Category Archives: Current Events

Cheese Cubes and Celery Sticks: Faculty Appreciation in the Modern Era.

I am wrapping up my thirtieth year in the classroom. Aware always that for every professor there are dozens of Ph.D recipients who would love to work in academia, but will never have the chance, I have worked hard to be the best teacher and scholar I can be. I am aware of the privileges I have enjoyed, and recognize the obligations that places upon me to do good work. Even with a heavy teaching load, large numbers of advisees, and spending my career at small colleges with few resources to support faculty research, I believe it is important to continually be productive and continually to grow and improve as a professor of history.

I began studying the history of Indigenous peoples as an undergraduate student at the California State University at Long Beach, to which I transferred after two years at a local junior college. I did not have the opportunity to work with members of Indigenous Nations until I began my academic teaching career at Montana State University-Billings, a small, open-admissions campus that was part of the larger Montana State University system. I taught survey courses in American history at MSU-B, the department’s required course in Historical Research Methods, and upper-division courses covering the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Early National Periods. I was an effective and popular teacher. I won the college’s Winston and Helen Cox Fellowship for the year 1996-1997, awarded annually to an outstanding junior faculty member, and one year later the Outstanding Faculty Award, presented by the Associated Students.  But I most valued my work with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne students who attended MSU-B, from whom I learned much. Most of them were older students. They traveled a great distance, sometimes every day, to attend class. They struggled with the costs of college, and the burdens of caring for children and grandchildren while attending school. Almost none of them finished in four years. Some were perennial part-time students. Many of them took my course in Native American History, required for the Native American Studies major and minor, and they taught me a great deal about the power of working together.

            For example, I began a research project on race relations between members of the Crow Nation and white residents in Hardin, Montana, a reservation border town in which half the population was Indigenous. A college provost demanded that faculty engage in what she called “applied research,” which seemed to mean “stuff that she felt mattered.” Early American history clearly was not on that list. So I began poking around. After Native American students at Hardin High School protested some callous treatment by non-Indian students, a white supremacist group distributed on doorsteps throughout Hardin a despicable racist pamphlet. I began to investigate the story. I could not accomplish as much as I wanted.  As a single parent at that time, it was difficult to drive the 120-mile round-trip to Hardin and get much work done there, and I found it difficult to get anti-Crow white people to speak honestly and candidly about their town. But I did talk to sympathetic whites, and many Crow people, who described their lived experiences in Hardin, a town where residents remembered seeing “No Dogs or Indians” signs in downtown businesses. It was a searing experience. I never published on the topic, but the experience taught me at an early point in my career the obvious but often overlooked point that an important part of writing the history of a community involves forging relationships with members of that community. Collaboration, I learned, was integral to good community history. We can learn much from even those projects we do not finish.

            Billings was a tough place to work as a professor while being a single parent. Resources were scarce, the pay was low, and the teaching load was seven courses a year. Most of us in the department worked summer jobs to help make ends meet. As much as I loved the students, I could not stay. I never completed the Hardin project because I left Billings in 1998 for a new position at the State University of New York, College at Geneseo. I had signed a contract with Cornell University Press to publish my first book, Dominion and Civility, and that provided an opportunity to make a move that was better for my family. Except for one year I spent at the University of Houston in 2009-2010, I have been at Geneseo ever since.

            Geneseo, like Billings, is a small, underfunded, public college. Though Geneseo was a much more selective college at the time I arrived, my job was essentially what it had been in Billings: teach Colonial and Revolutionary US, Research Methods, and the college’s required course in the Humanities. I also developed and taught my Native American survey, a course on American Indian Law, and an upper-division course in Haudenosaunee history. At Geneseo, as in Billings, I succeeded in the classroom and as a scholar, winning the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activities in 2013 (both the highest SUNY system-wide awards given in those areas). I was also named James and Julia Lockhart Professor from 2005 to 2008 and promoted to Distinguished Professor in 2015, the highest rank for any faculty member in the SUNY system. I published six books, including a textbook in Native American history now in its third edition, and developed the college’s minor in Native American Studies. At Geneseo, as in Billings, I greatly value the work I have done outside of the classroom with Indigenous peoples in New York State.

            In Geneseo I was presented with opportunities that were not nearly as available in Montana. Shortly after my arrival in 1998, for example, I was invited by the Tonawanda Seneca Nation to provide research and expert witness testimony in their efforts to recover Grand Island, New York, purchased from them in 1815 by the state of New York in violation of the federal Indian Trade and Intercourse Act.  It was the first of several Indigenous rights cases in which I was involved over the next two and a half decades. I was privileged to work with the Onondaga Nation, the Akwesasne Mohawks, and the Oneida Indian Nation, all on cases involving their efforts to recover lost lands. I have also worked on gaming and taxation issues involving Haudenosaunee nations in New York State. This work brought important benefits, and led to several of my book projects: Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams, and Peacemakers: The United States, the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and the Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794, both published in 2015.

            Finally, collaborative work led to the book project I am hoping to finish very soon. In 2014 I began working with the Onondaga Nation on research related to cleaning up Onondaga Lake, once the most polluted body of water in North America. The Superfund law allows Indigenous nations to have a say in the cleanup process if they can demonstrate a cultural tie to the polluted site. My job was to demonstrate that connection. Over several years I completed a 700-page annotated bibliography, with links to copies of all the documents, illustrating this massive history. Working on the history of Onondaga Lake with the Nation led to work writing the history of the Onondaga Nation itself. It has been a massive project. It requires frequent trips to the reservation, 90 miles from my house. Nearly all the research is completed, and I am looking for time to finish the book, revise the manuscript, and work through the project with some of my collaborators at Onondaga Nation to produce a final draft. I have learned a great deal.

            While work on the history of the Onondaga Nation takes up much of my time, since late 2018 I have served as the founding director of the Geneseo Center for Local and Municipal History. I am very proud of this work. New York, under law, requires every municipality, from the smallest crossroads to the largest city, to have an appointed historian. Many of these town and local historians are amateurs. They are elderly, and they may not have much or any training as a historian.  But it seemed to me that partnering with them would benefit our students, help the historians, and increase the public’s awareness of their community’s history. As director, I have applied for five grants. Four of them have been funded fully:

            *          A small, $853 dollar grant that paid for our first organizing meeting.

            *          An $11,000 dollar grant from the Rochester Area Community Foundation to create an online Indigenous History of Livingston County in 2021 (Geneseo is the seat of county seat for Livingston County).

            *          A $176,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to fund the Center and to provide for 21 paid internships across New York State in September 2021.

            *          And a $453,000 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation to create the Gardiner Foundation Semiquincentennial Summer Fellowship Program. Because the Geneseo administration does not value this work, it will likely cease after this year. During its two years, I managed the program and placed fifty students from seven colleges in paid summer fellowships in local historians’ offices across New York State. I oversaw their work and help disseminate their efforts.

            By the end of next year the Center will have placed 71 students from 7 colleges in high-paying fellowships across the width and breadth of New York State.  Another fifty students, since early 2019, have completed independent studies on local history topics in their communities, and unpaid internships in their hometowns. Given that much of this work was done during the pandemic, I am very proud of what the Center has accomplished.

            In the future, I intend for the Center to do more work to demonstrate that Native American history in New York is Local History. In collaboration with scholars at other universities, local historians, and representatives from Indigenous Nations, we have begun work on what we have dubbed “The 1779 Project” (The Van Schaick raid against the Onondagas and the Sullivan-Clinton expedition against the Senecas and Cayugas took place in 1779, a critical year for Indigenous New Yorkers during the American Revolution). We hope that by telling the stories of these American invasions of Iroquois land, we can complicate the history of the 250th Anniversary of American Independence, by placing Indigenous dispossession at the heart of New York State History in the same way that the “1619 Project” raised provocative questions about the important place of slavery in discussions of American liberty. The project, when we obtain funding, will include a book, curricula and lesson plans for New York teachers, a digital platform addressing the history of these expeditions and Indigenous dispossession in the state, and a series of book clubs and traveling lecturers giving talks about the Invasions of 1779. Our goal is to reach every school and every community in New York State by the time our work is completed.

            I love undergraduate teaching. Apart from the four years I spent in grad school at Syracuse University, my entire career has been spent at undergraduate public colleges where teaching is job one. Despite the challenging times facing public higher education, when I meet my students, I remain optimistic about the future. But that is becoming more difficult than ever before.

Just this week I gave a talk sponsored by the Livingston County History Museum and the Association for the Preservation of Geneseo. I like the work both groups do, so I did not charge (I did accept an unexpected gift from both organizations.) My parsimonious college demanded that we pay $108 to have a representative from the A/V department open the cabinet that contained the microphone and the USB cord for connecting my laptop.

I know this is a small matter. I know that a hundred bucks and change is not a lot of money. But, as they say, it’s the principle. The point of all that I have written above is that I have worked very hard over the past thirty years. I have done some really good work. I know that I have taught many students, over many years, who will vouch for the work I have done. I understand all of this. But it saddens me that I have grown accustomed over the past few years at Geneseo under the college’s current leadership to going above and beyond in all my work and receive for it little recognition, no thanks, and continuous disrespect and humiliation shown by our callous leaders. What I cannot grow accustomed to is working hard and having to pay for the privilege. I would complain but I know by now that nobody in charge cares and that nothing will be done. I do not like whining, but I am thoroughly demoralized.

Come To Geneseo, Give Us Money, Look at the Sky

            A long time ago when Bob Newhart hosted Saturday Night Live, he did a bit during his opening monologue in which he spoofed early television travel documentaries. Newhart played the role of the narrator, describing his expedition into the wilds of Peru.  He described his arrival at villages inhabited by Indigenous peoples who “were quite superstitious.” The arrival of Newhart’s party, the story went, coincided with a total solar eclipse. In response, “the natives began to beg us to please return the big red ball in the sky. Which we did of course. It just shows you there are lighter moments in even a trip as serious as ours.”

            The entire premise of Newhart’s routine rested on the audience’s assumption that the Indigenous peoples were unsophisticated rubes, completely unable to understand celestial phenomena.  Of course Indians would wonder what happened to the sun during an eclipse, because they could not possibly know any better.

    I have thought about this routine a lot, as the Great American Eclipse approaches in April of 2024.  This total solar eclipse will be visible across much of upstate New York, and my college’s money makers are hoping to draw people to campus to witness the event.  (Reminders of how cloudy, cold and wet Aprils in Upstate New York can be are completely unwelcome).  Even some of our own promotional materials—shown to prospective students during an admitted students weekend–made reference to primitive peoples’ befuddlement at the appearance of eclipses. I wonder, however, if we are being too uncritical, and too dismissive of the sophistication of Indigenous peoples’ understandings of the stars, the skies, and all that they contain.

            Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, said once that a solar eclipse stopped the war between the Lydians and the Medes. The warring parties saw the eclipse as a sign they should make peace. In the Bible, darkness at noon figures prominently in the Passion Narratives, a portent of doom if we look to the Old Testament Book of Amos which, for instance, the Gospels copied in the telling of the Crucifixion. The death of the English king Henry 1 in 1133 shortly after an eclipse may have helped spread the superstition that eclipses could be bad news. In Plains Indian Winter Counts, Indigenous historians recorded comets and eclipses. They were events worthy of note.

Some People think that Eclipses are apocalyptic events that portend evil. Some people think hardly at all.

So, two stories. In his account of the year he spent at the first Roanoke Colony from 1585 until 1586, Thomas Harriot described the coastal Algonquians’ reaction to the English newcomers. They could not tell whether the English were “gods or men,” Harriot said. The Carolina Algonquians felt this way because of the inexplicable disease that seemed to accompany the English, the “invisible bullets” that the English were somehow able to fire with lethal accuracy at those who offended

them. The technology the English carried with them, items that seemed “so strange to them, and so far exceeded their capacities to comprehend the reason and means how they should be made and done, that they thought they were rather the works of gods than of men, or at the leastwise they had been given and taught us of the gods. Which made many of them to have such opinion of us, as that if they knew not the truth of god and religion already, it was rather to be had from us, whom God so specially loved than from a people that were so simple, as they found themselves to be in comparison of us” further encouraged this feeling. Finally the English arrival closely followed some significant astronomical events: a comet, for instance, and an “Eclipse of the Sun which we saw the same year before in our voyage thitherward, which to them appeared very terrible.”

That was what Thomas Harriot heard in the 1580s. So let’s jump ahead to 1925, for an event that the Brooklyn Citizen said took place on the Onondaga Nation in central New York. The Onondagas were gathered in the Nation’s Longhouse that January to commemorate their mid-winter rites. And then:

Interrupted in the midst of their annual ten-day penitential and atonement sacrifice by the eclipse of the sun, Indians at the Onondaga Reservation were crazed by fear. Darkness descended on the Indians as they were gathered in the famous old Longhouse to offer up the sacrifice of the White Dog to tehir God in atonement. As the light turned blue and then purple, they rushed from the buildings and led by an old chief, began firing at the eclipse. As the last shot rang out, the moon passed from the sun and the purple light began to fade. In a few moments it was normal again, and the Indians returned to the Longhouse, confident they had driven away the evil spirit.”

Think about these two stories. Think about how the authors know what they know. Think about which of them ring true to you. If I were to ask you to identify the story you thought most likely to be untrue, which would you choose? One, or the other, or both?

I suspect you might choose the second one. But I am skeptical about the first one as well. Harriot did not see the Indians’ reaction to the comet or the eclipse. The idea that Indigenous peoples were easily befuddled by astronomical phenomena is not entirely convincing to me. If we assume that freaking out at the sight of an eclipse is a sign of savagery, and a sign of possessing a lack of sophistication, and possessing a great deal of stupidity, it is not surprising perhaps that some writers might use an eclipse as another racist trope describing Indigenous backwardness. The sun disappeared, and the Indians wondered if it would ever come back!

But isn’t there another possibility? Isn’t it possible that Indians observed eclipses, saw the sun disappear, and then return, and then understood that eclipses were not all that big a deal. If I am right about this, it is entirely possible that Indians did not freak out at all at the sight of an eclipse. They might have said, “Huh, that’s weird,” and went about their day.

Don’t underestimate Indigenous peoples. Do not underestimate people who, as the anthropologist Lynn Ceci asserted long ago, knew to time the planting of their corn by the appearance or disappearance of the Pleiades. Indigenous peoples watched the sky closely. The evidence that this is true is so abundant. There is, as well, abundant evidence showing the sophistication of Indigenous observations of the cosmos. The astronomer Anna Sofaer called buildings at Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest “cosmological expression through architecture.” Some Indigenous peoples could predict astronomical events with great precision. So come to Geneseo. With 165 sunny days per year, there is slightly less than a 50% chance that you will be able to see the eclipse clearly, but what the hell. You could go to Dallas and be almost assured of a sunny day, but we don’t judge. I do ask, however, that you not perpetuate unproven stereotypes about eclipses, and that you not diminish the wisdom of the peoples whose lands you will be visiting the moment you arrive.

Yet Another Threat to Haudenosaunee Land, Lives, and Liberties

I am deeply disturbed, as a historian, by the proposed STAMP development project bordering the Tonawanda Seneca Nation territory.  STAMP stands for the Science and Technology Advanced Manufacturing Park which will be built on the margins of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. It’s another “Buffalo Billion boondoggle,” one journalist pointed out, a manufacturing facility boosted by the Genesee County Center for Economic Development that will, when built, damage wildlife habitat and the ways of living of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. Millions have been spent, but not much has been accomplished yet. A hearing will be held tonight, Thursday, May 11th, at the Fire Hall in the Town of Alabama, New York.

I will leave it to those with expertise in the field to describe the significant ecological and environmental consequences of the project, though they seem quite significant and have not been persuasively addressed by the developer. What I would like to describe to you is the history of this state, and its long history of interactions with Native American Nations. New York could not have taken its current shape without a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession that at times explicitly violated the laws of the United States, and always basic standards of justice, honesty, and equity.

It is history in which the State of New York has consistently attempted to skim the cream off of whatever prosperity develops on Indigenous land; has aided and abetted in the environmental devastation of Indigenous homelands, and pursued on or around Native American communities projects that their NIMBY white constituents refuse to countenance in their own neck of the woods. It is a history of despoliation, devastation, and avarice, that is appalling even without reference to state boarding schools, military campaigns, and dishonesty in its dealing with the Indigenous Nations. Will the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation participate, once again, in this long and, frankly racist history? I hope that they will turn the page, write a new chapter, and look to a better future.

              I am not optimistic.  Governor Hochul has been no friend to the State’s Indigenous peoples. She presides over a state built on stolen land. One thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that there shall never be a meaningful accounting. New York became the Empire State through a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. That’s a fact. Though the Supreme Court declined to do anything about the process, arguing disingenuously that the injuries occurred too long ago to offer a workable remedy, most of the so-called treaties the state negotiated clearly violated federal law.           

Short Eared Owl, one of several species threatened by the development.

Not only were many of these transactions unambiguously illegal, but they were, as the kids say, as shady as hell. The Onondagas and Oneidas, for instance, entered into agreements in 1788 in which they were led to believe they would lease their lands to the State of New York.  Turns out that when the treaty was written by New York officials, those leases had magically been transformed into sales. Dispossession through literacy in English.  Other transactions took place with small number of Indians present, few of whom were the proper people to sign treaties.  And the United States, especially with regard to the Senecas, hardly kept its hands clean.  The 1838 treaty of Buffalo Creek, a transaction designed to expel the Six Nations from New York State, is the most crooked treaty in the history of this country.  That is saying something. Signatories were coerced or threatened, signatures were forged, and alcohol flowed freely.  Meanwhile, both federal and state authorities in New York have ignored the treaty provisions that protect Indigenous rights.  For example, clauses guaranteeing the Senecas and their Iroquois neighbors the right to the “free use and enjoyment of their lands” in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua have been consistently ignored.  They have ignored provisions in treaties guaranteeing Indigenous peoples the right to hunt and fish on the land they ceded to the state. The state has even tried to tax the “per capita” payments the Seneca Nation made to its members from the Nation’s gaming proceeds. It is just one assault after another. 

Northern Harrier, another bird species threatened by the development.

It is worth keeping in mind that the Seneca Nation has never asked for special privileges.  It asked merely that the state of New York follow the rules to which it had agreed. Contracts are sacred, Governor Hochul suggested when she extorted the funding she needed to secure a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, unless they somehow limit her ability to funnel many millions of public dollars to private hands.There is a principle that is very important to Iroquois people.  The People who made up the Iroquois League conducted their lives in accordance with this principle over the centuries. It is called “Guswenta,” and today it is represented by a very specific wampum belt known as the Two-Row, which depicts two parallel lines on a field of white.  The lines represent the Iroquois and their non-native neighbors. They shared the same land, they occupy the same country, but they remain independent and autonomous.  The lines do not cross, and neither natives nor newcomers should interfere in the affairs of the other. Indigenous peoples in this state have kept their part of the bargain.  They have had little choice.  The state, and its colonial predecessors, have not. 

The Indigenous people of this state have faced epidemic diseases, military invasions, the carrying away of their children to boarding schools, and systematic and deliberate attempts to wipe out their culture and take their land. Yet here they remain, developing their communities, looking forward, in a state that has been a steady and relentless adversary.  They hoped the state would play by its own rules.  Governor Hochul always has said no.  She will support the elimination of Native American mascots–that costs her nothing–but when the rubber hits the road she is as Anti-Indian as they get.

So when a developer hopes to gain state support for an exchange of 665 acres of habitat linked by forests and wetlands to the Tonawanda Seneca Nation for fifty-eight acres of non-contiguous land and claims that it is an equivalent property and that the exchange will actually benefit the ecosystem, and when the developer ignores completely impacts on the Nation and its people, it is hard not to be skeptical. What is easy to see is yet another chapter in the State’s long, brutal, and exploitative history towards Indigenous peoples.  The proposed swap is about so much more than economics. It makes a mockery of “consultation,” endangers endangered species, and is so patently inequitable that it is impossible to take seriously.  

              But all of this is very serious.  Industrial development at STAMP will disrupt the Tonawanda Seneca Nation’s ability to engage in the free exercise of their traditional beliefs. By damaging the Big Woods, where medicines are harvested and subsistence hunting and fishing takes place, it threatens directly the health and welfare of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation and the Haudenosaunee, who with Tonawanda’s permission hunt, fish, and gather there too. A long time ago, New York Indians were told to give up their lands in New York for a sliver of desiccated earth in Kansas. The land out there in the west, American officials, New York businessmen, and white racists argued, is just as good as what you have in New York. It’s the same, these promoters of ethnic cleansing optimistically point out. Except that it was not alike at all, just like 58 non-contiguous acres is not at all the same as 665 acres of culturally significant and environmentally and ecologically sensitive land.         

              The Tonawanda Seneca Nation always has resisted the calls of wealthy New York developers, from Robert Morris in the 1790s to today, that they leave their homelands. In the 1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek, the Tonawandas were surprised to learn their reservation had been given up, even though they were not parties to the treaty.  Two decades later they were able to purchase back a portion of the reservation they never had consented to sell. They were ripped off, but they hung on, preserving their culture and their political system within a state that has historically respected that culture not at all. If any number of white people had their way, the Tonawanda Seneca Nation would no longer exist—their language, their religion, the land, their people—all would have been absorbed by the ceaseless State of New York.      

              The DEC will support the state’s long-standing racism towards Indigenous peoples if it supports this habitat destruction. Tonawanda Senecas, you see, want nothing more than for the State of New York to keep its word and leave them alone. This is the case for other Haudenosaunee peoples. But here we go again, the relentless drumbeat of exploitation, avarice, and racism.  Tonawanda claims to the significance of the land and the species that live there are dismissed and shown no real respect.             

              I have been to hearings like the one that will be held this evening in the Alabama Fire Hall in the town of Alabama, New York. There is no meaningful “consultation” at meetings like this: the DEC officials sit at a table, fidget with their phones, as they listen uncomfortably to Indigenous peoples describe yet another assault on who they are and what they hope to become. I hope that this time, the members of the DEC in attendance will listen to what the Tonawandas say, and try to hear the sentiment beside it. I hope that they will put a stop to this ill-conceived and poorly thought-out industrial manufacturing development. I hope that they will break with a horrible history and, in the spirit of trust and reconciliation, seek pardon for the unresolved crimes of New York’s past.

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts

April 19th is the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the beginning of the war of the American Revolution.

Since then, the day has become iconic for those on the radical right. In 1993, ATF agents advanced on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Two years later, wearing a T-shirt with Thomas Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” letter quoted on it, Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City.

With the increasingly violent language of America’s right wing, the number of guns in circulation even larger, I hope that nothing bad happens this year. Stay safe, people. Stay safe.

Texas Declares War on Higher Education

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick might look like a joke, but there is nothing funny about the all-out assault his allies in the Texas legislature have recently launched against freedom, enlightenment, and education.

Dan Patrick, who favors freedom of inquiry only for those who share his lunacy.

They have introduced Senate Bill 16, an act “relating to the purpose of public institutions of higher education and a prohibition on compelling students at those institutions to adopt certain beliefs.” Under the terms of this bill, faculty members are prohibited from compelling students “to adopt a belief that any race, sex, or ethnicity or social political or religious belief is inherently superior to any other race, sex, ethnicity or belief.” Senate Bill 17 prohibits colleges and universities from requiring students, employees, contractors or applicants from making a statement on diversity, nor may these colleges “establish or maintain a diversity, equity, and inclusion office.” Senate Bill 18 states that “an institution of higher education may not grant an employee of the institution tenure or any type of permanent employment status.”

The language used in the bills is intended to conceal their real purpose. While the authors speak of the importance of intellectual freedom and their commitment to placing no limits on faculty research, the intent of the legislation is clearly to prohibit speech that might make white students feel bad about their ethnicity and race, make them feel guilty for the crimes of the past, or challenge them to think critically about race and justice in America. Strictly construed, it would be illegal for faculty members to criticize the pro-slavery Confederate States, the Indian-killing Texas Rangers, and Nazism. If all belief systems are inherently equal, Pincohet and Pol Pot stand on the same level as Pericles, and David Koresh’s deviant messianic beliefs on the same plane as those of St. Francis.

Texas has embraced a curriculum for cowards, for people who do not want to be challenged, who want to feel secure and appreciated no matter what their country may have done. It is a curriculum that is fundamentally allergic to controversy, that does not want students to face challenges to fundamental beliefs. The prophet Isaiah’s command that the faithful seek justice and correct oppression might easily be outlawed in the Lone Star State. What a sorry state for a state to be in.

Fifty Years Ago Today the Wounded Knee Occupation Began

One of the most important events of the modern Indian rights movement began today at the small hamlet of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. You should be teaching students in your American History class about Wounded Knee, not as an explosive event, but one with origins reaching back to the nineteenth century.

The occupation, indeed, had deep routes.

Several months after the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972, the activism of the Nixon years reignited in South Dakota. In January of 1973, a white man killed a Sioux named Wesley Bad Heart Bull outside a bar in Custer County. Local authorities charged the attacker with manslaughter, nothing more, and AIM, the American Indian Movement, arrived to protest. Led by Dennis Banks, they asked the prosecutor to consider more serious charges. When he refused, a riot broke out. The protestors set the local Chamber of Commerce building on fire; local police and county sheriffs responded with tear gas and violence. Twenty‐two people were arrested, nineteen of them Indigenous peoples. In the aftermath of the Custer riot, elders at the Pine Ridge Reservation invited AIM to aid them in their struggles against tribal chairman Dick Wilson, the head of an Indian Reorganization Act government notorious for its corruption and strong‐arm tactics. THe New Deal era IRA led at times to tribal governments that did not fit with the traditional values of an Indigenous community, and that certainly was the case at Pine Ridge. Wilson maintained a personal police force, for example, the well‐armed GOON squad (Guardians of Ogalala Nation) to control and intimidate dissenters. He had defeated efforts by the Reservation’s residents to impeach him. His authority challenged, he called upon federal authorities for support: federal marshals with automatic weapons came to Pine Ridge, setting the stage for a showdown.

Dick Wilson
Russell Means, left, and Dennis Banks at Wounded Knee in 1973.

Led by Russell Means and Dennis Banks, AIM hoped to bring the attention of the world to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. If they had little familiarity with tribal traditions—both had spent much of their lives in cities—they knew well how to draw the media and generate interest. On February 27, 1973, they and a group of their followers, perhaps 300 in all, occupied the small village of Wounded Knee, the site of the massacre of Sioux Ghost Dancers eighty‐three years before. Most of the occupiers came from the surrounding Lakota reservations, but they received support small numbers of Kiowas, Pueblos, Potawatomis, Senecas, and many others. Two Rappahannocks who had lived in New Jersey traveled west to join AIM at Wounded Knee. The occupiers had a handful of rifles; one of the occupiers had an AK‐47 with an empty banana clip. Some had served in Vietnam and felt keenly the injustice of the colonial system existing at Pine Ridge, where reservation residents had few rights and no redress. Desperate means called for desperate measures. Wilson’s GOONs and federal forces quickly surrounded the occupiers with an impressive array of the latest military technology: armored personnel carriers, high‐powered rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and armor. The federal authorities fired off more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition during the occupation. In cities like San Francisco and Washington, the Nixon Administration was willing to exercise restraint in its response to Native American protests. Federal authorities had avoided using a heavy hand during the occupation of Alcatraz and the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. Not so on a remote reservation in South Dakota.

On March 11, the occupiers issued a statement declaring the independence of the Oglala Nation. “We are a sovereign nation by the treaty of 1868,” the occupiers said, and “we want to abolish the Tribal Government under the Indian Reorganization Act. Wounded Knee will be a corporate state under the Independent Oglala Nation.” They rejected the “reorganized” government of the Pine Ridge Reservation and objected to a corrupt government out of touch with tribal traditions and willing to harass and violently persecute its opponents. Means and Banks attracted a considerable amount of attention but they could not achieve their fundamental goals, for the federal government would not see to the removal of Wilson, or address the fundamental structural causes of so much misery on Indian reservations. The occupation of Wounded Knee lasted seventy‐one days. At its end, two of the occupiers had died, and one federal marshal received a wound that left him paralyzed. Given the number of rounds fired, that so few were killed and injured was something of a miracle.

Always worth a look, Paul Chaat Smith’s excellent Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong

The occupiers left Wounded Knee in May of 1973. According to Banks, “Wounded Knee was the greatest event in the history of Native America in the twentieth century. It was,” he continued, “our shining hour.” Leonard Crow Dog, the spiritual leader and another of the occupiers, agreed that “our seventy‐one-day stand was the greatest deed done by Native Americans.” Still, Crow Dog noted, “we never got our Black Hills back, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was not honored, nor did the government recognize us as an independent nation.” In the words of historian Paul Chaat Smith, “there was a clear‐eyed, if often unspoken, acknowledgment that frequently our elders are lost or drunk, our traditions nearly forgotten or confused, our community leaders co‐opted or narrow,” but “they knew only one thing for sure: business as usual was not working, their communities were in pain and crisis, and they had to do something.” AIM brought considerable attention to the problems Indigenous peoples faced. Thanks to the organization’s efforts, many American people became aware for the first time of their nation’s long history of injustices toward American Indians. These achievements were significant.

Still, federal authorities relentlessly harassed and prosecuted the leaders of AIM. After the occupation, Dick Wilson resumed his campaign of repression against what he viewed as outside agitators. This violence led to the killing of two FBI agents in June 1975. After some shady legal maneuvering, a federal court tried and convicted Leonard Peltier, an AIM member, despite significant doubts about his guilt and procedural irregularities at his trial. Peltier remains in prison today. Protests against Wilson’s regime did little to remove the fundamental problem: the United States, though willing to embrace self‐determination, and to consider piecemeal changes in its policies toward Indigenous peoples, never abandoned the notion that Indians remained wards of the nation. It is important to remember this. The federal government in the second half of the twentieth century favored self‐determination and, in specific cases, implemented programs and policies that addressed historic injustice and the poor conditions under which many Indigenous peoples lived. But it would only go so far. A tension existed, between self‐determination and wardship, between sovereignty and colonialism, that individual Indigenous peoples, tribal, local, state and federal governments, and the federal courts would wrestle with over the coming years. Indigenous peoples survived termination’s direct negation of their political rights, and gained more control over their lives, but the ambiguities created by the conflicting forces of sovereignty and colonialism remained.

I Read Florida House Bill 999 So You Don’t Have To

And it is worth worrying about.

It is known as Florida House Bill 999. Those numbers are what you dial when you experience an emergency in Great Britain. In that sense, the numbering is fitting, for this bill poses a grave threat to intelligence, critical reasoning, and freedom of thought. It is no laughing matter.

The bill applies to all public postsecondary institutions in the Sunshine State. It empowers a Board of Governors to “align the missions of each constituent university with the academic success of its students; the education for citizenship of the constitutional republic; and the state’s existing and emerging workforce needs,” among other things. The Board must “provide direction to each constituent university on removing from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor.” They will also oversee an “Accountability Plan” that lists majors by the salary of their first-year graduates, and demands the collection of evidence on the universities’ promotion of “education for citizenship of the constitutional republic and the cultivation of the intellectual autonomy of its undergraduate students.”

Faculty members who choose not to toe the line can face discipline. The Board of Governors has the power to “initiate a post-tenure review of a faculty member at any time with cause.” Each state university board of trustees can make decisions for hiring and is not “required to consider recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university or other individuals or groups.” In other words, academic departments would not have a role in assessing the expertise of their would-be colleagues. Faculty cannot be trusted with hiring new faculty. Hiring decisions may not use “diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, Critical Race Theory rhetoric, or other forms of political identity filters as part of the hiring process, including as part of applications for employment, promotion and tenure, conditions of employment, or reviewing qualifications for employment.” Each school’s Board of Trustees may also “review any faculty member’s tenure status,” should they fail to conform. Shut up and take it, the state legislature is telling faculty, and if you do not like it we will ruin your life.

This is dangerous and draconian. It flies in the face of everything an education is supposed to be. Free-inquiry is not a cardinal value on Florida, where legislators with little expertise in education are crafting policies for universities.

The legislation also proposes to create the Florida Institute for Governance and Civics, which will “provide students with access to an interdisciplinary hub that will develop academically rigorous scholarship and coursework on the origins of the American system of government, its foundational documents, its subsequent political traditions and evolutions, and its impact on comparative political system.”

That may sound relatively benign, but its not. The Institute will “encourage civic literacy in the state through the development of educational tools and resources for K-12 and post-secondary students that foster an understanding of how individual rights, constitutionalism, separation of powers, and federalism function within the American system of government.” This includes holding on-campus forums to allow students to hear from “exceptional individuals who have excelled in a wide range of sectors of American life to highlight the possibilities created by individual achievement and entrepreneurial vision.” This is all coded language. Horatio Alger would be proud. There is no systemic injustice in America, and students in Florida should learn that the only reason for their failure can be their inability to work hard and think big.”

Historians clearly are part of a problem that the Florida State Legislature hopes to eliminate. “General education core courses,” the legislation reads, “may not suppress or distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” History and other courses “with a curriculum based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” might be accepted as electives, but not for general education. Students should stick to “this nation’s historical documents, including the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments thereto, and the Federalist Papers.”

The language in the legislation is vague and unclear. Critically important terms are left undefined and could conceivably lead faculty members teaching theoretical physics on the hot seat. What, to the legislators, is the meaning of “intersectionality”? Of “Critical Race Theory”? What, for that matter, do they mean by “a curriculum”? The legislature, I suspect, want the small number of people who read this bill not to worry about its contents: a proposal to shut off entire fields of inquiry aimed at understanding and proposing solutions to demonstrable and easily-documented injustices in American life. But that a bill of this sort could even be considered is a sad state of affairs for a Nation ostensibly founded on Freedom.

Action is required. While the leader of the American Historical Association bitches and whines about “presentist” scholarship, Florida lawmakers are setting fire to the very idea that students should be exposed to ideas that challenge them, make them feel uncomfortable, or aware of the obvious and yawning gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be. This country is not healthy, and the problems we face today have historical roots. Meanwhile, the entire historical profession has fallen victim to a process of slow strangulation as public university systems deal with declining state funding. Much of the extraordinary talent of a generation of historians has been squandered. Public historical illiteracy is growing by leaps and bounds.

And now, this spate of Republican bills crushing free inquiry and silencing dissent. This legislation is racist and dangerous, a threat to all who value freedom and the ability to raise troubling questions. It is incumbent upon all of us who care about the field of history to explain why. Each of us who believes in the importance of Intellectual Fearlessness, and the importance of raising big questions, more than ever, must act. Each and every chance we get.

Jimmy Carter: An Appreciation

I did not pay much attention to Jimmy Carter during his presidency (I was too young at the time to care much), but I have believed for many years that he is among the greatest of the American nation’s former presidents.

Ask people of a certain age what they felt about the Carter presidency you will often hear harshly critical reviews. He was weak and indecisive, unable to solve a national “malaise,” serious economic crisis, and the Iran hostage crisis. Historians are gradually coming to view him in less unforgiving terms. According to Siena College, Carter ranks 24th in their list of American presidents. He was ranked second only to Lincoln for presidential integrity. Most polls place him right in the middle: well ahead of all those gilded age and antebellum failures, and ahead of Nixon, the second Bush, and Trump as well.

In the coming days we will see many assessments of Carter’s presidency. I expect none of those to say anything about Indian affairs. His policies with regard to Indigenous peoples in Alaska brought lasting change and significant hard feelings. (A good review is available here.) He famously posed for a White House photo with “Pretendian” Iron Eyes Cody. But President Carter also signed some of the most significant legislation enacted in any presidency.

Carter and “Iron Eyes” Cody at the White House.

President Carter followed and expanded on the shift towards “self-determination” in the conduct of the American Nation’s Indian policy. Congress took the lead, continuing work it had begun under Nixon and Ford, but Carter can take credit for signing the legislation into law.

Acknowledging that in the past the United States had pursued policies that “resulted in the abridgment of religious freedom for traditional American Indians,” Congress in August approved the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which pledged the United States “to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to the access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonies and traditional rites.” AIRFA was limited in its effect by the Supreme Court, but it was an important statement from a government that historically had done so much to eradicate Indigenous religions.

Aware of the growing number of native peoples who belonged to communities that had neither signed treaties with the United States nor been the specific objects of federal legislation, Congress in early October established a set of guidelines for the “Federal Acknowledgment of Indian Tribes” that had not been officially recognized by the government in the past as Indian. The “acknowledgment” statute required that an Indian tribe, in order to be formally recognized as such by the Interior Department, demonstrate that they had “been identified from historical times until the present on a substantially continuous basis as ‘American Indian,’ or ‘aboriginal.’” They needed to demonstrate as well that the members of the community had inhabited a specific area or that they live “in a community viewed as American Indian and distinct from other populations in the area.” The petitioning tribe was also asked to establish that it had “maintained political influence or other authority over its members as an autonomous entity throughout history until the present.” Acknowledgment, the statute read, “is a prerequisite to the protection, services, benefits, from the Federal Government available to Indian tribes.” Such acknowledgment, the statute continued, “shall also mean that the tribe is entitled to all the immunities and privileges available to other federally acknowledged Indian tribes by virtue of their status as Indian tribes as well as the responsibilities and obligations of such tribes.”

Two weeks later, Congress passed the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, which provided grants for the operation of junior colleges on Indian reservations in order “to insure continued and expanded educational opportunities for Indian students.” Native communities had long recognized the importance of higher education, but access had always been a challenge. Cankdeska Cikana Community College, formerly known as Little Hoop College, was founded by the Spirit Lake Dakotas in North Dakota in the early 1970s. The college provided vocational and technical training, but also a curriculum that fostered “the teaching and learning of Dakota culture and language toward the preservation of the tribe.” Other communities established colleges throughout the West early in the 1970s, beginning with Navajo Community College. In response to the passage of the 1978 statute, a number of western tribes established new institutions of higher learning emphasizing a culturally relevant curriculum. Little Big Horn College, founded at Crow Agency on the Crow Reservation, struggled to survive with scarce resources in its early years but grew into a successful junior college. From thirty‐two students during its first semester in 1981, now more than 300 students enroll each term. All take courses in Crow Studies alongside a variety of skills‐based programs and courses designed to prepare them for transfer to four‐year colleges.

Congress in 1978 attempted to address the legacies of some of the nation’s most destructive policies toward Indigenous peoples. Early in November, Congress enacted a series of educational reforms for schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, designed to provide equal educational opportunity for Indigenous children. One week later, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, designed to halt the traumatic removal of Indigenous children from their homes through fostering and adoption. The problem was severe. Dakota Sioux at Spirit Lake, for example, had asked the Association of American Indian Affairs (AAIA) to investigate such removals, and the AAIA reported that of the 1100 Dakotas under the age of 21 who lived at Spirit Lake in 1968, 275 had been separated from their families. In states with large Native American populations, the AAIA found that between 25% and 35% of children had been removed from their homes. Indigenous peoples organized to halt this highly destructive practice, and the battle for the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, according to its best historian, “represented one of the most fierce and successful battles for Indian self‐determination of the 1970s.” ICWA, as it’s known, 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.”

Decisions by the Supreme Court have already weakened many of these signal legislative achievements, and decisions looming on the Court’s calendar threaten to do even more damage. Carter certainly accomplished less than he might have hoped, but by following the lead of an energized legislative branch, he brought far-reaching change. In the assessments of his long career that appear in the coming days, this should not be forgotten.

The Gag Order Party

If you have not read the Penn America Center report on “Educational Gag-Orders,” you really ought to. Although the focus of state legislation described in the report rests on teaching about gender, sexuality, and Critical Race Theory, the language in the bills could have an impact on teaching and learning about Native America. Because so much of this legislation originates in Red States with rich Native American histories, the Penn America Center report is a sobering read.

            Each of the bills examined in the report “represents an effort to impose content- and viewpoint-based censorship.” They send the signal, the report argues, “that specific ideas, arguments, theories, and opinions may not be tolerated by the government.” Twenty-six of the bills “explicitly apply to colleges and universities.” Six of the bills failed, three have become law, and the remainder are making their way through the legislative process. Many of them prevent teaching that includes “CRT” and information presented in work like the 1619 Project. Some bills propose to eliminate tenure to ensure that instructors do not teach their students ideas and content that legislators find subversive or dangerous.

            A South Carolina bill, HB 3827, offers an alarming example. The legislation outlaws promoting or endorsing narratives that “the United States was founded for the purpose of oppression, that the American Revolution was fought for the purpose of protecting oppression, or that United States history is a story defined by oppression; or (ii) with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality”

            This is pretty rich from the state that fired the shots that began the Civil War.

            Think about this for a second.  How might an instructor in South Carolina tell her students about the “3/5 Compromise,” which counted each enslaved person as 60% of a human being, and gave slave states more representation in Congress, more electoral votes, and thus control of the national government? How might one teach the history of the Nullification Crisis without doing an entire injustice to American History? Or Secession, and the arguments that slavers made in favor of leaving the Union.  When I taught the America survey, my students read Charles Dew’s brief but incredible book, Apostles of Disunion. Secessionists are condemned by their own racist speech, their own frequently-voiced arguments that the Founders created a republic with white men in charge, and that white supremacy was worth fighting and dying for. But under this proposed legislation? A dutiful teacher might assert that South Carolinians were standing up for their state’s rights. But their right to do what?  Imagine, if you will, that you see your next-door neighbor packing up the car.  He is leaving his wife.  You are stunned. They seemed like such a wonderful couple. They had been together for ever, it seemed, close to four score and five years. Stunned, you ask what happened.  Your neighbor tells you he is leaving because he has the right to do so.  Nobody will find that a satisfactory answer. But that is what South Carolina’s legislators are contemplating.  Steer clear of controversial subjects.  Do not indoctrinate students.  Deny the racism of the past. Pretend it did not exist. Indeed, teach nothing that could make a student, somehow, feel ashamed of their race. Don’t talk about the gibbets in Charlestown, the trade in Cherokee scalps, and enslavement, which cuts to the marrow of South Carolina’s history.  Don’t talk about Nullification and John C. Calhoun and his views of the Constitution.  Don’t talk about Fort Sumter, and the Palmetto State’s embrace of lynching.  Lie to your students.  Tell them nothing that will upset their frightened parents.  Lie to them, and lie some more.  It is all good.  It is all progress. Conservative White South Carolinians are good people who need to hear that, over and over, it seems.  It is a message they will drill into the skulls of their children.  These lawmakers are so fragile and frightened that those who refuse to toe the line can expect termination.   Or worse.

When Do The Book Burnings Begin?

Imagine you lived in a country where its leader has declared certain topics off-limits. As a professor at a German University, you are prohibited from teaching the Holocaust. As a teacher in Turkey, you will face punishment if you discuss with your students the Armenian Genocide. You’re an expert in these subjects. You have spent much of your life studying them. But now you find yourself hauled before the authorities, your livelihood, your career, and your freedom in jeopardy.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Good thing it cannot happen here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Except that it is. Yesterday I learned that a professor at a state university in Florida was informed by the school’s administration that it had searched through their email account without advance notice, and sent several of their messages to the state legislature because they included information about diversity, equity and inclusion.

Such a state of affairs should horrify every freedom-loving American, and every American with a modicum of familiarity with the First Amendment, but I doubt it will. Americans, in general, have been taught well to feel little sympathy for educators, too often depicted slanderously as part of the nation’s cultural and economic elite. They have been taught for a generation to hate professors who taught “multiculturalism,” who presented “politically correct” topics, and now matters related to “DEI” and, especially, “Critical Race Theory.” These fears have been sparked by people like Rush Limbaugh and Lynne Cheney in the 1990s, and more recently by Ivy-League demagogues like Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Ron DeSantis, who studied history at Yale and then earned a law degree at Harvard. DeSantis, I suspect, knows he is full of shit, and he doesn’t care.

I teach at a state college in New York. If my state had a law like Florida’s, I would be in a lot of trouble. They would not have to search my emails to for incriminating evidence. It’s on this blog, and on my Twitter account. We need to resist these hypocrites, even though you and I both know they won’t stand and fight. We need to look for opportunities to ask De Santis when the book burnings are scheduled to begin. When teachers face criminal penalties for presenting sound interpretations of the past, its only a matter of time.

Look, in my classes I make a historical argument, based on years of research and reading. I tell my students that the United States could not have assumed its current shape without a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession, involving fraud and violence, from sea to shining sea. That is not the whole course, but it is fundamental to the historic experience of Indigenous Peoples in North America. The students read the evidence upon which that reasoning is based. they analyze it, struggle through it, and ask questions. This is the sort of history that De Santis hates because, he claims, it will teach students to hate their country.

I have taught for a couple of decades. Any experienced and conscientious college teacher will tell you that there is no better way to lose an audience of young people than to preach dogma to them. They will tune you out quickly and completely.

You know what is more likely than a history lesson to teach children to hate their country? Lying to them about their country’s past. Every semester since I began teaching 29 years ago, I have been approached by students who tell me that they cannot believe they had never been taught this or that before. My response, for all these years, has been the same: “That’s not surprising. I hear that a lot.” I ask them, “Why do you think you were not taught this material in the past?” What possible motives might educators following state curricula have for hiding these subjects from them? I ask them to think about it, seriously.

Let’s be clear. Ron DeSantis and his Florida supporters do not want these subjects taught because they are racists who believe that only stories that promote a sterile and white-centric narrative of the past are acceptable. DeSantis presides over a state in which non-Hispanic whites are less than 60% of the population. Soon it will be a majority minority state. He does not want young Floridians to learn, critically and thoroughly, the history of the people who increasingly are their neighbors.

DeSantis has a history degree from one of the most elite, Ivy League universities in the United States. He knows perfectly well that history is not supposed to be a mere collection of facts. He knows, or should know if he listened in class, that history can be unsettling and disturbing. He should know, if he listened in class, that history is about asking and answering questions about the past. We conduct research to answer those questions. We collect and sift through the evidence. From that evidence, we draw conclusions and construct arguments. De Santis fears that these arguments will make children feel uncomfortable, ashamed of their white skin. It is difficult to think of an easier tell for detecting racism.

Because what De Santis won’t do is debate the evidence. To use an earlier example, if I argue that the United States could not have taken its shape without a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession, your obligation as a person who thinks and reasons about matters historical is not to say, “I don’t like that,” or “it makes me feel uncomfortable,” but to argue. If you think I am wrong, fine. Make your case. Explain why I am wrong and present evidence for a better interpretation of the past. This DeSantis and the conservative political leaders who think like him will not do. Not only are they racists. They are cowards, too. As citizens we need to let voters know that every chance we get.