “COVID-19 Could Be ‘Devastating’ for First Nations, Says Matawa First Nations CEO | CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 11 Mar. 2020,

Barrera, Jorge. “Doctor Says Pre-Existing Nursing Shortage Leaves Northern Ontario First Nations ‘Vulnerable’ to COVID-19″ CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 18 Mar. 2020,

Becenti, Arlyssa “Workers Battle Coronavirus – and Jiní – at Epicenter.” Navajo Times, March 25, 2020.

Bennett-Begaye, Jourdan. “’We Are Not Ready for This’: Native American Tribes Struggle to Deal with Coronavirus.” The Salt Lake Tribune, March 4, 2020.

Bourque, Scott. “Navajo County Ranks 13th Worldwide For COVID-19 Infection Rate.” Fronteras, March 28, 2020.

Brady, Benjamin R., and Howard M. Bahr. “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1920 among the Navajos: Marginality, Mortality, and the Implications of Some Neglected Eyewitness Accounts.” American Indian Quarterly , vol. 38, no. 4, 2014, p. 459., doi:10.5250/amerindiquar.38.4.0459.

Bryan Eneas, More Sask. “Indigenous communities take measures to prevent spread of COVID-19,” CBCnews, March 25th, 2020,

Cancryn, Adam. “Where Coronavirus Could Find a Refuge: Native American Reservations.” POLITICO, March 28, 2020. .

Carlson, Kirsten. “Tribal Leaders Face Great Need and Don’t Have Enough Resources to Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Chicago Reporter, March 27, 2020.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “History of 1918 Flu Pandemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Mar. 2018,

Dubois, Stephanie. “Maskwacis activates ‘medicine chest’ treaty clause, declaring state of emergency,” CBCnews, March 24th, 2020,

Laurel Morales. “Navajo Access to Water Compounds Response to
Coronavirus.” Arizona Public Media, March 26, 2020.

Deer, Jessica. “5 People including Hospital Personnel Test Positive for COVID-19 in Mohawk Community.” Last modified March 24, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2020.

Ebbs, Stephanie and Cheyenne Haslet, “Indian Country Faces Higher Risks, Lack of Resources in COVID-19 Fight.” ABC NEWS, 3 April 2020.
Fonseca, Felecia. “Tribes Take Measures to Slow Spread of New Coronavirus.” ABC News. ABC News Network, March 21, 2020.

Giago Davies, James. “It Was Called the ‘Spanish Flu.’ But It Killed Hundreds of Indians Too.”

Givens, Maria. “The Coronavirus Is Exacerbating Vulnerabilities Native Communities Already Face.” Vox. Vox, March 25, 2020.

Goldman, Kara N. “The White Scarf on the Door: a Life-Saving Lesson from the 1918 Flu.” STAT , 23 Mar. 2020,

Hedgpeth, Dana, Darryl Fears and Gregory Scruggs. “Indian Country, Where Residents Suffer Disproportionately from Disease, is Bracing for Coronavirus,” Washington Post, 4 April 2020.

Heinsius, Ryan. “COVID-19 Relief Package Includes $8 Billion for Tribal Assistance.” KNAU:Arizona Public Radio. Last modified March 27, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2020.

Hollingsworth, Julia, et al. “Corona Virus Live Updates.” CNN World News , 22 Mar. 2020,

Horn, Matt, and Navajo Nation. “Navajo Nation Helps Provide Medical Supplies during COVID-19 Crisis.” AZFamily, March 26, 2020.–crisis/article_5dc62a0a-6fb5-11ea-af2f-3fbde1c350ef.html

Indian Health Service. “Disparities: Fact Sheets.” Newsroom , U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Oct. 2019,

Kassam, Ashifa. “’Be Careful’: Spain’s Last 1918 Flu Survivor Offers Warning on Coronavirus.” The Guardian , Guardian News and Media, 22 Mar. 2020, s-warning-on-coronavirus.

Lakhani, Nina. “’Timing Is Critical’: Native Americans Warn Virus May Overwhelm Underfunded Health Services.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 20, 2020. .

Lakhani, Nina. “Native American Tribe Takes Trailblazing Steps to Fight Covid-19 Outbreak.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 18, 2020.

Laychuk, Riley. “Opaskwayak Cree Nation Declares State of Emergency, Takes Steps to Keep COVID-19 out of Community | CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Mar. 2020,

Lee, Kurtis “No Running Water. No Electricity. On Navajo Nation, Coronavirus Creates Worry and Confusion as Cases Surge.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2020.

Malbeuf, Jamie. “Northern Alberta Community Limiting Access in Effort to Keep COVID-19 out | CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Mar. 2020,

Mapes, Lynda V. “As a Coronavirus Pandemic Sweeps the World, American Indian Communities Turn to One Another, Teachings.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times Company, March 24, 2020.

Michels, Holly K. “Browning Works Together to Feed Kids in Time of Coronavirus.”
Independent Record. Last modified March 18, 2020.

Moulson, Geir, and Matt Sedensky. “Worldwide Coronavirus Infections Top 600,000.” Indian Country Today. Last modified March 28, 2020. Accessed March 30, 2020.

(NCAI) The National Congress of American Indians. “The National Congress of American Indians Calls for More Attention to COVID-19 Impacts to Indian Country.” NCAI , 2020,

Newland, Bryan. “Opinion | Indigenous Americans Must Not Once Again Pay the Price for the Mistakes of Others.” The Washington Post. WP Company, March 25, 2020.

Newton, Creede. “Navajo Nation: Fears of Hunger as Covid-19 Lockdown to Intensify.” April 7, 2020.

Riley, Dr. Melissa. “Indian Health Services Is Ill-Prepared for the Coronavirus Crisis. Indigenous People Will Suffer.” Rewire.News. Last modified March 24, 2020. Accessed March 28,

Srikanth, Anagha. “How the Coronavirus Threatens Native American Communities.” TheHill, March 26, 2020. .

Trout, Lucas, Corina Kramer, and Lois Fischer. “Social Medicine in Practice: Realizing the American Indian and Alaska Native Right to Health.” Health and Human Rights 20, no. 2 (December 2018): 19-30.

What Is Yours Is Ours

I have visited the British Museum in London many times. The first time was in 1988, a couple of months after I completed my undergraduate degree. I had taken two courses in Ancient History, another in Medieval Europe, as we called it back then, and I was was eager to see the museum’s “treasures.” I was an uncritical consumer, excited to see things that I had read about but could see nowhere else.

That was over thirty years ago. Now I am a more critical consumer of museums, so much so, that my family has to tell me to lighten up whenever we visit one. I am teaching my college’s Western Humanities course in England now, and we are based as a class in Oxford’s Lincoln College. Western Humanities, required of all students at Geneseo, began as a “Great Books” course taught over two semesters by a significant percentage of the faculty. Recently we pared that requirement down to one course, and faculty are slowly modifying the original menu of works they might assign.

I think the course is one of great value. And to understand more deeply what they are reading: Sophocles, Thucydides, Plato, Cicero, the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, More, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we have arranged a number of excursions. On Friday we took in a performance of Measure for Measure by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. I sent the students on their own to the Ashmolean, a minature version of the British Museum here in Oxford. And a week from Friday we will visit the British Museum in London.

I want the students to think critically about what they see there. I had no guidance when I went, but I would like them to explore how and why it was that they came to see these objects in London, and what, really, we can learn from them. I want the students to look at the museum’s collections and decide if they can see past the artifact to the actual people behind it. In the statuary, the religious items, the decorative arts, and the household objects on display, can the students arrive at a sense of what these people valued. From these items, collected and displayed, can the students arrive at an understanding of what these people considered good and bad, beautiful and loathsome, funny or boring? What did they view as heroic? Cowardly? What frightened them, or kept them up at night? What values did they see as worthy of emulation?

It is easy, I worry, for students to view a trip to the museum as an assignment where they are required to look at stuff, often for some vague set of reasons: because this is something that you should do, or because these are an important part of the students’ cultural inheritance, with which all the heirs of that tradition ought to be familiar. I agree with these statements, I suppose–how could I not–but there is more to it than that. Look for the people who made these things, who attempted to communicate or to evoke some feeling or response in those who saw their work. If history is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures, the student’s human connection to those people far removed from them spatially and chronologically is an important part of the understanding we want to encourage. As I watched the thousands of people milling about, moving through the uncomfortably warm exhibit rooms, looking at everything a bit, I wonder what really do the hordes of tourists get out of this.

I want the students to think, as well, about why these objects are considered classic and significant. Who gets to decide? The British Museum’s “collections,” a word they use a lot, have a fraught history, to put it politely. The British Museum, in my view, has not adequately addressed how it came to amass such a large collection. Take, for instance, the famous “Elgin Marbles,” looted, according to some sources, from the Acropolis in Athens.

Other items, from other parts of the world, appear in displays with little information on how these objects arrived in London and what the descendants of those people whose culture is represented feel about this. How might various people talk back to the interpretive signs and displays that museum visitors see?

For instance, the British Museum has an “Enlightenment Gallery” that might just as well be called the “Colonialism and Empire” Gallery. As a history student, this room seduced me. I loved it. Old books like the shelves surrounding the room. Artifacts are placed on these shelves and in case around the room. Little remarked upon is the significance of these objects. What did they mean to the people to whom they originally belonged. Some of them were looted from graves, from collections around the world. There is no museum in Cairo or Athens where so large a collection of English treasures are housed. The English took these objects, and their curators will tell us what they mean. And if that requires presenting funerary objects and other items of sacred significance, it matters little.

It is unstated, but so clear when you think about it. What was yours, the British Museum says, is now ours, and we will decide what it means and its value. The Museum still says that whatever one thinks of Lord Elgin, his decision to snatch a large chunk of Athens’ cultural patrimony saved it from destruction, loss, and damage. We know better than you how to collect.

I do not follow the museum world as closely as I should, but I certainly am aware of a growing movement to “decolonize the museum.” If the British Museum is any indication, we have a long way to go.

“We’re Going to Physically Remove the Infant”

There is a video that has been circulating on Facebook. So many people viewed it and it generated so much attention that the Toronto Globe and Mail picked up the story. A young woman, quietly sobbing in her hospital bed, rocking her newborn baby. Her family surrounds her, one of them recording the event on his phone. One of them wails loudly as Canadian social workers in Winnipeg, backed by the police, explain that they must take the baby away from her mother. She was intoxicated when she entered the hospital in labor, they have said, but the family denies it. They say that if the baby cannot stay with its mother, perhaps the child could go with grandparents or another family member. Their protests do not matter. The child is placed in a car seat, and carried away by the police. The mother will find out on Wednesday if she gets her baby back.

According to the Globe and Mail, one newborn baby is taken for her mother every day in the province of Manitoba, and 90% of those newborns come from First Nations communities. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls the practice “heinous,” but it continues nevertheless. The Prime Minister, members of his government, and many Canadians speak of reconciliation. They established a commission to bring about truth and reconciliation, to acknowledge and start to undo the damage, or to at least understand the traumas the Canadian government inflicted upon native peoples through the “Sixties Scoop” and its network of residential schools. That these institutions were the site of massive suffering and abuse is beyond dispute.

Reconciliation sometimes seems like a one-way street. Sure, it has sparked conversations about the pain and the burdens of colonialism in Canada that Americans would never consider engaging with, though these sentiments are obviously not shared by Gerald Stanley, or the jury that acquitted him, or the doctors who, reports indicate, continue to sterilize First Nations women against their will. And all this news appears against the backdrop of a report that the number of children separated from their parents and thrown in cages at the southern border of the United States is far greater than the Trump Administration let on, literally unknowable, because they did not keep records.

This is heavy, all of it, when you add it up. It leads me to the conclusion I have been sharing with students in my classes for several years now: that one could write a history of the native peoples of North America using the cruelty meted out upon indigenous children by settler states as the thread holding together the narrative. Cruelty to children runs through the entire story.

These thoughts were on my mind several years ago when I began the work of revising Native America to produce a new edition. The second edition, I realize, shows this focus: the discussions of acts of terrible cruelty or callousness carried out by the English, French, Spanish, and, later, the United States, upon Native American children. There is Columbus, scooping up indigenous children as slaves; the murder of Paspahegh children by armed colonists from Jamestown. I think of the burning of Mystic fort, or other massacres, where native children fell beside their parents, victims of a style of warfare practiced without restraint by “civilized” peoples against their “savage” enemies. I think of the slaughter of Christian Conestogas by the Paxton Boys, the mass murder at Gnaddenhutten, the epidemics that carried off native children and sparked the Ghost Dance, or the boarding schools who collected and removed indigenous children from their homes. Were I to write a third edition, I would emphasize these stories even more.

And today, when we can read of the murder of native peoples by well-armed police, the too-frequent disappearance or murder of Native American women and girls in both Canada and the United States, and the travesty of South Dakota’s treatment of Native American families in its foster care system, it all seems heavier still.

Reconciliation. It is a one-way street. Too often, in practice, we can see the reminders that colonialism starts at the top. “We are ready now,” Canadians who support the movement sometimes seem to be saying. “Now that we’ve taken your land, limited the powers of your governments, mauled your culture, and damaged your children, we’re hoping that we can patch things up. We want to make things better, to understand what happened.” Meanwhile, a crisis in suicide continues, injustice continues, and monstrous scenes like that in Winnipeg continue to be played out, and young women continue to disappear. And the land remains firmly in the grasp of those who seized it.

Can it get better? Really?

I think so. I have to think so, or it would make a mockery of my work in the classroom. I have applauded the movement for reconciliation in the past. But with stories like this, and when tens of millions of Americans continue to support a President whose ignorance is matched only by his avarice, his amorality, and his cruelty, a man who uses the massacre of native peoples at Wounded Knee as a way to mock his principal opponent, deeply flawed in her own way, it is sometimes hard to be optimistic. I find that this is one of the principal challenges in teaching Native American history, and in writing a book like Native America: The struggle to keep my own sense of the darkness of the subject from crowding out the tender shoots of hope that progress is always possible.

What You Need to Read, December 2018

Adams, James David, Jr., and Troy Phipps. “Los Angeles Area Indian Land Ownership after the Civil War,” Journal of the West, 57 (Spring 2018), 7-13.

Andersson, Rani Henrik. A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country: Lakota Voices of the Ghost Dance, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

Arnett, Chris and Jesse Morin. “The Rock Painting/Xela:Is of the Tsleil-Waututh: A Historicized Coast Salish Practice,” Ethnohistory, 65 (January 2018), 101-127.

Ben-Zvi, Yael. Native Land Talk: Indigenous and Arrivant Rights Theories, (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2018).

Berkey, Curtis G., Alexandra C. Page and Lindsay G. Robertson, “The Misuse of History in Dismissing Six Nations Confederacy Land Claims,” American Indian Law Review 42 (number 2, 2018).

Billings, Andrew C. Mascot Nation: The Controvery over Native American Representations in Sports, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018).

Birch, Jennifer and Victor D. Thompson. The Archaeology of Villages in Eastern North America, (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2018).

Bjork, Katharine. Prairie Imperialists: The Indian-Country Origins of American Empire, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

Blantsett, Kent. A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018)

Bloch, Lee. “Tales of Esnesv: Indigenous Oral Traditions about Trader-Diplomats in Ancient Southeastern North America,” American Anthroplogist, 120 (December 2018), 781-794.

Brown, Kaitlin M. “Crafting Identity: Acquisition, Production, Use and Recycling of Soapstone During the Mission Period in Alta California,” American Antiquity, 83 (April 2018), 244-262.

Bruchac, Margaret and Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018).

Byram, Scott, et. al., “Geophysical Investigation of Mission San Francisco Solano, Sonoma, California.” Historical Archaeology, 52 (June 2018), 242-263.

Caison, Gina. Red States: Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, and Southern Studies, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018).

Cash, Sherri G. “Roots in the Valley: Ginseng and the New York-Iroquois Borderlands, 1752-1785,” New York History, 99 (Winter 2018), 7-37

Chambers, Ian. “The Kootenai War of ’74,” American Indian Quarterly, 42 (Winter 2018), 43-86.

Cleary, Patricia. “Possessing and Defining Native American Places in East St. Louis,” Missouri Historical Review, 113 (October 2018), 1-21.

Den Ouden, Amy E. “Recognition, Antiracism, and Indigenous Futures: A View from Connecticut,” Daedalus, 147 (Spring 2018), 27-38.

Ebright, Malcolm and Rick Hendricks. Pueblo Sovereignty: Indian Land and Water in New Mexico and Texas, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Ebright, Malcolm.  “Benjamin Thomas in New Mexico, 1872-1883: Indian Agents as Advocates for Native Americans,” New Mexico Historical Review, 93 (Summer 2018), 303-338.

Edwards, Tai S. Osage Women and Empire: Gender and Power, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018).

Erdrick, Heid E. New Poets of Native Nations, (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2018).

Flaherty, Anne F. Boxberger. States, American Indian Nations, and Intergovernmental Politics: Sovereignty, Conflict and the Uncertainty of Taxes, (New York: Abingdon, 2018).

Gaines-Stoner, Kelly, et. al., The Indian Child Welfare Act Handbook: A Legal Guide to the Custody and Adoption of Native American Children, (Chicago: American Bar Association, 2018).

Garrison, Nanibaa A. “Genetic Ancestry Testing with Tribes: Ethics, Identity, & Health Implications,” Daedalus, 147 (Spring 2018). 60-69

Gilbert, Matthe Sakiestewa, Hopi Runners: Crossing the Terrain Between Indian and American, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018).

Grillot, Thomas. First Americans: U. S. Patriotism in Indian Country after World War I, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

Grossman, Zoltan. “Planning the American Indian Reservation: From Theory to Empowerment,” Geographical Review, 108 (January 2018, 168-170.

Haggerty, Julia Hobson, et. al., “Restoration and the Affective Ecologies of Healing: Buffalo and the Fort Peck Tribes,” Conservation and Society, 16 (no.1, 2018), 21-29.

Harness, Susan Devan. Bitterroit: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018).

Hart, E. Richard. American Indian History on Trial: Historical Expertise in Tribal Litigation, (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2018).

Hauptman, Laurence M. Coming Full Circle: The Seneca Nation of Indians, 1848-1934, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Hedren, Paul L. Rosebud, June 17 1876: Prelude to the Little Big Horn, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019)

Heerman, M. Scott. The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

Hill, Matthew E., Margaret E. Beck, Stacey Lengyel, Sarah Trabert, and Mary J. Adair., “A Hard Time to Date: The Scott County Pueblo (14SC1) and Puebloan Residents of the High Plains,” American Antiquity, 83 (January 2018), 54-74.

Jacobs, Jaap. “‘ACt with the Cunning of a Fox’: The Political Dimensions of the Struggle for Hegemony over New Netherland, 1647-1653,” Journal of Early American History, 8 (no. 2, 2018), 122-152.

Jordan, Kurt A. “Markers of Difference or Makers of Difference? Atypical Practices at Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Satellite Sites, ca. 1650-1700,” Historical Archaeology, 52 (March 2018), 12-29.

Justice, Daniel Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018).

Keyes, Sarah. “Western Adventurers and Male Nurses: Indians, Cholera, and Masculinity in Overland Trail Narrarives,” Western Historical Quarterly, 49 (Spring 2018) 43-64.

Knight, Vernon James. “Puzzles of Creek Social Organization in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Ethnohistory, 65 (no, 3, 2018).

Koehler, Rhiannon. “Hostile Nations: Quantifying the Destruction of the Sullivan-Clinton Genocide of 1779,” American Indian Quarterly, 42 (Fall 2018), 427-453.

Kokomoor, Kevin. Of One Mind and Of One Government: The Rise and Fall of the Creek Nation in the Early Republic, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

Krupat, Arnold. Changed Forever: American Indian Boarding School Literature, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018).

Lee, Jacob F. Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019).

Lycett, Stephen J. and James D. Keyser, “Beyond Oral History: A Nineteenth Century Blackfeet Warriors’ Biographic Robe in Comparative and Chronological Context,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 22 (no. 4, December 2018), 771-799.

Mathes, Valerie Sherer and Phil Brigandi, Reservations, Removal, and Reform: The Mission Indian Agents of Southern California, 1878-1903, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

Matthews, Christopher N. and Allison Manfra McGovern. “Created Communities: Segregation and the History of Plural Sites on Eastern Long Island, New York,” Historical Archaeology, 52 (March 2018), 30-50.

Morman, Todd Allin. Many Nations Under Many Gods: Public Land Management and American Indian Sacred Sites, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

Nesper, Larry. “The 1914 Meeting of the Society of American Indians at UW-Madison,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, 102 (Winter 2018), 28-37.

Nolan, Raymond. “The Midnight Reader: The EPA and Tribal Self-Determination,” American Indian Quarterly, 42 (Summer 2018), 329-343.

Ramirez, Renya K. Standing Up to Colonial Power: The Lives of Henry Roe and Elizabeth Bender Cloud, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018).

Ray, Jack H. “Ear Spools, Ceramics and Burial Mounds from Southwest Missouri: Caddoan and Spiro Connections on the Northern Frontier,” Southeastern Archaeology, 37 (April 2018), 58-81.

Rensink, Brendan. Native but Foreign: Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in the North American Borderlands, (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2018).

Rindfleisch, Bryan. “My Land is My Flesh: Silver Bluff, the Creek Indians, and the Transformation of Colonized Space in Early America,” Early American Studies, 16 (Summer 2018), 405-430.

Rosenthal, Nicolas G. “Rewriting the Narrative: American Indian Artists in California, 1960s-1980s,” Western Historical Quarterly, 49 (Winter 2018), 409-436.

Schulze, Jeffrey M., ed., Are We Not Foreigners Here? Indigenous Nationalism in the U.S. Mexico Borderlands, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

Shriver, Cameron.  “Wily Decoys, Native Power, and Anglo-American Memory in the Post-Revolutionary Ohio River Valley,” Early American Studies, 16 (Summer 2018), 431-459

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. “Presidential Address: Eighteenth-Century Indian Trading Villages in the Wabash River Valley,” Ethnohistory, 65 (no. 3, 2018).

Smithers, Gregory D. Native Southerners: Indigenous History fro Origins to Removal, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Stockwell, Mary. Interrupted Odyssey: Ulysses S. Grant and the American Indians, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2018).

Sundstrom, Linea, ed., Archaeological Perspectives on Warfare on the Great Plains, (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2018).

Teasdale, Guillaume. Fruits of Perseverence: The French Presence in the Detroit River Region, 1701-1815, (Montreal: McGill Queens University Press, 2018).

Tone-Pah-Hote, Jenny. Crafting an Indigenous Nation: Kiowa Expressive Culture in the Progressive Era, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Trafzer, Clifford E. Fighting Invisible Enemies: Health and Medical Transitions among Southern California Indians, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Treuer, David. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native Americans from 1890 to the Present, (New York: Riverhead, 2018)

Tusler, Megan.  “Toward a Native Archive: Chicago’s Relocation Photos, Indian Labor, and Indigenous Public Text,” American Indian Quarterly, 42 (Summer 2018), 375-410.

van den Hout, J. Adriaen van der Donck: A Dutch Rebel in Seventeenth-Century America, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2018).

van de Logt, Mark. Monsters of Contact: Historical Trauma in Caddoan Oral Traditions, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians Against the Puritans of New England, (New York: Scribner, 2018).

Witgen, Michael. “Seeing Red: Race, Citizenship, and Indigeneity in in the Old Northwest,” Journal of the Early Republic, 38 (Winter 2018), 581-611.

Wood, Peter H.  “Missing the Boat: Ancient Dugout Canoes in the Mississippi-Missouri Watershed,” Early American Studies, 16 (Spring 2018), 197-254.

The Onondagas and the Movies, Part II: John Big Tree

On July 7, 1967, Chief John Big Tree died on the Onondaga Reservation.  Born Isaac Johnny John, perhaps in 1877 in Michigan, the Seneca actor appeared in nearly five dozen movies between 1915 and 1950.  He played a scout in “Stagecoach” along side a young John Wayne in 1939, and with Henry Fonda in “Drums Along the Mohawk,” and, again with John Wayne, in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”  That was 1949, his second-to-last film. He played Chief Pony That Walks.

After his retirement from the movies, Big Tree settled at Onondaga, where he stayed near the center of the community’s life.  According to a story about the upcoming Green Corn Dance hosted by the nation in 1951, an event that was open to the public and well-promoted in the Syracuse newspapers, the Post-Standard noted that “Chief Bigtree, motion picture actor, and is wife, Cynthia, will appear” along with Mrs. Bigtree’s “famous green corn soup and ghost bread.”  Two years later, along with Percy Smoke, Nelson Schenendoah, Jimmy Noland, and others, Big Tree joined with Onondagas at the Syracuse Boys’ Club’s Camp Zerbe to “relate Indian lore and demonstrate tribal dances.”

In 1964, Big Tree appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine in a pose that looked back to what he seemed to consider his most famous role.  Big Tree claimed that James Earle Fraser used him as one of his models when he sculpted the image for the “Indian Head” or “Buffalo” nickel, which circulated from 1913 to 1938.  Big Tree claimed as well to have posed for Fraser’s most famous sculpture, “The End of the Trail.”

Fraser denied this.  In a letter he wrote to Calvin Coolidge’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the summer of 1931, he wrote that “the Indian head on the Buffalo Nickel is not a direct portrait of any particular Indian, but was made from several portrait busts.”  It was, in a sense, a composite image.  Fraser wrote that he “used three different Indian heads.” The name of one of them, perhaps Big Tree, he said he could not remember.  The other two included “Irontail, the best Indian head I can remember; the other was Two Moons.” Some thought that the third Indian was not Big Tree but Two Guns Whitecalf, but Fraser was certain this was not the case.  Fraser was not always precise in his recollection.

Nonetheless, John Big Tree made many appearances as the “Indian on the nickel,” and when he died in 1967 the reports identified him as the model for Fraser’s image.  Big Tree, the wire-service story in the Syracuse Post Standard noted, was best “known for his acting and for his likeness on the Indian head nickel.”

As I’ve indicated in previous posts, my research right not consists of reading lots of newspaper articles about the Onondagas. I have quite literally thousands still to read through.  John Big Tree, obviously, is a very tiny part of the much larger story I intend to tell.  At a period when Onondagas appeared at the Indian Village at the New York State Fair in Plains Indian dress, an effort to assert their identity as native peoples as they fought state efforts to tax their lands, as they contended with polluters on the reservation, and began to assert that wampum belts and other items housed in the New York State Museum were part of their cultural patrimony, John Big Tree was a former celebrity whose presence appealed to his audience’s nostalgia.  That’s revealing.  White people in the state carried powerful assumptions about who native peoples were and who they ought to be.  More than anything, they tended to view native peoples, and their culture and their language and their ways of living, as part of the past.  If any number of white people had their way and any number of points in their history, I tell my students, the Onondagas would have been gone. In a sense, they had to appear in a certain manner–that of the Plains Indian–in order for white people to see them, to consider them authentic.  At the time John Big Tree died in 1967, that was beginning to change.  And the magnitude of that change will be most visible when we get to our next film next week.

Patterned Acts of Violence

Brooke Crews butchered Savanna Greywind.  Crews wanted a baby, and her young neighbor was eight months pregnant.  On the night of 17 August last year she lured Greywind into her home. While Savanna was still alive, and passing in and out of consciousness, she cut the child from her womb. When Crews’ boyfriend arrived, she presented him with the baby.  “This is our baby,” she reportedly said. “This is our family.” Together, they cleaned up the blood. Together they disposed of Savanna’s clothing. And, together, they wrapped her body in plastic sheeting and dumped of it in the river, where kayakers found it sometime later.

JUST OVER A YEAR BEFORE Savanna Greywind’s murder, another twenty-two year old, Colten Boushie, set out from his reserve west of Saskatoon. The car Colten and his friends were riding in got a flat tire, and the guys pulled into the farm of Gerald Stanley.  Boushie and his friends had been drinking.  They may have committed some petty thefts, though the testimony is confused.  Young guys, engaging in mischief.  Committing some minor crimes.  (If you were ever a young adult, you probably have done this sort of stuff, too). But, here, at Stanley’s place, they seem to have wanted nothing more than help fixing a flat tire.  What happened next is a matter of dispute. Stanley said that the 70-year-old handgun he wielded in order to scare the young men off misfired. Others that he carried out an act of vigilante justice against a group of young men he feared had come to rob him.  And others still believed that Stanley was an Indian-hating westerner from the Canadian Plains.  Whichever, the case, Colten Boushie, who was seated in the vehicle’s front seat, died from a gunshot wound to the head.  The bullet was fired by Stanley, from his old gun.

Last week, Savanna Greywind’s killer was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Stanley’s trial for the murder of Colten Boushie began last week. Both stories struck me as so evocative of the long and troubled history that I teach.  Both stories scream with the echoes of the past.

The news is increasingly filled with stories of missing and murdered indigenous women and children.  In response to Greywind’s murder, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp has introduced “Savanna’s Law,” which will “help address crisis of missing and murdered Native American women.”  Specifically, the act would

  • Improve tribal access to certain federal crime information databases. The bill would update the data fields to be more relevant to Native Americans, and mandate that the Attorney General consult with Tribes on how to further improve these databases and their access to them. The Attorney General would then submit a report to Congress on how the U.S. Department of Justice plans to implement the suggestions and resolve the outstanding barriers Tribes face in acquiring full access to these databases.
  • Require the Attorney General, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health and Human Services to solicit recommendations from Tribes on improved access to local, regional, state, and federal crime information databases and criminal justice information systems during the annual consultations mandated under the Violence Against Women Act.
  • Create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans. These protocols would take place in consultation with Tribes, which would include guidance on inter-jurisdictional cooperation among tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement.
  • Require an annual report to Congress with data. The report would include statistics on missing and murdered Native women, since there is little data on this problem and there isn’t a central location for keeping that information. The report would also include recommendations on how to improve data collection.

I wish Heitkamp well. I hope her legislation passes, and I hope it helps.  It mainly aims at attempting to improve information about a problem that all acknowledge is poorly understood.  That is a good thing, but it seems to me it is at best a half-measure. So much more than information is needed.

Heitkamp’s proposed piece of legislation addresses nonetheless deep and systemic problems that cut to the core of the Native American experience in North America.  Native American women have always been objects of white violence.  Long ago, for instance,  George Percy told the story of how he ordered the Queen of Paspahegh stabbed to death after his men had earlier entertained themselves by throwing her children from the boat and shooting out their brains in the water.  Edward Moseley, that mercenary who sold his services to the Puritan Saints during King Philip’s War, boasted about how he unleashed his war dogs on an Algonquian captive his men had taken.  The dogs, Moseley noted, tore her to shreds. The mutilation of women’s bodies by American soldiers at Sand Creek: that, too, is part of a long, long story.  Sexual violence rests at the core of this history and it continues: along the Canadian Highway of Tears and, if the spotty records are correct, on reservations across America.  And in Fargo.

Brooke Crews stole Savanna Greywind’s baby.  There is a long history of white clergymen, government officials, military officers, and bumbling do-gooders who have scooped up Native American children.  Canada, much more than the United States, has started a discussion of the legacy of residential schools and the problems that continue to plague them. European colonizers and their colonial heirs long have collected the orphans whose parents they killed, sold them into slavery, bound them into servitude, and still, today, distribute them to white families in some states through broken and racist foster care systems.

Colten Boushie’s story, too, has so many ties to a vicious and violent past, for white people, throughout the history of this continent, have murdered native people. That reality runs through every book I have written, including Native America: Arthur Peach, the killer of a Narragansett messenger, Northern Neck racists who murdered Susquehannocks; Pennsylvania Frontiersmen who murdered Senecas with impunity, leading Federalist Timothy Pickering to lament that, for most white people living in close contact with native peoples, killing an Indian was no crime at all. Read the annual reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:  they are full of complaints from federal policy makers who felt powerless to stop the violence meted out on Indians by the white frontier population.  It was frontier whites, American officials understood so well, who were responsible for frontier violence.  Indians were usually victims.

You cannot miss this in the documents. It is all there. It is always there.  And still it goes on.  The police treated Boushie’s body with a callousness they would not use for white crime victims. And the police, when they came to Boushie’s house to tell his mother and father that their son had died, searched the house.  They came in with guns drawn. They treated Mrs. Boushie with disrespect and cruelty.  If the Boushies’ account is accurate, the Canadian police behaved like racist thugs.  It is a heart-breaking tale that should shame police officials in Saskatchewan.


GREYWIND’S MURDER has provoked discussion and legislation in the halls of Congress to address a problem that native peoples have talked about for generations, but that Congress is only now starting to act upon.  Boushie’s murder has caused deep-seated racial tensions to surface and has brought into the open, his grieving friends and families say, the sorts of racism and violence First Nations people face every day.  The trial is receiving heavy coverage in Canada, where Boushie is being described as the “Rodney King of Canada.”  Maybe something good will come from airing out these issues.  That is what some hopeful people say.  I am doubtful, because this violence has gone on forever.  The headlines in the newspapers point out that the case has caused racial fears to increase, and that white people, one story said, are fearful of retribution. White people are worried.  Fear of the other.  Fear of the marginalized. Fear of the neighbors whose ancestral homelands you now occupy. I heard the expression of that fear when I lived in Montana: from my landlord, a feisty old woman who would not rent to Crows because, she said, if you let one in, soon you would have the whole tribe; from my students who, in unguarded moments, embraced baldly racist stereotypes; to the angry ranchers who extracted their livelihood from what had once been Crow land, and who refused to place themselves voluntarily under the authority of tribal officials. I hear it in small-town New York, too, where one can still see the faded “Upstate Citizens for Equality” sign along the sides of roads throughout the Finger Lakes.

We are historians.  Many of us have heard the old line, that if we do not learn from the past we will repeat our mistakes.  We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  And, in Native American history, it is the continuities that stand out: with a Secretary of the Interior who views anything he cannot kill as something he might drill, and who views nothing as sacred save for his own conservative evangelicalism; with violence continuing across the continent; with a hostile legal system assaulting native nationhood; and with a Chief Executive whose infantile racism makes clear what many of us have long argued: this is a deeply racist country, and many of us continue to benefit from that systemic injustice.  We have numerous examples of how difficult it will be to achieve meaningful change.  That is realistic, not pessimistic.

My students are shocked when they read about stories like those of Savanna Greywind and Colten Boushie, and even more so when I take the time to place them in the context of a much larger, and much more violent, history than they have ever been taught. They seem empowered, some of them, and determined to “do something.”  Others, they sense that the obstacles are formidable. And so on we go, teaching and writing, fighting against the dark belief that things will not get better. We choose the stories we want to tell.  We must remember that.