Category Archives: History and Historians

On Charlottesville, and Our National Character

In what ways does the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville matter?

In the past two weeks I have listened to the Attorney General of the United States announce his determination to investigate discrimination on college campuses against…..wait for it….white people.  This move was endorsed by a President who has called Mexicans “rapists” and “animals,” and who has in as many words endorsed police brutality against African Americans and other people of color.  A sheriff’s deputy in Oklahoma, meanwhile, who gunned down an African American man who was walking away from her with his hands raised was rehired by another law enforcement agency.  And Friday night, and again on Saturday in Charlottesville, white supremacists marched in an American city, on an American college campus founded by Thomas Jefferson.  That flawed hypocrite whose moral cowardice was so great, who fathered children with his slave mistress while owning many other African Americans, who denounced native peoples as savages and spent much of his presidency trying to dispossess them, proclaimed his support for the premise that “all men are created equal.”

Saturday morning I sold a broken down flat-screen TV to a scrap-dealer.  Found a dude on Craig’s List who bought and sold dead flat-screens, and who included in his rapid-fire text messages a reference to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  He showed up. Never shook my hand. Never made eye-contact, and never acknowledged my wife who also was standing outside.  He had on an Infowars T-Shirt.  “Ideas are bulletproof,” it read, with the letters imposed over an image of the Constitution. And the stickers on the back window of his truck?  A gun, pointed right at me, with the caption “Not This Truck;”  a  “F–k Cuomo” sticker, with the “f” and the “k” fashioned from the outlines of assault rifles; and a seal for some sort of militia group to which he pledged allegiance (I wish I could remember exactly what it said).

I sold a broken down television, in other words, to a guy who loudly proclaimed his embrace of Christianity in every text he sent, while at the same time announcing to all whose path he crossed that he not only would use violence to protect his personal property, but that he expected somebody to try to take it.  What a dark, frightened, and violent way to look at the world.

These views, expressed on my driveway by a frightened but well-armed scrap-dealer/militia member, or acted upon by the vicious nerds, gun fetishists, racists and thugs in Charlottesville, and described as moral equivalents to the views held by those who believe in justice, equality, and that black lives do matter by our babbling President, are of course nothing new in American history.  We have seen this before.  Too many times over too many years.  Nearly all of us who study this nation’s history for a living, I suspect, were shocked, angered and dismayed, but we were not surprised.  Sick and tired, but not surprised. The racists and white supremacists appeared in Charlottesville, but they had never, every, really gone away.

And that is a lesson, I believe, that must now inform my courses in Native American History even more than they have done in the past.  Hatred and fear of a racialized other.  It runs through the colonial period of American history. You cannot miss it if you look at the sources: from the treatment of native peoples by a frontier population intent on extracting a livelihood from ground seized from native peoples, to the slave owners, and the the lawmakers and legislators and founding fathers who regulated and policed the expropriation of native peoples’ lands and African peoples’ labor.   As I make my way slowly through Robert Parkinson’s magisterial The Common Cause, the best book I have seen on the American Revolution in some time, it is abundantly clear how important a fostered hatred of warlike native peoples and rebellious African slaves was to give shape to the “common cause” for which American patriots fought during the Revolutionary war.  Racism was there at the outset, fundamental to the formation of American national identity.  There have been, of course, many courageous people who have spoken out against this blight at the heart of the nation–some of them were mowed own by a white supremacist’s car on Saturday–and this heroic tradition is important.  But to deny the centrality of its opposite–racial antipathy–is to fail to examine closely the entire content of our nation’s character.

Three times more Africans migrated to the English American colonies than white people between 1630 and 1780.  Slavery was fundamental to the settlement and growth of the Anglo-American empire.  That dynamic and expansive process of enslavement, as historians like Brett Rushforth, Alan Gallay, Linford Fisher, Christina Snyder and many others have recently shown, ensnared many native peoples, too.  Slavery was central.  So was the systematic and organized dispossession of native peoples. I have tried to write about all of this in the second edition of Native America.

“This was all in the past,” you might say.  That is what Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to think.  The President, too, ever-ready with insult and slur, has proven himself time and again incapable of denouncing the white supremacists who believe strongly that he endorses their views.  This all is heartbreaking, you might say.  You might say that what we are seeing in Charlottesville is inconsistent with who we are as a nation.  You may respond to the news  by tweeting out a message of hope or inspiration under the hashtag #thisisnotus.  That is naive.  Dispossession. Discrimination.  Police forces, armed and militarized to the hilt, locked and loaded to protect the lives, liberties, and property of white people from what  they perceive as the threat posed by people of color, slay African Americans and Native Americans largely without fear of the consequences.

I have seen an increasing number of “Police Lives Matter” flags in the Rochester area, and “Blue Line” American flags.  I see on the news stories about how a Canandaigua woman quickly sold out of the shirts and signs she printed proclaiming that “I Support the Police,” or something like that. It’s a tough job. I get that. If you cannot do it without fearing or discriminating or murdering people of color, please for the sake of humanity do something else.

Is it worse than it has been in the past? We have talked about this as a family. We live in a small suburb of Rochester, a faculty ghetto of sorts where most residents like to think of themselves as tolerant and open to diversity.  My wife, whose skin is dark, is pulled over frequently by our local police; in nineteen years living here, I have never been pulled over.  It has been bad in the past.  There is no denying that.  But it is bad now, and it is getting worse even in the short time since the last election.  For too many white Americans, black lives do not matter.   Native lives, for too many of them, matter not at all. Too many white people view programs like affirmative action, intended to address past systematic injustices, as a threat.  And the people who hold these views? They know the president has their back.

I would like to think that we historians can make a difference, however small, by discussing this history in our classes. I do not see how one can understand American history in its complexity without doing so.  Few people read our work, I know.  But if we are to be effective educators, we must reach out.  We must have faith in the power of knowledge and reason and dialogue and debate.  We must write and teach with the urgency that comes from knowing that our words matter.  And in African-American History, or Native American history, we have the opportunity to explore the structural inequalities and profound injustices that have always rested at the core of this nation’s story.  We must be straight with our students.  Most of my colleagues are already doing this, but the urgency for doing this is growing. Cast away the comforting myths.  It is not our job to instill love of country, patriotism or civics.  We must counter this argument every chance we get. Leave that to the hacks and the partisans, the liars and the myth-makers and the members of the PTA.  We must defend what we do. We must be honest.  Look the evil in the eye.  Expose it to the light of day.  Name the evil, and show our students where it has manifested itself in the past, and the many forms it can take, the contortions and distortions it demands and justifies.  We will take some heat in doing this.  The dingbats and the right-wingers and some of the most conservative evangelicals and others will say that we are not doing our jobs, that we must stick to the facts.   And we cannot take these foolish charges sitting down. We must challenge those who denounce what we are doing with the meaningless and stupid epithet, “politically correct.” Debate these people.  Call them out, politely, professionally, but persistently. Only by standing tall can we help to inspire in our students the courage to speak out, to ask tough questions, and demand reasoned and relevant answers.  Only by doing so can we, in some small way, encourage them to confront and to resist the rottenness that has plagued this nation for far too long.

Some Thoughts on the Declaration, and Why I Don’t Celebrate Much on Independence Day

The other day I appeared on “Connections,” a news radio show which airs on WXXI in Rochester, New York, an NPR-affiliate.  I participated in a panel discussion about how the Declaration of Independence is taught in classrooms and how much Americans know about this important document.

The precipitating event that spurred this discussion was the decision by NPR to tweet out on Independence Day the entire Declaration, 140 characters at a time.  Some of NPR’s Twitter followers applauded this decision, but a group of Donald Trump supporters saw something subversive at work.   Unaware of what they were reading, and in some sense living up to negative stereotypes about Trump voters, they accused NPR of tweeting out Anti-Trump propaganda.  The national media picked up on the story, concluding that large numbers of Americans know little about the founding of their country.

I spent the Fourth of July with my family camping in the Adirondacks.  There were plenty of American flags flying from trailers and boats in the campground, and a noticeably large number of campers wearing T-shirts containing passages from the familiar opening lines of the Declaration.  We stuck to ourselves, and stayed away from the Fireworks display in Saranac Lake, about 15 miles away.  We just were not feeling it this year.  We took a too-long canoe journey, and went to the beach, and avoided powerboat exhaust, so I never had an opportunity to speak to any of the people wearing these shirts.  It is not difficult to imagine that they saw in the Declaration’s language something of great significance.  But what?  And what did those words mean to them?

To a great extent, these were the issues that we discussed on “Connections.” The Declaration of Independence, many Americans very clearly believe, is important and a source of this country’s highest ideals.  Liberals and conservatives share an appreciation of its importance, even if they disagree about the extent to which the United States has lived up to those ideals.  But very clearly, Americans also know little about the document itself, the indictments it contains against the conduct of the king that American patriots felt justified rebellion, and the specific context from which it emerged.  Much of what they think they know is either wrong or extraordinarily simplistic.

And that really bothers me.  Even my fellow panelists, with whom I agreed about mostly everything, saw the Declaration as a source of American ideals, as a celebration of equality and freedom.  One, agreeing with a caller, saw the Declaration as the source of American ideals, and the Constitution as the source of American law. It is a line I have heard before. During the discussion, I brought up some of the insights raised by Pauline Maier in her wonderful book on the Declaration, but I really wish I said more.  We were pressed for time. I really wished that I had mentioned Frederick Douglass’s famous speech, given in Rochester in 1852, asking “What to the American Slave is the Fourth of July?”

One of my fellow panelists, for instance, pointed out that “we” came to America for freedom.   Of course there were many people already here when those freedom-seeking colonists came stumbling ashore, and by a three-to-one margin, between 1630 and 1780, the movement of peoples across the Atlantic to English America was much more black than white.  The vast majority of people who crossed the Atlantic came as bond servants or slaves.  And, from the English perspective, these colonies existed to serve the crown.  This factor alone, which I described in my first book, is important to remember.  Colonial promoters wanted to profit from their overseas enterprise, they wanted to secure a foothold on American shores, and spread what they believed was the one and only true religion.

The Declaration, furthermore, contains in its indictments of the Crown a number of “ideals” that when examined more closely, reveal some of the darkness that lay at the heart of the founding.  The committee that drafted the Declaration, for instance, denounced the Quebec Act, a piece of legislation usually treated as one of the so-called “Intolerable Acts” but that may, in fact, have helped Quebec avoid the blood-stained history of Northern Ireland.  That the rebellious colonists opposed the Quebec Act makes quite clear that one of the American republic’s founding ideals was Anti-Catholicism. Similarly, the colonists condemned George III for messing around with immigration and naturalization.  One of my fellow panelists likened this to Donald Trump’s attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from a handful of countries.  But if one thinks of Warren Hofstra’s great article that appeared in the Journal of American History in 1998, the Empire saw strategic immigration as a way to bolster frontier defense.  Thus when Jefferson wrote in the Declaration that the King “has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands” they were complaining in part about limits on their efforts to discriminate against outsiders coming to the colonies and the crown’s efforts to keep colonists off of Indian lands.

Most Americans, I suspect, poorly understand that the Declaration came after fifteen months of war, and that without the violence of the Revolution, the document itself would have become just another forgotten manifesto from a failed revolt.  They fail to recognize that many politically literate Englishmen would have found little in the Declaration’s memorable preamble with which they might disagree, and that what we see  as a glorious statement of American ideals, after all, was influenced by the English political writing Jefferson and others had been drinking in for a generation.  (Though they would not have accepted the notion that the “usurpations” and “injuries” inflicted on the colonists by the king justified armed rebellion against the duly constituted authorities of the imperial state.) They seem unfamiliar with the notion that the Constitution of 1787, rather than serving as the successful culmination of the Revolution, was a deeply flawed document that may, in the view of some historians, have served as a conservative counter to the radicalism of the American Revolution. Woody Holton’s excellent work will make that point abundantly clear.  The biggest flaw in that document, its protection of the institution of slavery and southern control of the union, required a war that killed more than 600,000 Americans, lasted five years, and has left a legacy with which we still struggle. That is more than a mere hiccup in a story of American progress. The birth of the American nation can be neither understood nor explained without reference to the enslavement of Africans and the dispossession of native peoples.  These Americans might be surprised that Great Britain abolished slavery well before the United States.

I have written on this blog in the past about Americans’ lack of civic knowledge.  But the point was made abundantly clear with the evidence presented by the show’s talented host Evan Dawson that immigrants to the United States do considerably better on the citizenship exam than do native-born American citizens–and some of those citizenship questions are stunningly simple.

“1. Name ONE American Indian tribe in the United States.

a. Slavs

b. Celts

c. Cherokee

d. Zawa Chemi.”

SMH, as the kids say.  What is clear is that we can and must do much, much, better in teaching this nation’s history, and that we must push back against the homogenizing forces in American education (those on the right who denounce a rich depiction of American history with the intellectually-bankrupt epithet “politically correct” or those who emphasize STEM to the detriment of everything else, to state legislatures that slash school budgets and attempt to micro-manage talented teachers).  There is, clearly, so much at stake.  An ill-informed public, not willing or able to exercise its critical citizenship, will make a fit tool for tyrants.  Frederick Douglass long ago saw in the commemoration of Independence Day evidence of America’s considerable hypocrisy. The nation had not lived up to its ideals, he claimed.  As recent events have demonstrated–the continued killing of peoples of color by police officers, grinding and increasing inequality, a government attuned to the interests of the most wealthy among us and tone-deaf to the growing numbers at the bottom–we have a long, long, way to go.

What You Need To Read

I will post each quarter a list of items I have placed on my “To Get To” list, scholarship I will consider as I work to keep current in this vast field and begin to contemplate a third edition of Native America.   If there is something I have missed, or a work you would like me to add to the list, please feel free to drop me a line. For the March bibliography, click here.

Abram Kercsmar, Joshua. “Wolves at Heart: How Dog Evolution Shaped Whites’ Perceptions of Indians in North America.” Environmental History 21, no. 3 (July 2016): 516-540.

Anderson, Gary Clayton, “The Native Peoples of the American West: Genocide or Ethnic Cleansing?” Western Historical Quarterly 47, no. 4 (November 2016): 407-433.

Barr, Juliana.  “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Prehistory’: What the Longue Duree of Caddo and Pueblo History Tells Us About Colonial America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 74 (April 2017), 203-240.

Bowes, John P. ““Hang Them All”: George Wright and the Plateau Indian War.” Journal Of Military History 81, no. 2 (April 2017): 569-571.

Brewer II, Joseph Paul, et al. “Renaming the Indians: State-Sponsored Legibility through Permanent Family Surnames among the Sisseton and Wahpeton at Lake Traverse, 1903.” American Indian Culture & Research Journal 40, no. 3 (July 2016): 47-66.

Britten, Thomas A. “Abraham Lincoln as Great Father: A Look at Federal Indian Policy, 1861-1865.” American Indian Culture & Research Journal 40, no. 3 (July 2016): 103-122.

Bunnell, David.  Good Friday on the Rez: A Pine Ridge Odyssey, (New York: St. Martin’s, 2017).

Carder, Susan Fae. “The Development of a Gaming Enterprise for the Navajo Nation.” American Indian Quarterly 40, no. 4 (Fall2016 2016): 295-332.

Carlson, Shawn B., M. James Blackman, and Ronald L. Bishop. “Texas Mission Ceramics: Origins of Manufacture and Distribution during the Eighteenth Century.” Historical Archaeology 50, no. 4 (October 2016): 65-91.

Cevasco, Carla. “This is My Body: Communion and Cannibalism in Colonial New England and New France.” New England Quarterly 89, no. 4 (December 2016): 556-586.

Clatterbuck, Mark. Crow Jesus: Personal Stories of Native Religious Belonging, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017).

Colwell, Chip  Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 22017).

Conrad, Paul. “Empire through Kinship.” Early American Studies, An Interdisciplinary Journal 14, no. 4 (Fall2016 2016): 626-660.

Fisher, Linford D. “Why shall wee have peace to bee made slaves”: Indian Surrenderers during and after King Philip’s War.” Ethnohistory 64, no. 1 (January 2017): 91-114.

Fisher, Samuel.  “Fit Instruments in a Howling Wilderness: Colonists, Indians, and the Origins of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly ,73 (October 2016), 647-680.

Foster, H. Thomas. “The identification and significance of Apalachicola for the origins of the creek Indians in the Southeastern United States.” Southeastern Archaeology 36, no. 1 (April 2017): 1-13.

Galler, Robert. “Councils, Petitions and Delegations: Crow Creek Activism and the Progressive Era in Central South Dakota.” Journal Of The Gilded Age & Progressive Era 16, no. 2 (April 2017): 206-227.

Garrod, Andrew and Robert Kilkenny, I am Where I come From: Native American College Students and Graduates Tell Their Life Stories, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017).

Gelo, Daniel J. “Two Episodes in Texas Indian History Reconsidered: Getting the Facts Right about the Lafuente Attack and the Fort Parker Raid.” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 120, no. 4 (April 2017): 441-460.

 Grann, David.  Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, (New York: Doubleday, 2017).

 Harrison, Daniel F. “Change Amid Continuity, Innovation within Tradition: Wampum Diplomacy at the Treaty of Greenville, 1795,” Ethnohistory, 64 (April 2017), 191-215.

Herrmann, Rachel B. “No useless Mouth”: Iroquoian Food Diplomacy in the American Revolution.” Diplomatic History 41, no. 1 (January 2017): 20-49.

Hogeland, William. Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the US Army and the Invasion That Opened the West, (New York: FSG, 2017)

Jacobsen, Kristina M.  The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, and Dine Belonging, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Lambert, Valerie. “The Big Black Box of Indian Country.” American Indian Quarterly 40, no. 4 (Fall2016 2016): 333-363

Lee, Robert. “Accounting for Conquest: The Price of the Louisiana Purchase of Indian Country.” Journal Of American History 103, no. 4 (March 2017): 921-942.

Lenhardt, Corinna. “Free Peltier Now!” The Use of Internet Memes in American Indian Activism.” American Indian Culture & Research Journal 40, no. 3 (July 2016): 67-84.

Lopenzina, Drew.  Through an Indian’s Looking Glass: A Cultural Biography of William Apess, Pequot. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017).

Mays, Kyle T. “Community Self-Determination: American Indian Education in Chicago, 1952-2006.” History Of Education Quarterly 56, no. 4 (November 2016): 669-673.

Mihesuah, Devon A. “Diabetes in Indian Territory: Revisiting Kelly M. West’s Theory of 1940.” American Indian Culture & Research Journal 40, no. 4 (October 2016): 1-21.

Milne, George Edward. “Bondsmen, Servants, and Slaves: Social Hierarchies in the Heart of Seventeenth-Century North America.” Ethnohistory 64, no. 1 (January 2017): 115-139.

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

Precht, Jay. “Asserting Tribal Sovereignty through Compact Negotiations.” American Indian Quarterly 41, no. 1 (Witter2017 2017): 67-92.

Rifkin, Mark.  Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

Rosier, Paul C. “Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750-1860.” History 102, no. 350 (April 2017): 339-340.

Schillaci, Michael A., and Steven A. Lakatos. “Refiguring the Population History of the Tewa Basin.” Kiva 82, no. 4 (December 2016): 364-386.

Sharfstein, Daniel J.  Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War, (New York: Norton, 2017).

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

Starna, William A. “After the Handbook: A Perspective on 40 years of Scholarship Since the Publication of the Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast.” New York History 98, no. 1 (Winter2017 2017): 112-146.

Steere, Benamin.  The Archaeology of Houses and Households in the Native Southeast, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017).

Stern, Jessica Yirush. The Lives of Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Tepper, Leslie Heyman Salish Blankets: Robes of Protection and Transformation, Symbols of Wealth, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

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

Waselkov, Gregory A. and Marvin T. Smith. Forging Southeastern Identities: Social Archaeology, Ethnohistory and Folklore of the Mississippian to Early Historic South, (Tuscaloosa: Univesrsity of Alabama Press, 2017).

Whalen, Kevin. “Indian School, Company Town: Outing Workers from Sherman Institute at Fontana Farms Company, 1907–1930.” Pacific Historical Review 86, no. 2 (May 2017): 290-321.

White, Kevin J., Michael Galban, and Eugene R. H. Tesdahl. “La Salle on Seneca Creation, 1678.” American Indian Culture & Research Journal 40, no. 4 (October 2016): 49-69.

Wilkins, David E. Dismembered: Native Disenrollment and the Battle for Human Rights, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).












Intellectual Courage

I gave the following keynote address to the annual meeting of NYSACAC, the New York state organization for high school and college admissions counselors, which took place at SUNY-Geneseo earlier this month. In some ways, it encapsulates what I tell my students each semester on the first day of class in my Humanities class.


I am delighted to be here, and to join those who have welcomed you here to our beautiful campus.  Geneseo, as a place, shows up in the historical documents long before Rochester existed, long before Monroe or Livingston counties, long before there was much of anything European established in what became the broader upstate region. It lays in the heart of the ancestral homeland of the Senecas, the keepers of the western door of the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois Longhouse.

Seneca soldiers and diplomats who lived in this Genesee valley played a role in the history of two empires, the French and the English, in the Iroquois League and Confederacy, and in the history of the native confederations that threatened the existence of the British Empire in America and then the young United States in the 1790s. They continued to live in this valley, at least some of them, even after Major-General John Sullivan led Continental forces through the Finger Lakes in 1779, burning crops and villages, and scorching the earth, as he went.  They were here in the 1790s and into the 1800s, before they moved to Allegany and Cattaraugus and Grand River in Canada.

Stories from the past.  I could tell you more: about Mary Jemison, the white woman of the Genesee.  She lived for a time as a captive, and adoptee, a refugee, and a Seneca homesteader down the road in what became Letchworth State Park, where you can see a statue of her and a replica cabin.  There are some documents with her mark on them in the county courthouse at the end of Main Street, where she deeded Seneca lands she claimed to white men associated with the Ogden Land Company, among whom numbered one of Geneseo’s founding fathers.  Her Seneca sons, who died violently, two of the three at the hands of their brothers, victims of the alcohol that could cut jagged holes in the fabric of Native American life.  There are New York State historical markers all over this county.  Biased, to be sure, but all telling historical stories about this part of New York State.

For nearly two decades, I have told stories like these to students at this school.  I have taught a lot of students over the years, and told a lot of stories. I am a historian.  That’s what we do.  I am 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 way of saying that I am a guy that makes my living by asking questions.  And I 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.

I imagine that in your line of work you have stories that you can tell, too, stories of young people who have all sorts of challenges in front of them, or who survive trauma and neglect, some who have succeeded wildly and some who have broken your hearts.  I am sure you have stories of kids who are coming to you before they leave home to go to school, or to work, or into the service, or off to some experience—a gap year or a slack year or an adventure–and who want to begin writing their own stories for themselves, and perhaps by themselves, for the very first time.  These are stories, too, of continuity and change, of how things came to be, of being and becoming. Some of these young people are becoming competent and capable. Or they may be developing generosity and compassion, and some of them might be frightened and uncertain, sometimes for reasons that go deep into theirs and their family’s past, layers upon layers of stories you may have to disentangle if you want to understand them, where they are coming from, and where they hope to go. Some of them do not know what their story is going to look like, or how to begin writing it.

Like you, I have seen students who fall into all of these categories, students who, whatever they are feeling, can do so much to make this world—our world—a better place.

I can also imagine, and only imagine, the time constraints that you, and our colleagues who are out there in the classroom, work under in an era of increasing demands and declining resources. My teacher friends do so much, with so little, so often for people outside the building who have little understanding of what a good job actually looks like, who measure success in ways so foreign to the lived experience of you and your students.  And so it is with some trepidation that I propose to you today, if we are truly “dedicated to serving students as they explore options and make choices about pursuing postsecondary education” as Article I, Section 1 of your association’s by-laws read, that there is more that we can and should do for these young people who are so important to all of our futures.

My oldest daughter is one of these young people, She is at this point in her life where she interacts with her counselor a bit in high school, and talks with an occasional admissions representative.  She has entered this period that is so rich with opportunity and potential but also fraught with vulnerability. She is finishing up her junior year in high school. She has visited colleges and will visit some more and has begun to think when her way-too-busy schedule permits about what she might like to do with the rest of her life.  She has received all sorts of advice on what sort of story she might write, and she has received a lot of advice on how to navigate the college admissions process.  She has been plopped down in front of computers to navigate Naviance and see what her next step might look like. Programs to get her thinking about how to begin her story.

And based upon what I have seen as a parent and a professor, it seems to me that there is one area that is so essential to success in a college classroom, and especially at a liberal arts college like this one, that does not get talked about at high school enough: the importance of cultivating and encouraging intellectual fearlessness; to develop in young people the courage not to shy away from those things that seem to them–to all of us—to be extremely difficult. To master basic skills, of course. To be honest, curious, inquisitive, and relentless to be sure, but most of all, in terms of the questions they ask, the evidence they consider, the ideas they engage with, and the theses they advance, to be as fearless as they can be.  Now, on campuses like this, in this country, in this global community, more than ever.

Geneseo, as I have said, is still a liberal arts college. It’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot.  We integrate the liberal arts into the curriculum whatever a student’s major. We here at Geneseo wear that label, a liberal arts college, proudly, and many of us still hope our students will, too.

But that is a difficult—an increasingly difficult—thing for them to do. I imagine that some of the students you advise have heard the jokes about liberal arts and humanities majors.  They have worried parents who fear that their kids will not be able to take care of themselves without a “marketable” degree. Some of your students, before they arrive on campus, will already have been asked, “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 and humanities are thought by some people out there to have limited value because, unlike the STEM fields and business and “the Art of the Deal,” 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 attended a public college, funded by taxpayers—people who work—that they should do something useful to the Commonwealth.   Why should the state subsidize the study of French literature, the governor of that state asked.  What value does it add for Kentuckians?  Even in the SUNY system we have seen a diminishment in the perceived importance of the liberal arts, social sciences, and humanities.

And all of this is too bad, for I would argue that the study of these fields adds a lot, because they give us the cultural capital necessary to participate in a democratic society in a meaningful and constructive way.  But thinking in terms of nuances, complexities, ambiguities, shades of grey; being one of the people who embraces the big questions, pursues the answers over the long haul, who appreciates the value of open debate and discussion, who endeavors to find truth, and digs like a terrier for answers—people like that can find these times we live in rough sledding. People who ask fundamental questions about why things are the way that they are and how they ought to be—they can be perceived as threatening to those in power, which is why we see this assault on institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEH, which fund in a variety of ways arts and humanities projects that explore issues that cut to the marrow of the human condition.

Our students now live in a world that you and I have helped to create for them 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.  They 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.

Let me give you an example. The former talk show host Bill O’Reilly used to have a segment on his shows where he sent a correspondent out to do “on the street” interviews where his goal was to expose the ignorance of the liberals he so often criticized on his show. One time the correspondent ran into a highly knowledgeable young guy, college-aged, who was more than willing to engage in a reasoned and informed debate and before he could get to his second sentence, Boom! “Nerd Alert!” flashed on the screen, as if being knowledgeable about public affairs and the world in which we live is a bad thing, something to make fun of.

Many Americans live in a world where they simply do not invest their time and energy to ask questions, stay informed. When we have a President who lies baldly to the press, and a press that is more concerned with ratings and clicks than in pursuing difficult stories, that is interested in fad and outrage and that has the attention span of a 2-year-old, we arrive at that dire point where the use of “alternative facts” can really be a thing that we can talk about with straight faces.  We, collectively, the mature adults in the room, have modeled some very, very, poor behavior.  We reason sloppily or lazily; we are dishonest, or cynical; we are cowards and grotesquely ill-informed.  For instance:

  • A sitting congressman told an audience that the theory of evolution and the Big Bang were “lies straight out of the pit of hell.”
  • The chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into that august chamber as proof that climate change is a hoax.
  • When only 36% can find North Korea on a map, and that remaining majority is far more likely to favor military action against a nuclear power led by a deranged mad man;
  • And when almost one in three Americans could not identify President Obama’s vice president, who was there for the entire eight years of his presidency,
  • We have come pretty close to bottoming out.

Think about this: Americans, according to a recent survey, are more likely to be able to identify any two members of the Simpson family 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. (I known, you think Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, but maybe not quite as readily of press, religion, speech, petition and assembly).  22% of Americans can name all five members of the Simpson family, while only one in one thousand could name all five first amendment freedoms.

We are complacent in the face of inequality and injustice.  As the searing documentary “The 13th” pointed out, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the people who live their lives behind bars, and we are working hard to increase that percentage, if we are to believe the current United States Attorney General.  But think about that: One out of every four persons who is incarcerated ON EARTH  is imprisoned in the land of the free, and the home of the brave, though that freedom and that bravery is, at times, quite hard to find. People of color are imprisoned at rates far out of proportion to their share of the general population.

OXFAM reported in January of 2017 that 8 men, the wealthiest in the world, own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population.  8 men own as much wealth as the poorest 50%, 3.6 BILLION PEOPLE.  The wealth of these eight men grew by half a trillion dollars over the course of the preceding five years, while the wealth of the poorest 50% fell by 1 trillion. At the height of his fame, Michael Jordan was paid more than all the factory workers in all of Nike’s factories combined.

We have seen gun-craziness, racism, rising antisemitism, fear.  You know it is all there, and you can, I imagine, think of additional examples.  Violence.  White supremacists marching in New Orleans and Charlottesville to protect monuments explicitly commemorating white supremacy. The election of an incurious and juvenile president who has, at various times,

  • insisted that freedom of the press—part of that pesky first amendment—does not allow the press to criticize him;
  • that torture, specifically prohibited by American laws, should be brought back;
  • that we should wall ourselves off from the rest of the world;
  • claimed that women are objects who can be grabbed and groped at his pleasure; and that the norms and values and responsibilities of civil society and basic ethics simply do not apply to his family and favorites.
  • I cannot keep up with it all—every time I thought I was done writing this address, another bit of news…And here is the point:

Rational, reasoned, and just public policy is difficult if not impossible without an informed, engaged, and rationally-thinking public willing to ask tough questions, to engage.

Fear.  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. Peanuts kill more Americans than terrorists, as John Oliver pointed out.  Yet we are told to be fearful.  And many of us do as we are told. 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 heeding the call of the Old Testament prophets to care for the widows and comfort the fatherless, the weakest members of society, and to seek out injustice and correct oppression.

Our students are coming of age in this moment where a lot of really old issues—race and inequality and class and gender and violence and justice, 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.

What are we going to do about all of this?  I don’t know. But maybe if we are to make America great again, or as great as it might be, it might be the young people who you help send to a school like this one, who get a solid grounding in the liberal arts, whatever their 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 these kids, these young men and women, may be among those best suited to do something about it.   So those of us at a school like this, we 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 we have the courage to act, and to use it.

All of us, you and I, we need to do a better job with the young people we advise and teach.

After all, we live in and have helped to create a world where—when we stand up in 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. I see it occasionally on this campus.  Despair. Hopelessness.  Cynicism.  Especially cynicism. I worry that it can beat down the young people with whom we work, if we do not do a better job in equipping them to be intellectually fearless. Again, look at the spectacle of public life that we are in the process of bequeathing to this generation. We might forgive them for an easy slide into a deep cynicism, but we must emphasize that cynicism is an intellectually lazy position, a colossal cop out or a reflection of a feeling of powerlessness.

But these young people do have power.

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.  It is not an easy thing for us, and it is not an easy thing for our students.  It takes courage, and a willingness—a true commitment—to approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised.

It is so easy, and at a level perfectly understandable, to feel like the challenges we all 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 a stronger prescription or whatever.  But what if the students we worked with used their skills and their thoughts and their reason and acted as if they were exactly what was needed? If we all knew we could work to 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? Would we really do it?

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. We were both historians who sort of wanted to be lawyers.  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.  And believe me, I was stressed out. 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. You 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 that lie in front of all of us.

It is this spirit that we must teach and nurture and cultivate.

How do we get there? Not by rubrics and grades and tests.  Not by slapping labels on kids without making clear to them that at the end of the day they will have to decide whether that label will serve as an explanation for their failures or an obstacle, however burdensome and unfair, that they will have to overcome if they are to succeed.

I know that I have a lot to learn still. I learn a lot from my students.  Maybe I do not know much at all.  But I do know this: Students do not become better people, or more courageous citizens, through exams and grading.  Students do not learn from many forms of assessment.  The tests and the grades we assign do nothing to make them better people. And yet we do this still. The non-profit ETS brings in over 1.6 billion dollars a year.

And when grades or test scores are used to as great an extent as they are at present to determine opportunity—to open doors for some students and close doors for others—they can have the effect of reinforcing inequalities and systematic injustices that have stood for far too long.

The grades your colleagues give, and the grades I give, and the subjects that many of us teach, may in fact matter less for the scores and the content that we are mandated to cover than for what we give to our students to help them to learn to think, and reason, and ask tough questions.  Students will remember how we made them feel, if we made them feel, more than any of the subject matter we teach them. I am willing to bet that if you take a minute, and think back to the time you spent in class, in high school or in college, and what you remember from those classes, that you might agree with me.  I hope so.

Maybe we can be the types of teachers who worry less about grades and missed deadlines, who will believe their excuses, and give out more “A’s.” I am walking proof, after all, that there is little relationship between high school and even undergraduate achievement and later academic success.   And nobody—NOBODY—will convince me that a sixteen or a seventeen or an eighteen-year old should have doors shut because they were not inspired or equipped by their overworked and underpaid teacher to complete their assignments, or able to place their rote work and assignments ahead of whatever crisis, great or small, was dominating their life.  Grades and test scores, to too great an extent, measure the dutiful but not the beautiful parts of our students.

Students.  I have used that word a number of times in this talk, but it is important to remember that we are talking here about young people—people like us years ago– with potential and with dreams who are still learning where their talents lie.  And we need those dreamers.  Stargazers.  That’s what Plato called them.

Here’s what a student of mine wrote for her Humanities final just a month ago. Humanities is a course that we used to really value here, and that used to make Geneseo special and unique.  I gave the students an essay by Roger Rosenblatt that appeared last fall in The Atlantic in which he reflected on his long career as a war correspondent, and the seemingly limitless capacity of people for inhumanity and barbarism.  It is powerful, heartbreakingly beautiful essay. The assignment, in the end, asked students to write about human nature, justice, and the problem of evil, as the contemplated this article, and works by Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Augustine, More, the Bible, Shakespeare, and some others I am not remembering.  “The question remains,” this very talented student wrote, “how do we account for all of the hatred, violence, and injustice that we witness? What words do we use to describe it? How can we possibly rationalize it and make sense of it? Where do we find its opposite in the world, and how do we eagerly point at that, so as to say, ‘See, this is also us. This is also me.’

“In a world and a human history overwhelmed by hatred, violence, and injustice, what counters it, I argue, is love, compassion, faith, and the courage to rise above it.”

Maybe we should refuse the rubric, and ignore the scores.  Look for the beautiful.  This rising generation of students is already better than us in important ways—their open-mindedness, their tolerance, their acceptance of difference. I really believe that. Encourage courage. We have a lot of influence.  Or at least we have the potential to be highly influential:  a cruel or an uncaring word from us, for example, even when cast off thoughtlessly or uncritically, or because we are stressed out or too busy, can do so much damage, while a kind word, a single note of encouragement, can do something that these students will remember for the rest of their lives, something that can help them write a beautiful life story.

So let’s do better.  Let’s encourage fearlessness, even where we have failed to demonstrate it ourselves.  I feel that I have the best job in the world. Really. There is nothing else that I can imagine doing because, like you, I get to spend my time talking to young people, many of whom are optimistic, who are neither jaded nor cynical but see the world as one with so much potential. And it is, for those with the courage to act.  How cool is that?

And each and every day, I have the opportunity, if I choose to truly be present, to truly listen, to be awed by their achievements, humbled by the obstacles they have overcome to get to this college, inspired by their creative thinking, pushed by their challenging questions, and amazed by the alacrity with which so many of them seek out injustice, attempt to correct oppression, and in thousands of small ways show the vital courage to make the world—our world—a better place.

I have enjoyed this opportunity to speak to you.  I thank you for listening, for giving me some of your time, and I hope that you enjoy and benefit from your time here at Geneseo, at this conference, and at this beautiful campus.


Remembering the Boarding and Residential Schools–Gord Downie’s “The Secret Path”

One of my very good former students told me about “The Secret Path,” a multimedia project produced by Gord Downie, the lead singer of the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip in the fall of 2016.  An animated film, a musical album, a graphic novel, The Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack.  Twelve years old when he fled from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, Chanie wanted to return to his family at Ogoki Post, four hundred miles away.  He did not know how long a journey he had, and he never made it home. He died from exposure, exhaustion, and hunger along the tracks that he thought would lead him to his family in October of 1966.  Just a kid.

The Secret Path is a simple but searing portrait of the experience of children in Canada’s residential schools.  From the late nineteenth century into the 1980s (Cecilia Jeffrey closed in 1974), Downie wrote,

“All of those Governments, and all of those Churches, for all of those years, misused themselves. They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities. It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over. Things up north have never been harder. Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are. “

Children at Cecilia Jeffrey were subjected to medical “experimentation and treatment of ear disease” in the 1950s,  government documents later revealed.  Children suffered, emotionally and physically.   Their families did, too, and a lot of people knew about it.  If you are interested in this history, or the parallel history of boarding schools in the United States, you should watch the film, listen to Downie’s music, and learn from the panel discussion treating the painful legacy of these institutions, filled with children taken by law from their parents aboard “Trains of Tears” which transported them hundreds of miles from their homes.  Between 20,000 and 50,000 children were sent to residential schools in Canada.  As in other parts of the history of native peoples, the numbers can stagger, become too abstract. What Downie does so well is force us to look at the entire broken and horrible process from the perspective of one child.

There is a large literature on the history of American Indian boarding schools. The bibliography will guide you to some of the books I like. The best treatment of the famous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania remains the unpublished dissertation written by Genevieve Bell, “Telling Stories out of School: Remembering the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1879-1918,” (Ph.D diss., Stanford University, 1998).  You will likely have to get it through your college library’s interlibrary loan.

Bell showed that we have not told the story of the American boarding schools as effectively as we might, that the important insights from this vast scholarship have not trickled down to high school and college American history textbooks.  For one thing, we have allowed Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of Carlisle, to shape too much of the narrative.  Pratt liked to boast that he would “kill the Indian and save the man.” He liked to produce before-and-after pictures, showing “savage” children from the western wilds and the same children, cleaned up and with their hair cut, in the military uniforms worn by Carlisle students.  Pratt wanted his supporters to believe that he was “civilizing”

Sylvester Long’s Report Card, before he became Buffalo Child Long Lance

wild Indians.

The reality was more complex, a point Bell makes convincingly. The most numerous children at Carlisle came from native communities in the east–Oneidas, for instance, or eastern Cherokee.  These children  spoke English and already were familiar with agricultural work on a white American model.  Many of them already were Christian.  They studied Latin and Trigonometry. Many of them wrote English beautifully.

But the institutions still were cruel.  Institutions in general where “the other” was corrected, improved, educated, reformed, rehabilitated, or detained, were routinely brutal.  Children died at these schools, far from home, some without knowing how much their parents and siblings missed them, without knowing how much they were loved.

I took this picture on a very rainy day nearly a decade ago in the graveyard that still stands on the site of the former Carlisle Indian School.  I was inspired to visit the site one day while I was in the area after reading Calvin Luther Martin’s The Way of the Human Being, which I mentioned in my previous post.  In that book’s closing pages, Martin and his wife visited the graveyard at Carlisle.  Having left his teaching job at Rutgers, and having spent some time teaching the real people in Alaska, Martin looked at the columns and rows of tombstones as if they were the seats in a classroom.  He presented to them, in a sense, his last lecture.

“I took my position at the front of the class and looked around, professor for the last time. Before me, attentive students in silent formation. The last class at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.  They died before becoming blacksmiths and carpenters, shoemakers and tinsmiths, tailors, printers, harnessmakers, plumbers, bricklayers, or laundresses, cooks, and seamstresses. But they were already real people, I thought, as I fought back my anger–people who understood the way of the human being in this place. I was a man, a historian, standing before a cemetery created by blundering good will.

I paused and reconsidered. I had to leave them with something more satisfying than my bitterness. . . I apologized to these kids. I apologized not as an angry historian but simply as a sorrowful human being. What else can one possibly be, standing in a graveyard? I called some by name as I did so. I told them we were traveling west, and I invited any lingering spirits to come along. All I heard were the cars, though sometimes, more powerfully, the wind.”

The United States, several years ago, apologized for its historic treatment of native peoples.  You probably missed it. The apology received little attention.  Largely the work of then-Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, the resolution included the formal “Whereas” statements that appear so often in Senate documents: Indians had been treated badly, they had been dispossessed, and, “Whereas the United States government condemned the traditions, beliefs, and customs of Native Peoples, and endeavored to assimilate them by such policies as the redistribution of land under the General Allotment Act of 1887, and the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools where their Native practices and languages were degraded and forbidden,” the United States apologized “to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.”  Nonetheless, “nothing in this joint resolution,” the Senators agreed, “authorizes or supports any claim against the United States.”

It was an empty, cynical, and shallow gesture.  We do not talk about the boarding schools, and other painful parts of our history, frankly enough.  We do not learn from this history.  The government boarding schools are gone, but there are still a few run by church and other organizations, like St. Labre in Montana.  Their approach is different than those used in an earlier period but, still, it is important to remember how recent this history is. The Thomas Indian School on the Cattaraugus reservation in western New York remained open into the 1950s.  It is not unusual to speak of and, in New York State, to meet boarding school “survivors.”

Canada is doing more than the United States to talk about its troubled past.  Still, problems remain. Just a couple of days ago, APTN ran a story with the headline “Ontario Government Has No Idea How Many First Nations Kids it Puts in Group Homes.”  Three teenage girls had died in these schools in less than six months, one in a fire, two by suicide.  If American officials and Canadian officials would have had their way in the not-so-distant past, nobody would be discussing the fate of Indian children, for the schools would have succeeded in assimilating native children into the Canadian or American mainstream.  According to Ry Moran, the director of the Canadian National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, these schools “tried to end indigenous peoples.  They tried to end cultures.”  Speaking at a panel discussion available on The Secret Path website, Moran noted that “the railways were used in this country to establish Canada, but they also were used to transport kids,” many thousands of them, who were forcibly taken from their families.  It’s a story, Moran argues, that still too few Canadians know.  (The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is creating an archive, an amazing but troubling archive of arrogance, cultural imperialism, and ethnocentrism: You can check it out right here).

Americans, too, do not know these stories well enough.  Colonialism.  It is a force.  It produces comforting myths that blind Americans to the truth.  “It could not have been as bad as we might have heard.” I have heard that from audiences where I have spoken.  We do not like to confront the legacy of our past cruelties.  More powerful work like that produced by Downie may force more of us to do so.

On The Way of the Human Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Long time ago

in the beginning

there were no white people in the world

there was nothing European.

And this world might have gone on like that

except for one thing:


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

grow away from the earth.

Then they grow away from the sun

then they grow away from the plants and animals.

They see no life.

When they look

they see only objects.

The world is a dead things for them,

the trees and rivers are not alive.

The deer and bear are objects

They see no life.

They fear

They fear the world

They destroy what they fear

The fear themselves.

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

will kill the things they fear

all the animals

the people will starve…

They will fear what they find

They will fear the people

They will kill what they fear

Entire villages will be wiped out

They will slaughter whole tribes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone!

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

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

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

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

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

“Hannibal Hamlin,” my colleague said.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What You Need to Read

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Say 1622! You Say…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thinking of Gnadenhutten, 8 March 1782

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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