Donald Trump’s Pocahontas Problem

It is difficult to keep up with the sheer quantity of daily news generated by the new administration, but I wrote the following piece after Donald Trump, once again, referred to his principal critic, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as Pocahontas.  The day after this news broke, I asked my students what they thought of it.  These are bright kids, engaged, and they believed quite strongly that Trump’s behavior was inappropriate, and juvenile.  Many of them volunteered that this sort of name-calling was racist.  When I asked them why, however, I felt that they struggled to provide an answer. They knew it was wrong, but had difficulty pin-pointing why.  This essay summarizes my explanation.


While Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Native American identity certainly can be called into question, President Trump’s choice to deride her as “Pocahontas,” during the campaign and in a meeting  with Democratic lawmakers, goes too far.  Warren said she learned of her Cherokee ancestry through “family stories,” but she has not produced any evidence.  Still, Al Franken, Warren’s colleague in the Senate and a member of the Indian Affairs Committee, called Trump’s actions racist. He’s right. Here’s why.

            Trump’s recent name-calling is of a piece with his testimony before Congress in 1993, when he cast aspersions on the Connecticut tribes who then were opening up casinos that could compete with his own. “They don’t look like Indians to me,” Trump said.

            For President Trump, it seems, Native American identity can be determined by a quick glance.  He looked for certain characteristics and did not see them in the Pequots, or in Senator Warren. Centuries of intermarriage, enslavement, and the complex, messy, and tangled history of native peoples mattered in his determination not a bit.  For him, native peoples were individuals with certain easily distinguished racial features, and not members of political entities that possessed an inherent but limited sovereignty that predated the creation of the United States.

            But here’s the thing. Too many Americans share Trump’s views about who Indians are and what they ought to be.  Too many Americans view Indians as part of the past.  Think about the most commonly held stereotypes about Native Americans:  What images enter your mind? Ask your friends what they think. Chances are a lot of those images come from the past.

            And when we speak of Native Americans as being part of the past, we are aiding in an ongoing colonial project which erases native peoples in the present.  And if they are viewed as part of the past, or inauthentic, it becomes easier to dismiss the legitimacy of Native Americans, as individuals and as members of semi-sovereign nations, as being out of time and place and, as a consequence, irrelevant.  It becomes easier to ignore the very real problems of inequality and injustice in Indian Country; it becomes permissible to cheer for a football team with a racist name; or to silently assent to a President’s decision to authorize a pipeline through lands that a Native American community deems sacred. It also makes it possible to call into question the sovereign right of native nations to develop their economies, protect their lands, and against immense odds preserve their cultures.   When the President casts Indians as part of the past, he makes it more difficult for many Americans to recognize the importance of native peoples’ calls for justice today.

The Winters Doctrine and Dakota Access

After class a couple of weeks ago, one of my students asked me why the Winters decision had not played a larger role in the Water Protectors’ efforts to defeat the Dakota Access Pipeline. The students had read Winters v. US (1908) and they had been following closely developments at Standing Rock in their current events reading.

I have been teaching college history for a long time, but I am still reminded quite often how much there is that I do not know. My very best students frequently drive me back to the piles of books in my office, or to the library, or to the wonderful world of resources available online.  Sometimes their questions force me to ask my friends—historians, anthropologists, and, in this instance, lawyers—for guidance.  I learn a lot through teaching.  It is why I am so happy and feel myself so fortunate to be at Geneseo.

Winters, as Charles Carvell noted in an extremely useful article that appeared in the North Dakota Law Review, is quite simply a phenomenal ruling. “It occurred at a time,” Carvell writes, “when Indians wars were not distant memories and when federal Indian policy was      not to promote or even protect Indian interests but to break apart tribal communities and assimilate Indians into white society.” This was, Carvell continues, the era of Allotment, and of boarding schools—a full court press against native peoples and their cultures.   “The decision occurred at a time when the disappearance of ‘the Indian’ and Indian tribes was thought to be at hand.  It was issued a few years after Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock,” the 1903 decision that recognized the plenary power of Congress over Indian affairs and the ability of Congress, unilaterally and regardless of context, to abrogate an Indian treaty.  Winters was litigated as settlers crossed the Plains in droves. Still, “despite the milieu in which it was litigated, the Winters decision protected tribal interests.”

How did it do that? The Court held that when Congress established an Indian reservation, it established as well a right to the water necessary for that reservation to achieve its purposes.  Since one of the stated goals of the reservation policy involved leading native peoples towards what the federal government and many reformers considered a civilized way of life—and in this instance the native peoples in question were the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine communities residing near the Milk River on the Fort Belknap Reservation—that meant guaranteeing them the water they needed to undertake stock-raising and agriculture.  Thus the Winters Doctrine. Settlers upriver had diverted waters from the Milk River and this, the Court held, was unlawful.

So at the very time that Congress was seeking to dispossess native peoples and eradicate their culture, the Court, in this quirky case, recognized that these reservations had a claim to water superior to that of the settlers who coveted this vital resource.

Water is essential on the plains.  As the Water Protectors have asserted, “water is life,” and in their view, the Dakota Access Pipeline jeopardized waters flowing through the reservation.  As early as 1976, according to Carvell, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe asserted that it controlled water and other natural resources on its reservation. The Standing Rock Sioux that year began demanding that all users of water obtain the approval of the tribal government.

And the Standing Rock Sioux have not only stated that they have control over their waters, but they have acted on their words. “They have developed on-reservation water resources, and reject any notion that in doing so they are subject to state regulatory authority. They have developed,” Carvell continues, “irrigation projects and water for domestic, municipal, and government purposes.”

Standing Rock, in other words, has asserted that its reservation was established as a permanent homeland and, as a result, that it “is entitled to use all water necessary to make itself economically self-sufficient, and because what is necessary to ensure self-sufficiency is never stated the tribe’s water right is ‘inherently unquantifiable.’” The scope of their claim is immense, extending to “the full spectrum of uses necessary to the ‘arts of civilization.’”

It is not difficult to imagine that an oil spill or a pipeline break upriver would threaten these water resources. Pipelines break. They leak. Oil spills.  It has happened in the vicinity of the Dakota Access in recent months. It is obvious that these accidents would threaten tribal water resources.  But North Dakota is unique in terms of western water law. The amount of water to which tribes in North Dakota are entitled has never been quantified, and as a result, one might argue that the Winters doctrine has, strictly speaking, never been applied to Standing Rock and other reservations in the state.

The efforts of the Water Protectors and their lawyers to obtain restraining orders to prevent the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline did not address these issues.  Nor have treaty guarantees and other matters received a full airing in court.  Needless to say, if the Dakota Access Pipeline is completed, and it is beginning to look like that is what is going to happen, many of the most pressing historical and legal question will not have received a full hearing.  And that, along with President Trump’s determination to undermine the Environmental Impact review, makes this episode even more disappointing and unfortunate than it otherwise might have been.

The Case for Civic Engagement

I published an opinion piece in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle today, “The Case for Civic Education.”  I argued that one possible explanation as to why so many of Donald Trump’s supporters have accepted his trampling upon the Constitution is because too many Americans are unfamiliar with the country’s basic institutions, its history, and what the Constitution says.

I believe strongly that historians, and other academics, should engage the public.  We should write in defense of our disciplines.  We should advocate for our disciplines.  We should preach from the highest hills that history education, and education in the liberal arts and humanities generally, is vital to the functioning of a democratic republic because it equips citizens to participate in a mature, reasoned, and constructive manner.

The essay has drawn a bit of fire, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. I want to argue about these issues, and I want to have a debate.  So I will write.  It is the best way I know to engage with a broader public, to at least provoke some thought.

Alas, the D&C wants its opinion pieces short, 450 words, so there is not a lot of room to elaborate.  And for inexplicable reasons, the editorial staff decided to cut out the opening paragraph to the essay, despite the fact that I submitted a piece that came in below their word limit.  Maybe that opening was a bit inflammatory, but I do not think so.  The actual essay reads as follows:


A large minority of the voters who cast ballots last November chose Donald Trump to be their president, a choice endorsed and approved by the Electoral College, that antidemocratic anachronism designed to ensure that slaveholders controlled the national government.

            You have read in these pages many explanations for Trump’s unexpected victory. I would like to add another.  A significant number of voters cast their ballots for a bullying narcissist with little knowledge and less respect for American constitutionalism because they simply do not know enough about the Constitution, America’s political institutions, and the nation’s long struggle, in the Founders’ words, to “form a more perfect union.”  They can excuse Trump trampling over the Constitution because they do not know what the Constitution says.

            Let’s face it: despite a nationwide commitment to standardized testing, the social sciences, humanities, and liberal arts have been under attack.  We need “more plumbers and less philosophers,” said Marco Rubio during his brief quixotic run for the presidency.  The Lieutenant-Governor of Kentucky urged students not to study history but, instead, to focus upon something useful. Even Governor Cuomo, in his otherwise laudable proposal to provide tuition-free access to SUNY schools, promoted the program as a way for the state to produce more skilled workers, not informed citizens equipped to participate in American democracy in a meaningful and constructive manner.

            Education in history and the liberal arts, however, produces citizens capable of asking the tough questions and looking for answers in all their complexity.  They do not settle for simple solutions and pat answers. They know how to question assumptions, and demand evidence.  Civic education leads to responsible and mature civic engagement. Little wonder, then, that these fields of study are devalued and dismissed.

            Less than a third of Americans last year could identify all three branches of the federal government.  Another third could not name a single branch.  Many times more Americans can identify all five members of the Simpsons family than the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment. 

            The Founding Fathers argued that a flourishing republic needs citizens capable of displaying the virtue to set aside their narrow self-interest and petty fears and jealousies in order to pursue the common good.  They argued that citizens must be independent, informed, and active. An ignorant and quiescent populace, they feared, made fit tools for a tyrant.

            I cannot predict what will happen over the next several months and years. But I have watched the protests. We must do more, I believe, to engage the public, explain how our institutions are supposed to work, and protect them from a presidential administration that threatens the country’s fundamental aspiration of liberty and justice for all.


The evidence to support my assertions is not hard to find, and we should consider this evidence closely.  We have our work cut out for us.  Rick Shenkman, for one example, summarized some of the findings of his Just How Stupid Are We at Alternet.  The Annenberg Center for Public Policy in 2014 released a study in 2014 warning about Americans’ lack of basic civic knowledge.  Jason Brennan’s analysis from 2016 in Foreign Policy raises some points worth considering.  And the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that American college graduates are “alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage.”

This should disturb us all, regardless of the political party which claims our allegiance, regardless of who we voted for in the primaries or the general elections.  These results are a call to action. The challenge will be mustering the courage to answer that call.

I like to write opinion pieces. It is important for us all to bring our expertise to bear on public debates, and to make our voices heard.  Doing so requires a willingness to take some heat, some criticism that can be really, really vicious at times.  In my view, it comes with the territory. I could fume to my friends on Facebook.  I could bitch and whine or yell at the television set.  Better it seems to me is the effort to engage with as large a public as possible, to challenge assumptions, to offer explanations, and to provoke discussions.



#NoDAPL: Easement Approved

The news is not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless.  Douglas Lamont, the “Senior Official Preforming (sic) the Duties of the Assistant Secretary of the Army” announced that he had called upon the Army Corps of Engineers to end its Environmental Impact Review.  He has asked that his intentions be published in the Federal Register.  The process will move quickly if the Trump Administration has its way, for Lamont told congressional leaders that the Army will “waive its policy to wait 14 days after Congressional notification before granting an easement.”

The legal battle may continue.  There are, of course, the legal fights involving the many people arrested by the army of police protecting the assets of Energy Transfer Partners.  but there is also hope of an injunction. The message here is clear.  If you did not see it before, you can see it now.  The administration of Donald Trump has no interest in consultation with Native American communities as required under the entirely uncontroversial Executive Order 13175 issued by President Bill Clinton in early 2000.  Corporate well-being, a slowly dying fossil fuel industry, and not real people and the lands upon which they live and the water they need to survive, are what is most important to Donald Trump, our Creon, in his morally desiccated vision of the American republic.

The Indian Child Welfare Act Remains Under Attack

Today comes news that South Dakota is going to appeal a federal court decision that found the state guilty of violating the rights of Native Americans under the terms of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.  The problems in South Dakota have been well documented.  NPR did an in-depth investigation, and the story has been covered widely in the Native American press.  It is devastating to learn about.

What has been missing has been historical context.  If you or your students want to learn more about the problems the Indian Child Welfare Act was intended to resolve, you need look no further than Margaret Jacobs’ “Remembering the ‘Forgotten Child’: The American Indian Child Welfare Crisis of the 1960s and 1970s,” which appeared in the American Indian Quarterly, 37 (Winter/Spring 2013, 136-159.

In Jacobs’ view, the termination was not merely an effort to get the United States out of the “Indian Business” through HCR 108 and PL280, the various termination statutes, and the establishment of the Indian Claims Commission, but as well an assault on Native American families and children.

BIA officials established in 1958 the Indian Adoption Project, a program, the Bureau argued, to shield Native American children from the poverty in Indian country brought about by too many single mothers having too many children.

Even though the evidence that unwed motherhood had reached epidemic proportions in Indian Country was largely unsubstantiated, and that the BIA ignored entirely the importance of extended families in child-rearing, and that policies aimed at attacking poverty and economic inequality might have been better suited for remedying the problems native peoples faced, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Adoption Project looked to dismantle these families by pressuring mothers to give up their children for adoption. The benefits for the Bureau were substantial. It cost $750 per year, Jacobs shows, to support a native child at Minnesota’s Pipestone Boarding School, but only $470 to support that child in the state’s foster care system. Both the Bureau and the states could save even more money if these children were adopted. Thus, according to Jacobs, “the BIA and state agencies looked to the ultimate ‘private’ sector—in this case, white families—to take over the expense of raising Indian children.” Viewing Indian families as drunken and degraded, state officials deceived and coerced Indian mothers, took their children from them against their will, and then denied them due process when they tried to fight back. The BIA Adoption Program was perhaps the most brutal example of the termination policy in action.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was designed to halt the removal of Indian children from Indian families. The problem was severe.  Only a fool would disagree. Dakota Sioux at the Spirit Lake reservation, for example, asked the Association of American Indian Affairs to conduct an investigation. The AAIA reported that of the 1100 Dakotas under the age of 21 who lived at Spirit Lake in 1968, 275 had been removed from their families at least once. In states with large Native American populations, the AAIA found that between 25 and 35% of children had been removed from their homes.

Native peoples organized to halt this highly destructive practice, and the battle for the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, according to Jacobs, “represented one of the most fierce and successful battles for Indian self-determination of the 1970s.” The legislation committed the United States “to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.”

There is much at stake in South Dakota.  The state has to do much with a small budget, but it cannot violate federal law.  The South Dakota case may reach the Supreme Court, and in an environment where conservatives are eager to shift the balance of power in many areas back to the states, this crucial case bears close watching.

Donald Trump to Native America: Go To Hell

Today comes news that President Donald Trump, the Creon for the new millennium, will sign an executive order authorizing the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.   Before the confirmation of his nominee for Secretary of Interior, before any nomination for a new undersecretary for Indian Affairs at Interior, before any consultation with Native American tribes, before the confirmation of the fool he nominated to head the Energy Department (and who owns stock and sat on the board of the companies most interested in completing Dakota Access),  Our Creon has told America’s Native Peoples, in essence, to go to hell. Damn your protests. Damn your water.  Damn you and your quality of life.  Stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access, meanwhile, was up 4%.

This is disappointing news, but it is not surprising, for Donald Trump is no friend to American Indians, and it looks like his presidency is going to stand in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, in this as in so many other ways. Some have expressed the fear that he will bring back the Termination era.

Little Hands

Barack Obama’s presidency, after all, had been one of great consequence for the nation’s roughly five and a half million Native Americans, and he left large shoes for the man with little hands to fill.

Native peoples voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers, contributing to his landslide victory in 2008 and his reelection in 2012.  President Obama kept the promises he made to Native peoples. He worked with Congress to secure significant increases in funding for the Indian Health Service. He appointed a policy advisor to counsel him on Native American issues, and he held an annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in order to “strengthen the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country and to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives.” He signed legislation settling at long last the notorious Cobell case, involving the government’s terrible mismanagement of individual Indian trust accounts, and implemented a land buy-back program that has returned more than half a million acres to tribal control. And when President Obama signed legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, it included a new provision allowing tribes to arrest and prosecute non-Indians who committed acts of domestic violence against Native American women, a major problem when courts had held in the past that tribal governments lacked the power to prosecute non-Indians on reservations.  The bipartisan HEARTH Act, signed by President Obama in 2012, allowed tribal governments additional control over their lands. And in 2010, he announced his support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, allowing the United States to join the rest of the world community in a statement affirming the rights of native peoples to live their lives in their own way under institutions of their own choosing.  Read it, if you have not done so already.

As was his wont, President Obama was always cautious.  Too cautious for many of us. He took his time in intervening at Standing Rock, but the Army Corps of Engineers placed a hold on construction of the controversial pipeline while the project was given further review.  In this, as in so many areas of his presidency, President Obama did not go as far as many of his supporters wanted.  Construction might resume, as the thousands of protestors at Standing Rock pointed out.  Still, despite his caution, the record of accomplishment was a significant one.

I am not sure if the steps President Obama took, and the recent publication by the Army Corps of Engineers of its intent to begin the environmental impact process, will be adequate to stave off Our Creon’s executive order.  If you know environmental law, I would love to hear and learn from you.

Because I am not sure what will happen next.  I am not optimistic. And that I am not optimistic really bums me out, because there are a hell of a lot of problems out there that sane political leaders from our two major parties might be able to solve. If they wanted to.  It is a choice, really.  Solve them or not.  But no excuses. Our Creon has said nothing about Indian affairs. Perhaps, despite his record and the racial vitriol his campaign generated, there is room for those who know the issues to work together.  Sometimes I think so.  Ryan Zinke, who Trump nominated to head the Interior Department, made a point of reaching out to Native American communities in his home state of Montana during his brief congressional career.  Collaboration and cooperation between the federal government and Native nations is not only sound policy; it’s the law.  But Zinke did it, and some Native Americans appreciated his efforts.

Of course the Republicans’ promise to repeal Obamacare, aggressively exploit fossil fuels in Indian country, and drastically cut federal spending all bode ill for Native American communities.

But Our Creon campaigned in part on a promise to restore the nation’s aging infrastructure.  He could fulfill a campaign promise and aid Native nations by pushing through Congress a program to repair and replace roads, bridges, and dams on Indian reservations.

Senators and representatives from states with large Native American populations have urged caution in repealing the Affordable Care Act, noting that the progress made in reducing the still gaping health disparities between Native Americans and non-natives were indeed significant and much work remains to be done.

Republicans who supported their candidate’s call for “law and order” might support additional legislation to protect Native American communities, especially women and children, from domestic violence.

And Republicans who favor a smaller federal government might recognize the virtues of supporting the inherent sovereignty of Native American nations and cooperate with Democrats in providing them the resources they need to govern their communities, develop their economies, and tackle the myriad challenges they face.  This could happen.  But the initiative certainly will not come from the Executive Branch.

President Obama left office with significant achievements but with much in the realm of Indian affairs unsettled.  The new president has already weighed in on Dakota Access.  But there are many other challenges that still must be confronted.  Native peoples, for instance, will continue to face concentrated conservative assaults on important and successful pieces of legislation like the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. Poverty and a lack of opportunity in Indian Country remain vexing challenges to policy makers and tribal leaders alike. Racial violence remains a problem, with a “Red Lives Matter” movement slowly growing in the shadow of the Black Lives Matter campaign against police brutality.  And, of course, the slow burning insults of cultural appropriation and the use of Native American symbols and images as offensive mascots for sports teams continues.  Congress, in recent years, has found bipartisan support for programs and policies that have helped to close, ever-so-slowly, the enormous gaps between Native peoples and non-native peoples in health, education, and welfare, and President Obama played an immensely important role in that. We might have hoped that this slow but steady progress of the last eight years not be abandoned by our leaders.  But today’s unilateral and aggressive action makes that hope seem ever so remote.

American Indian Law and Public Policy

Welcome Back!

It is the first week of classes at Geneseo, and as part of my spring cycle of courses, I am teaching once again my course entitled “American Indian Law and Public Policy.”  The course is required for the minor in Native American Studies, fulfills the college’s Social Sciences and “Other World Cultures” general education requirements, and is an optional course for students minoring in Public Administration. Of course, it is also an elective open to history majors.  The syllabus necessarily changes a bit each semester.  The course is a blast to teach, and I have what looks like a good batch of students this semester.  Here is the syllabus:


HIST 262      American Indian Law and Public Policy                    Spring 2017

Instructor: Michael Oberg

Meetings:   MWF, 12:30-1:20, Milne Library, 105

Office Hours:  Monday and Wednesday, 2:30-3:30, Sturges 15 A/B



Twitter: @NativeAmText



Required Readings:


Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier (2007)

Luke Lassiter, Clyde Ellis, Ralph Kotay, The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity and Indian Hymns, (2002)

Steven Pevar, The Rights of Indians and Tribes, 4th edition, (2012).

Paul Chaat Smith, Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, (2009)

Circe Sturm, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-First Century, (2011).

Readings on Canvas, and

Additional Readings, for Current Events discussions and assignments:

News Articles on

News Articles in Indian Country Today.

News Articles on


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 both the S/core and M/core general education headings.  As a result, it is intended to meet the following learning outcomes:


Students Will Demonstrate:

  • an understanding of knowledge held outside the Western tradition;
  • an understanding of history, ideas, and critical issues pertaining to Non-western societies;
  • an understanding of significant social and economic issues pertaining to Non-western societies;
  • an understanding of the symbolic world coded by and manifest in Non-western societies;
  • an understanding of traditional and/or contemporary cultures of Latin America, Africa, and/or Asia and the relationship of these to the modern world system;
  • an ability to think globally.


  • understanding of social scientific methods of hypothesis development;
  • understanding of social scientific methods of document analysis, observation, or experiment;
  • understanding of social scientific methods of measurement and data collection;
  • understanding of social scientific methods of statistical or interpretive analysis;
  • knowledge of some major social science concepts;
  • knowledge of some major social science models;
  • knowledge of some major social science concerns;
  • knowledge of some social issues of concern to social scientists;
  • knowledge of some political issues of concern to social scientists;
  • knowledge of some economic issues of concern to social scientists;
  • knowledge of some moral issues of concern to social scientists.

Your grade will be based on a number of components.  Participation, an important part of your grade, 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 each week with the reading not just “done” but assimilated; 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.  Remember, as well, that conversations are most fruitful when they involve a mix of well-thought out hypotheses and tentative, partially-formed ideas.  Because this course requires of you an extensive amount of reading, I am basing a large portion of your grade on your participation.  This course will reward both preparation and experimentation.  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, and once you miss more than three classes you will no longer be able to receive any credit for participation.

The individual assignments will be discussed below.  The grading scale is as follows:

Participation:                                                                       100 points

Response Papers 2 papers at 25 points each                 50 points

Current Events Papers  2 papers at 50 points each    100 points

Final Project                                                                        150 points


A          400-380                     A-  379-360

B+       359-350                      B    349-330

B-        329-320                      C+  319-310

C          309-290                      C-   289-280

D         279-240                      E  239 and below.


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 of 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, which I check several times a day. The assignments are described in detail, below.

Discussion Schedule

18 January      Introduction to the Course

The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Reading: Banner, How, Introduction; Pevar, Rights, Ch. 1-2; UNDRIP (


20 January     Native Nations in the United States

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


23 January     The Marshall Court and the Definition of Native Nations

Reading:  Banner, How, Chapters 2-5; Johnson v. McIntosh (1823).


25 January     The Removal Era

Reading: Banner, How, Ch. 6 ; Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831); Samuel A.  Worcester v. State of Georgia, (1832).


27 January     Current Events Discussion

The Reservation System

Reading: Banner, How, Ch. 7; Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek (1867); Ex Parte Crow Dog (1883).


30 January     Policing the Reservations

Reading: Major Crimes Act (1885); US v. Kagama (1886).


1 February      The Policy of Allotment

Reading: Banner, How, Ch. 8; Talton v. Mayes (1896); Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903); United States v. Celestine (1909).


3 February      Current Events Discussion

Water Rights in the Arid West

Reading: Pevar, Rights, Ch 12; Winters v. United States (1908).

First Current Events Paper Due.


6 February      The Meriam Commission Report

Reading: The Problem of Indian Administration, Chapter 1 and any one chapter from Chapter 8-14.


8 February      Current Events Discussion

The Indian New Deal

Reading: Banner, How, Epilogue; Indian Reorganization Act, 1934.


10 February    The Termination Era

Reading: HCR 108; Pevar, Rights, 333-337; Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States (1955).


13 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); Pevar, Rights, Chapter 14 and pp. 329-332


15 February   The Era of Self-Determination

Current Events Discussion

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


17 February    The Supreme Court’s 1978 Term and Tribal Sovereignty

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


20 February    Red Power

Reading: Smith, Everything (Entire Book)


22 February    Congress, the Executive, and the Revolution of 1978

Reading: AIRFA; Indian Child Welfare Act; Pevar, Rights, Ch. 17

Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013)


24 February  Tribal Regulation of Non-Indian Activities on Tribal Land

Current Events Discussion

Reading: Montana v. United States (1981).


27 February    The Powers of Tribal Governments

Reading: Pevar, Rights, Chapters 3-9

Reading: Merrion v. Jicarilla Apache Tribe (1982)


1 March          The Power of Tribal Governments, Continued

Current Events Discussion

Reading: Duro v. Reina (1990); Fergus Bordewich, Killing the White Man’s  Indian, (CANVAS).


3 March          The Power of Tribal Governments, continued

Reading: Atkinson Trading Company v. Shirley (2001); US v. Lara (2004)


6 March          The Violence Against Women Act in Indian Country

Reading:  NCAI Materials on VAWA (watch videos and read documents); Denver Post series, “Promises, Justice, Broken” (some of you may find this very disturbing to read)


8 March          Issues in American Indian Education: Boarding Schools and their Legacy

Reading:  Read any two of the papers included in Reyhner, Lockard and Gilbert,  eds., Honoring Our Elders: Culturally Appropriate Approaches for Teaching Indigenous Students, (Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University Press, 2015).


10 March       Issues in American Indian Education, Continued

Current Events Discussion

Reading: Continued discussion of papers in Reyhner, et. al.

Second Current Events Paper Due!
Spring Break


20 March        Issues in American Indian Religion

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


22 March        Issues in American Indian Religion

Reading: Pevar, Rights, Chapters 11, 13; Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990); Lyng v. Northwest Cemetery Protective Association (1988).


24 March       Issues in American Indian Identity: The Mascot Issue

Reading: Do a Google News Search, and read about the Mascot Issue in the news  sources listed above.


27 March        Issues in American Indian Identity: Acknowledgment

Reading: Den Ouden and O’Brien,  (Canvas)


29 March        Issues in American Indian Identity

Reading: Sturm, Becoming Indian (entire book).


31 March         Economic Development in Indian Country

Reading: Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, The State of Native Nations: Conditions under US Policies of Self-Determination, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), Chapter 11. (On Canvas)


3 April            Public Health in Indian Country

Reading:  IHS, Trends in Indian Health, 2014 Edition, (Browse); Donald Warne, “The State of Indigenous America Series: Ten Indian Health Policy Challenges for the New Administration in 2009,” Wicazo Sa Review, 24 (Spring 2009), 7-23.  (All on Canvas)


5 April             Gaming

Reading: California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians (1987); Randal K. Q. Akee, Katherine A. Spilde and Jonathan B. Taylor, “The Indian Gaming  Regulatory Act and its Effect on American Indian Economic Development” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29 (Summer 2015), 185—208 (Canvas);   Pevar, Rights, Ch. 16.


7 April          Thee Land: The Iroquois in Western New York

Reading: Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida (1974); Anne F. Boxberger Flaherty, ““American Indian Land Rights, Rich Indian Racism, and Newspaper  Coverage in New York State, 1988-2008,” American Indian Culture and  Research Journal, 37 (no. 4, 2013) (Canvas)


10 April           The Land, Continued.

Reading: City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation (2005).


12 April            The Land: Buy Back and the Cobell Settlement

Reading:   2016 Status Report, Land Buyback Program.
14 April         Taxation

Reading:  Pevar, Rights, Ch. 10


19 April           Resistance:  “You Are On Indian Land.”

Film Discussion.  Watch Film in Class:


21 April            Resistance, Continued.

Reading: Taiaiake Alfred, Wasase, (Excerpts).


24  April         What Is to Be Done?

What Is To Be Done?

Reading: Harold Napoleon, Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being (1996),


26 April           Catch Up

28 April           Catch Up

1 May              Catch Up

4 May              Final Examination Period

The Assignments, Described in Detail:

Current Events Reports:  A quick glance at the large number of news articles at and at Indian Country Today should make it clear to you that there are constant new developments affecting the lives of native peoples and their neighbors across the nation and in Canada.  You should also be able to see something of the force of history that still shapes these communities and their relationships to the United States and individual state and local governments. I expect you to try to keep up with some of this, to inform yourselves about what is going on in Native America. To that end, I expect you on two occasions during the semester to write a current event report of no more than 1200 words based on no fewer than five related news articles that you found of interest.  We will discuss current events at the opening of nearly every Friday class meeting. In your brief paper you should describe the basic issues concisely and accurately, and describe the significance of the events or developments you describe in terms of what you have read and what we have discussed in class. The five papers need not be closely connected in time, nor do they need to all come from the same paper, in that you may feel free to follow a story that has developed over an extended period of time.

For your paper, you should use 11 or 12 point type, double spaced, with one-inch margins all around. You should cite accurately at the top of the paper the five or more articles you looked at. The best papers will develop an argument supported by evidence in the form of quotes from the articles you read.

Response Papers: You also will write two response papers, each worth twenty-five points, over the course of the semester.  These papers will be brief meditations (approximately 1000 words) on one of the assigned readings:


Smith, Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, due 20 February

Lassiter, et. al., Jesus Road, due 20 March

Sturm, Becoming Indian, due 29 March

Napoleon, Yuuyaraq, due 24 April

Again, double-spaced, 11 or 12 point type. What do you see as the critical issues these books raise?

Research Project:  You will complete a final project that consists of a paper of 10 to 15 pages in length, endnotes and bibliography not counted, formatted according to the guidelines spelled out in the Turabian Manual. You will play the role of an adviser to a new president (Republican or Democrat—your choice) on American Indian policy.  Your paper should answer three questions: 1). What are the principal problems facing Native American communities today?  2).What are the sources of those problems?  In other words, why do these problems still exist? And 3).  What can and should be done about these problems within the confines of the American constitutional system?

You should have at least 20 sources for your paper.

Whither History and the Liberal Arts: A Note to Students

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently stated that “the future” involves “making the marriage between academics and economics.”  Of course there is some truth to this.  Cuomo has been promoting his new plan to make SUNY tuition-free to New Yorkers from families with an income less than $125,000 per year.  The plan is to be applauded, but it has been promoted largely as a way to create jobs and to spur on economic growth in New York State.  The value of an education, the governor has stated baldly, lies in the financial return it brings.

All of this I find a bit troubling as a professor in a history department of a small-ish public college that has long been celebrated for its rigorous academic standards and its commitment to a liberal arts education.  Our students do well after they graduate.  They find gainful employment in their fields.  Many of you are familiar with the arguments that a degree in the liberal arts, one that trains students in the discipline of critical reading, writing, thinking and research, is more versatile than our critics realize.  And I am happy for any proposal that makes access to college easier, and it seems to me to be a no-brainer in terms of public policy.  People with college degrees earn more than those without.  They will thus pay more taxes over the course of their careers than those without, and over decades the program could pay for itself.  A wise long-term investment.  But higher education is not only valuable for the skills it imparts, but for the critincal thinking it encourages, something that I would argue is essential for the survival of the republic.  Now perhaps more than ever.

And in my field? The most recent edition of the American Historical Association Perspectives has highlighted a continued decline in the number of students studying history in American colleges and universities. There are a number of reasons for this. History is sometimes thought of as a difficult major with lots of reading and writing, and there is some evidence of a decline in professions often entered with a Bachelor’s degree in history.  But in the midst of a presidential election in which the electoral college chose a man who has offered one unconstitutional proposal after another, and received the applause of millions of Americans as he did so, it just may be that the decades-long assault on history and liberal arts is having a significant effect.

You students who study history or other fields in the liberal arts will likely be asked, if you have not been asked already, “What are you going to do with that degree?”  Sometimes those questions can come from innocent curiosity, like, really, what are you going to do with that degree. But these questions can also come with a  barbed tip, too, in the sense that the liberal arts are thought by some people out there to have limited value because, unlike the STEM fields and business and things like that, the liberal arts are too often thought of as adding little of value.

The governor of Florida, for instance, a few years ago, argued that we do not need more anthropologists.  Another Floridian, a United States Senator, during his brief, quixotic run for the presidency said that we need “more plumbers and less philosophers.”   The Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky told students at Eastern Kentucky University that they should not bother studying history, and that since they were attending a public college, funded by taxpayers—people who work—that they should do something useful to the Commonwealth.   And why should the state subsidize the study of French literature, the governor of that state asked.  What value does it add for Kentuckians?

I would argue that history and the liberal arts add a lot, and not just for Kentuckians, because they give us the cultural capital to participate in a democratic society in a meaningful and significant way.  But thinking in terms of nuances, complexities, ambiguities, shades of grey; embracing the big questions, pursuing the answers over the long haul, appreciating the value of open debate and discussion, endeavoring to find truth, and digging like badgers for answers, we can find these times we live in rough sledding.

I struggle sometimes to control my own pessimism.  You students, I fear, live in a world where too many people confuse their feelings and their fears for facts, where being smart and engaged and critical and willing to ask questions can make one an object of scorn.  You live in a world as well where complexity is so often dismissed, where big and difficult answers to the big questions are avoided, that asking these sorts of questions can take a certain amount of courage. You may have seen something of this in yesterday’s “press conference” offered by the President-Elect.

Many Americans live in a world where they simply do not invest their time and energy to ask questions, stay informed.  Americans, according to a recent survey, are more likely to be able to identify any two members of the Simpson family (and, just to be clear, we’re talking about cartoon characters) than any one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, rights that now, as they have been at many points in the past, are under assault.  22% of Americans can name all five members of the Simpson family, while only one in a thousand can name all five first amendment freedoms. Many Americans live in fear: of immigrants and Islamist extremists–but a plastic surgeon botching your operation is more likely to kill you in the United States than a terrorist.  Yet we are told to be fearful.  And many of us do as we are told.  Enough to tip the election to a candidate who failed to win the popular vote. People around the globe and in this country—some of them, anyways—seem to have more confidence in fear and anger and hate than in their opposites. With malice towards many, and charity for few, with little interest in seeking out injustice, and correcting oppression.

We are living in this moment where a lot of really old issues—race and inequality and class and gender and violence, are resurfacing in complicated and anguishing ways.  The problems are out there.  But to name them and to ask, “What can we do?” and to gather the information to solve them, that can be tough.  And so many of these problems we face are rooted, in part, in a rejection of critical thought, in an embrace of the irrational, and a society with these problems can fall prey to demagogues with their simplistic answers, and will find it difficult to display emotional maturity, and will be prone to violence.  You have seen that in recent months.  We all have seen it.

Yet If we are stronger together, and if we are to make America great again, or as great as it might be, it might be those of us with a solid training in the liberal arts, whatever our majors, who will best see that “injustice anywhere” just may be a threat to justice everywhere.  And that if it is “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, that binds us, one to another,” as Martin Luther King once wrote, that you may be among those best suited to do something about it.  History majors, you who think and reason; we, the people who read the footnotes–we can deploy that wisdom that not only makes our lives richer but makes the world a better place—–only if you have the courage to act, and to use it.

We now live in a world where—when we stand up on the face of the problems before us and ask, “Why?” and when we insist on a reasoned and relevant response to that simple question—it’s like an act of subversion, and subversive acts, even the smallest ones, require a degree of courage, of fearlessness.

It can beat your down, if you let it. Looking at the spectacle of public life that my generation is in the process of bequeathing to your generation, it might be easy to slide into a deep cynicism, especially after the last election, but cynicism is an intellectually lazy position, a sort of cop out.  It can take courage to trust and to respect and to appreciate, as well as to care and to love, and to accept the validity of ideas presented by those with whom we would be predisposed to think we might disagree.  To never underestimate others, to take people seriously, whoever that person happens to be, to accept the possibility that those with whom we disagree might have a point and, indeed, to admit that we might be wrong.  To appear vulnerable in the face of those who despise us.  That is not an easy thing to do. That takes courage, and a willingness—a commitment—to approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised.  We historians–there is so much that we do that is inherently subversive–we can stand in the face of these forces and demand reasoned answers.

It is easy to feel like the challenges we face are too big and it is possible, I think, that we all feel at times like we are not enough to make a difference—that we need to be wealthier or have more expertise or access or whatever.  But what if we used our skills and our thoughts and our reason and acted as if we were exactly what was needed? If we knew we could close the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, even a little bit, would we have the courage to act?

A long time ago I had a great history professor.  His name was Albie Burke.  He died about five years ago. And even though I left Cal State Long Beach where he taught in the late 1980s, I still got back to campus every other year or so to have lunch with him and to catch up, to talk about the Supreme Court, constitutionalism, politics, and all sorts of other things. I can remember feeling nervous and unprepared before having to present some of my work in seminar, my thesis project on two really big Supreme Court cases in the field of American Indian law.  We would meet in his very Spartan office, and he always made really incisive eye contact when you were speaking to him.  Bright, bright, blue eyes. He would listen very quietly, never interrupting.  Very comfortable with silences.  And then when you finished, spilling out your guts, telling him how you were not ready, he would pause for a few beats and then say:  “You will never be prepared. Still got to do it.”  He’d smile just a little bit as he said that. It was a tough lesson for some of his students, I think, but his point was that you can spend all your time worrying and fretting and fearing and preparing and not doing.  Fear can keep you from doing what needs to be done, in public life, and in terms of what you want for your own lives.  His daughter told a similar story at his memorial service about many conversations she had had with him just like that.  It is so easy to talk yourself out of pursuing your dreams, of tackling the challenges that may lie in front of you, and of speaking truth to power.

History is not a science.  But it is a discipline.  We historians are interested in the past, and its connections to the present.  How things came to be.  Continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures. But all of that is just a fancy way of saying that we historians make our living by asking questions.   If you are like me, you love the questions–the search for evidence, the complexity and the lack sometimes of definitive answers, and the stories—the stories are at the heart of all that we historians do as teachers and writers. And if we are fearless, we can do important work.  We must be honest, curious, inquisitive, and relentless to be sure, but most of all, in terms of the questions we ask, the evidence we consider, the ideas we engage with, and the theses we advance, but we must also be fearless.  Now, on our campuses, in our country, in this global community, more than ever.  Ask questions.  Demand evidence.  Do not accept easy answers.  Use your skills as critical thinkers, researchers, and writers, to ask and answer the important questions that appear before us.




The Obama Legacy and Native American Affairs

Outgoing Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has completed her exit memo, touting the accomplishments of her department during the Obama years.  Jewell does not cover everything, but the memo does reveal that government can do important work in Indian affairs, and that it can be a force for good in Indian Country.  I cannot say for sure how many of the men and women staffing the new Trump administration will share that view. In any event, you can read Secretary Jewell’s memo here.   Jewell clearly is most proud of the land buyback program funded as part of the Cobell settlement.  If you have students–or are a student–casting about for a term paper topic, an assessment of the program could be a valuable project.  Check out the 2016 Status report for the Land Buy Back program here.  The Interior Department website will provide you with additional information.  And although President-elect Trump has said nothing about Native American affairs since his election, journalist Mark Trahant does a nice job of setting out a policy agenda upon which–one hopes–rational public servants might agree.

Finals Week

I teach a range of courses at Geneseo, and just completed reading thirty-one essays for my section of Western Humanities. I teach the first half of the two-semester sequence, a great-books course on the University of Chicago model.  The students begin the semester reading Antigone, and finish with another tragedy, Hamlet.  In between they struggle through Thucydides, Plato, Cicero, the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, and More.

I teach the course in an explicitly ahistorical manner:  the authors of these works raise questions that we still are struggling to answer.  Teaching during the final months of a presidential campaign that left some of my students frightened for the future, others angry, and still others deeply cynical; while we watched the Assad regime backed by Russian bombers shatter the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people; it was easy to see that we might learn some things from the past.  Jeez. A little humility.

All students at Geneseo are required to take Humanities.  For the past several decades, students take both halves of the course, reading a broad range of important works.  Resource issues lamentably have forced us to consider changing that requirement, and allow students to take only one half of the course to fulfill their requirement.  I am not sure if that proposal will go through, but I understand the practical realities.

I love teaching this course.  In many ways, when I began teaching it several years ago, it revitalized my career, and renewed my enthusiasm for teaching.  Because Humanities is a required course, I get a mix of students from across the campus, and no more than a small handful of history majors.  I like that. I like the mix, the different styles of thinking, and the different perspectives the students can bring to our discussions.  This past semester, the most beautiful essays were written by a student who was a bit older than the rest–at Geneseo, non-traditional students tend to stand out.  He was a veteran who had seen combat in Afghanistan.  In all of his essays, he used the readings to wrestle not only with the big issues we discuss in class, but with his own experiences in a war zone as a soldier.  Thucydides, of course, spoke directly to his experiences, but the other works raised questions about human nature, about power, and about justice that spoke to him deeply.  And this student, more than any other, struggled with the question of how we find beauty and good in a world that at times can appear so vile.

On the last day of class, I hand out this beautiful poem by Jack Gilbert,

“A Brief for the Defense.”

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.


This student, who had seen first hand so much of the brutality of the world, could find that beauty.  I have had students like him in this class: a refugee who had seen his family killed in front of him, students coming out of abusive relationships, and soldiers.  I learn this from reading their essays.  And I find my faith restored in the goodness of humanity by reading their work, even during very dark times. So I wrote to this student yesterday.  I sent him an email, thanking him for his work this semester, telling him how much I had learned from reading his essays and how they had given me so much to think about.  I told him that I did not know what he was majoring in, but that if he needed a letter of recommendation, and thought that one from me might do him some good, that I would be happy to write in his behalf.   I was stunned by his response.  He thanked me for my note, told me how much he had enjoyed the class, and how the assignments allowed him to work out some of the things he had been carrying around with him. But he was not going to return to Geneseo for the spring semester.  He had decided to work full time, and had withdrawn from the college.  Student essays can be difficult to read sometimes–if you teach, you know how bad grammar, poor punctuation, and sloppy organization can be exhausting.  But the best student work, man, it can make your day, change your life, and alter your thinking.   It is a loss to my college when students like this feel the need to leave, and we–all of us–need to do more to make sure that all students who want to and who have the academic ability can attend the college of their choice. There are big questions out there that we have not answered, questions that great thinkers have been wrestling with for thousands of years.   I do not have all the answers.  Someone out there just might.

A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History