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Talking About Christianity and Native American Communities

I was raised in a Catholic household by parents who are now Unitarians.  I was never confirmed, was withdrawn by my parents from Our Lady of Assumption school after I finished sixth grade, and long ago left the church.  There is nothing that I can accept as true in the Apostles’ Creed I was expected to memorize as a child.

I write this to let you know where I am coming from when I tell you I am nonetheless sometimes disturbed  by uncritical and decontextualized denunciations of churches in general and the role they played in the encounter between natives and newcomers. Religious people did hideous things in the name of their particular variants of Christianity, a fact which no historian of Native America can deny.  Still, though there are plenty of villains, as in most matters of the soul this is no simple morality play.  It is worth taking the time to get it right. There are some truly outstanding historians writing about this religious encounter, but the sophistication and subtlety of their work has not trickled down to popular understandings of the incredibly diverse array of relationships that developed between different native peoples and organized Christianity.

For the past several years, for example, I have been conducting research on a history of the Onondaga Nation.  There is little doubt that the Jesuit fathers who came to Onondaga in the middle of the seventeenth century hoped to sneak in through the “Smoke Hole” of the Onondaga Longhouse.  They wanted to minister to the Wendat adoptees residing in Onondaga communities.  The Onondagas, much later, allowed several Protestant denominations to operate missions on their reservation but they did not allow the Catholics. “It’s because of what Image result for jesuit relationsthey did to us,” one person with whom I spoke told me. But the Jesuit missionaries, at the end of the day, came to Onondaga only because the Onondagas permitted them to do so.  They planted their mission on an elevation overlooking Onondaga Lake, because that is where the Onondagas permitted them to do so.  Wendat adoptees looked at and listened to the priests but the Onondagas took little interest.  The priests, indeed, felt isolated and threatened. They used the church they had constructed to secretly build the canoes they would use when they fled one winter’s night from Onondaga. The Jesuits had that little influence upon the Onondagas. Priests did not always dominate, intimidate, or exercise any control over native communities. Sometimes they were barely tolerated. At other times they did exactly what they were told by their native hosts.  They stayed on only so long as they were tolerated, and native peoples had complex reasons for wanting them around, some of which had nothing to do with acceptance of their religion.  When we focus upon the bigotry of the missionaries, and when we cast the story in simplistic terms, we can lose sight of how native peoples understood their encounters with Christianity.

Still, we who teach and write about Native American history need to discuss the misdeeds of the various religious denominations, however uncomfortable that might be for some of our students. Missionaries, after all, hoped to cause a huge chunk of Native American identity to disappear.  The story of Christian missionaries in Indian country is often one of bumbling good will, or cultural arrogance and spiritual bigotry.  They attempted to erase Native American spirituality. And this bigotry is fundamental to the entire story of Christian missions to native peoples in North America.  And the abuse and the violence, too:  there are stories there that must be told.

I have just finished watching, for instance, a Netflix documentary series called “The Keepers,” a deeply unsettling story of rape and murder at a Catholic girls’ school in the Diocese of Baltimore. It is a story of clerical sexual abuse on steroids that long predated the Spotlight investigation in Boston and the exposure of this widespread rot at the Catholic Church’s core. And it is the story of the generational trauma this sort of abuse and criminality can cause.

My students are pretty attuned to what’s available on Netflix, and it is worth telling them, I think, that the problem of clerical sexual abuse highlighted in “The Keepers” extended into Indian country.  Just a couple of months ago a Montana newspaper, the Great Falls Tribune, produced a series investigating how the Catholic Church used Indian reservations in Montana as “dumping grounds” for predatory priests.  In my American Indian Law and Public Policy course at Geneseo I expect my students to watch the PBS Frontline documentary “The Silence,” reported by Mark Trahant, about a small Catholic church in a remote Alaska native village overseen by a number of serial abusers, and the wreckage the priests and their accomplices left behind.  It is painful to watch. When I have shown the film in class it has left my students stunned, struggling to find the words to describe their feelings. 

For many years I have used in class Luke Lassiter, Clyde Ellis and Ralph Kotay’s book, The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity, and Indian Hymns. The University of Nebraska Press published the book with a CD including recordings of these the Christian hymns sung by the Kiowas. What the book does, beautifully and meaningfully in my view, is show how in the Kiowas’ hands Christianity became a Native American religion, the center of their lives, and the heart in a heartless world.  It is a story that complicates the narrative of Christian missions my students heard in high school, if in fact they heard anything there at all.  There are other books and essays that can serve a similar function.  There are several chapters in Matthew Dennis’s Seneca Possessed that provide a nuanced portrait of the Quaker missions at Allegany and Cattaraugus early in the nineteenth century; Linford Fisher’s The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America is outstanding on New England in the eighteenth century; Steven Hackel’s study of the Spanish missions in California, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis; Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint on one of the Catholic Church’s newest saints; Dan Mandell’s Behind the Frontier and Tribe, Race, History; articles by Robert James Naeher and Harold Van Lonkhuyzen that appeared in the New England Quarterly; the chapter on Kahnawake in David Preston’s Texture of Contact; Tammy Schneider’s article on the Mohegan Joseph Johnson which appeared in Reinterpreting New England Indians and the Colonial Experience, edited by Neil Salisbury and Colin Calloway; David Silverman’s Red Brethren and Faith and Boundaries; Laura Stevens’s The Poor Indians and Erik Seeman’s book on Death in the Atlantic World are all outstanding.  Recent works worth checking out include Benjamin Kracht’s Kiowa Belief and Ritual; Louis Warren’s God’s Red Son and Mark Clatterbuck’s Crow Jesus: Personal Stories of Native Religious Belonging.  This list is far from exhaustive, and if you have other suggestions, I will be happy to share them.

Religion can be many things. It can be, in its most formal sense, a set of rules and regulations, things to do and things to avoid if one wants to achieve salvation. It can be judgmental and cruel or, at its best, a message of love, for everybody, of liberation and equality and compassion. You might dismiss it as myth or nonsense, or as a salve or an opiate to calm your fears and ease your pain.  Or it might give you the confidence and courage to do extraordinary things.  It can be all of these things, I suppose, to each of us at different points in our lives. And none of the beliefs you hold about religion or, for that matter, about politics, economics, or society, need keep you from doing good historical research if you are honest, as free from bias and prejudgment as you can be, and if you keep your eyes, your ears, and your heart open. We must all strive to understand the people we write about, even those we detest. Compassion, understanding, empathy: they are important tools of the historian’s trade. And when you understand, yes, you must condemn and criticize where it is warranted and, above all, you must teach these disturbing stories when your training and the instincts you have honed leave you convinced that these stories matter.  If you are honest, you have nothing to fear.

My Imposter Story: Some Thoughts on Ralph Ketcham

A couple of weeks ago I attended a memorial service for one of my graduate school professors, Ralph Ketcham, who had died last spring.  A great and productive scholar and teacher, active up until the end.  A lot to admire.

I wanted to finish Ralph’s final book, Public Spirited Citizenship: Leadership and Good Government in the United States, before I wrote more about my experience with him.  As in so much of Ralph’s scholarship, James Madison’s political writings, and Madison’s quest for a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government,” weighs heavily on this book.  But Ralph covers much more ground than that, from Plato to Cicero, to Erasmus and Swift and Pope and Jefferson and, of course, Publius. Ralph said that the authors of the Federalist spoke enough with one voice that they should be considered as one, even if I never quite believed that.

Ralph lamented in this final book the loss of public spirited-ness, a common theme in the works of the political writers he spent his career studying. He lamented how the factionalism which Madison sought to control had broken the republic into a menagerie of competing “interest” and “identity” groups, each pursuing their own tribal interest.  This tribalism placed, and places, little value on far-sighted leadership and, importantly, it asks little of citizens other than that they register to vote for this cause or another, and that they mobilize and join with others of like mind and devotion to the same cause to protect their partial interests.  The notion of a public good had shriveled in the heat of this factional competition, stoked by leaders who looked only to their next election.

I had not seen Ralph in the several years before he died, and I wonder how hopeful he was for the future. Not after the electoral college placed in the Oval Office a corrupt and unlettered brute free of the tiniest ounce of public-spiritedness and bearing nothing more than a narcissistic devotion to his own reputation, image, and desiccated sense of honor.  If one wanted evidence that “the people” had failed, that the system had not worked, the election of a man so clearly devoid of all but the most minimal qualifications for the office and whose fitness for the job has been openly questioned by members of his own party, seemed abundant proof.  Trump’s election seemed to make the case that perhaps the “citizens” are not up to the fulfilling the vital duties of citizenship.

“What is needed to attain good self-government, then,” Ralph writes in the closing pages of Public-Spirited Citizenship, “is broad and deep, as well as clear and simple.”  What we need are “citizens and leaders who are in some degree knowledgeable, wise and public-spirited.” Easier said than done, perhaps.  But Ralph expressed faith that the citizens of this republic were equipped or could be equipped once again to develop the “habits of the heart–that give them not only such perception of the public good but a passion to seek it in the polity.”

Such a growth and development is an essential part of the change needed in the ‘bewildering and disconcerting,’ even dysfunctional, group pressure and conflict-of-interest politics now dominant in the United States. The potentially present moral and emotional qualities of human beings, of citizens, though, need earnest, careful, widespread nurture and teaching to fulfill a genuinely public-spirited citizenship. That, in fact, is a crucial part of overcoming the present political culture to achieve one closer, again, to that of the Athenian Oath: ‘We will strive increasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty; thus in all these ways we will transmit this city, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it has been transmitted to us.”

When I went back to Syracuse for Ralph’s service, I spent some time in the University Archives. I am working on a book on the history of the Onondaga Nation, and one of the university’s early chancellors was at the center of a number of unsuccessful efforts to break up the Onondaga reservation and allot its lands to individual Indians.  I spent some time there, then ate at one of the few places that remained on Marshall Street from when I was a student there more than twenty five years ago, and then walked up to Maxwell Hall, where I saw in the lobby the statue of George Washington, framed by the Oath of the Athenian City State. I went to Ralph’s service at Hendricks Chapel, listened to the stories Ralph’s colleagues and former students told, and what I heard there informed how I taught Cicero when I got back to Geneseo the next day.  I felt very fortunate to have known Ralph, and to have had him as a teacher.  A lot of good memories.

And I remembered very clearly that I owed Ralph a lot.  When I got to Syracuse in 1990, with a generous fellowship, I had imposter syndrome. Big Time.  I had the Maxwell School’s most prestigious fellowship, and at my first class every class meeting at Syracuse, in Ralph’s class–man, some of those people were so smart.  It was a history of early American political thought and it drew students from the history department but also from philosophy, political science, public administration, and cultural foundations of education.  I found these other students intimidatingly bright, so well-spoken, so confident.  But the class was too large for good discussions, Ralph thought, so he broke it into two groups, and I went with the historians.  I was doing all right here, I guess, but not well enough to know that I was going to make it in graduate school.

Our first paper assignment involved analyzing the works of a number of Puritan writers, some in England like William Ames and the Lord Saye and Sele, and others in America like Roger Williams.  John Winthrop factored largely in my paper, and I still use bits of what I wrote when I teach the early history of New England. I cannot recall all of the works we read, but I remember benefiting greatly from working through them.  I did the paper, my first in graduate school at Syracuse, and waited apprehensively for the result. Professor Ketcham, if I remember it right, said that both halves of the class would meet as one, a committee of the whole, at his house a short distance from campus that evening. Something had gone wrong, or bothered him about the papers. I cannot remember if this was a conclusion I drew myself, or one that emerged from the usual worried scuttlebutt that ran through the graduate students’ hangout, a bar on the South Campus called the Inn Complete.

Professor Ketcham let us have it–gently, but unmistakably so. He mentioned that history or political science of whichever field we were serving our apprenticeships in was, at the end of the day, about writing. He might have said something about stories, but I am not sure. He certainly mentioned the importance of clarity and style as essential ingredients in a persuasive and effective paper. I wish I still had my marked up copy of that paper, but it did not manage to make the trip during one of my many moves since I left Syracuse in 1994.

Ralph told us all this, and then he began reading.  He said that he wanted to provide an example of an effectively written paper. He began to read mine.

I knew that I still did not feel very accomplished, or as if I had just beaten the world.  Self-doubt would continue to plague me, as I suspect it does many students of history.  But I did feel like I imagine a baseball player feels like after he hits a groundball single in his first at bat. No great accomplishment by itself. Need to keep working, and keep improving.  But, still, I can do this.

Graduate school in many ways for my cohort of students seemed to generate lots of feelings of inadequacy, of self-doubt, of imposter syndrome.  We worried if we would ever find academic jobs, though nearly all of those who finished were lucky enough to do so.  I am not sure how typical my program was. At the time, there were some very, very fine historians at Syracuse. One of my classmates, who came to Syracuse via an Ivy League undergraduate program, quipped that Syracuse’s history department had an inferiority complex that we all paid for with a very heavy workload. It came up between beers, wings, and fries at the Inn Complete. I actually liked my time in school, self-doubt aside, and liked doing the reading.

No big deal.  The paper was read. I got a good grade.  But I was grateful for that. It helped me through a trying first year at Syracuse.  I was a Southern Californian who had never seen snow fall before in my life, and here I was living three thousand miles away in a city known for its foul weather.  For that first class I have always been grateful to Ralph. He was always interested in my work. I know, from our interactions over my four years on campus, and from the times I saw him when I went back, that Ralph thought highly of me and my work.  His support was one small piece of the puzzle of how I managed to succeed as a graduate student and an academic historian in my own right.

I will be teaching the History of the Early Republic in the spring.  I have not taught it since my last year at MSU-Billings, which was twenty years ago.  I have always had a fondness for the field–originally I went to Syracuse to study that period.  Other things came up along the way and I followed a different path, but I moved back into the field when I researched and wrote my books on Canandaigua and on Eleazer Williams. I have started working through the broader scholarship again, refreshing my memory, making note of what is new.  I revisited Ralph’s edition of Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention, which he paired with a nice selection of Anti-Federalist writings.  I looked again at his Presidents Above Party and his massive and authoritative biography of James Madison.  If if were not so huge I would consider using it class.

We who succeed in this field are the products of a lot of hard work to be sure, but also of the efforts of those with whom we study. My interpretations of this or that were framed during discussions and debates in reading seminars and my teaching style, I am sure, though it has changed much over the years, still bears traces of Ralph and the other folks who I watched teach, and from whom I learned so much.



This Friday is Sorry Day in Australia.  Though it has antecedents in aboriginal protest and commemoration, Sorry Day has taken place every May 26 since 1998.  It followed in its current form from a May 1997 report by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission called Bringing them Home, which acknowledged that “Indigenous children have been forcibly separated from their families and communities since the very first days of the European occupation of Australia.”  That report was tabled twenty years ago this year.  Children in Australia’s boarding schools experienced physical and sexual abuse. They received little education of value. The Australian government admits that now.

In February of 2008, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology. You can watch his powerful statement here.  He spoke of the brutality of Australia’s historic treatment of its indigenous neighbors.

Until we fully confront that truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us and our future as a fully united and fully reconciled people.

It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.

To the stolen generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry.

I offer you this apology without qualification.

We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted.

We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied.

We offer this apology to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments.

In making this apology, I would also like to speak personally to the members of the stolen generations and their families: to those here today, so many of you; to those listening across the nation – from Yuendumu, in the central west of the Northern Territory, to Yabara, in North Queensland, and to Pitjantjatjara in South Australia.

I know that, in offering this apology on behalf of the government and the parliament, there is nothing I can say today that can take away the pain you have suffered personally.

Whatever words I speak today, I cannot undo that.

Words alone are not that powerful; grief is a very personal thing.

I ask those non-indigenous Australians listening today who may not fully understand why what we are doing is so important to imagine for a moment that this had happened to you.

I say to honourable members here present: imagine if this had happened to us. Imagine the crippling effect. Imagine how hard it would be to forgive.

My proposal is this: if the apology we extend today is accepted in the spirit of reconciliation, in which it is offered, we can today resolve together that there be a new beginning for Australia.

And it is to such a new beginning that I believe the nation is now calling us.

Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot.

For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.

Rudd’s statement, which is worth reading in its entirety, goes far beyond anything the United States has considered. There is in this country a substantial number of people who do not like to hear about the negative parts of US history.  I have heard this sentiment a lot over the years, and it takes different forms: discussion of the negative parts of American history is unpatriotic, or demoralizing, or depressing; telling these stories might come at the expense of telling more positive and uplifting stories that could bring young people to respect and revere American institutions; or, occasionally, telling the stories of those individuals and groups who have fallen by the wayside or who suffered as a result of American progress somehow diminishes the dominant narrative and those white people who populate and benefit from it.  These reactionary forces are powerful.  Those who bring these stories up can expect to be criticized severely, to have their integrity and their objectivity as scholars questioned, or to be dismissed with that empty-headed epithet that their work is “politically correct.”  I saw this first hand when I taught in Montana at the beginning of my career in the 1990s.  Speaking out on these issues, it turned out, nearly cost me my job.

Sorry Day in Australia is a limited response.   It does not go as far as the guys in the Australian rock band Midnight Oil wanted to go when they called upon their fans, in “Beds are Burning,” to return the land to its original owners.

Sorry Day does not pretend to fix every problem. But it does open up a discussion, a day when the government of Australia encourages its citizens to reflect upon what it has done, even in the relatively recent past, to Aboriginal Australians. That is more than the United States has done.

Canada, too, despite continuing problems with First Nations youth in provincial institutions, despite the large numbers of missing indigenous women, and the deep structural problems that gave rise to the Idle No More movement, has undertaken efforts to talk about its painful past.  I have mentioned on this blog the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation housed in Manitoba: it is a marvelous project that might equip Canadians to tell the story of Canada’s residential schools, the young people taken by law and by the authorities from their families to be educated, and the consequences and legacies of these wrong-headed and evil policies.

In the United States, in places, there are efforts to begin an accounting for the nation’s past misdeeds. Confederate memorials are coming down, a long-over due policy beautifully defended by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu.  Some buildings, on some college campuses, named after racist and cruel figures from the American past, are being renamed, though not without controversy.  Some universities with ties to the slave trade, like Brown and Georgetown, have undertaken programs to atone for their sins.

But when it comes to native peoples, we are way behind Canada and Australia.  Small gestures, no doubt, are taking place: some members of some religious congregations have pushed their churches to renounce the so-called “doctrine of discovery,” a symbolic gesture that in the end would cost these churches little.  More real, perhaps, was the recent decision by the Society of Jesus to return land given to it by the United States on the Rosebud Reservation to the community. But a larger accounting has not occurred.

And without such an accounting, young people can only with great difficulty arrive at an understanding of the moral complexities of their nation’s past.  We need more than an apology, couched in legalese, that nobody knows about. I have mentioned the congressional apology on this blog. You can read it here, and see how truly deficient a document it is.  It is as if a Senate staffer went through an American history textbook, found the points where bad things happened to native peoples, and cobbled them together into a tepid and half-baked statement of regret.  We are sorry, but want it understood that nothing in this apology opens us up to suit.

The resources to write and teach this history are out there, and contrary to what you might have been taught, native voices are not hard to find in the historical record.  In the Agency records housed at the National Archives, for instance, hundreds and hundreds of reels of microfilm, each containing hundreds of pages of documents, allow committed researchers to reconstruct the government’s systematic programs to incarcerate native peoples on reservations, Christianize and civilize them, and take their land, all in the name of “Progress.”  Scattered around the country in state, local, and organizational archives are the historical documents that reveal the herculean efforts of native peoples to survive these policies. In these records are the stories of native peoples who lived their lives under this oppressive regime.  Their stories are worth talking about.  Obviously if I did not believe this very strongly I never would have written Native America.  We need to know these stories, for without comprehending the damage done we can hardly understand that for which we apologize.

On the last day of class in my Native American survey course, I talk about apologizing for the past.  I mention the periodic calls for an apology for slavery, or the efforts of the Reagan administration to accept responsibility on behalf of the American people for the policy of “internment” during the Second World War. I ask, “What about native peoples?” Does the United States owe native peoples an apology? I play them a video of Rudd’s apology and I might have them look at the American apology resolution.  Are these actions adequate? If not, what more might be done? Has so much historical damage been done that nothing can set things right?

You can imagine the student responses.  We (they readily identify themselves with the government still) will get sued, or when will it end, they ask.  They worry of an ill-defined slippery slope.  I had nothing to do with it, some might say, for my family came to the United States long after all of this history had occurred.

I try not to say too much. I try to let the conversation evolve.  If there is a lag, I mention some of the stories I have told them over the course of the semester.  I do not talk about the larger processes of dispossession or colonialism, but smaller stories, about individuals and local groups.  Don’t these stories cause you to feel sorrow? Regret?

We do not apologize well, I tell them.  I will mention whatever celebrity is in the news who said something that he or she regretted, followed by a “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”  No, I will point out.  It would have been better for this person to have said, “I’m sorry that my words hurt you.”  And if the government does not owe native peoples an apology, I ask the students, “Do you?”

It is time for us to pull these records together.  The National Archives does a lot.  Archivists across the country do great work, and digitization projects are underway all over the place. But these institutions need resources (Yes, I know about the Trump administration’s draconian budget proposal).  Let’s start compiling the material to tell this story comprehensively.  It is time for an accounting. Look, as I mentioned in an earlier post, at the ground beneath your feet. It does not diminish us in any way to admit that non-Indian citizens of the United States have prospered because their ancestors made native peoples suffer. It is the truth.  We need to confront it.

The Trump Administration Keeps Alive Fears of Termination

In the midst of all the other foreboding news coming out of Washington, it is difficult for me sometimes to follow Indian affairs as closely as I would like. Nonetheless, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently made some comments that caught my attention.

Several weeks ago on this blog I suggested that fears of a return to Termination under President Trump are overblown.  The Indian policy of the United States for roughly the quarter-century following the Second World War, Termination included a number of related components, together which were designed to get the United States government out of the “Indian business.”  I discuss the termination era in Chapter Nine of Native America.  If you want to read more about it, check out the materials in the Manual.  I have some suggested readings and the relevant documents available for your use.

First, there was the Indian Claims Commission, established by act of Congress in 1946.  The ICC would settle claims Indian tribes had against the United States for the value of lands illegally or unfairly seized at the time that seizure took place.  An urbanization program was designed to assimilate Indians into American mainstream by encouraging them to leave their reservations for American cities. The states, meanwhile, through PL 280 and other enactments, were encouraged by Congress to extend their criminal and civil jurisdiction over Indian Country. Finally, a series of “termination acts” formally ended all relations between certain Native American communities and the United States. If terminated tribes were to continue their business enterprises, one option left open to them was to incorporate.

At the beginning of May at the National Tribal Energy Summit, Secretary  Zinke suggested that it was “time for a dialogue” on the “1934 Indian Reorganization Act,” the centerpiece of the so-called Indian New Deal which preceded the Termination era.

The IRA was an incredibly significant piece of legislation, and the brainchild of John Collier, who served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 until 1945.  The IRA encouraged tribes to write tribal constitutions (many of these governing instruments remain in effect) and corporate charters to allow them to develop reservation resources.  The IRA formally ended the disastrous policy of Allotment, and placed remaining reservation lands into federal trust. Collier envisioned a reservation future for native peoples, and the transformation of Indian reservations from prisons into homelands.

For some listeners, Zinke seemed to question the utility and continued relevance of the IRA innovations.  “What are we going to be 100 years from now?” he asked.  Will the lands belonging to native peoples continue to be held in trust forever?  “Is there an off-ramp? If I offered today that the tribe would have a choice of leaving the Indian trust lands and becoming a 501c3 corporation, another entity, some tribes would take it.”

It is not clear what Zinke was trying to say.  Perhaps he was suggesting a proposal to take lands out of trust.  Perhaps he was contemplating for the Lower 48 states something akin to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which divided up lands and left them to the control of native corporations.  It is hard to say.  It was a careless statement.

Zinke did say “quite frankly” about the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is placed administratively within the Interior Department, that “I’m not sure in many ways we’re value added.”  This much is true.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs has badly mismanaged its trust responsibilities in the past, and there is no secret that Zinke wants to make it easier for Indian tribes in the west to develop their natural resources as they see fit.  “My job,” Zinke said, “is to make sure that if you want to, to get out of your way so you can do it, to be helpful, to be the advocate in your corner, so sovereignty is a word that has meaning. And consultation is not a last minute idea.”  He wanted to help tribes develop their oil, gas, and mineral resources “so we as a nation can have infrastructure.  And why does energy matter anyways? Well, it matters if you are going to have a job. In some tribes, coal or energy is the only job.”

In this there is little that Zinke said that is inconsistent with his earlier statements.  The BIA is too bureaucratic.  He wants to allow tribes to develop their energy resources.  He understands sovereignty, self-determination, and self-government, at least to the extent that federal authorities allow tribes the right to exercise these powers.  To clarify further, in a letter dated May 5 from the “Delegated Authority of the Deputy Secretary” at Interior to Jacqueline Pata, the head of the National Congress of American Indians, James Cason wrote that he was “disturbed by media mischaracterization” of Secretary Ryan Zinke’s comments, and that Zinke “supports tribal self-determination, self-governance, and sovereignty, and believes the Federal Government should meet its trust responsibilities.”

It was a decent attempt to clarify Zinke’s comments.  That this sort of miscommunication, however, can stir up fears of a dark time in American Indian policy, suggests that Zinke and the eventual undersecretary at Interior for Indian Affairs, should President Trump find the time to appoint one, will need to be very careful about what they say, and understand that their actions are being watched very closely and critically by native peoples.

On the Notorious RBG and Sherrill

Many of my friends have a great deal of affection for United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  My own enthusiasm for the “Notorious RBG,” however, is tempered by a consideration of the 8-1 opinion she wrote in the case of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation in 2005.  Today is the anniversary of that momentous decision.

The Oneida Indian Nation had purchased on the free market lands within the small city of Sherrill, New York, in 1997 and 1998.  The lands in question were once part of the Oneidas’ 300,000 acre reservation. The State of New York had acquired the lands  early in the nineteenth century in a series transactions that clearly violated the terms of the Federal Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, which stated that purchases of Indian land without a federal commissioner present and without subsequent ratification by the Senate were null and void and of no effect.

With cash from their gaming operations, the Oneidas purchased some of these lands back.  They considered the lands as part of their original reservation, and, exercising their rights as a sovereign nation, they refused to pay taxes to the City of Sherrill.  The town began foreclosure proceedings against the Oneidas.  The federal district court, and then the circuit court, ruled in the Oneidas’ favor.  These rulings, indeed, were entirely unsurprising.  But then came the Supreme Court, and the Notorious RBG.

Writing for the 8-1 majority, she shot the Oneidas down.  “Given the longstanding non-Indian character of the area and its inhabitants, the regulatory authority constantly exercised by New York State and its counties and towns, and the Oneidas’ long delay in seeking judicial relief against parties other than the United States, we hold that the tribe cannot unilaterally revive its ancient sovereignty, in whole or in part, over the parcels at issue.”


Too much time had passed since the original wrong, Ginsburg wrote.  Any remedy now, after the passage of time, would be too disruptive.  It would not be fair to the non-Indian land owners in the region who bought their land, she suggested, in good faith.  Thus the Court must prevent “the Tribe from rekindling the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.”

The Oneidas, it is true, own less than 2% of the land in the contested area and make up less than 1% of its population.  Because courts were closed to the Oneidas until 1974, they could not pursue their claims against parties other than the United States.  And the State of New York had exercised regulatory and legislative authority over the entire area even though its authority for doing so was murky at best.  The book by the Syracuse attorney George Shattuck, who helped get the Oneidas’ land claim cases into the court system, and the Syracuse University dissertation by Philip Geier do a nice job of telling much of this story.

I have strong feelings about the Sherrill decision.  We have to deal with the case.  It is law, and it has had consequences. We have to confront it.

Ginsburg’s opinion was based upon a long and flawed history. Much has been made about her decision to draw upon the so-called “discovery doctrine” and Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the 1823 Johnson v. McIntosh case.  There is in this a legal and ideological critique of Ginsburg’s ruling that has some heft, though not as much as some people think.  I would rather challenge this ruling for its willful ignorance of the region’s history.  Upstate New York, and specifically the Oneidas’ aboriginal homeland, she wrote, now had few Indians who owned little land.  Of course.  But this was the result of a historical process through which New York became the Empire State, part of a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession.  The loss of Indian lands in New York State and the advance of white settlement was not the playing out of God’s manifest destiny. It was a crime against the laws of the United States.  The region lost its Native American character because of the actions of the state of New York.

Once an Indian tribe lost its lands, even if those lands were obtained illegally in a manner that violated federal law, and even when the tribe reacquired those lands from willing sellers on the open market, Ginsburg and her colleagues on the Court held that there was no longer any remedy open to the Indians.  The only way to revive sovereignty over lost lands was to have Congress take those lands into trust. The very existence of the Oneida Indian Nation was not enough to do this.  Tribal sovereignty, the Court implied, was a quaint and antiquated notion not worthy of its consideration. The passage of time had made history irrelevant. Let that one sink in for a minute.

And keep in mind, at issue in Sherrill was not an Indian nation’s exercise of criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.  The tribes had lost that power in 1978.  Nor were we taking about the efforts of a native community to regulate or tax the activities of non-Indians on Indian lands. That, too, the Supreme Court had held was out of bounds.  No. In Sherrill, the issue was whether the Oneida Indian Nation would pay taxes to the City of Sherrill on lands the Nation owned, that stood within the bounds of its historic reservation, and that they originally had lost through illegal transactions.  Where is the disruption?  The Oneidas were dispossessing nobody.  They were imposing their authority over no one.  They were merely buying back lands that had been illegally acquired from them two centuries before.  And Ginsburg thought this was too disruptive.  That it was not fair.  The Oneidas sought not redress for waves of epidemic disease, or the military invasions of their homeland, or dispossession, or diaspora, but merely the chance to purchase the land and rebuild their nation.

Ginsburg accepted the premise that New York had acquired these lands in a manner that violated the law.  She refused to allow any remedy.  And with lower courts applying her ruling even more broadly to dismiss all Iroquois land claims, Ginsburg essentially validated illegal acts and excused the state’s misdeeds.

Ginsburg has written some helpful and valuable opinions in my view, but not in this case.  The Supreme Court is not a promising arena for native peoples to look to for the resolution of their claims.  And Sherrill, it was among the worst. It was a cowardly and cynical decision. Yeah, Justice Ginsburg seemed to say, your lands were taken from you illegally.  But even if the law says those sales are of no effect, there is nothing we can do for you now. It would not be fair.  Not to the white people who make up the majority of the population in the claim area.  History, and the law, are written by the winners.  You are out of luck.

What You Need to Read

One of the challenges of producing a textbook in Native American History is keeping up with the enormous volume of scholarship my colleagues in history, anthropology, and archaeology produce.  It is an exciting time to work in this field, precisely because of the high quality of so much of this work.  I regularly check the tables of contents in Ethnohistory, Southern Indian Studies, American Indian Quarterly, and a host of other journals.  But here is a list of some of the things that have made it on to my reading list, and that I will consider as I continue to teach my course in Native American history each fall at SUNY-Geneseo.


Angelbeck, Bill. “The Balance of Autonomy and Alliance in Anarchic Societies: The Organization of Defenses in the Coast Salish Past,” World Archaeology, 48 (March 2016), 51-69.

John Bowes, Land Too Good for Indians: Northern Indian Removal, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017).

David A. Chang, The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration,
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

Olivia Chilcote, “Pow-wows at the Mission” Boletin: Journal of the California Mission Studies Association, 31 (March 2015), 79-87

Durwood Ball, “Beyond Traverse des Sioux: Captain Edwin V. Sumner’s Expedition to Devil’s Lake in 1845,” Annals of Iowa, &4 (Winter 2015), 1-28.

Arne Bialuschewski, Native American Slavery in the Seventeenth Century, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

Celine Carayon, “`The Gesture Speech of Mankind’: Old and New Entanglements in the Histories of American Indian and European Sign Languages,” American Historical Review, 121 (April 2016), 461-491

Brian Carroll, “`A Mean Business’: Wartime Security, Sovereignty, and Southern New England Indians, 1689-1713,” Connecticut History, 54 (Fall 2015), 217-242

Linda M. Clemmons,  “We are Writing this Letter Seeking Your Help'” Dakotas, ABCFM Missionaries, and their Uses of Litearcy, 1863-1866,” Western Historical Quarterly, 47 (Summer 2016), 183-209.

Chip Colwell, Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Andrew Denson, Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory, (Chapel Hill: UNCP, 2017).

Kathy Dickson, “`All In’: The Rise of Tribal Gaming,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, 93 (no. 4, 2016), 3-12

Max Edelson, A New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America Before Independence, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).

Katherine Ellinghaus, Blood Will Tell: Native AMericans and Assimilation Policy, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

John R. Gram, Education at the Edge of Empire: Negotiating Pueblo Identity in New Mexico’s Indian Boarding School,  (Seattle: University of Washington Press 2016).

Laurence M. Hauptman,  “Fighting a Two Front War: Dr. Albert Lake, Thomas Indian School Physician, 1880-1922,” New York History, 95 (Summer 2014), 408-431.

Yasuhide Kawashima, “Red Dreams, White Nightmares: Pan-Indian Alliances in the Anglo-American Mind, 1763-1815,” Journal of Military History, 80 (April 2016).

Paul Kelton, Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight Against Smallpox, 1518-1824  (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).

William S. Kiser, Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle Over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017)

Benjamin Kracht, Kiowa Belief and Ritual, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

Brandon Layton, “Indian Country to Slave Country: The Transformation of Natchez During the American Revolution,” Journal of Southern History, 82 (February 2016), 27-58

Benjamin Madley, “Reexamining the American Genocide Debate: Meaning, Historiography, and New Methods,” American Historical Review, 120 (February 2015), 478-505

Jason Mancini, “`In Contempt and Oblivion’: Censuses, Ethnogeography, and Hidden Indian Historeis in Eighteenth-Century Southern New England,” Ethnohistory, 62 (January 2015), 61-94.

Michael Marker, “Borders and the Borderless Coast Salish: Decolonizing Historiographies of Indigenous Schooling,” History of Education, 44 (July 2015), 480-502.

Matthew McCoy, “Hidden Citizens: The COurts and Native American Voting Rights in the Southwest,” Journal of the Southwest, 58 (Summer 2016), 293-310.

Jane Mt. Pleasant, “A New Paradigm for Pre-Columbian Agriculture in North America,” Early American Studies, 13 (Spring 2015), 374-412

Raymond Orr, Reservation Politics: Historical Trauma, Economic Development, and Intratribal Conflict, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017)

Dawn Peterson, Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017)

James E. Potter, “`The Greatest Gathering of Indians Ever Assembled:’ The 1875 Black Hills Council at Red Cloud Agency, Nebraska,” Nebraska History 97 (Spring 2016), 16-31.

Joshua L. Reid, The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017). 

Judith Ridner,   “Unmasking the Paxton Boys,” Early American Studies, 14 (Spring 2016), 348-376

Paul Rosier, “Crossing New Boundaries: American Indians and Twentieth Century US Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History, 39 (November 2015), 955-966.

Christina Snyder, Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers and Slaves in the Age of Jackson, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Ashley Riley Sousa, “`An Influential Squaw’: Intermarriage and Community in Central California, 1839-1851,” Ethnohistory, 62 (October 2015), 707-727

Benjamin Steere, The Archaeology of Houses and Households in the Native Southeast, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2o17).

Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire,  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

Daniel J. Tortora, Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763,   (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

E. J. Vance, “Classical Education and the Brothertown Nation of Indians,” American Indian Quarterly 40 (Spring 20160, 138-174.

Louis Warren, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America, (New York: Basic, 2017).

Alice Wright, “Center Places and Cherokee Towns,” American Anthropologist, 118 (June 2016).

Cynthia Wu, “A Comparative Analysis of Indigenous Displacement and the World War II Japanese-American Internment,” Amerasia Journal, 42 (April 2016), 1-15

I’m So Bored with the CSA

On Tuesday, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed legislation stating that his state would no longer commemorate Confederate general Robert E. Lee on the federal Martin Luther King holiday.  It is a nice gesture, as far as it goes. Now only Alabama and Mississippi maintain this callous disrespect for the Reverend King by linking the commemoration of his career with that of a Confederate leader who fought against all that he stood for.

The Arkansas bill had wide support.  The signing ceremony included the expressions of all sorts of good feelings. Lawmakers patted themselves on the back for their courageous decision to separate the state’s commemoration of two men, one who fought for civil rights, and the other a civil war.  But not everybody was happy.  Republican State Representative Jana Della Rosa saw the separation as a demotion for Lee.  “We are taking Robert E. Lee and and are putting him in the basement and we are acting embarrassed that he ever existed,” she said during the debate.

No, Jana Della Rosa, you are not.  Robert E. Lee still has his own day, which will now be celebrated on the second Saturday in October.  But Representative Della Rosa could not be placated.  Speaking of the vote, she said, “it’s no different than if we took that statue of the Confederate soldier and put it down in the basement and said nobody is going to look at it again.”

I am not sure what it is with Representative Della Rosa and basements.  Governor Hutchinson acknowledged the concerns of lawmakers like her when he stated at the signing ceremony that Arkansans should not be ashamed of their Confederate history.

But here is the thing. The South, and southerners in general, should be ashamed.

Some of my students still are taught in high school that the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights.  Nonsense.  Slavery and White Supremacy.  These were causes Southerners thought worth dying for. These were causes for which they were killing to kill.  More than 600,000 people died as a result of the South’s determination to protect slavery.

As Charles R. Dew demonstrated in his fantastic book Apostles of Disunion, Southerners who advocated secession from the Union associated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln with three stark images that, Dew writes, “constituted the white South’s worst nightmare.”

The first, Dew writes, “was the looming specter of racial equality.” Second, was the fear of race war. The Republican party of Lincoln, wrote one secession commissioner from Mississippi, will not only destroy slavery but “will drench the country in blood, and extirpate one or other of the races.”  And, third, the southern secessionists  most dire fear, that of racial amalgamation.  Dew’s work is worth quoting at length:

Judge Harris of Mississippi sounded this note in Georgia in December 1860 when he spoke of Republican insistence on “equality in the rights of matrimony.”  Other commissioners repeated this warning in the weeks that followed.  In Virginia, Henry Benning insisted that under Republican-led abolition, “our women” would suffer “horrors…we cannot contemplate in imagination.” There was not an adult present who could not imagine exactly what Benning was talking about.  Leroy Pope Walker, Alabama’s commissioner to Tennessee and subsequently the first Confederate secretary of war, predicted that in the absence of secession, all would be lost–first, “our property,” and “then our liberties,” and finally the South’s greatest treasure, “the sacred purity of our daughters.”

Southern secessionists, Dew concluded, believed these things in the marrow of their bones.

Governor Hutchinson did the right thing in disconnecting the commemorations of Reverend King and General Lee.  But in keeping a day on the state’s calendar for honoring Lee, and asserting in his comments that Southerners should be proud of their Confederate heritage, he went too far.

We are too late in history for this sort of stuff.  The Confederacy stood for white supremacy.  That hundreds of thousands of men died in the struggle to preserve the Union and abolish slavery is sad. In an American nation where Southern states are moving to restrict access to the polls, and “Alt-Right”-inspired political leaders consistently blow racist dog whistles, we must study closely the causes and consequences of the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as the history of race and racism in American society.  But, please, no more celebration of the Confederacy.  Take down the flags.  Put General Lee in the basement.

I Say 1622! You Say…

Sometimes, when the semester begins, I think of that scene in “Back to School” where Rodney Dangerfield’s character encounters an unhinged history professor played by the great Sam Kinison.  It never fails to make me laugh.  Totally inappropriate for use in the classroom but, in its way, it conveys quite well that historians (and others) can disagree at times sharply in their interpretation of historical events.

When I teach my own Native American History course, I try to insert as much as possible a good dose of historiography.  No more than half the students enrolled in the course in a given semester are history majors.  The rest, from disciplines across the campus, are taking my class to fulfill one or more of their general education requirements. But even the history majors, in my view, are too prone to view history as a static body of knowledge, a mass of facts that I am to impart to them through lecture and discussion and that I will expect them to regurgitate on periodic examinations, rather than a dynamic field where we study continuity and change measured across time and space in peoples, institutions and cultures, and in which historians debate intensely the events that they find significant.

Debates about the size and origins of the aboriginal population of North America, or the consequences following from Christopher Columbus and the”Columbian Encounter,” itself a label that students can benefit from unpacking, offer an opportunity to do this early in the semester, or the nature of the Puritans’ war against the Pequots.  These stories produce questions that can lead students to talk about the issues of agenda and bias, but also how evidence is used and what, indeed, constitutes reliable and valid evidence. Sharp debates among historians surround each of these issues.  The Powhatan uprising led by Opechancanough in 1622, offers a fourth alternative.  Today is the anniversary of that incredibly significant event.

The earliest Englishmen to write about the massacre, or uprising, or rebellion–the words themselves matter–was  Edward Waterhouse.  For him, the meaning of the 1622 attack was clear.  The Powhatans, he wrote, were “Savages” who, “though never a Nation used so kindly upon so small desert, have in stead of that Harvest which our paines merited, returned nothing but Bryers and thrones, pricking even to death many of their Benefactors.  They were, Waterhouse continued, “miscreants,” who “put off humanity” for a “worse and more than unnatural brutishness.

His countryman, Christopher Brooke, wrote of the Indians as “Errors of Nature, of inhumane Birth,/ The very dregs, garbage, and spawne of the Earth.”  (And, No, the attack did not occur on Good Friday–that legend began as a means of conveying the innocence of the 347 colonists who died, and their sacrifice for, well, something, whether that was civilization, which was in short supply at Jamestown, or tobacco, of which there was more than enough).

You can have your students read excerpts from these documents, if you wish.  Or you could have them look at how historians have made sense of the documentary record, and how they differ in their interpretations.  There is Edmund S. Morgan’s indelible depiction of early Virginia, in which the events of 1622 become part of his beautifully-written exploration of American Slavery, American Freedom. Or J. Frederick Fausz’s depiction of Opechancanough’s rising as part of a “revitalization movement” triggered by the cultural arrogance of the colony’s leaders and the murder of a messianic figure named Nemattanew, or Jack of the Feathers.  Fausz never published his William and Mary dissertation but there are few more influential and important works on the subject.

In the early 1990s, Frederic Gleach argued that the Powhatans reacted to English territorial expansion, and that the rising led by Opechancanough was a warning of sorts, not intended to eliminate the colonists entirely, but to teach the newcomers their place within the Paramount Chiefdom he inherited from Wahunsonacock.  The anthropologist Helen Rountree, who has spent her career writing about the Powhatans, was among the earliest of the anthropologists to really try to understand the uprising in terms of Powhatan culture, and the endnotes to her books are a gold mine.

My own account, now nearly twenty years old, looked at environmental conflict between natives and newcomers, and the genocidal violence that resulted from that rivalry. The Virginia Company’s promoters wanted originally peace and order along the early Anglo-American frontier, for hostile natives would not allow the English to profit, establish a secure foothold on American shores, or spread Christianity.  Colonial promoters tended to believe that native peoples could become more like them, but they could not control the environmental conflict. Out of this conflict came warfare, and out of that warfare came racist beliefs about native peoples like those expressed in the poetry of Christopher Brooke.  Articles by historians like Fred Fausz and Alden T. Vaughan, and the work of archaeologists like Martin Gallivan, can further enrich the discussion.

The historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists who write about this topic to a great extent rely upon the same sources, but we disagree at times intensely about what they mean and the stories that those sources tell.  (The bibliography in the back of Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s first book Settling with the Indians is still a tidy and convenient listing of all the published primary sources by Englishmen who observed the Powhatans at first hand).

And when our students come to us from high schools where the amount of time available for history and “Social Studies” has been reduced significantly, and the coverage of Early American history has been given especially short shrift, and Native American history is covered not at all, they cannot be faulted for arriving with little understanding of how history works, or does not work, as a discipline.  They know little about what historians do, how we do it, the relationship of our discipline with anthropology, geography, and archaeology, and why all of this matters to us as much as it does.



We Cannot Forget What We Do Not Remember

I have told  myself that I would not write about Donald Trump, but the guy is the gift that keeps on giving, if by gifts one means a series of outrages that forebode some national or global calamity.

This week, on the Ides of March, our Bronze Creon visited the grave of Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. Trump’s affection for Jackson is clear–a portrait of Jackson hangs in the Oval Office and, in a tweet, our current president thanked #POTUS7 for his service to the country.  New Orleans? The slaughter of Creeks at Horseshoe Bend?  Perhaps.  Or was it Jackson’s distaste for the 1st Amendment in the form of his support for the congressional “Gag Rule,” or restricting abolitionist materials from the US Mail?  Did Trump like Jackson’s desire to go medieval on the Nullifiers in South Carolina? Maybe it was because Trump embraced the  myth that Jackson was an outsider, the people’s candidate, a kindred spirit of sorts, even if based on a flawed historical analogy.  Or the ruinous Bank War? Or Jackson’s brutal embrace of majority rule whatever the consequences?

For students of the Native American past, Andrew Jackson is identified with the policy of “Indian Removal.”  (God, I hate that euphemism.)  More than any of his predecessors, Jackson advocated removal as national policy toward native peoples.  His supporters included many southerners and westerners who wanted Indian land.  He called for removal in his first annual message.  He signed the Indian Removal Bill into law in 1830.  He argued that removal was not mandatory, but that native peoples who remained upon their lands must subject themselves to the laws of the states in which these lands were located. Those states offered no protection for the persons and property of native peoples. Earlier in his career, Jackson negotiated massive land cessions with southeastern Indian nations, and he appointed during his presidency the commissioners who used all means fair and foul to obtain signatures on removal treaties. During his presidency, thousands of native peoples left their homes in the east for new homes in the west.  There is no doubt that thousands of native peoples died as a direct result of the policies pursued by Andrew Jackson.

Our Bronze Creon told one interviewer that though he is very busy doing tremendous things to make America great again, he did find some time to begin reading a book about Andrew Jackson.  I doubt that he learned much.  The same day that Trump visited Jackson’s grave, a federal court in Hawaii struck down the president’s second attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from a handful of countries.  Mike Huckabee, the Le Fou of GOP politics, said that like Jackson when confronted by a Court that challenged a fundamental assumption of his Indian policy, Trump should resist the judicial branch of the federal government.   Huckabee became, in effect, the first person in the 21st century to see Jackson’s dismissal of the Court’s authority as admirable, and created the impression that this is a presidency run by men who have little knowledge of this nation’s past and less regard for the historic sufferings of its people of color.

I have written about all of this before. Jackson is a bad guy.  He ruled by anger.  He shot people in duels. He menaced his enemies.  He held grudges with such ferocity that he makes Nixon seem chill. He trashed the economy, and seems not to have understood banking. We should not shed a tear that he is slated for removal from the twenty-dollar bill.  He is rightly associated with America’s long history of ethnic-cleansing.

But here’s an unpopular point.  Removing Jackson from our currency, or denouncing him as the author of a genocide against Native Americans, does not absolve any of us of the sins of our nation.  Removal is a fact of life in Native American history. It began before Jackson took office, and continued long afterwards.  (If you have not seen it, take a look at Claudio Saunt’s interactive map illustrating Native American land loss). I teach, for instance, at a college called Geneseo.  I routinely drive through or visit places called Canandaigua or Irondequoit, and pass by on the highway places called Onondaga and Canajoharie and Nunda and Cohocton. The place names remain, after the people were removed, or consolidated on reservations in remote corners of New York state.  A half dozen archaeological sites, all previously Seneca towns, are within a half-hour’s drive of where I sit. I walk along the old path of the Erie Canal, that symbol of New York’s rise as the Empire State that could not have been constructed without Iroquois dispossession. Both its original path and its current path pass by within a half mile of my house.  In other words, look at the ground beneath your feet.  It was once Native American land, and if you live in the east, like me, you likely have benefited from the relocations and removes that turned native peoples into refugees and exiles.

A more astute politician, not to mention a more sensitive human being, might have acknowledged the costs of Jackson’s policies–policies that were popular at the time, and from which millions of non-Indian Americans continue to reap the benefits.  A more historically aware President might have talked about the complexities of the past. But that is not Donald Trump’s style.  He is not a deep thinker.  A man who recently congratulated the long-dead Frederick Douglass for the good work he is doing, Trump has shown no signs that he has any interest in or knowledge of America’s troubled past.  And that is especially the case when it comes to the victims of American history.

Thinking of Gnadenhutten, 8 March 1782

I have thought a lot lately about the old charge that University faculty are all left-wingers who distort the minds of the tender children enrolled in their courses.   I have never believed this.  When I took my first job in Montana, my colleagues in the history department included a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who despised liberals and loved Rush Limbaugh, an Iraqi Seventh-Day Adventist who worried that African Americans would move to Billings because it was easier there to commit crimes, and an expert on lynching who saw nothing objectionable in the infamous Willie Horton ad run by the George HW Bush campaign against Michael Dukakis.  I was surrounded by historians on the political right.

More recently, a local radio show asked if my college would send a representative to discuss whether or not we were concerned about a lack of ideological diversity on campus, and just days before that, the recently installed Secretary of Education warned her audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that “the faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you want to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”  I wrote about that here, yesterday.

I have little patience for charges such as these.  One thing I like to do as a historian when confronted with questions like these is to ask those who believe that left-wingers have taken over the academy how the teaching of a given subject might change if I were farther to the right or the left than I am at present.  Let’s talk about the history. Support your reasoning.  Explain to me how the political affiliation of, say, a history professor, affects the way he or she teaches a given subject.  We can talk about slavery, or the American Revolution, or I might ask them about events like the massacre at Gnadenhutten, which occurred on this date in 1782.

Because if we are to understand Native American history in all its complexity, I believe that we must confront the lacerating violence of events like Gnadenhutten. We must do so whether we are on the Right or the Left or in the middle.  I would contend that an honest rendering of this event would not differ widely on the basis of who taught it.

The frontier, we must remember, was a violent and at times a frightening place. No historian would dispute that, no matter what their politics, unless they chose to ignore the evidence completely. Many Anglo-American settlers living on war-ravaged frontiers simply could not trust their Indian neighbors. Settlers in the Ohio country, for example, experienced the horrors of warfare just as did Indians. Some of them witnessed the death of friends and neighbors in Indian attacks. More of them heard horrifying stories of Indian attack. These settlers had occasion to fear Indians. They acted, with violence and decision, to save themselves.  But settlers found in their fears justification for horrible acts of terror. They could, as did Ohio country settlers in 1782, conclude that the singing of psalms by Christian Indians at the Moravian mission at Gnadenhutten was not the pious expression of praise to the One God but the ranting and boasts of savages who had wet their hands in the settlers’ blood.

Native peoples had their own fears, of course. When Kentucky militiamen attacked a cluster of villages in northern Indiana where Potawatomis and many other native peoples lived, they threatened them with extermination. If native peoples refused to make peace, Brigadier General Charles Scott said, “your warriors will be slaughtered, your towns and villages ransacked and destroyed, your wives and children carried into captivity.”  Read Jeffrey Ostler’s excellent piece in the William and Mary Quarterly from 2015.   Indians feared genocidal violence from white Americans, and you cannot miss the expressions of that genocidal intent in the writings and statements of American officials. Words and deeds combined, a frightening mix. Many native peoples who lived in the Ohio country saw in the United States and its citizens, whatever its claims to desire peace, an existential threat to their existence. Gnadenhutten.  The soldiers from Pennsylvania held a vote on whether or not to kill the 100 Christian Indians they had taken captive. This was, for native peoples, American democracy at work.   As the Christians sang the last hymns they would sing, savage militiamen began to murder them, thirty men, three dozen women, and thirty-two children in all. Kids.  Almost three dozen.

I tell my students about these violent episodes.  I mess around with the words.  Murder becomes an expression of democracy.  Frontier settlers become savages.  I try to decenter things, upset expectations.  I want the students to think about events like these, so formative in my own thinking about the meaning of Native American History.

If you are a student, you will have to decide how to make sense of this stuff.  We can talk about it or not.  We can ignore it if we want to.  Maybe that dude in Texas, who I saw on a local television station when I lived down there defending that state’s crazy history curriculum, and who believed that a bad day in the United States was better than a good day anywhere else, would choose to dismiss Gnadenhutten as an exception.  More likely he would not have us talk about it at all. But Gnadenhutten cuts to the core of the American frontier experience, and we cannot confront that history without paying it heed.  Left, Right, or Center.