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Haudenosaunee History, Spring 2024

It has been many years since I last taught the history of the Iroquois, even though nearly all of my research the past ten years has been focused on them. During the Obama years, I offered this course every fourth semester or so but, more recently, I moved in other directions because there were so many other demands on my teaching time. That is what I told myself. The truth is that I find this an immensely challenging course to teach. It is directed towards juniors and seniors, but few of them will have had any previous exposure to Haudenosaunee history. Upper-division courses in Geneseo’s History Department tend to be more narrowly focused, but this course covers five hundred years of history. It is a paradox, a challenge, and frankly it is intimidating to teach. There is loads of bad information about the Haudenosaunee. I want to make sure that what I expose the students to is of value. I offer them little more than a sampling of a rich, diverse, and complicated history, and after a long time away from teaching this course, I am eager once again to face the challenges it presents. I would love to hear your thoughts. I am sure I am not the only history professor who feels daunted by the gravity of the subject they teach.

After all, students at Geneseo could have seen this Territorial Acknowledgment in one of the athletic buildings. New York students learn hardly anything about Indigenous peoples, their history, and their culture.

History 465                  Iroquois History from Prehistory to Present        Spring 2024     

Instructor: Michael Oberg

Meetings, MW, 10:30-12:10, Bailey 246


Office: MW 12:30-1:30, Doty 208

Email: Oberg@geneseo.edu

Required Readings:

Roger Carpenter, The Renewed, the Destroyed, and the Remade, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004).

Laurence M. Hauptman, Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State,   (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

Michael Leroy Oberg, Peacemakers: The Iroquois, the United States, and the Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

David L. Preston, The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009)   

Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

Readings online and on Brightspace

Course Description:

            In this course we will cover the history of the native peoples who formed the Iroquois League and Confederacy, from the time of their first contact with Europeans through the present-day controversies that occur across the state.  We will look at the formation of the League, the consequences of Iroquois involvement in the European Wars of Empire, and the rapid dispossession of the Iroquois in the decades that followed the American Revolution.  We will look at the application of various government policies in the United States and Canada to the Iroquois, and how the Iroquois have reacted to and adapted to these changes.  Throughout, we will keep in mind the different histories of the constituent Iroquois communities that occupy present-day New York, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Canada.

            Your grade for the course will be based on the following assignments: 

  1. Journals: On seven occasions during the semester I will read your journals.  I want you to think about what you are reading and write about that experience. You will submit your journals on Brightspace. You should plan on writing a minimum of 300 words a week. DO NOT SUMMARIZE OUR CLASS DISCUSSIONS.  DO NOT SUMMARIZE THE READINGS. I hope you will take this assignment as an opportunity to reflect upon what you are reading in class and to discuss the things you wish that we had a chance to discuss in class, or to say what you wanted to say during one of our class meetings. Use your journal as an opportunity to reflect on the contents of one of the documents you have read. Show me that you are thinking about the material we cover in our readings and in the classroom.  Discuss the challenges you are confronting as you work on your research paper. Write each entry in the spirit of an essay, with a thesis and evidence to support your reasoning.  The due dates—always on a Friday, always on Brightspace—are listed below
  2. Research Paper: I expect all students enrolled in this course to complete a research paper of approximately 15-20 pages in length, based upon primary source research and a thorough grounding in the secondary source literature.  I urge you to visit with me regularly during office hours as the semester progresses, to ensure that your research project develops as it should. You will work on your paper in stages, completing preliminary assignments along the way towards the completion of a final draft. Those components are as follows:

a). Question and Sources: In this one-page paper, you will state the question you hope to investigate for your research paper. You should list the sources you think you will need to answer that question in a bibliography that follows the format of the Turabian Manual. Due on Brightspace February 5th

b). Topic Statement: A more-refined and specific statement of the topic you would like to research and the sources you will need to answer your specific historical question.  Due on Brightspace, February 19th.

c). Thesis statement and outline. Due on Brightspace, April 1st.

d). Hard Copy of Draft to be turned in at end of class on April 22nd.

e). Hard Copy of Final Paper, due on May 8th at end of class period.

I will write extensive comments on your written work.  I will ask you challenging questions, offer what I hope you will view as constructive criticism, and encourage you to push yourself as a writer and a thinker. But I will not give you grades, in the traditional sense, on this work. I want you to benefit from this course. On the date of our first meeting, we will discuss the standards for the class.  You and I will work together to arrive at a set of expectations for the sort of work that will earn a specific grade.   In your final journal, and in individual meetings scheduled during Finals Week, we will discuss how well you think you did in meeting the agreed upon standards, and what your grade for the course ought to be. A proposed grading framework can be found, below.

  • Participation: I assign a large quantity of reading.  I expect each of you to participate regularly in our class discussions. To receive a strong grade in this course, you must speak up in class. The discussion questions, below, are intended to serve as a guide to help you with the reading assignments.  If you are able to answer these questions, you should be able to participate without much difficulty. Participation is much, much more than attendance.

A Note on Phones: I ask that all cellphones be stored during the entirety of our class meeting.  If you expect an important call that just cannot wait, please inform me before class. Otherwise, I expect you to refrain from using your cellphone and I expect you to keep it out of sight. Please be present in mind and body. Much of the reading for this course will be online or available on Brightspace. You will need to bring your laptop to class, but I expect you to use it for class-related work only.  Students who violate these policies will be asked to leave the class.

Lecture/Discussion Schedule

22 January        Introduction to the Course: The Importance of the Iroquois

Reading: Carpenter, Renewed, xi-xxii; Preston, Texture, Acknowledgments, and Introduction; Oberg, Peacemakers, Acknowledgments and Introduction; Hauptman, Conspiracy, Preface; Simpson, Mohawk, Acknowledgments and Chapter One. Visit some of the websites of Iroquois communities in New York State, such as:

            Seneca Nation of Indians

            Onondaga Nation

            Cayuga Nation

            Oneida Indian Nation

            St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Also worth your time is the web project entitled Chenussio: An Indigenous History of Livingston County. If you know nothing about the history of the Iroquois, the “Overview of Seneca History” might be useful (the sections are meant to be opened left to right, beginning on the top row). It focuses only on the Senecas, but the larger themes will be important for you to know. Be sure to click on the Livingston County First Nations Sites on the landing page, to learn a bit more about the area in which you are studying.


For Discussion: What do you know to be true about the Iroquois in New York,  Canada, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma?  What do you learn about the scholars you will be reading this semester from reading the front matter in their books? What are your thoughts about the grading agreement at the back end of the syllabus? Do you feel it is fair and, if not, in what ways might we work together to improve it?

24 January        Tales of Creation

Reading:  Carpenter, Renewed, Chapter 1; Kuhn and Sempowski, “A New Approach to Dating the League of the Iroquois,” American Antiquity, 66, No. 2, (April 2001), 301-314; Christopher Vecsey, “The Story and Structure of the Iroquois Confederacy,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 54 (Spring 1986), 79-106; John Arthur Gibson, Concerning the League: The Iroquois League Tradition as Dictated in Onondaga, ed. And trans, Hani Woodbury, in collaboration with Reg Henry and HarryWebster. Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics. Memoir No. 9, (Winnipeg, 1992). (All on Brightspace).

For Discussion: What are the key elements, concepts, and values that emerge from the creation stories of the Iroquois? What are the most important themes in the Deganawidah Epic? How did the League form and how does that information help us understand the Iroquois League?

29 January        The League and Early European Contacts

Reading: Carpenter, Renewed, Chapter 2; David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream: The European Founding of North America, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 317-342; Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, “A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634-1635,” in In Mohawk Country: Early Narratives about a Native People, eds. Dean R. Snow, Charles T. Gehring, and William A. Starna, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996) (on Brightspace)

For Discussion:  How did Iroquois apply the lessons and values of the Deganawidah Epic in their relations with other peoples? How would you characterize exchange and trade between Iroquois people and the early European settlers? Was it primarily an economic relationship, or something else?  What thesis is Carpenter arguing?

31 January        The Destruction of Huronia

Reading:Carpenter, Renewed, Chapters 3-4, 8-9. (You should skim Chapters 5-7  closely enough that you understand how the French in general, and the Jesuits specifically, altered the Wendat thought world. We will come back to Chapters 5-7 in detail later).

For Discussion:  What significance do we attach to the Iroquois warfare that took place between 1634 and 1649?  

2 February       Journal 1 Due on Brightspace

5 February       The Mourning Wars

Reading: Daniel K. Richter, “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience,” WMQ 40 (October 1983), 528-559; Jose António Brandǎo, “Iroquois Expansion in the Seventeenth Century: A Review of Causes,” Native American Studies, 15 (2001), 7-18 (Brightspace).

Question and Sources Due! On Brightspace

For Discussion: In what ways do Richter and Brandǎo differ in their interpretation of Haudenosaunee warfare in the second half of the seventeenth-century?

7 February       The Covenant Chain

Reading: Jon Parmenter, “After the Mourning Wars: The Iroquois as Allies in Colonial North American Campaigns, 1676-1760,” William and Mary Quarterly, 64 (January 2007), 39-76

For Discussion: How did the Covenant Chain alliance benefit the Five Nations? How did it benefit the English?  Did it benefit certain English more than others?  What was the nature of this alliance? How did it work? How important is the Covenant Chain for understanding the history of European colonialism in 17th Century America?

12 February      Christians and Iroquois

Reading:  Carpenter, Renewed, Chapters 5-7; Preston, Texture of Contact, Chapter 1; The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America, ed. Allan Greer, (Boston: Bedford, 2000), Chapters 6-7.

For Discussion: What did it mean to the Jesuit Fathers for one to be a Christian?  How did the Jesuit Fathers view the religion of the Five Nations and the Wendats? Be prepared to discuss the nature of Iroquois Christianity.

14 February      To the “Grand Settlement” of 1701

Reading: Brandao, J. A. and William A. Starna, “The Treaties of 1701: A Triumph of Iroquois Diplomacy,” Ethnohistory, 43 (Spring 1996), 209-244.

 For Discussion: What was the significance of the treaties of 1701? 

16 February       Journal 2 Due on Brightspace

19 February      The Haudenosaunee and the English Empire in America

Reading: Oberg, Peacemakers, Chapter 1; Parmenter, “’L’Arbre de Paix’: Eighteenth-Century Franco-Iroquois Relations,” French Colonial History, 4 (2003), 63-80.

For Discussion: Are the eighteenth-century Iroquois best characterized as subjects of the English empire or as allies of the Empire? How does one best characterize the functioning of the Covenant Chain? How would you characterize the Haudenosaunee relationship with New France?

Topic Statement Due!

21 February      Brother Onas

Reading: Preston, Texture of Contact, Chapter 3

Kurt A. Jordan, “Seneca Iroquois Settlement Pattern, Community Structure, and Housing, 1677-1779,” Northeast Anthropology, 67 (2004), 23-64.

For Discussion: Describe the Importance of Pennsylvania to the Iroquois.

26 February       Economic Life in Iroquoia in the Middle of the Eighteenth Century

Reading: Preston, Texture of Contact, Chapter 2                  

For discussion: Last time we briefly discussed Kurt Jordan’s important archaeological work on Seneca settlement patterns.  Based on your reading of Preston, how would you characterize the relationship of Iroquois peoples with the larger colonial economy? Are they dependent on the colonists? Did they manage to preserve a degree of autonomy in their relations with outsiders?  How does one characterize this “frontier”?

28 February      The Albany Congress and Mounting Tensions in Pennsylvania

Reading: Preston, Texture of Contact, Chapter 4; Levy, “Exemplars of Taking Liberties.”

For Discussion:  Haudenosaunee people emphasize the importance of the Covenant Chain. Are they correct to do so? What were the sources of conflict for Iroquois peoples in the middle of the eighteenth century?

1 March            Journal 3 Due on Brightspace

4 March           The Great War for Empire

Reading: Preston, Texture of Contact, Chapters 5-6

For Discussion:  What were the causes of Great War and how did the conflict between France and Great Britain for control of North America impact Haudenosaunee peoples in the Ohio Country, Pennsylvania, and the western parts of today’s New York?

6 March           The Haudenosaunee and the American Revolution

                        Reading: Preston, Texture of Contact, Epilogue; Oberg, Peacemakers, Ch 2.                      

For Discussion: To what extent was the American Revolution a civil war for the Six Nations?  What factors influenced the reactions of Iroquoian peoples to the outbreak of fighting between American Patriots and British soldiers? In what ways did the Revolution matter to the Iroquois? Was it a significant event? Did it merely continue the assaults on Iroquois lands that began long before the Revolution?  In what ways did the Revolution impact the Iroquois?

Spring Break

18 March          The Post-Revolutionary Diaspora

Reading: Oberg, Peacemakers, Chapters 3-8 and Appendix.

For Discussion: How did the State of New York and the United States claim and exercise jurisdiction over the Iroquois homeland?  How would you characterize federal Indian policy in the years immediately following the American Revolution? How significant an accomplishment was the Treaty of Canandaigua?

20 March          New York’s Assault on Iroquois Land

Reading:  Oberg, Peacemakers, Chapter 9 and Conclusion; Hauptman, Conspiracy, Introduction, Part One

For Discussion:  To what extent was New York engaging in illegal activity when it seized native lands? What was New York’s interest in the dispossession of the Iroquois? What factors made the Iroquois particularly susceptible to attempts to dispossess them? What happened at the treaty council held in 1795? How do you account the willingness of the Oneidas, Onondagas and Cayugas to sign treaties ceding land to the state of New York?

22 March           Journal 4 Due on Brightspace

25 March          Seneca Land

Reading: Hauptman, Conspiracy, Chapters 7-8; Lewis Henry Morgan, League of the Iroquois, reprint ed., (New York: Citadel Press, 1962), Part II, Chapter III

For Discussion: What was Handsome Lake’s message? Of what elements did it consist of? What changed as a result of Handsome Lake’s teachings? What, to Dennis, is the fundamental importance of the Handsome Lake religion?

27 March          Seneca Land, Continued

Reading: Hauptman, Conspiracy, Chapters 9-10

For Discussion:  Why did the Senecas agree to sell their land?  Describe the nature of the relationship between Quaker missionaries and the Seneca Indians. How did the Senecas make use of the Quakers’ message? What did the Quakers and Senecas hope to achieve through their relationship with the other?

1 April              The Iroquois and Indian Removal

Reading: Oberg, Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), Chapter 3, Brightspace.

For Discussion: What force or forces were most responsible for the “removal” of the New York Indians?

Thesis Statement and Outline Due!

3 April              The Seneca Revolution of 1848

Reading: Henry Schoolcraft’s Notes on the Iroquois, Chapter One; Documents on the Seneca Revolution.

For Discussion:  To what extent was the Seneca Revolution consistent with the new Seneca Nation’s understanding of its earlier treaties with the United States?  How significant an expression of Iroquois sovereignty was the new Seneca Nation government? Indeed, what is the meaning of the Seneca Revolution?

5 April              Journal 5 Due on Brightspace

8 April              Solar Eclipse—No Class.

10 April             The Iroquois and the Civil War

                        The Thomas School and Carlisle

Reading:  Laurence Hauptman, The Iroquois in the Civil War: From Battlefield to Reservation, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1993), Chapter One; Carlisle Student Records, available here. Under the “Nation” pull-down menu, search for student records from the Senecas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Mohawks and Cayugas.  Read at least five student files.  What can you learn about the Iroquois experience at Carlisle from these records?

For Discussion: The involvement of native peoples in the American Civil War has been an understudied aspect of this important event in American history. How did Iroquois peoples respond to the outbreak of the American Civil War? Was the Civil War actually an event for Haudenosaunee peoples? What impact did it have upon them?

15 April            The Legal Status of the Six Nations: Allotment, the Kansas Claims, and the Everett Commission

Reading: New York State Legislature.  Assembly Doc. No. 51.  Report of the Special Committee to Investigate the Indian Problem of the State of New York, Appointed by the Assembly of 1888, 2 vols. (Albany: Troy Press, 1889) (excerpts); Arthur C. Parker, “The Legal Status of the American Indian;” Everett Commission Report, pp 2-14

 For Discussion: Many Haudenosaunee see the Everett Commission Report as a document of great significance.  Why?

17 April             Citizenship and the State

Reading: Sidney L. Harring, “Red Lilac of the Cayugas: Traditional Indian Law and Culture Conflict in a Witchcraft Trial in Buffalo, New York, 1930,” New York History 73 (1992), 65-94; Indian Citizenship Act (1924); Indian Reorganization Act (1934); Documents on Death Feasts (All on Brightspace).

For Discussion: Who killed Cothilde Marchand, and why should we care? Why did the Iroquois, in general, oppose the Indian Reorganization Act?

19 April            Journal 6 Due on Brightspace

22 April            Iroquois in the Era of World War II

Reading: http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/scandocs/nativeamerican.htm

At the New York State Library website, look at one of the following documents. All of them relate to issues facing the Haudenosaunee during the Second World War and are influenced by federal debates about the policy of termination, and whether or not the State of New York ought to have criminal and civil jurisdiction over Indian reservations in New York State.

1). Public Hearing had at Salamanca, New York Court Room, City Hall, August 4-5, 1945.

 2).  Public Hearing had at Thomas Indian School, Cattaraugus Reservation,  N.Y., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 1943

3).  Hearing Before the Joint Committee on Indian Affairs on Thursday, Jan. 4, 1945 at Ten Eyck Hotel, Albany, N.Y.

For Discussion:  Based on your skimming of the above documents, and your close reading of one of them, how would you characterize the challenges facing the Iroquois during the early 1940s?

Hard Copy of Draft Due!

24 April            GREAT DAY: No Classes

29 April            The Haudenosaunee in the Post-War Era

Reading Laurence Hauptman, “Where the Patridge Drums: Ernest Benedict, Mohawk Intellectual as Activist,” in Seven Generations of Iroquois Leadership, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008). We will watch together in class “Lake of Betrayal,” a film about Kinzua Dam and the flooding of the Senecas’ Allegany Reservation.

For Discussion: Based on the three essays I have asked you to read, how would you describe the principal issues facing the Mohawks and Senecas in the post-war era?  How would you characterize Seneca and Mohawk responses to the challenges they faced?

1 May               The Six Nations and Red Power

Reading:  Hauptman, “The Iroquois on the Road to Wounded Knee,” in The Iroquois Struggle for Survival: World War II to Red Power, 1986); “Basic Call to Consciousness;” Film, “Lake of Betrayal.”

For Discussion:  What has the era of “Self-Determination” meant to the Six Nations? What significance do you attach to Iroquois efforts to recover their stolen lands?

3 May               Journal 7 Due on Brightspace

6 May               Haudenosaunee Nationhood

Reading: Simpson, Mohawk, Chapters 2-4

For Discussion: What obstacles to a meaningful nationhood still face the people of the Longhouse?

8 May               Final Class Meeting: Indigenous Nationhood in the Future

For Discussion: Finish reading Simpson, Mohawk; Town of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation (2005).

Term Papers Due!

14 May             8:00-11:20. Final Exam Period: Individual Meetings to discuss your final grade.

A Note on the Term Paper:

            Our humble temporary library contains an extraordinary amount of material for conducting research in Iroquois history.  Most importantly, we have a copy of the Iroquois Indians Microfilm Collection, compiled in the 1980s by the Newberry Library in Chicago. This fifty-reel collection includes copies of nearly every important document related to Iroquois relations with outsiders, a vast collection covering the period from the early seventeenth- through to the end of the nineteenth century from libraries throughout North America and Europe.  Using the Iroquois Indians Microfilm collection has spared me the necessity of making numerous research trips to Albany, Ottawa, and Buffalo.  We subscribe to many of the journals and own many of the books mentioned in the excellent bibliographies included in the back of the Hauptman, Taylor, and Shannon books (Richter’s bibliography is excellent as well, though his book is now a bit dated—he is a great place to start, but you will need to look elsewhere).   For those of you interested in the Revolutionary period, we have the entire run of the Papers of the Continental Congress. The library’s Genesee Valley Collection is especially strong on the history of the Senecas, as is the phenomenal range of materials housed at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.   The Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester has many of the materials that our library does not have.  Many papers documenting early relations between the United States and the Six Nations can be found at the “Century of Lawmaking” website at the Library of Congress. Both the New York State Library and the New York State Archives, on their respective websites, have made an intriguing selection of documents readily available to those who cannot travel to Albany to conduct research. Additionally, I have copies of the federal records dealing with the Iroquois through the middle of the nineteenth century. These I will put on reserve should any of you be interested.  And with Google Books and the resources placed online by the New York State Archives and New York State Library, an enormous amount of primary source material is readily available to you.  Indeed, the most important New York State collections of documents (the Hough Collection, the Whipple Report, and the Everett Report) are all available online.  The “Digital Turn” in the Humanities has resulted in large numbers of archival and manuscript collections being placed online.  It is easier to do significant research than ever before.  But only if you start early, work diligently, and seek help in overcoming the roadblocks you inevitably will face.

            If you have no idea what to choose as the topic for your research paper, I encourage you to look at websites like INDIANZ.COM, and use the search feature to look up articles that have appeared in North American newspapers in recent months on Iroquois communities. Consider the individual New York Iroquois communities, or the Oneidas in Wisconsin or the Seneca-Cayugas of Oklahoma.   Perhaps you could look into the historical background of some present-day controversies.  You can also read through Volume 15 of the Smithsonian Handbook of Americans, located in the reference section of our library. Included are a number of useful articles on the history of the Iroquois League, and of the different Iroquois communities in New York, Canada, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.  The listing of primary sources in this old handbook is still quite useful, and reading it can give you a thumbnail sketch of Iroquois history and perhaps focus your attention on something you would like to investigate further.  If none of these endeavors pan out, please feel free to read ahead: perhaps some of the readings that we will discuss late in the semester will suggest to you lines of inquiry that would make for a fine paper. I have compiled a 600+ page annotated bibliography on Onondaga Nation history.  I have placed a copy of that bibliography on my departmental webpage.

            The best advice I can give you about the research paper is to stop by during office hours, email me, or talk to me after class.  You probably cannot have too much guidance, and I encourage you to visit with me if you have any concerns about the research paper. If this class goes according to plan, you will produce a research project that we both learn from, and I am more than willing to help you achieve that goal. Do not hesitate to ask for help.  AND WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT PROCRASTINATE!  The most successful students decide upon and begin work on a narrowly focused and well-conceived project early in the semester.

Integrative and Applied Learning Outcomes at SUNY Geneseo: Your research project and journal writing are intended to develop in you the following skills:

  • Structured, Intentional, and Authentic Experiences​: Integrative and applied learning experiences should include a course syllabus or learning contract between parties and should have hands-on and/or real-world elements.
  • Preparation, Orientation, and Training​: Integrative and applied learning experiences should include sufficient background and foundational education and should include expectations that are expressed as learning outcomes that structure the experience and ongoing work.
  • Monitoring and Continuous Improvement​: Integrative and applied learning experiences should include in-experience mechanisms for feedback, course correction, quality monitoring, and evaluation of progress towards the state learning outcomes.
  • Structured Reflection​: Integrative and applied learning should include opportunities for students to self-assess, analyze, and examine their experience and to evaluate the outcomes. Reflection should demonstrate relevance and should form connections with previous experiences and/or future planning as well as a demonstration of one of Geneseo’s core values: Civic Engagement, Sustainability, Inclusivity, Learning, or Creativity.
  • Evaluation​: Students must receive appropriate and timely feedback from the project organizer.

Some Potential Term Paper Topics For Those Who Need Suggestions

*           The history of a particular Jesuit Mission to a particular Haudenosaunee Nation.

*           The dispossession treaties of 1788 or 1795.  You cannot do all the treaties well, but you could do a very good paper on one of the individual treaty councils.

*           The 1924 Citizenship Act

*           The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act

*           The Mid-Twentieth Century “Spite Bills” that extended New York’s jurisdiction over the Iroquois.

*           Onondaga Death Feast controversies in the 1920s and 1930s.

*           Efforts to allot Haudenosaunee land carried out by New York State late in the 19th century

*           The Haudenosaunee and the United Nations. You will want to narrow this down, but there is a story to tell here.

*           Deskaheh (Levi General) and the League of Nations.

*           Haudenosaunee students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

*           Chenussio in the 17th or 18th century.

*           Onondagas and efforts to clean up Onondaga Lake, for a time the most polluted body of water in North America.

*           19th-century agriculture on Haudenosaunee reservations in New York.

*           The Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1838.  There are a number of things here you might focus on.

*           The death of Big Tree early in the 1790s.

*           Urban Iroquois: Haudenosaunee people in Buffalo, Rochester, or Syracuse.

*           Haudenosaunee circus performers, late 19th, early 20th century.

*           The “Indian Village” at the New York State Fair.

*           The Everett Report

*           The Whipple Report

*           The Rise of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team as an international force.

*           Commemorations of important events in Iroquois History in Geneseo, Livingston County, or your hometown.

*           None of these appealing? Let’s talk.

Historical Methods: The Carlisle School

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

History 302           Fall 2023

Research: American Indian Boarding Schools      

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

Required Readings:             Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Schedule:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 October          Mandatory Individual Conferences

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

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

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

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

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

25 October        Mandatory Individual Conferences

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

1 November      Mandatory Individual Conferences

6 November      Outlines Due.

8   November    Mandatory Individual Conferences

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

15 November     Mandatory Individual Conferences.

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

27 November     Discussion Drafts

29 November     Discussion Drafts

4  December      Discussion Drafts

6 December       Discussion Drafts

11 December     Final Papers Due

13 December     Meetings: Discussion of Final Grades


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

History 261, Native American History, Fall 2023

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

History 261                         American Indian History                               Fall 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Schedule

28 August        Introduction to the Course

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

30 August        The Columbian Encounter                                                                

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

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

6 September    When Indians Discovered Europe

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

11 September  The Shatter Zone

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

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

18 September The Iroquois League and Confederacy. 

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

20 September Life Behind the Frontier

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Paper Due

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

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

                        First Journal Due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Journal Due

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

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

14 December  Final Writing Assignment Due, 8:00AM

18 December Meetings to Discuss Final Grades

Indigenous Law and Public Policy, Spring 2023

I have not taught one of my two favorite courses in person in quite a while. I was on sabbatical last spring, and I taught an online version in the Spring of 2021. I have posted the syllabus here to share recent updates to the course, but also to solicit suggestions and advice. I would like to broaden the focus, or develop a similar course that explores similar issues as they are discussed and analyzed in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Before the pandemic, I was well advanced in planning a study-abroad course for Sydney that would allow students and me to learn on the ground in Australia. Please, feel free to share your expertise. I would love to hear your thoughts. I apologize in advance for any gloopiness in the formatting: copying the Word File into this website makes for some awkward transfers some times.

History 262    Indigenous Law and Public Policy               Spring 2023

Professor: Michael Oberg

Meetings:   MW, 8:30-10:10, Welles 131

Office Hours:  Wednesday, 10:15-12:00, Doty 208

Roughly every week or so I post to my blog on matters related to the teaching and writing of Native American history.  You are welcome to follow along.

Required Readings:

Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier, (2005)

Daniel Cobb, Say We Are Nations: Documents of Politics and Protest in Indigenous America since 1887, (2015).

Sarah Deer, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America, (2015)

Luke Lassiter, Clyde Ellis, and Ralph Kotay, The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity, and Indian Hymns, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002)

Readings online.

News Articles in online news sources like indianz.com and other online sources.

Court cases and documents as per syllabus.

Recommended Podcasts and other media:

            Wind River (Motion Picture)

            This Land, Seasons 1 and 2.

            Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo.

            Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s

            Stolen: The Search for Jermaine

            5-4: Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta

            5-4: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

Course Description:   This course will provide you with an overview of the concept of American Indian tribal sovereignty, nationhood, and the many ways in which discussions of sovereignty and right influence the status of American Indian nations.  We will look at the historical development and evolution of the concept of sovereignty, the understandings of sovereignty held by native peoples, and how non-Indians have confronted assertions of sovereignty from native peoples.  We will also examine current conditions in Native America, and look at the historical development of the challenges facing native peoples and native nations in the 21st century.  This course is required for the Native American Studies Minor, and counts for the following Core attributes:

                        Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

                        Diversity, Pluralism, Power


A Note on Grading:  Your work this semester will consist of Participation, Journals, and a Final Paper.

1). Participation is much more than attendance. I view my courses fundamentally as extended conversations and these conversations can only succeed when each person pulls his or her share of the load.  You should plan to show up for class with the reading not just “done” but understood; you should plan not just to “talk” but to engage critically and constructively with your classmates.  Our conversations will depend on your thoughtful inquiry and respectful exchange.  We are all here to learn, and I encourage you to join in the discussion with this in mind.  Obviously, you must be present to participate. Please have all assigned readings available when we meet. The reading load in this course is quite heavy. It will challenge you to keep up. If you have trouble with the reading, please let me know.  You obviously will be able to participate in classes with the most success when you complete the reading.

2). Journals: On seven occasions during the semester I will read your journals.  I want you to think about what you are reading and I want you to write about that experience. You will submit your journals on Brightspace. You should plan on writing a minimum of 300 words a week. DO NOT SUMMARIZE OUR CLASS DISCUSSIONS.  DO NOT SUMMARIZE THE READINGS. I hope you will take this assignment as an opportunity to reflect upon what you are reading in class and in terms of current events, to discuss the things you wish that we had a chance to discuss in class, or to say what you wanted to say during one of our class meetings.  Show me that you are thinking about the material we cover in our readings and in the classroom.  Show me that you are keeping up with current events in Indian Country. Use the journals as an opportunity to educate yourself on issues in Native America that matter to you. Read the news on INDIANZ.COM,  National Native News, Native News Online, Indian Country Today, and CBC Indigenous for Canada, and the National Indigenous Times for Australia. I will also tweet out stories that I find of interest under the hashtag #HIST262MLO.  In addition, I would like you to follow news on one Native Nation.  You can set up a news alert on Google News, and stories will appear in your inbox whenever they occur. You can find a list of federally recognized Indian Nations here.  Some Indigenous nations receive more coverage than others.

Final Paper: Your paper should be approximately 15 pages in length.  You will take the role of an adviser to a new President.  Your assignment is to advise this President on Indian policy.  In your paper you will do the following:

1). Identify what you see as a major problem or problems in Native America today that you believe the President should tackle during her or his administration.

2). Explain briefly the historical origins of this problem and how and why previous solutions have either failed to address it or ignored it entirely.

3. Offer a thoughtful, plausible, and realistic path towards solving this problem, and       justify it legally and constitutionally.

4. Have at least 30 sources in a thorough bibliography that includes each of the following: news articles, government documents, reports from agencies working with indigenous peoples, and works by scholars who study these issues published in academic journals and books.

5. Format the paper according to the guidelines spelled out in the Turabian Manual. Write the paper with careful attention to grammar, style and substance.     

With any of these assignments, I encourage you to visit with me during office hours if you have any questions.  You should be clear on what I expect from you before you complete an assignment.  The door is open.  If you cannot make it to my office hours, please feel free to contact me by email and we will find another time. Many questions can be answered and problems addressed more effectively in person during office hours than by email.

I will write extensive comments on your written work.  I will ask you challenging questions, offer what I hope you will view as constructive criticism, and encourage you to push yourself as a writer and a thinker. But I will not give you grades, in the traditional sense, on this work. I want you to benefit from this course. On the date of our first class meeting, we will discuss the standards for the class.  You and I will work together to arrive at a set of expectations for the sort of work that will earn a specific grade.   In your final journal, and in individual meetings scheduled during Finals Week, we will discuss how well you think you did in meeting the agreed upon standards, and what your grade for the course ought to be. A proposed grading framework can be found, below.

A Note on COVID-19: We will be working together during a continuing global pandemic. Though the pandemic has slowed considerably, there is still reason to be careful. These remain trying times.  That you may feel stressed and anxious over the course of the semester is not surprising at all.  Your health is important.  The health of the people who matter to you is important. If the pandemic is posing a challenge to you doing the assigned work, please feel free to let me know.  I encourage you to ask for help if you need it. Stay in touch.

A Note on Phones: I ask that all cellphones be stored during the entirety of our class meeting.  If you expect an important call that just cannot wait, please inform me before class. Otherwise, I expect you to refrain from using your cellphone and I expect you to keep it out of sight. Please be present in mind and body.

Discussion and Reading Schedule

25 January       Introduction to the Course

The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Banner, How, Introduction, Chapter 1; The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).    

30 January       Native Nations in the United States

                        How to Read a Supreme Court Case

Reading: Articles of Confederation, Article IX; United States Constitution; Northwest Ordinance  (1787); Federal Trade and Intercourse Act (1790); Treaty of Canandaigua (1794); Banner, How, Chapters 1-3

1 February       The Marshall Court and the Definition of Native Nations

Reading: Johnson v. McIntosh (1823); Banner, How, Chapters 4 and 5. If you are interested in a comparative perspective, I encourage you to look at Stuart Banner’s article, “Why Terra Nullius? Anthropology and Property Law in Early Australia,” Law and History Review, 23 (Spring 2005), 95-131, available on Brightspace.

6 February       The Expulsion Era

Reading: Documents on Jacksonian Indian policy (Brightspace); Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831); Samuel A. Worcester v. State of Georgia, (1832); Banner, How, Chapter 6.

Journal 1 Due.

 8 February      The Reservation System

Reading: Ex Parte Crow Dog; Major Crimes Act (1885) and US v. Kagama  (1886); Banner, How, Chapter 7.

13 February     The Policy of Allotment

Reading: Cobb, Nations, pp. 19-49; Banner, How, Chapter 8;Talton v. Mayes (1896); Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903); United States v. Celestine (1909)

15 February     The Indian New Deal

Reading: Reading: Cobb, Nations, pp. 54-93; Banner,  How, (finish book) and the Indian Reorganization Act,  1934.

20 February     The Termination Era

Reading: Cobb, Nations, pp. 97-106, 115-123; HCR 108; Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States (1955).

Journal 2 Due

22 February     Williams v. Lee and the Modern Era of American Indian Tribal Sovereignty

Reading: Williams v. Lee (1959); Native American Church v. Navajo Tribal  Council (1959).

27 February     The Era of Self-Determination

Reading: McClanahan v. Arizona Tax Commission, (1973); Morton v. Mancari (1974).

 1 March          Red Power

Reading: Cobb, Nations, 124-188

 6 March          The Supreme Court’s 1978 Term, Congress and Tribal Sovereignty

Reading: US. v. Wheeler (1978); Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez (1978); Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978); Legislative Packet (Brightspace)

Journal 3 Due.

8 March           The Power of Tribal Governments

Reading: Merrion v. Jicarilla Apache Tribe (1982); Duro v. Reina, (1990); Atkinson Trading Company v. Shirley (2001); US v. Lara (2004)

20 March         The War on Native American Children and Families

Reading:  Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl (2013) (this was a messy case, with two concurring and two dissenting opinions); 5-4 Podcast on the Adoptive Couple case; Margaret Jacobs, “Remembering the ‘Forgotten Child’: The American Indian Child Welfare Crisis of the 1960s and 1970s,” American Indian Quarterly 37 (Winter/Spring 2013), 136-159 (Brightspace); Olivia Stefanovich, “2023 Will Be a Pivotal Year for Indigenous Child Welfare on Both Sides of the Border,” CBC News, 2 January 2023. The Cherokee Phoenix produced its own 42-minute long breakdown of the case, if you are interested in Native American reactions to Brackeen.

This would be a good time to listen to Season 2 of the “This Land” podcast hosted by Rebecca Nagel

Journal 4 Due

22 March         Jurisdiction and Sovereignty in the 21st Century

Reading: McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020); Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, (2022). Listen to 5-4 Podcast episode on the Castro-Huerta decision.

27 March         Sexual Violence in Indian Country

Reading: Deer, Rape.  We will discuss the book in its entirety.  You will want to begin reading

29 March         #MMIW #MMIWG

Reading:  Watch this advertisement from the Native Women’s Wilderness, and this one from the United States Office of Justice Programs/Office for Victims of Crimes; Absorb as much of the following as you can: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls, (Seattle: Urban Indian Health Institute, 2017); a PBS NewsHour report featuring Abigail HenHawk, who oversaw the Urban Indian Health Institute report; National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.  (Explore the website, read the summary of the 2019 Final Report); the report from the Trump Administration’s “Operation Lady Justice”; and President Biden’s Executive Order 14053 from November of 2021.

Search on Twitter using the hashtags #MMIW and #MMIWG.  The podcast on the disappearance of Jermain Charlo would fit well here. Give it a listen.

3 April              Issues in American Indian Religion: Christianity in Indian Country

Reading: Lassiter, Ellis and Kotay, The Jesus Road, (entire book).

5 April             Issues in American Indian Religion 

Reading: Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990); Lyng v. Northwest Cemetery Protective Association (1988).  Please watch on your own “The Silence,” a PBS documentary on one small Catholic Church in Alaska.

                        Journal 5 Due

10 April           Issues in American Indian Education: Boarding Schools and their Legacy

Reading:  Gord Downie, “The Secret Path.”  I would also like you to go to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School online project.  You can find the website here.  Your assignment is, first, to read Louise NoHeart’s student file (Brightspace) and then to read a minimum of at least 5 student files from the Indigenous Nation you have been following this semester (or a related Nation)(Ask for help if you are not clear on how to do this!) In general, for each student there is an information card and a student file. Read both of those and search for the student’s name in the newspapers and other documents.  What do you learn about those students’ experiences at Carlisle? Be prepared to discuss what you found.

Please spend some time as well with the ArcGIS project from the University of Windsor looking at Canadian Residential Schools and this nine-minute report by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

12 April           Mascots and Other Forms of Appropriation

Reading: Materials on the Andrea Smith case; Russell Cobb, “Why Do So Many People Pretend to be Native American,” This Land Press, (August 2014), available here; Audra Simpson, “Indigenous Identity Theft Must Stop,” Boston Globe, November 17, 2022.

17 April           Economic Development and Poverty in Indian Country

 Reading: California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians (1987); National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) website.

                        Journal 6 Due

19 April           The Land and its Loss: The Consequences of Dispossession and Environmental Degradation

Reading: City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation (2005); Stephanie H. Barclay and Michalyn Steele, “Rethinking Protections for Indigenous Sacred Sites,” Harvard Law Review, (forthcoming, on Brightspace).

24 April           Resistance: IDLA to Red Lives Matter, Idle No More

Reading: Watch Film: “You Are On Indian Land;” Cobb, Nations, 203-250;

Lakota Law Project, Native Lives Matter; Jonah Raskin, “Red Lives Matter,” Tablet Magazine, October 10, 2021. You can also read my report about the death or Reynold High Pine in 1972; Jason Pero in Wisconsin and Colten Boushie in 2018; Please also look at the Idle No More website and read about this Canadian movement.

26 April           GREAT DAY—NO CLASSES: Possible Guest Will Visit our Campus and Our Class.

1 May              Health and Well-Being in Native America

Reading: Indian Health Service, “Disparities,” Updated October 2019; Linda Poon, “How ‘Indian Relocation’ Created a Public Health Crisis,” Citylab, 2 December 2019; Mohan B. Kumar and Michael Tjepkema, “Suicide Among First Nations people, Métis and Inuit, 2011-2016),” Statistics Canada, 28 June 2019; Rural Tribal Health Overview, May 2022; Prabir Mandal and Jarett E. Raade, “Major Health Issues of American Indians,” 28 June 2018

3 May              What Is To Be Done?

Reading: Read the Preface, Introduction, and Calls to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report from Canada, 2015, entitled Honouring the Past, Reconciling for the Future (read only the introduction, and whatever else interests you, in Brightspace) and “Calls to Action and Accountability: A Status Update on Reconciliation” by Eva Jewell and Ian Mosby of the Yellowhead Institute, (2019). 

Final Paper Due

8 May           What is to be Done? (Continued)

 Reading: Harold Napoleon, Yuuyarq: The Way of the Human Being, (Fairbanks: Alaska Native Knowledge Network, 1996).

                      Journal 7 Due

10 May            Final Class Meeting

17 May            Final Exam Period, 8:00-11:20: Individual Discussions to consider your final grade.

Maybe, Just Maybe

I am hearing it again and it really bothers me. It is the end of the semester. I am tired, and so are my students. Yet I listen too often to laments from faculty members talking about how the quality of our students has declined. They are not doing the reading. They have no work ethic. They are just not prepared for college work. And they could not write their way out of a paper bag.

But maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the global pandemic we are struggling through. I have been hearing the same laments from the same instructors for a long time, so it has to be more than that. Maybe, just maybe, as students worry about the dicked-up world our generation has bequeathed to them, we have failed to inspire them to do the work. Maybe they do not do the work because they really cannot get to it right now. Maybe they can’t get to that work because you and I have failed to convince them that this work is important and that it matters more than all the other stuff they are dealing with. Maybe, just maybe, they do not care about the work because, frankly, we have not given them reason to care about what we do and why we think it is important.

Maybe, just maybe, some of us college professors ought to look at what high school and elementary school teachers go through. Their students, they say, are often not prepared for classwork. They have lots of things going on in their young lives that cause them to view school as less important than other things on their list of concerns. And you know what? Those teachers still have to teach. Their jobs depend on it. They do not get to blame the students. They have to meet certain standards, whatever we might think about those standards, or they can face penalties. The good teachers find ways to inspire their students to work and to learn.

When I look at my Zoom screen, I see a small number of black boxes. Because the students are at home, I do not feel comfortable asking them to turn on their cameras if they do not want to–I have no idea what might be going on in their homes, and if they feel a need for privacy, I feel bound to respect it. I wish their cameras were on, but I am not willing to make an issue out of this. Some of my students, I know, are not doing all the reading. I tell them to do their best. I firmly believe that if they are interested, at some point they will come back to this subject if they miss it now. I suspect that one of the reasons why their journals (300 words a week) are coming in late is because some of them, rather than writing each week, waited until the last possible second to do the work. I know that two of my students have buried a parent, and that a half dozen or so have either been sick themselves or in quarantine for Covid exposure. I do not blame the students for any of this. If the students in your classes are not reading, if they are not participating in your class discussions as much as you would like, if they seem uninterested, it might be more productive to look in the mirror before you start beating down students.

Maybe, just maybe, you will have to adjust your standards, or make fundamental changes to the way you teach. I think here of people like Kevin Gannon, Cate Denial, and Thomas LeCaque, who have helped to inspire me to rethink how I approach my classes. If the students truly “are not as strong as they used to be,” then you may need to change your approach. You may have to reconsider how you teach. I firmly believe this, and it is a hill I will die on: if our students are failing to learn what we are trying to teach them, then you and I are failing as teachers. And if this is something you would rather whine about than fix, perhaps you can find something else to do with your life. Maybe, just maybe.

As this semester approaches its end, I can admit to my students that I am exhausted. We are approaching Christmas, with all the busy-ness that entails. I had Covid in early November and, three weeks after being cleared by the County Health Department, I still do not feel like I have fully recovered. My tank is nearly empty. But I have no papers to write, no final exams to study for, no all-nighters that I need to pull. All that is left for me this semester as a (virtual) classroom teacher is to read what my beleaguered, stressed-out, sometimes careless and sloppy, but always interesting students have to say. And I feel fortunate to be here for that. Maybe, just maybe, we can make a resolution for the New Year: No more bitching and moaning about students.

Stay safe out there.

What’s In A Grade?

Why do we give grades? Do they bear a meaningful relationship to what students have learned? Do they reflect accurately a student’s abilities in a given field, or her mastery of a given body of knowledge? 

            I understand that questions like these, for many of my fellow college professors, are answered through the “assessment” of how well students meet our stated “learning outcomes,” bulleted and bold-faced, on our course syllabi.  I am not sure we are doing our students a service with the way we grade.

            But a lot of my colleagues see value in the enterprise. They must feel this way. After all, the continue to collect essays their students write.  “This paper is an 88,” they might say. “But this one is an 86, and that one a 74.”  They may have a “rubric,” with columns and rows, which they suggest reduces their grading to a system. Not only is it objective and measurable, but beyond question, too.  “I am not in the business of negotiating grades,” a former colleague of mine writes on his syllabus.  Look at the rubric.

            They will write comments on their students’ papers, like “you need to develop your argument more fully,” or “your paper lacks a clear and coherent thesis,” or “I wish you had put more time into this assignment,” or “you need to realize you are not in high school anymore.” But you didn’t, so you get a 78.

            These are all comments I have read on student papers.  And I am hardly without blame.  I, too, used to grade like this.  I don’t anymore.

            At the opening weekend for first-year students at Loyola Marymount University, a school which my daughter thought she would attend for four years, the faculty member chosen to deliver the opening convocation address said, “at Loyola Marymount University, we don’t give grades. Students earn them” The audience went wild.

            What a load of nonsense.

            She was no Olympian, dispensing wisdom from on high. Grading is inexact. It is by its nature imprecise. We read a paper, engage with the writer’s words, and look at the argument.  Perhaps we measure what we have before us against our rubric, which this Loyola professor might view as some sort of Platonic standard of student excellence, the Form of the Good Essay.  But we are giving numerical or letter scores to something that cannot be measured precisely.

            I have written on this blog about grades and grading, and the relationship between grades and student retention. I worry that the entire enterprise of grading can do our students a disservice. It stresses them out for one thing, because of the growing tyranny of GPA in setting the metes and bounds of their future opportunities. If you determine a student has performed poorly or only adequately in your class and you give that student a “C,” it is entirely possible that you have closed more doors for that student than you and your course ever opened for them.  They may objectively be worse off, in the long run, for having taken your course.  We do not take enough responsibility for the grades we give and the unquestioned power claim to give them.

            I have been reading lately the work of professors, like the fantastic Cate Denial, who are altering their approach to grading (I have not met Cate face to face, but I am looking forward to meeting her when she comes to Geneseo in March).  I have found this work inspiring, and after far too long, I have decided to start making some significant and fundamental changes to how I engage with my students. I have to enter grades at the end of the semester.  There is no changing that. But I can transform that process in ways that I believe will serve students better. I want them to learn, I want them to enjoy history as much as I do.  And I want them to see its importance.  And like the forced worship that, to Roger Williams, must “stinketh in God’s nostrils,” I do not believe I can coerce students into learning through quizzes and the external motivation of a letter grade.

            This semester I decided to move away from scoring papers.  I ask my students to submit their papers and journals to me electronically as a document.  As I read, I make extensive comments on the argument, evidence, and style.  I also try to use these marginal comments to offer instruction in those areas where I feel the student has room for improvement. It is easy to tell students not to do this or that; it is much more challenging to show them how to do things right.

            In the past, when I read these papers, I might start thinking of scores and grades.  I might have felt conflicted in the past about whether a paper deserved a B, or a B+, or an A-, or what amount of points I might give to an essay.

            I realize that these may be my own idiosyncrasies, and that what I am proposing will not work for everyone.  There are many, many, many excellent professors who inspire students, change their lives for the better, and teach them effectively using conventional grading methods. What I am proposing, furthermore, I recognize will probably not work well in every subject. Still, half way through the semester, and I find that the students appreciate what it is that I am trying to do.

            Students receive back their papers with detailed commentary.  I mention what I thought they did well, where they need to improve, and how I think they might best do that.  I am honest. When I feel that a paper included careless errors, or that the student may not have proofread his or her paper, I point it out and give reasons why I feel that way.  I tell that them that people who read what they write, now and in the future, may judge them harshly for their misspellings and grammatical errors. Some students have been poorly prepared for college writing. They were not taught the importance of editing, proofreading, and writing multiple drafts.  Some have not been asked to read widely.  For some of them, then, weak writing is not their fault, so the emphasis is always on getting better.

            By the end of the semester, I will have folders on each student, containing all their written work, along with my comments.  The students and I have this material in front of us when we meet during finals week to discuss their final grade.  At our meeting, I ask the students to come prepared to discuss the following questions:

  • What did you learn this semester in this course? What new information did you find most surprising?
  • In what ways did you grow and develop as a scholar and a Historian?
  • What do you think of the work you did this semester? Were you satisfied with its quality? Are there things you might have done better?
  • What grade do you believe you deserve for the course and why?

We will discuss these questions and, I hope, arrive at some sort of agreement.

            I have been warned by friends that I will face endless arguments, that the “grade grubbers” will wheedle and whine until they get the “A” they want.   Others, who have actually tried something like this, find that students are harsh in their assessment of their own work.  I do not know for certain what is going to happen.  But I would find this job very difficult to do if I did not believe that students are honest, that they want to learn, and that I can learn much from them.  And, what’s more, I believe this: It costs me nothing to grade generously, to listen to students, to constantly reassess my own standards, and to take seriously the students’ own assessment of what they have taken from my classes.

Everything is Beautiful

I have completed all of my grading for the fall semester, made it through the stress and hustle of the holidays.  Some time to reflect, before the next semester begins in a couple of weeks.  The final essays written by students in my Western Humanities course inspired me. We can read so many laments about “kids these days,” so many ill-informed condemnations of “campus climate.”  God knows, there is a lot to worry about in this world, but these kids are all right.

            I have written about Geneseo’s Western Humanities requirement on this blog before.  In my version of the course, the students begin by reading three works from Ancient Greece: Antigone, Thucydides, and Plato’s Republic.  They then read Cicero’s Republic and Virgil’s Aeneid.  After the Greeks and Romans, we move into the Judeo-Christian tradition: Genesis, much of Exodus, the first and most of the second book of Samuel, a good chunk of Isaiah, the Gospel of Matthew, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and the passion narratives in the other three gospels. We spend the next three meetings on the first nine books of Augustine’s Confessions. Followed by Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, More’s Utopia, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  It is a heavy reading load for a single semester.  We wrap up with three short readings: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense,” and Roger Rosenblatt’s 2016 essay for The Atlantic called “The World is a Thriving Slaughterhouse.”

            If you read this blog, you will know my affection for Rosenblatt’s essay.  Going through an attic full of photographs, notes, and clippings documenting his long career as a war correspondent in some of the late 20th century’s most brutal combat zones, Rosenblatt told the story of the people he met—in Israel, Palestine, the Sudan, Cambodia, Rwanda.  He closed the essay with the story of Khu:     

Here are notes on a conversation with Khu, a 15-year-old boy who fled Vietnam to Hong Kong after the war. His parents are dead. He had nothing in Vietnam, so one night he jumped aboard a boat in Haiphong, headed up the South China Sea to Hong Kong. After some time, the people on the boat ran out of food. The captain, or “boat master,” assigned one man to knock Khu unconscious with a hammer and another to cut his throat, so the others could eat him. When the crew members saw the tears on Khu’s face, they let him live. But the next day, the adults killed the man with the hammer and cut up his body. “Everyone was issued a piece of meat, about two fingers wide.” Khu holds up a hand to indicate the size of the portion. He says he understands their actions. They were starving. Would you do the same?, I ask him. No, he says, I would not kill in order to live.

It is evening, and Khu and the translator are sitting with me, looking over the dazzling Hong Kong harbor. We watch the junks move among the little islands. The mountain of the city rises like a Christmas tree. I ask Khu what he’s thinking about. The lights, he says. They are beautiful. And the boats. I ask what he thinks about the boats. He says they are also beautiful. What else is beautiful?, I ask him. He says everything is beautiful.

I asked the students to write an essay reflecting on Khu’s last statement, drawing as they did so upon any four of the pieces we read over the course of the semester. 

            Because to me and to them, I know, it does not always seem beautiful. The suffering in Syria or Yemen or Afghanistan, or the violent persecution of minorities on a global scale, or the callousness shown to the millions of people displaced around the world, so many of whom flee victimization only to become victims once again. Two children, fleeing the hell on earth that is their homeland, died in the custody of American law enforcement.

            The students acknowledged this suffering. I encouraged them to follow the news, and many did so. They wrote movingly about these global injustices, placing this ugliness in the context of their understanding of Plato’s forms, or the call in Testaments Old and New to extend grace, compassion, and kindness to those on the margins, and Augustine’s urgent determination to find an explanation for the reality of evil that did not leave him wrecked and wretched.  They used Sophocles and Aquinas to make the case that a higher law exists—somewhere—against which the deeds of even the most confident despot will be measured. And Hamlet: in that grief-shattered young man, aware fully of the rottenness surrounding him, the students drew the lesson that as long as you are alive, you might find the chance to look past the despair, a lesson Hamlet himself could not learn. They understood well, as Ethan Hawke’s character in the film “First Reformed” put it, that balancing despair and hope is a struggle at the center of the human condition, even if Hawke’s character succumbed to that despair as well.

            So many of the students went beyond the news, the world at large, to write about their own moments of darkness.  They wrote with feeling, and I am grateful to them for sharing their stories with me. They were so personal, and so certain am I that they have not shared these stories widely on campus, that I do not feel that I can share them here in any detailed manner.  They wrote of the trauma and pain they carry, for example, from their parents’ acrimonious divorce. They wrote of their first encounters with death: of high school classmates to accidents, overdose, or homicide; of the adults in their lives, to cancer, accident, and suicide.  They wrote of people who died young, and their loss left these kids with their first taste of grief.  They identified with Augustine, who saw in his own struggles with grief a sign that he was not well, that his heart was unquiet.  They chronicled their struggles with breathtaking frankness. They spoke of their own mistakes, and the hard lessons they have learned.  They understood their own shortcomings, the steps they need to take in places to make themselves whole. 

            Spend four months talking with these students. Read their writing.  If you had the chance to do so, you would worry less about the future generation.  The students, at their best, wrote essays in which they examined big questions: the experience of evil, the suffering in the world and in their own lives, their place in a cosmos that at times seems close to shattering.  They looked out at the world, took its measure to the best of their ability, and they saw the beauty in it all.  They were not naïve, to my mind. They understood that there is so much injustice, so much that is so seriously screwed up.  But if they did not have a ready solution for the problems they so clearly could see—problems that great thinkers have thought about for millennia—most of them believed firmly that it did not have to be that way. 

            I find the Humanities course a challenge to teach. I was not around long ago when my colleagues assembled the original reading list, a menu from which faculty are allowed to make selections in a number of categories.  We have some freedom to substitute and innovate, but at the end, we have a long list of books that discuss all sorts of things. Finding unifying themes, I found difficult when I first taught the course.  After eight years of teaching it, the themes are more apparent.  Have no fear, I tell the students.  If there is one thing the books that they read share it is this: an awareness of the need to be not afraid, to be willing to ask difficult questions, to demand evidence, to express their dissent.  As we watch a political system presided over by the Travesty-in-Chief, aided and abetted by the tens of millions of Americans who still support him, and political leaders who know better but refuse to speak up, that courage is more necessary than ever.

            These students expressed, each in their own way, their optimism that their generation was up to the task.  They expressed their openness to the possibility that the world does not need to be the way it is.  They agreed with Khu.  That faith, in a country where somehow that smash-and-grab operation that is the Trump Administration managed to come to power, buoys me and, I suspect, many of those of us who teach. 

Here’s to hoping 2019 is better than 2018. I wish you peace in the new year.

Easy A

Over the break, while sitting in the airport in Las Vegas, I took a few minutes to read Gary Landerman’s essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Why I’m Easy: On Giving Lots of A’s.”

Landerman correctly notes that many of our students experience enormous amounts of stress in college.  Grades, he correctly argues, wield enormous influence in determining the sorts of opportunities a graduate will enjoy.  Part of Landerman’s plan, then, “is to try to show love and empathy rather than contempt and derision, as some of my colleagues do.  Hell, students already have enough stress and uncertainty in their lives, as they adjust to living on their own, making new friends, feeding themselves, and taking crazy-making courses” in other fields.

Landerman seems to teach a significant number of general education courses on a variety of topics in his field of Religious Studies.  Some of these courses are quite large, enrolling more than two hundred students.  Landerman wants the content in these courses “to go down easily and smoothly, to be both entertaining and effortless—a nice break from their other courses, which are sober, regimented, and demanding.”

There are some obvious counter-arguments.  Not all required courses for majors are “crazy-making,” “sober,” and “demanding.”  A professor can maintain high standards in courses covering difficult subject matter in a manner that is not contemptuous and derisive.  I have many colleagues who show a great deal of empathy and love to their students while forcing them to work their way through challenging assignments.  If you have taught for as long as I have, you will learn that it is not uncommon for students to love professors who made them work their asses off.  And Landerman, it seems to me, seems to underestimate just how “stimulating” and “entertaining” the demanding courses that majors take can be.

There was a time when concerns such as these would have led me to dismiss Landerman’s essay entirely, to be so annoyed by his claim that he can get away with what he does because he is tenured that I would completely tune him out.  The students he sees seem more fragile, less able to handle hardship and adversity than those I have known, and far less willing to tackle difficult work.

Landerman teaches large classes, he tells us.  In a class with two hundred students, it is obviously impossible to engage every student in discussions. It is difficult to develop assessments for classes that large that measure the students’ grasp of abstract concepts.  Landerman, indeed, tells us that his exams are easy, and multiple choice.  He does not have to spend a lot of time grading, and jokes that only idiots struggle to receive an A or a B in his classes.

Still, Landerman raises an issue about which I do not hear enough discussion.  “Why,” Landerman asks, “should I assign a grade to an effort at human growth?”  Setting aside the obvious answer that in efforts at human growth, some students work harder and are more successful improving themselves than others, maybe it would be better to ask different questions: what do I want students to get out of my classes, and what is the relationship between the grades I give and actual learning?

I have a colleague, for example, who assigns her students a handful of short papers, ten or so, over the course of the semester.  This she does in lieu of exams.  The paper assignments require students to confront weighty topics.  It is demanding work.  And students must complete all the papers.  So, let’s say, a student completes nine of the ten essays, and earns an “A” on each paper.  Some situation, however, whether a family emergency, an illness, a breakup, or a simple mistake in keeping track of assignments and due dates, keeps the student from turning in the tenth paper.  That student would fail my colleague’s course.

Where is the justice in that?  The policy strikes me as punitive and pedantic. There is no relationship between that student’s failing grade and what she learned over the course of the semester.

I understand that some professors believe students should be “responsible.”  Good training for the real world, they say.  They want to teach students that deadlines matter.  Most of their students, I believe, understand that perfectly well from high school, and if you know a historian who has never missed a deadline, I hope you will introduce me to that sparkly unicorn.  We may not be the people best suited to provide lessons on the subject, “Deadlines Matter.”

This is an extreme example, but there have been many occasions where I have wondered about the relationship between an assignment, the grade, and student learning.  I know that I have made mistakes, and that I have given assignments that did not necessarily measure well the student’s learning.  I still feel like there is a lot I can learn. As a result, I have become more flexible, and that flexibility has led me to be more lenient in my grading. I still require a lot of work but, like Professor Landerman, I have become a generous grader.

Like him, I want my students to think about complex issues.  I want them to engage with important and challenging ideas.  Students in my classes have written essays of such grace, beauty, and intelligence that they have moved me to tears.  Other students write with not nearly that much ease. They struggle to express themselves. They come into my class less well-prepared, or with fewer academic or educational resources than their “Straight A” classmates, but they may have travelled father to get there.  They may have learned more.  They may have been more affected by what they read or, I hope,  by what we talked about in class, than students who perform better in terms of standard measures of student learning and achievement.  Like Professor Landerman, I want to help in a small way to expand these kids’ horizons. I feel fortunate that I can remember how easy it is to be turned on by something I learned in class, that I remember how an idea can change your life.

Just this morning, at the opening convocation at Loyola Marymount University, I listened to the faculty member chosen to address the students and their parents say that at LMU, “Faculty don’t give students’ grades; at LMU, students earn their grades.”  The line received a good deal of applause, but it struck me as completely inane.  This speaker had given a talk that, it seemed to me, revealed a contemptuous attitude toward her students.  You need an alarm clock to succeed, she said, because you do not want to oversleep.  Do your homework. Read the syllabus.  Give me a break.  I hate statements like these that so underestimate students.  As for the grading part of her speech, she seemed to remove her own biases and beliefs and values from the equation.  The students do the work. I decide what they have earned.  But of course she is giving grades, and if she is not careful and conscious and thoughtful, she may enter scores and marks that reflect more what she expected from the students than what they actually learned.  As the parent of a freshman sitting in that audience, I found that a chilling and depressing thought.

We Are Teachers

Many years ago I served on a search committee for a position in the history of American Foreign Policy. For many reasons it was an odd search, and we ultimately did not succeed in hiring anyone for the opening.  We interviewed one candidate over the phone, with an exceptional record of publication, and a strong, Ivy League academic pedigree. He was doing a post-doc at some thinktank somewhere and, when asked about teaching said that, yes, he did enjoy it, and that it was for him a “nice break in the day.”  He would not have been a good fit for us. I teach in a department, and at a college, with a great number of very fine teachers, where teaching is Job One, and where we take great pride in the accomplishments of our undergraduates.

Don’t Be This Guy

I have served on many search committees since that time. It consistently strikes me how poorly served are many job candidates who come from elite research institutions.  The letters of recommendation, even when they are signed and printed on letter-head, are so long, with detailed and esoteric discussions of the significance of a candidate’s research.  In my view, they contain more detail than is necessary and, all too often, say little about teaching beyond expressing the belief that the candidate, based upon their personality, might be good at it.

Do not get me wrong. Research is important.  It makes you a better historian and, when done with eyes open, it makes for better teaching. It

…or this guy

forces you to remain engaged with the scholarship and to keep abreast of the developments in your field. Even at a college like ours, it is something that you are required to do in order to achieve tenure and promotion.

And even at a school like mine, with its heavy teaching load and limited travel funds, it is my view something that you are ethically bound to do. Were I to resign my position, and if my college was able to scare up the money to replace me and conduct a tenure-track search for a historian in Early American or Native American history, I would expect that at least a hundred people would apply for the job.  Many of these people would be fantastically qualified. Many of them would have published much more by the time they went out on the job market than my peers and I did back in the middle of the 1990s.

But, let’s face it, many of them will never land tenure-track teaching positions.  Because colleges increasingly rely on adjuncts to carry the weight of their college’s teaching obligations, or because public systems are strapped for cash and positions are not necessarily replaced, many of these outstanding young historians will never get the chance to do what I have done.  It is an unjust system, and no meritocracy.  Those of us with good jobs need to appreciate how privileged we are. We need to publish, and if we cannot, we should get the hell out of the way for those who can.  We cannot justly take up space.  Other people, were they so fortunate, would produce high quality work and in quantity if they could.  Many of them will never get that chance.

Many of those who apply for position after position and never find secure academic employment would make fantastic college teachers as well.  So those of us fortunate enough to have jobs have the obligation to put our best efforts forward, to realize that we speak to more students on any given teaching day than will likely ever read an article we publish or listen to a paper we give at this or that conference. We should realize that we can devastate a student with an unkind word or with criticism that is indelicate or overly harsh.

We should recognize as well that with words of confidence and encouragement we can change a young person’s life.  A student will remember us, and what we have said, perhaps long after we have forgotten that student’s name.  And to have that sort of positive impact as a teacher requires great effort and commitment and consciousness.  I once had a colleague when I taught in Montana who told me during my campus visit that being a college professor was “the best part-time job in the world.” He published shit, a bibliography here, a stupid article there.  He taught unimaginatively–presidents and scantrons in American history.  To do well requires an enormous amount of energy and sensitivity.  Teaching is the most important thing we do.

I have had many great teachers as colleagues.  Bill Cook, my medievalist colleague who retired a few years back, and who was adored by generations of students, told me that he reminded himself that every student he taught was the most important person in somebody’s life, and that they were entitled to the utmost courtesy, care, and respect.  His office for many years was across from mine, and I was always impressed by how much time he took with students, how much interest he showed in them.  It was a good lesson for me.

I had this student who took a couple of my classes–my Native American survey course and my course in American Indian Law. She wrote one of the finest research projects I had ever read. Her short papers were brilliantly insightful. They were well-researched and extremely well-written. They were theoretically sophisticated.  She was not a history major, but was the best student in each of the classes she took.  As she prepared to leave campus, having completed her last semester, she stopped by my office. She thanked me for the semester. I told her that I have been at this teaching thing a while.  I told her that I had a good idea of what it takes to succeed in graduate school and academia, and I told her that I am highly selective in who I recommend for graduate school–it is a tough job market, after all, and to succeed you need to be a hard worker, talented, and imaginative.  I told her that I did not know what her plans were after school but that I had every confidence that she could succeed in any endeavor she chose to pursue, and that I would be delighted to write a letter of recommendation for her.  She was visibly moved by this.

A couple of weeks later, I was talking to a colleague in her home department. I was sharing how talented I thought this student was, and thanked my colleague for sending her over to my department.  He said that she was a C student, that she did not seem that interested or motivated.  Damn.  That transcript.  Those grades.  Wouldn’t work for graduate school.  It was a conversation that left me deeply disappointed, and I feel it still, a couple of years later.  Was she really uninterested, or was he uninspired or ill-advised?  I wish I had the chance to meet this student earlier in her Geneseo career.  I have a feeling that I may have been the only professor she had who really let her know how exceptional and talented she was.

We teach. Sometimes, we get lucky, and we meet students who have such breath-taking talent that we learn more from them than they from us.  Sometimes students disappoint us, frustrate us, inspire us, and make us proud.  Sometimes they do not live up to what we believe is their potential.  But once in a while, you will change their life for the better, and, once in a while, they will make yours much better, too.