Tag Archives: History and Historians

What You Need To Read, September 2021

I am back in front of the classroom for the first time since March of 2020. It is a busy and exciting time on campus. If you find some time amidst all the adjustments required by a new school year, here is some of the scholarly work that I think might be worth your time. Enjoy, and if there is something you noticed that I missed, please send it along and I will update the list.

Bakken, Dawn E. “The Attempted Potawatomi Removal of 1839,” Indiana Magazine of History, 117 (September 2021), 169-207.

Baumgartner, Alice L. “The Massacre at Gracias a Dios: Mobility and Violence on the Lower Rio Grande, 1821-1856,” Western Historical Quarterly, 52 (Spring 2021), 35-58.

Bigart, Robert and Joseph McDonald, `We Want Freedom and Citizenship’: Documents of Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai Indian History, 1912-1920, (Pablo, MT: Salish Kootenai College Press, 2021).

Boxell, Mark. “From Native Sovereignty to an Oilman’s State: Land, Race, and Petroleum in Indian Territory and Oklahoma,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 20 (April 2021), 216-233.

Britten, Thomas A. “Termination by Decentralization? Native American Responss to Federal Regional Councils, 1969-1983,” American Indian Quarterly, 45 (Spring 2021), 121-151.

Bruyneel, Kevin. Settler Memory: The Disavowal of Indigeneity and the Politics of Race in the United States, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

Cevasco, Carla. “`Nothing Which Hunger Will Not Devour’: Disgust and Sustenance in the Northeastern Borderlands,” Early American Studies, 19 (Spring 2021), 264-293.

Conrad, Paul. The Apache Diaspora: Four Centuries of Displacement and Survival, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).

Cothran, Boyd. “Between Civilization and Savagery: How Reconstruction Era Federal Indian Policy Led to Indian Wars,” Western Historical Quarterly, 52 (Summer 2021), 167-188.

Dinwoodie, Jane. “Evading Indian Removal in the American South.” Journal of American History, 108 (June 2021), 17-41.

Estreicher, Justin. “`Unoccupied and of a Valuable Kind’: The George Gold Rush and Manufactured Cherokee Savagery,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 105 (no. 2, 2021), 87-119.

Fisher, Dennis Leo. “War, Wampum and Recognition: Algonquin Transborder Political Activism during the Early Twentieth Century, 1919-1931.” American Indian Quarterly, 45 (Winter 2021), 56-79.

Hausman, Stephen R. “Erasing Indian Country: Urban Native Space and the 1972 Rapid City Flood,” Western Historical Quarterly, 52 (Autumn 2021), 305-329.

Hill, Matthew E. and Lauren W. Ritterbush, People in a Sea of Grass: Archaeology’s Changing Perspectives on Indigenous Plains Communities, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2021).

Horn, James P. P., A Brave and Cunning Prince: The Great Chief Opechancanough and the War for America, (New York: Basic Books, 2021).

Hoy, Benjamin.  A Line of Blood and Dirt: Creating the Canada-United States Border Across Indigenous Lands, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Hudson, Angela Pulley. “The Indian Doctress in the Nineteenth-Century United States: Race, Medicine, and Labor,” Journal of Social History, 54 (Summer 2021), 1160-1187.

Kalweit, Andrew, Marc Clark and Jamie Ishcomer-Aazami, “Determinants of Racial Misclassification in COVID-19 Mortality Data: The Role of Funeral Directors and Social Context,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 44 (no. 3, 2020), 15-36.

Kennedy, Brenden Edward.  “Mississippi Stocks and the 1795 Yazoo Land Sale: Slavery, Securities Markets, Native American Dispossession, and the Panic of 1819 in Alabama,” Alabama Review, 74 (July 2021), 1-38.

Krischer, Elana. “Seneca Conceptions of Land Use and Value: Debates over Land Sovereignty, 1797-1848,” Journal of the Early Republic, 41 (Fall 2021), 373-401.

LaCombe, Michael A. “`To the end that you may the better perceive these things to be true’: Credibility and Ralph Hamor’s A True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia,” Early American Studies, 19 (Spring 2021), 294-321.

Lentis, Marinella. Colonized Through Art: American Indian Schools and Art Education, 1889-1915, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021).

Mackenthun, Gesa and Christen Mucher, Decolonizing Prehistory: Deep Time and Indigenous Knowledges in Noth America, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2021).

Mihesuah, Devon A. Ned Christie: The Creation of an Outlaw and a Cherokee Hero, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021).

Mize, Jamie Myers. “’To Conclude on a General Union’: Masculinity, the Chickamauga, and Pan-Indian Alliances in the Revolutionary Era,” Ethnohistory, 68 (July 2021), 429-448.

Montgomery, Lindsay M. “A Rejoinder to Body Bags: Indigenous Resilience and Epidemic Disease, from COVID-19 to First ‘Contact’,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 44 (no. 3., 2020), 65-86.

Nesper, Larry, Amorin Mellow and Michael S. Wiggins, Our Relations…the Mixed Bloods: Indigenous Transformation and Dispossession in the Western Great Lakes, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2021).

Newman, Paul Douglas. “The `Four Nations of Indians upon the Susquehanna’: Mid-Atlantic Murder, Diplomacy, and Political Identity, 1717-1723,” Pennsylvania History, 88 (Summer 2021), 287-318.

Nichols, David A. “Potawatomi Resistance, Renewal, and Removal,” Indiana Magazine of History, 117 (June 2021), 65-81.

Oberg, Michael Leroy. “The Way Things Matter,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 20 (April 2021), 330-332.

Pearl, Chris. “Becoming Patriots: The Struggle for Inclusion and Exclusion on Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Frontier,” Pennsylvania History,  88 (Summer 2021), 362-401.

Pointer, Richard W. Pacifist Prophet: Papunhank and the Quest for Peace in Early America, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

Rindfleisch, Bryan C. Brothers of Coweta: Kinship, Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth-Century Muscogee World, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2021).

Sabo, George. Ways of the Ancestors: Ancient Indians of Arkansas, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2021).

Seeley, Samantha.  Race, Removal, and the Right to Remain: Migration and the Making of the United States, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

Shuck-Hall, Sheri Marie.  Journey to the West: The Alabama and Coushatta Indians,  (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021).

Spindler, John E. “Slaughter in the Snow,” Military Heritage, 22 (Winter 2021), 62-71.

Tongkeamha, Henrieta, et al., Stories from Saddle Mountain: Autobiographies of a Kiowa Family, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021).

Usner, Daniel H. “Chitimacha Diplomacy and Commerce in Colonial Louisiana,” Louisiana History, 62 (Spring 2021), 133-176.

Webster, Rebecca M. “The Wisconsin Oneida and the WPA” Stories of Corn, Colonialism, and Revitalizaation,” Ethnohistory, 68 (July 2021), 407-427.

Wickman, Thomas. “Our Best Places: Gender, Food Sovereignty, and Miantonomi’s Kin on the Connecticut River,” Early American Studies, 19 (Spring 2021), 215-263.

Yarbrough, Fay A. Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

Montana Story, Part II: Apply Yourself

And about that college in Montana. It is not that the people in my department did not care about my research. It’s that they saw any small success that came my way as something to resent. Sometimes I told myself that they saw my work through a lens of insecurity, that my productivity reflected on their own lack of productivity. But I was not all that productive in Montana. Anyways, I know now that this was never the case. They were just mean-spirited bastards, and I let those assholes get under my skin.

I have thought about this a lot in light of the Netflix show “The Chair.” I saw someone on twitter ask about Bob Balaban’s character, the starchy and elitist professor of American literature Elliot Rentz. Pembroke University, the fictional setting for “The Chair,” looks like paradise compared to MSU-Billings, which at the time I taught there was a demoralizing hellscape led by a dunce of a President and a dumbbell Dean.

My department consisted of two Jeopardy Champions. One, who was working on a bibliography of lynching, insisted that the infamous Willy Horton advertisement was perfectly acceptable and had nothing to do with race in America. The other was a Harvard-trained historian of the French Revolution who had been denied tenure at two other institutions before he landed in Billings. He did not drive, and relied on students to drive him around. He liked to hang around the dorms. When I left Billings, he warmly congratulated me, told me how great my new department chair was, and then scurried off to tell him how awful I was. My new chair assured me that this reflected badly on everyone in Montana but not on me.

There was also in the department an Iraqi Seventh-Day Adventist who believed that African Americans were moving to Billings because it was an easy place to commit crimes, and a Missouri-Synod Lutheran pastor who proudly claimed that being a professor “was the best part time job in the world.”

There are all sorts of people in the United States who do not want to hear anything bad about the American past. These people can make our jobs difficult. What I think is often overlooked, however, are the barriers to doing the work we do inside the academic institution: administrators who don’t want to draw the dangerous attention of dingbats in the legislature or on the Board of Trustees by discussing controversial subjects; penny-pinching college leaders unwilling to make the investments, personally and financially, to make the college a welcoming space for Indigenous students; and students, even in areas where Native Americans are the largest minority group of campus, who sometimes care nothing at all and Indigenous peoples and their communities. Racism of these stripes was a genuine repressive force in Billings.

I taught there for four years, in an era when it seemed the internet was still in its infancy, without cell phones, and with no computer provided by the college. And because I was a single parent for three of my four years, I could easily stay out of the loop. I was really busy, and Billings felt far away from everything. The right-wingers like Lynne Cheney and Pat Buchanan who, at that time, denounced “politically correct” history, really did not affect me much at all. Not directly, anyways. What mattered more was teaching a subject that was considered provocative, in a bad way, at an institution presided over by leaders who actively discouraged discussions raising challenging questions about the American past.

I was hired to teach the history of Early America, from the colonial period through the “Age of Jackson.” It just so happened that not only had my predecessor left, but another guy, who taught Native American history was retiring. During my on-campus interview, he drove me forty miles to a bar in Columbus, Montana, where we split a six pack of Budweiser. He was a good guy, I think. He left me a ton of books. He taught the subject as little more than the history of the Plains Wars.

New Atlas Saloon in Columbus, Montana – Legends of America
The New Atlas Bar, Columbus MT.

That wasn’t me. I focused my research on the seventeenth century. I was turning my dissertation into a book. I had a much broader coverage in mind. What do to, then, when the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, in a meeting after my first contract renewal, told me that she wanted to see more “relevant” and “applied” research? No one in Montana cared about the history of the Chesapeake or New England, she seemed to suggest.

Eastern Montana State Normal School, Billings, Montana

Contract renewals were tough. Each year my contract came up for renewal. Each year, the two Jeopardy champions voted to fire me. Each year, the Pastor and the Seventh-Day Adventist voted to keep me around. One student member of the committee, God bless them, voted each year to save my job. It was tense, and I needed every ally I could get.

So I tried to play ball. I started speaking with some of my students who drove to Billings from the Crow Reservation. I learned a lot, things I had read in no scholarly monograph. What came from these conversations was the racism these students faced–in high school in Hardin, Montana, in the city of Billings, and in classrooms at my college. Perhaps there was a story to tell here.

I cannot remember the details. There had been some event at Hardin High. The non-Indigenous students stayed home from some sort of cultural awareness day, their truancy excused by their parents. The Crow kids, as kids will do, made some noise about racism. The next day, distributed throughout Hardin, were copies of some white nationalist text like The White Man’s Bible. I went down to Hardin. I tried to learn more. I tried to blend in and listen. I talked to a few people about racism in Hardin. I had gathered some great insights about racism in a reservation border town. This struck me as immediately significant and relevant to life in Montana and in a host of western states. In the end, it was too difficult to do the research. I would have had to spend a lot of time in Hardin, an hour’s drive from where I lived, and my family life would not permit that. But the bigger barrier was the Dean, who somehow had become the Provost, or something like that. I ran into her, somewhere on campus, whcih almost never happened, and told her about the project. I could see clearly from her reaction that this was not what she had in mind at all.

I left Billings in 1998. At Geneseo, where I have taught pretty much ever since, I have been able to do what I wanted to do. We do not have a lot of money, but in every other way my research has been supported.

And that’s the key point. To do research requires a network of support. It is easier for us to do our work when we have interested colleagues who encourage us and provide pointed criticism, administrators who recognize the value of what we do. With that assistance, we can stand up to the racists, the haters, the bigots and trolls. That part of the job becomes easy. It’s when these things are missing that our academic lives can be miserable.

Rotten to the Core

The recent story that appeared in The Intercept about the private security firm Tiger Swan, its cooperative intelligence-gathering with local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities, its propaganda work in behalf of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the sometimes-brutal tactics it used to protect the corporate “assets” of Energy Transfer Partners, the Fortune 500 company behind the construction of the DAPL, should be a much larger story than it is.  The Tiger Swan story reveals the rottenness that lies at the core of America’s continuing treatment of native peoples and their allies.

Tiger Swan, as revealed in the documents obtained and published by The Intercept,  produced intelligence briefings for law enforcement agencies, kept close tabs on the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, and may have infiltrated the protesters’ camp.  They spread disinformation on social media,

Police guard a bridge near Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 3, 2016 outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota, as Native Americans and activists from around the country gather at the camp trying to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

measuring the influence of their posts and stories, and may have kept something like an “Enemies List” to trace leaders of the protest movement.  All of this in the name of a corporation, the business interests of which they protected against an overwhelmingly peaceful protest movement run by people worried that the DAPL could jeopardize waters flowing through the Standing Rock Reservation.  To the mercenaries at Tiger Swan, the protesters were “jihadists” and they should be countered using similar tactics.

Fort Apache, the Bronx.  You remember that.  Or American soldiers in Vietnam marching out on patrol into “Indian Country.”  The supposedly warlike qualities of native peoples and the supposedly violent lands on which they lived have been transposed time and again as a way for American soldiers and officers to comprehend whatever conflict they engaged in.  These soldiers enter the theater in Apache helicopters, following the Tomahawk cruise missiles that preceded them.

Here, the scenario is flipped. The Jihadists that American forces fight in other parts of the world provide the language for Tiger Swan’s understanding of the #NoDAPL movement and, in effect, their lens for understanding native peoples at home attempting to protect their quality of life.  The language of war, of insurgency, has returned to Native America.

I have written about Standing Rock and the #NoDAPL movement before, so you know how I feel about it. If you are reading this blog, chances are you read about the protests, watched the DIY reporting from the protestors themselves, or saw the courageous on-the-ground journalism by Amy Goodman, her colleagues at “Democracy Now!” and other media sources.  Some of those reporters put their bodies on the line to bring this story to you and me.

You also will remember, no doubt, the images of private security forces roughing up the Water Protectors.  Painful images.  Disturbing.  Police dogs.  Military vehicles.  Body armor, automatic weapons, violence.


IF YOU WATCH or listen to right-wing media, you will learn that left-leaning college students, protesting on their campuses, are the major threat to freedom of thought, speech, and expression. Coddled and intolerant, the story goes, these fragile snowflakes will not expose themselves or allow others to be exposed to ideas with which they disagree. They will drown out the voices of those whose ideas they oppose.  You read about the protests at Middlebury.  And maybe you saw the recent news coming out of Evergreen State College in Washington. Be afraid of the students, we are told, and too many people seem willing to comply.

I am going to use this Intercept piece in my Native American history class in the fall. I may use it the first day, or I might assign it at the end. Whichever, I feel my students need to see this stuff, think about it, and remember that the power of history can hang heavy on the backs of too many Americans. It might rile the students up.  Maybe they will protest.  Maybe they will get pissed and start breaking shit.  More likely, if they are good history students—and most of them are—they will see this story for what it is.

In recent weeks, David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon has gained a lot of attention.  He tells the story of the murder of oil-rich Osages in the early twentieth century. It is a riveting story.  Historians have known about the Osage murders for a long time, but it is good that Grann brought it to the attention of a broader public.  Its significance should be clear.

From Jamestown to Standing Rock, from the Virginia Company of London to Energy Transfer Partners, the partnership of corporate and business interests with the forces of the centralized state has been a constant in American history.  This is not partisan.  Tiger Swan was doing business during the Obama presidency.  It continued its work under Creon Trump.

I reason here from the premise that no corporate asset is more valuable than a single human life.  Yet, as I write, I read about how state after state is trying to enact measures to criminalize protest.  I listen to the recording of Montana’s new congressman pummeling one reporter (who cannot fight back) and read how the tough-guy governor of Texas took a break from tormenting LGBTQ kids to joke about shooting others.

It is abundantly clear that the forces of suppression and violence that have been part of the lived experience of peoples of color on this continent for centuries are now threatening to affect non-native peoples in unprecedented and alarming ways.

There is a wonderfully revealing passage in Vine Deloria’s famous book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. “When the Kennedys and King were assassinated,” Deloria wrote, “people wailed and moaned over the ‘sick’ society.  Most people took the assassinations as a symptom of a deep inner rot that had suddenly set in.  They needn’t have been shocked. America has been sick for some time. It got sick when the first Indian treaty was broken. It has never recovered.”

Dakota Access, and the sorts of collusion between law enforcement, corporate interests, and for-profit armies like Tiger Swan, show that the sickness Deloria described is still here. Indeed, it has festered, become malignant, and done its damage in new ways in this new world order. Tiger Swan did its work during the Obama years.  It continues its work now.  It continues to protect ETP’s corporate assets.  The sickness runs deep. The rottenness is profound. If, as Felix Cohen once wrote, native peoples, “like the miner’s canary,” mark “the shifts from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere,” then “our treatment of Indians…reflect[s] the rise and fall in our democratic faith.”

Let’s not forget Tiger Swan.  Let’s remember that history is not only part of the past.


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.

On The Way of the Human Being

Yesterday one of my very good students told me that he was driving through New York’s Finger Lakes region, not all that far from my campus.  He was enjoying a nice spring day, noticing the signs remaining from the heyday of the Anti-Indian group Upstate Citizens For Equality, and listening to one of the blowhards on right-wing radio.  Slim pickings, sometimes, in the Finger Lakes.  Whoever it was that he listened to argued that Native Americans need to move on and “Get Over It.” Stop whining and stop complaining. The injustices they suffered occurred a long time ago.

It is the end of the semester here at Geneseo.  All of us, I suspect, students and faculty alike, are limping into finals week.  The weather is turning nice, the flowers are blooming. It is difficult sometimes for students to focus on schoolwork. I get this.  The last reading I give to the students in my American Indian Law and Public Policy course is Harold Napoleon’s essay, Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being.  It is, in places, a beautiful book, but a small number of my students were pretty hard on it. Disappointingly so.

Napoleon, a Yup’ik, wrote his essay in the late 1980s from a penitentiary in Alaska.  During a state of intoxication that he cannot remember, he killed his child. Napoleon wondered in Yuuyaraq not only how his story ended in prison–college-educated and capable, he had served his community by holding a number of leadership positions–but the larger story of what had happened to his people.

Yuuyaraq was, for Napoleon, a beautiful way of living. Indeed, his essay directly inspired the historian Calvin Luther Martin‘s beautiful but flawed meditation on the experience of native peoples in a book he wrote, also entitled The Way of the Human Being.    The human beings lived in a world in which they interacted with a range of spiritual forces, malevolent and otherwise, and a host of human and other-than-human beings. Ritual allowed this world to work.  Hunters made requests; hunters treated the animals they pursued with courtesy and so long as the animals were accorded the proper respect, no misfortune could befall the people. (Gregory Evans Dowd twenty-some years ago did a wonderful job of showing how these beliefs informed native peoples’ conduct and understanding of the cosmos in the first chapter of A Spirited Resistance, a book I sill assign in my classes).

Look at the primary sources.  Look at the extant accounts.  You cannot miss it. Napoleon discusses the primary sources. Following upon his work and that of a host of scholars and writers, Native American and non-native, I attempted to present this world of ritual and spiritual power in the opening chapter of Native AmericaIt is a world where native peoples paid close attention to ritual in order to deflect the wrath of malevolent forces whose ire could spell ruin for indigenous farmers, hunters, and warriors.

You also cannot miss when you look at these accounts how fragile all of this was.  Epidemic diseases tore gaping, jagged holes in the fabric of native community life.  For Napoleon’s people, the experience was a relatively recent one.  He writes of what his elders called the “Great Death,” which struck Alaska Native communities at the very beginning of the twentieth century.  60% of the people, the real human beings, died.

Wreckage. That is what Napoleon describes, and it is a painful read.  Other native peoples, whether recorded in white sources or in their own writings, have described the resulting chaos and pain in similar terms.  I think here of David Silverman’s searing portrait of Christian Indians in central New York who, when their white neighbors celebrated their independence from Great Britain and acted on their voracious appetites for Indian land, became convinced that they were a people cursed by God to suffer for all of eternity.  Or spelatch, the term Skokomish artist Bruce-subiyay Miller used to describe the world of change that came to his people after the arrival of Europeans.  The Skokomish “fell into disarray,” Miller wrote, his ancestors’ experience akin to that of “a shipwreck where everyone was trying to find something to cling to, to save their lives.”  As with Napoleon’s people, many turned to alcohol.  Some tried to assimilate, or turned to Christianity.  All of them struggled, for they found that “the things that they venerated, that gave them their vital life force and their strength for survival, suddenly were condemned as evil.”

A small number of my students, four out of the thirty in the class, thought that Napoleon was blaming the victims, but they badly misread his work.  The epidemic produced wreckage that most of us, mercifully, can only struggle to imagine.  The epidemics destroyed Yuuyaraq.  The survivors, Napoleon said, with their traditions , their customs, their networks of kin, and their very way of comprehending the cosmos destroyed, began to listen to missionaries who described their culture as sinful and demonic, their ways of living wicked.  Napoleon clearly did not blame the converts.  They were trying to get by, to make sense of a horrifying new world.  He described his people as victims of something very much like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as victims of “cultural genocide” and a historical process that he described as “evil.”

When I teach Napoleon, I think often of the long poem that runs through Leslie Marmon Silko’s masterful novel Ceremony, which in its manner conveys something very powerful about the historical processes described in Yuuyaraq.  If you have not read it, you must. Though a work of fiction, Ceremony can work well in a history class. If you are a student, you can learn much from Silko about the horrifying new world the arrival of Europeans created for native peoples.

In the novel, Silko’s witches begin to duel, and conjure a horrifying vision.


Long time ago

in the beginning

there were no white people in the world

there was nothing European.

And this world might have gone on like that

except for one thing:


Silko’s witches told the story of the arrival of white people on American shores.  It was a horror story, for these newcomers

grow away from the earth.

Then they grow away from the sun

then they grow away from the plants and animals.

They see no life.

When they look

they see only objects.

The world is a dead things for them,

the trees and rivers are not alive.

The deer and bear are objects

They see no life.

They fear

They fear the world

They destroy what they fear

The fear themselves.

The white people would bring a New World to native peoples. The newcomers, Silko’s witches warned,

will kill the things they fear

all the animals

the people will starve…

They will fear what they find

They will fear the people

They will kill what they fear

Entire villages will be wiped out

They will slaughter whole tribes.

There were survivors, but they struggled with the horrifying consequences of this witchery.  Napoleon told his story, after all, from a prison full of Alaska Native who suffered from what one recent report labeled “Intergenerational Trauma.”  Martin, who taught at a penitentiary during a portion of the time he spent in Alaska, met men and women who found themselves incarcerated after committing horrible acts they could not remember.  They were struggling to carry the burden imposed by a legacy of unresolved grief.

Napoleon proposed solutions. He was not an expert, he claimed, nor a wise man.  But he had seen a lot and experienced a lot.  Talking circles, to open up, to restore shattered bonds, to heal.  It is hard to disagree with what he suggests. He was a humble man, and he has continued to struggle to meet the challenges communities like his face since he was granted parole.

Still, the problems remain.  In Canada, too, as the enduring epidemic of suicide in Nunavut attests.

Trauma.  An absence of well-being. Communities still struggle.  Get over it, they are told.  These are the words of white critics who are racist and stupid, and they can be dismissed as such.  But what to do?  In the United States, much of the talk about Native American communities focuses on economic development, sovereignty, self-determination.  Like justice, democracy and pizza, everyone is for these things, but what, really, do they mean?  And with the measure of self-determination and sovereignty determined by the governing structures of the settler state, or decided, as Roger Echo-Hawk put it in his too-long book of several years ago, in “The Courts of the Conqueror”?  How much can the governments of settler states do? What are they willing to do?  How much can their experts achieve?

Napoleon argued that communities needed to solve their own problems, to forcefully advocate for themselves to pursue changes in government policy but also to deal with the grief and heal.  In Wasase, Taiaiake Alfred, (who my students read as well) laments the limitations imposed by leaders who all-too-often act just like white politicians, administering the programs and policies put in place by the settler state.

Alfred, Napoleon, Martin–they are describing communities in the midst of complicated problems, and if we do not force our students to confront them we do a disservice to them as historians. Grief is a force in Native American history.  Read a bit, and you will find it hard to miss.

I know my students sometimes are asked why they are studying this or that field in the liberal arts.  What good is that? I’m willing to bet that if you are a student, you have heard it, too.  Maybe on our post-truth, alternative-fact world, history is not worth much to many of our leaders, but if we keep our eyes and our hearts open, and read with discipline, energy and compassion, we can arrive across the distance of time and geographic space at something close to understanding.  And that is no small thing.



Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone!

We’ve come to that point in the semester where I begin to see on Twitter and on Facebook and elsewhere “bloopers,” students’ answers to questions on their midterms or finals that are so wrong that their professors or teachers find them funny.

I would urge you to think twice before you post things like this, for those student bloopers may reflect more poorly on you as a teacher than it does upon the young people enrolled in your courses.

When I began my teaching career back in the mid-1990s, my first tenure-track job, I shared space in a department with two former “Jeopardy” champions  Our offices were small, and a packed in closely along a strip of contorted hallway on the eighth floor of the college’s Liberal Arts building. I could overhear the conversations in other offices. And I can remember one of those Jeopardy champions meeting with a student during office hours to review for an upcoming test.

“Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president was?” I can remember him asking.

Dead silence.  Nothing.  The poor student did not have a clue.

“Hannibal Hamlin,” my colleague said.


And so it went. And nowhere, in any of this, did the most important question of all appear: Who cares? So what? Why should I, some kid enrolled in a general education course I have to take to complete my requirements, care about Hannibal Hamlin? In what ways did he, or his vice-presidency, matter?  My colleagues tested students on how well they could memorize facts that, by themselves, meant little, and mattered less.

There was in that department as well a Missouri Synod Lutheran Pastor, who divided his time between his church and the department, and who used to brag that being a college professor was “the best part-time job in the world.”  He gave his students multiple choice exams, with one of the choices a joke, a crazy answer that he liked to think was funny.  He liked to share his exams with me.  He thought they were funny in the way that people who do not know how to tell jokes think things are funny.  When his students chose, for example, “D: A Heavy-Metal band” as an answer to the question, “What was the Black Death?” he would laugh at their lack of knowledge.  He couldn’t believe, he said, that the students would fallen for this and he would shake his head in dismay at their ignorance. “Kids these days,” he may as well have said.

No, I thought.  You have it all wrong. Both of my colleagues had it wrong.  It was possible, it seemed to me, that students do not know who Hannibal Hamlin is because you did not convince them that this individual mattered, that he lived a life that they ought to know something about.  Or that the lectures and the notes and the memorization of facts, or the mammoth textbook you assigned, sucked all the life out of a subject that is so inherently interesting when taught with passion, planning, and attention.  Or, perhaps, they may have chosen to identify the Black Death as a metal band because you failed to convey to them the significance of this event.  You may not have interested them in the topic. The students may not have cared about what you told them.  That is sad.  They may not have cared about you.

I cannot criticize students for this.  I encourage my students, as they read the books I assign, or listen to our discussions, to ask themselves and to ask me, “So What?”  If I cannot handle that challenge, then I am not fit for this line of work.

I have been teaching a long time.  I have worked with some truly wonderful colleagues, committed, dedicated, and creative teachers.  But there are those who quiz their students, to keep them honest, to give them an incentive to do the reading that these instructors believe they would not otherwise do.  Others offer exams that serve no purpose other than to demonstrate what students do not know or, perhaps, what the instructor failed to teach them.

I hated exams when I was a student. It was not because I did not want to work.  I loved history.  Even before I declared it as my major. I loved the work in the library, and the reading, and the discussions.  I can remember the first primary source from the library’s special collections that I held in my hands, a pamphlet written by the interesting Pennsylvania loyalist Joseph Galloway. It is important for those of us who teach to remember what drew us to this field in the first place. Every historian I know is a voracious reader. Yet I know of no historian who reads for enjoyment a textbook.   But I prepared for the exams. They caused me stress.  I memorized what I was expected to memorize.  I saw students who knew the material as well as I did at a conceptual level choke, or have a bad day.  And I know that I never learned a single thing taking an in-class examination.

Instead of trying to find out, in effect, what our students do not know, it might be better to assess them in a way that allows them to show what they do know, and to demonstrate how thoughtful and creative and worth listening to that they actually are. One of the greatest parts of this job is the opportunity it provides me to be inspired by and learn from my students’ insights.

In my nineteen years at Geneseo, I have never given an in-class exam.  I have never used a scan-tron form or a blue-book. I give students take home projects, short papers, really, and give them a week or more to work on them.  Some of the questions that will be appearing soon on the Resources page of this website are ones I ask my students in the Native American survey course. In my humanities course, in which the students read works from Antigone to Hamlet, I pose for them big questions.  Recently, for instance, I asked the students to reflect on Roger Rosenblatt’s essay that appeared in the Atlantic last year, an essay I have remarked upon for this blog in the past. It is a harrowing depiction of the capacity of human beings for evil and violence, but also about the possibility that beauty, and love, might survive even our darkest moments.

The strongest essays show me students who are thinking deeply, wrestling with huge questions, and who are striving to understand the great works that they have read.  I can see from the essays that the students took the assignment seriously, and I can see not only that the books I assigned mattered, but how they mattered. I think back to the best of these answers often. I think of the non-traditional student, a bit older than his classmates, coming back to make another try at college after spending time with the Army in Iraq. I have mentioned him in this blog before.  I could see him working through his wartime experiences as he wrestled not only Rosenblatt’s observations, but with Thucydides’ admonition that “war is a violent teacher” and the call in the Gospels not only to love our neighbors, but our enemies as well. Or the student, a volunteer in a hospice, now on her third or fourth major, fighting her own demons as she wrote an essay that moved me to tears.  Or the guy from some part of Francophone Africa, arrived in nearby Rochester through one of the refugee resettlement programs, who described the slaughter of his own family as he struggled to understand what was worth fighting for, dying for, and perhaps killing for.   And the kids with the more comfortable or conventional backgrounds, who are turned on by a text, whether Augustine’s own struggles to define who he was as a young man, or Antigone’s decision to resist an unjust law, or Cicero’s command that the man of virtue must serve the commonwealth, even when that service offered the frightening prospect of criticism or condemnation.

My point is that I learn a lot from these essays, and I am a guy who still has much to learn.  I rethink my own beliefs and assumptions about the texts I assign based on what my students write. I reconsider how I teach them. I see in them things I had not seen before.  I learn.

If this is not your experience, and if you are one of those professors out there who likes to post student bloopers on Facebook or Twitter, or even if your default position is one where you assume that the kids know little and care less, I would urge you take a good, long, look in the mirror. I love history.  If you are bothering to read this, there is a good chance you do, too. Many of our students have been taught by over-worked and underpaid teachers, racing to cover as much material as their states require for their students to be able to pass whatever standardized test awaits them at the end of the year.  I have watched my own kids as they take their high school history classes.  Watching them work through their assignments–the busy work and regurgitation and memorization–I would not blame them for a second if they did not like history as a subject.  In my mind, it is not at all unreasonable for these students to expect us to sell them on the significance of what we do, on why it all matters. We should not shy away from this challenge. And if you are concerned by your students’ shaky grasp of the facts, or bothered that they do not know things “that every informed citizen should know,” you might be asking the wrong questions. Before you laugh, consider what you are doing.  Facts are important, but they are only the most basic building blocks of history, and they have little value without creativity, interpretation, and imagination.

And here’s a final point.  When you laugh at student bloopers, you come off as smug, arrogant, and a bit of a prick. I doubt you would laugh about that student’s answer with that student sitting right in front of you.  Teaching matters. It is hard work. It takes great effort to do it well.  The failure of your students might be, at least in part, a failing on your part as a teacher.

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 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.



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.


Grief and History

When I teach Native American history, I frequently find myself describing the consequences of the policies and events we cover for children.  Boarding schools, for instance, but also the many times when children die—when children were killed.  I include these harrowing stories not to shock complacent students, but to try to get the kids in the class to understand more deeply the consequences of the policies, decisions, and events they have read about upon the most vulnerable people in a community, people with whom they are perhaps well-equipped to identify.

So I tell the students about George Percy. That weak and cowardly aristocrat who settled at Jamestown led a raid by an English party against the Paspahegh Indians, whose town stood a short distance upriver from that sickly fortified settlement.  Percy’s soldiers took the “Queen of Paspahegh” and her children hostage but his men began to grumble.  He gave in to them, threw the children overboard, and allowed his men to entertain themselves by “shooting out their brains in the water.”  I tell them of the Paxton Boys’ massacre of peaceful Conestoga Indians in December 1763.  The Paxton men killed fourteen of them: men, women, and a couple of children, no more than three years old.  The Paxton Boys split their skulls with tomahawks, and took their scalps as trophies.  This was intimate violence, acts committed at close range. To children.  To babies.  In order to help my students make sense of the Ghost Dance, I tell the students about the movement that occurred on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation.  Among the Kiowa ghost dancers were a lot of parents, and they danced on the snowy ground hoping to see, once again, the children who had died, innocents slaughtered by measles, whooping cough, and pneumonia.  Grief lay at the broken heart of the Ghost Dance movement.  And of course that grief continues.  Harold Napoleon, in Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being described Alaska Native communities immersed still in a grief caused by what he called “the Great Death.”

A short time ago I published a biography of Eleazer Williams, a Mohawk missionary to the Oneidas.  I spent a lot of time with Williams.  He struck me as a man with few principles, or as a liar, a hustler, or a confidence man. But Williams was also a man profoundly damaged by the death of his second child.  9999004543-l

He wrote a letter to his wife in 1838.  She was a Metís woman, living still along the Fox River in Wisconsin.  At this point, Williams had been living apart from her for the better part of a decade.  He was always traveling—Buffalo, Oneida, Albany, New York, Washington, and only occasionally back to Green Bay.  This was the only letter of any length that he wrote to his wife that has survived, and in this one he began with small matters—of how the water and ice on the Fox River had done damage to the crops, he had heard.  He chastised her for not having planted the potatoes on higher ground. But he also urged her to think about matters religious.  Beware the shallow things.  Please, he wrote to his “Dear Mary,” “Nothing in this life would make me more happy than to find that you are serving God, and living in humility, as one who is devoted to Christ and preparing for Heaven.”  Focus on the important things. “Let no longer the world and its vanities be upon the upper most in your mind or thoughts—forsake them and give yourself to God and Jesus Christ who had redeemed you by his most precious blood.”

What, I wondered, was going on here?  He was writing, it seemed, to a woman who had lost her faith—in religion, in him, and, I suspect, a lot of things.  As I read the letter, it became clear to me why that might have been.  Williams had never lacked for words, but in this letter his desperation is palpable.  He would pray for her, he said. We must be a good example, he said, for the “only child we have.”  I knew that Williams and his wife had a son, who would have been a teenager. “How happy it would be, should we as a family, finally by the mercy of God, to meet all, with our departed beloved Anne, in Heaven, where, we shall all be happy without end and sing praises to God for all eternity.”

Who was Anne?  He had never mentioned her before.  This is the only time she appeared in Williams’s papers.  A dead child, presumably. It took a lot of digging. After some time in the archives, I found her.  She had died in 1830, eight years before this letter.  Hers was the first baptism recorded at Holy Apostles, the church Williams founded for relocated New York Indians in Wisconsin, and the first burial in the churchyard.  It was in 1830 that Williams largely left home.  Mary buried the child, who died when she was not quite eighteen months old, without his help.

This death haunted Williams. In the late 1840s he began to tell a story about an encounter he had with the French Prince de Joinville aboard a great lakes steamboat in 1841.  In this story, Williams told Joinville as they approached Green Bay that he and his wife had an infant daughter. Joinville offered to serve as godparent.  When they arrived at Green Bay, Williams learned that the baby had died several days earlier.  Joinville was sympathetic, but Williams never went home. He hung out with the French prince for a couple of days.  And here’s the thing:  This story—Joinville, the baby—it was all a lie.  It did not happen.  Williams was a liar.  That was easy to prove.  But why this lie, about this baby?

If you study early American history, you learn how frequent the death of children actually was.  Many families buried children, and I can imagine that the consequences were as emotionally devastating for many of them as it was for Eleazer Williams and his wife.  New England children studying their catechisms in the early nineteenth century were warned to consider that

I, in the burial place may see

Graves shorter far than I;

From Death’s arrest no age is free,

Young children too may die . . .

My God, may such an awful sight

Awakening be to me!

O that by early grace I might

For death prepared be.”


The death of children was common.

As a historian, I find these stories sometimes difficult. I have never shared these thoughts with my friends and colleagues who teach history, but I imagine that they, too, can be overwhelmed by this history of grief, of people gone too soon. It’s heavy. My own children are all healthy.  Despite my own flaws, they are fine people, better than me in so many ways. I am fortunate.  But not everyone is.  In a chilling article that appeared in the October issue of The Atlantic, Roger Rosenblatt reflected upon the viciousness and inhumanity he had witnessed or learned about over his long career as a war reporter.  Rosenblatt told the story of Khu, a 15-year old boy who fled the war in Vietnam for Hong Kong.  His parents had died, and he had nothing.  They ran out of food on the ship he boarded.  The captain assigned one man to knock Khu out, and then slit his throat, so that the others on board could eat him.  Tears welled in the boy’s eyes, and they let him go, but they did kill another man and they ate him.  Khu, Roseblatt, and his translator looked out at the lights in Hong Kong Harbor.  Khu said that the lights and the boats were beautiful.  That is what he was thinking.  Rosenblatt asked him what else was beautiful. Khu said everything is beautiful. Sometimes even when it’s not.

I have thought of these stories today.  I read Jayson Greene’s searing essay in The New York Times, entitled “Children Don’t Always Live.”  Greene told the story of his daughter’s sudden, tragic death, his struggle with grief, and his continuing sadness even as he and his wife welcomed a new child, a boy who always will have a dead sister.   Speaking to his young son, Greene mustered “up every drop of bravery I can: ‘It is a beautiful world,’ I tell him, willing myself to believe it.  We are here to share it.”

I get that.  I try to persuade my students to be hopeful and, because they are young and bright and have not seen much yet, it is not a difficult sell.  Still, we cannot teach about the past without considering the pain, the grief, and the sadness that people—native and non-native alike—felt.  If we want to reach our students, we need to help them feel the weight of the past, to experience those moments of brutality, violence and sadness, and those occasional moments of courage, humanity and grace. Connection, right?  Reaching across the span of time, across the vast distances, in an attempt to come close to understanding the world as others experienced it.