Category Archives: Native Americans

Blue Lake

Fifty years ago today President Richard M. Nixon returned the sacred Blue Lake to the people of Taos Pueblo. It was a significant act by a deeply flawed and criminal president that represented significant change in the conduct of the nation’s Indian policy.

Nixon joined a growing list of American leaders who opposed the post-World War II set of Indian policies known as “termination.”

Termination consisted of several parts, all directed towards ending the formal relationship between the United States and Indigenous nations. Immediately after the war, Congress established the Indian Claims Commission, a tribunal before which native peoples could bring their claims against the United States. With damages paid and remaining obligations quieted, the United State could say, “we are done. We have paid you. Get lost.” There was the relocation program, designed to encourage native peoples to leave their reservation homes for America’s urban centers where, presumably, they would assimilate into the American working class. And finally the Termination Acts themselves: specific pieces of legislation that formally terminated the relationship between a specific Native American tribe or group of tribes and the United States. The United States would interact with Indians thereafter as individuals, not members of Indigenous Nations. As the policy’s strongest proponent, Senator Arthur Watkins, wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “Firm and constant consideration for those of Indian ancestry should lead us all to work diligently and carefully for the full realization of their national citizenship with all other Americans.” The abolition and erasure of Native American nationhood Watkins likened to the Emancipation Proclamation, a perverse misreading of reality.

Most historians would consider as part of termination the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Project. Dams built on the Missouri and its tributaries harnessed the hydroelectric power of the American West, but flooded millions of acres of Native American land.

Echoes of Oak Flat: 4 Pick Sloan Dams That Submerged Native Lands
George Gillette of the Fort Berthold Indian Tribal Council reacts to to the deal flooding tribal lands

Ensuring that the American economy had the juice it needed to keep humming along at a high enough rate to ensure full employment and avoid a slide back into depression came at Indians’ expense. And the Indian Adoption Project, a horrifying initiative described by the historian Margaret Jacobs, encouraged the adoption of Native American children by white families.

Native peoples opposed termination. That opposition, described in Native America, led President Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton to declare in 1958 that “no Indian tribe or group should end its relationship with the Federal Government unless such tribe or group has clearly demonstrated–first, that it understands the plan under which such a program would go forward; and second, that the tribe or group affected concurs in and supports the plan proposed.”

That slowed termination, but did not stop it. The policies remained on the books. Then, in March of 1968, President Lyndon Baines Johnson proposed “a new goal for our Indian programs . . . that ends the old debate about ‘termination’ . . . and stresses ‘self-determination; a goal that erases old attitudes of paternalism and promotes partnership self-help.”

Johnson became the lamest of lame ducks three weeks later when he announced he would not seek reelection. The turmoil of 1968, and the disaster of the Vietnam War, kept Johnson from acting to effect his goals. Richard Nixon, who won the election in 1968, largely followed in Johnson’s footsteps. He appointed the Mohawk Louis Bruce to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that office since the Tonawanda Seneca Ely Parker had one so briefly a century before.

In May of 1970, Nixon delivered a special message to Congress on Indian Affairs. “The first Americans,” he said, “are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our Nation.” This was the

heritage of centuries of injustice. from the time of their first contact with European settlers, the American Indians have been oppressed and brutalized, deprived of their ancestral lands and denied the opportunity to control their own destiny.

He continued:

But the story of the Indian in America is something more than the record of the white man’s frequent aggression, broken agreements, intermittent remorse and prolonged failure. It is a record also of endurance, of survival, of adaptation and creativity in the face of overwhelming obstacles. It is a record of enormous contributions to this country–to its art and culture, to its strength and spirit, to its sense of history and its sense of purpose.

The policy of termination was wrong, Nixon said. The government had treaty obligations it could not ignore. “Our government,” he continued, “has made significant commitments to the Indian people.” Native peoples, “for their part…have often surrendered claims to vast tracts of land and have accepted life on government reservations.”

Anyone who has studied Nixon in any detail notices the complexity of his character. It is unlikely that he embarked upon this significant policy shift out of the goodness of his heart. He faced a growing “Red Power” movement. Native peoples occupied Alcatraz Island, in one of the most dramatic protests of the era, while Nixon delivered his message to Congress. While his FBI investigated, infiltrated, and disrupted groups like American Indian Movement, resulting in death and ruined lives, the pressure did force him to move to accept that degree of self-determination that would “create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”

Taos Pueblo, Airport Agreement | Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

By the time Nixon made this statement, the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo had moved to the top of his agenda for American Indian affairs. A sacred site and the center of Taos religious life, Blue Lake became part of the Carson National Forest in 1906. The Forest Service opened the area to the American public soon after but also to timber interests. As early as 1350 AD, Pueblos from Taos had farmed lands watered by rivers flowing from Blue Lake. They depended upon Blue Lake, and did not feel that this precious resource could be shared. Taos Pueblo brought a suit before the Indian Claims Commission. New Mexico’s congressional delegation and representatives of the United States Forest Service challenged Taos Pueblo every step of the way.

            In September of 1965 the Indian Claims Commission found that the United States had taken Blue Lake and the surrounding lands without just compensation. The Commissioners ordered that researchers determine the value of the lands Taos Pueblo had lost. The ruling pleased the Pueblos, but they did not want monetary damages. They sought the return of the land. Editorials appeared in newspapers around the United States supporting Taos Pueblo, and New Mexico Senator Clinton Anderson reluctantly introduced legislation in 1966 to arrange for the return of Blue Lake.

Taos Pueblo to honor Nixon for return of sacred lands | |

          Other native nations sought the return of their lands. Some won their cases before the Indian Claims Commission and, like Taos Pueblo,  refused to accept the monetary award because they wanted the land. Acceptance of the award would, under the law establishing the Indian Claims Commission, have quieted all their claims. Unlike other native peoples who continue to see their sacred sites destroyed and despoiled however, Taos Pueblo succeeded. The Taos and their numerous supporters argued on religious and moral grounds; the significance of the lands they had lost lay in their religious and spiritual importance. Their leaders pursued a vigorous campaign to inform the public about the importance of Blue Lake in their religious life and made their struggle a symbol of the historic mistreatment of native peoples.

In this sense, President Nixon was only too happy to sign the legislation returning Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo when it finally reached his desk late in 1970. It cost him nothing to do so. The president said at the signing ceremony that “this is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done in which land involved in this bill, 48,000 acres, was taken from the Indians involved.” Nixon argued that by signing the legislation, his administration had broken with a troubling past. The United States, he said, had embarked “in a new direction in which we will have the cooperation of both Democrats and Republicans, one in which there will be more of an attitude of cooperation than paternalism, one of self-determination rather than termination, one of mutual respect.” The bill returned Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, a significant act by the man who presided over a government that had done so much historically to dispossess native peoples.

I ask my students to read Nixon’s statement on Blue Lake. Look at the words on the page. They know that Nixon was a bad president, and they know that he was forced to resign in disgrace, facing certain impeachment and conviction if he remained in office. But look at the words, I tell them. We get to Nixon at the end of the semester, sometimes close to the anniversary of the signing ceremony. Have you, I ask them, over the course of this long semester, seen another American president say anything like this? Nixon’s presidency, in this respect, represented a significant break from the past.

Between 1970 and 1980 the percentage of Native American Bureau of Indian Affairs employees increased from 53% to 78% of the agency’s work force. The Supreme Court, in the 1974 Morton v. Mancari decision, upheld the constitutionality of the preferential hiring of native peoples in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Nixon, meanwhile, signed legislation establishing an Office of Indian Education, job training programs for native peoples, and rules that guaranteed “freedom of religion and culture” for Native American students in schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Indian Financing Act of 1974 provided “capital on a reimbursable basis to help develop and utilize Indian resources” so that native peoples “will enjoy a standard of living from their own productive efforts comparable to that enjoyed by non-Indians in neighboring communities.” Presidents Ford and Carter signed legislation that followed in this vein, making the decade that followed the return of Blue Lake a significant period in the history of American Indian policy.

I was a kid during Watergate. I vaguely remember my folks watching some of the hearings during one of our family vacations, I think. Despising Nixon is something that comes easily and naturally to people who grew up like me. But sometimes badly flawed politicians do good things. Sometimes they do those good things for cynical or opportunistic reasons. Sometimes a jacked-up legislative body will enact laws that improve the quality of life or deliver justice to a community that has suffered injustice for far too long. So often, as a historian, cynicism is warranted. Maybe we shouldn’t let that keep us from seeing changes, however small, that are for the good. While the current administration blasts, drills, digs, auctions off, and despoils sites sacred to Indigenous peoples, even in its final days, Nixon deserves some credit for breaking with the men who led his party a decade before his election, and turning his back on policies aimed at the complete destruction and erasure of Indigenous peoples.

The Supremes May Blast Tribal Sovereignty in the New Year

In 1978 the United States Supreme Court held that Native American tribes possessed no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians for offenses committed on their reservations. But what about when the law enforcement officer cannot determine the ethnicity of the suspect? And what happens when that officer catches a non-Indian suspect red-handed committing a crime? These questions lie at the heart of a case the Court will take up sometime in the new year. I am worried because the Supremes, armed now with a conservative super-majority, may aim another blow at the sovereignty of Indigenous nations.

Early in 2016, tribal police officer James Saylor pulled up behind a pick-up truck parked along the side of a road on the Crow Reservation in Montana. It was 1:00AM, and Saylor stopped to see if anyone in the vehicle needed assistance. Inside the truck Saylor found Joshua James Cooley and his small child. Saylor could see that Cooley’s eyes were bloodshot and watery. He could see two weapons in the truck’s front seat. Saylor concluded that Cooley was non-Indian on the basis of his appearance but also that he could not be allowed to drive in his current condition. Saylor took Cooley into custody, placed him and his child in the backseat of his patrol car, and called in for the county sheriff to take the non-Indian suspect into custody. When Saylor went back to the truck to retrieve the keys, he saw in plain sight clear evidence of methamphetamine use and possession.

Cooley was indicted on federal drug charges, but the criminal court threw out all the evidence acquired through Officer Saylor’s search of the vehicle. The district court and the Ninth Circuit agreed that all evidence obtained by Officer Saylor when he entered the vehicle to get the keys was an illegal search and seizure and violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Now the case is on its way to the Supreme Court, where Cooley’s attorney has argued that “the authority of a tribal officer on a state highway that passed through a reservation is limited.” A tribal officer may “initiate a traffic stop, but when doing so,” his authority is limited “to determining whether the violator is native or non-native. If the violator is native, the officer may proceed with his investigation. If the violator is non-native, the tribal officer’s authority is limited to detaining the violator for delivery to state or federal authorities.”

In Cooley’s case, his attorney continued, “at issue is not whether a traffic stop based upon the observation of a traffic violation was valid, but rather whether a tribal officer has the authority to seize and investigate a non-Indian driver long after the reason the officer first made contact with the driver had dissipated.” Cooley was no threat, his attorney argued, had answered Saylor’s questions honestly, and the officer had no lawful authority to search his vehicle.

Think about this. You are a Native American police officer, patrolling your reservation in the middle of the night. You see a vehicle pulled off to the side. Though the driver is cooperative, and opens the window, you see cause for alarm. He seems impaired, to begin with, and then there are the guns. And the one-year-old child. It is not hard to imagine that Saylor felt it necessary to investigate further.

Yet every court has agreed thus far with Cooley. United States v. Cooley will provide new justice Amy Coney Barrett her first chance to rule on a Native American case.

The United States argued in its petition for a writ of certiorari that the Ninth Circuit decision to throw out all the evidence obtained by Saylor is an “unprecedented, unwarranted, and unworkable curtailment of the sovereignty of Indian tribes,” that “precludes tribal officers from routine law-enforcement activities necessary to protect both the public and the public at large from dangerous and criminal activity within the boundaries of the tribe’s reservation.”

What do you think? Do you agree with the US Solicitor General, or with Mr. Cooley? Both sides agree that Indian tribes have no criminal jurisdiction over non-natives, but is it possible to distinguish the ability to arrest and prosecute from the need to uphold public safety on already under-policed Indian reservations? The Court’s precedents show clearly that tribal law enforcement possesses the authority to detain suspects and hand them over to state or federal authorities, which Officer Saylor did. But what about the evidence uncovered in the interim before those state or federal authorities arrive? The exercise of police authority in this case, the United States argued, “does not subject non-Indians to tribal laws and regulations,” but, rather, “it simply facilitates the exercise of sovereign authority by state and federal governments which plainly do enjoy jurisdiction over non-Indians.” The evidence Officer Saylor uncovered helped United States authorities enforce the laws of the United States.

The United States argues that it is dangerous to permit a tribal officer “to ask only one question to determine whether a suspect is an Indian” and then require that officer to accept that answer. This would allow “serious criminals to escape law-enforcement through the expediency of a simple lie that officers will be powerless to expose through follow-up questioning or investigation.”

So there is a lot at stake in this case, much more than the fate of a suspected drug dealer who pulled his truck over along the side of a road late one night on the Crow Reservation. Think of the recent Violence Against Women Act, which gave to Native nations a limited right to arrest and prosecute non-natives for intimate partner violence committed in “Indian Country.” In an amicus brief written by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and joined in by all the Indian Nations whose lands lie in the Ninth Circuit, Sarah Deer pointed out under VAWA, “many tribes across the United States now detain, arrest, investigate, and prosecute anyone who committed certain domestic violence crimes arising in Indian Country–regardless of whether the perpetrator is Indian or not.” The Circuit Court’s ruling, if allowed to stand, “will merely encourage criminals to lie about their identity, as a simple statement that an individual is non-Indian, regardless of whether it is the truth, will now strip law enforcement of any authority to detain them for suspected illegal conduct.”

If, for example, a “Pascua Yaqui law officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver of a vehicle on the reservation is committing a crime of domestic violence, must the officer ascertain the citizenship of the suspect before effectuating a . . . stop, despite the fact that Congress has passed a law restoring that officer’s full authority to arrest non-Indians who commit domestic violence crimes on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation?”

Native American women face the highest rates of violence in the country, and the majority of those committing these crimes are non-Indian. Across the United States, many non-Indians live and own lands on Indian Reservations. With almost half of all Native American women experiencing intimate partner violence, and with Native American women more than two and a half times more likely than non-Native women to be victims of rape or sexual assault, the stakes in this case are enormous.

Earlier this year the Court issued what I considered a surprising decision in the McGirt case. McGirt involved treaty rights at congressional “plenary authority” over Indian affairs. Land which the State of Oklahoma thought was under its criminal jurisdiction was still legally “Indian Country” because no federal act had changed the status of the land. Cooley touches on what happens when white people living on or passing through Indian Country commit crimes. Originally, Indian tribes were thought to be able to do whatever they wanted, unless they were specifically prohibited from doing so by a treaty or an act of congress. In 1978, the Court modified that, ruling that tribes could do whatever they wanted, unless prohibited by treaty or act of congress, or if the practice in question was somehow inconsistent with their status as domestic dependent nations, like prosecuting non-Indians for crimes committed on reservations. The Supreme Court’s history toward Indian tribes can be understood in terms of the significant erosion of tribes’ ability to exercise sovereign authority. And these rulings, in terms of crimes uninvestigated, unprosecuted, and unpunished, have literally ruined the lives of too many Native peoples. The Cooley case could make it even more difficult for tribes to protect themselves from criminals who pass through their lands. I have no idea how the Court will rule, but I worry very much about its consequences.

An Amoral World

Shortly after the end of the First World War, a conflict which no historian has yet to show was fought for causes that would have justified the loss of a single human life, the great Dakota reformer, writer, and intellectual Charles Eastman hoped that the post-war world would better recognize the rights of the world’s “little peoples,” including Native Americans, “to plead for a better observance of their individuality and rights by the more powerful and ruling nations.” Eastman hoped that in the postwar world the imperial powers might admit “that every race, however untutored, has its ideals, its standards of right and wrong, which are sometimes nearer the Christ principle than the common standards of civilization.”

Eastman is a fascinating thinker. I wish I had more time each semester to expose my students to more of his work. As the newly appointed doctor at Pine Ridge nearly two decades before, he was one of the first people on the scene in the aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee. The experience affected Eastman deeply. He saw the mangled bodies, and did what he could for the small number who had miraculously survived the federal artillery and gunfire. When he reached the site of Big Foot’s camp, he “saw the frozen bodies of men who had been in council and who were almost as helpless as the women and babes when the deadly fire began.” Eastman struggled to keep his composure. All about him he heard the “excitement and grief of my Indian companions, nearly every one of whom was crying aloud or singing his death song.” He found a few survivors, all babies. All were adopted by white people. “All this was a severe ordeal for one who had so lately put all his faith in the Christian love and lofty ideals of the white man,” he concluded, “yet I passed no hasty judgment, and I was thankful that I might be of some service and relieve even a small part of the suffering.”

            A Santee Sioux, Eastman was born in 1858. His father had participated in the uprising in Minnesota and fled after the Santees’ defeat in 1862. Federal troops captured Eastman’s father and imprisoned him at Fort Snelling. Nobody told the boy. Eastman believed that his father had been among those hanged in the aftermath of the uprising. All these are stories that I tell in Native America.

            With his grandmother, Eastman joined those who fled from Minnesota out onto the Dakota prairies and from there to southwestern Manitoba. There Eastman lived what he described as a beautiful life. But then his father appeared, a decade after his capture. The father had converted to Christianity during his captivity, taken up farming near Flandreau, South Dakota, and had come to believe firmly in the value of an American-styled education. He determined to prepare his son to live in a nation dominated by white people. He sent the boy to the Santee Normal School, a boarding institution that taught crafts and trades but also instructed its mostly Sioux students to read and write in their own language. From Santee, Eastman moved on to Knox College, Dartmouth, and, finally, the medical school at Boston University.

            Eastman represented a new generation of well-educated native people, familiar fully with both their own culture and the norms and values of white society. Born after the reservation period had begun, they had lived their entire lives with at least some awareness of federal efforts to dismantle their culture and their traditional ways of living. They wrote and spoke English, and emphasized that native peoples had much to contribute to the United States. They hoped to establish a place for native peoples in modern American society. They saw themselves both as Americans and as representatives of an assertive Indian “race.”

After the war, he wrote in the pages of the American Indian Magazine his hopes for the future.

The world is tired, sick , and exhausted by a war which has brought home to us the realization that our boasted progress is after all mainly industrial and commercial–a powerful force, to be sure, but being so unspiritual, not likely to be lasting or stable. On the other hand, being so powerful it might have been expected to be destructive and therefore cruel. The intellectual development connected with it has been largely heartless and soulless. The education of the child has subordinated his higher instincts to the necessities of business. Christ has been preached in vain, since his most unmistakable and unequivocal declarations are directly opposed to our excess of materiel development, social injustice and the accumulation of wealth.

Eastman lived until January of 1939, just as the world was preparing to tear itself into pieces once again in an effort to defeat the horrid racist violence of Hitler’s odious regime. There is a sadness and a disappointment that runs through his writings that is sometimes difficult for me to shake.

Covid-19 and Writing History: The Stories We Tell

What stories will we tell about this pandemic spring, and how will this time of dislocation, isolation and, in places, overwhelming grief, shape the stories we historians tell about those pasts we choose to investigate? The answers to these questions are always more connected than we care to admit.

There are of course the daily stories of the blundering incompetence of our most craven President, who fiddled while the virus burned up much of what seemed familiar and comfortable.  There are his brazen lies, his attempts to rewrite the past and erase his many denials of the magnitude of the health threat we all face, and his failure to deliver even a fraction of the testing kits he asserted would be ready by now.  Beside the stories of this president’s cowardice and malfeasance, there are the stories of heroic health care workers, doing battle against the virus often without the equipment that might allow them to do their work with less risk.  Of course there are the stories of those who have suffered and died, and those who grieve these deaths. There are many more of these stories yet to be written, I am afraid.  Anyone with the eyes to see knows this to be true. These stories can overwhelm if we let them.

            At home, I attempt to steal away moments here and there to work on the book project that has kept me busy for many years now.  It may be my last book.  Sometimes I feel that way when I consider the scope and scale of the project. The project gets bigger while my world, in a sense, becomes smaller. I work from home. I no longer encounter my students face-to-face, bump into colleagues, or visit libraries and archives. I keep my distance from others to keep myself safe. The world seems limited and constrained.

            When I attempt to look at this project in all its breadth, I find myself distracted, restless and anxious. Working on a project this broad requires me to think of the future, to make plans and set goals. I feel strange doing that now. It is only when I step back and slow down, and when I take a look at the small stories, that I am able to focus and devote some energy to my research.  I look at the smallest pieces of the puzzle, the most interesting pebbles on a beach of enormous expanse.

In January of 1907, Harrison Hill, a teenager from Onondaga shot and killed his brother-in-law Elijah Peters on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, located about halfway between Rochester and Buffalo in western New York.  Hill had attended the Thomas Indian School on the Senecas’ Cattaraugus reservation beginning when he was eight years old.  I have not been able to reconstruct all his movements. He left Thomas after four years.  A half decade later he got himself into some kind of trouble, and ended up at the state industrial school in Rochester.  The school’s records are housed at the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester, but the archives are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.  All I know for sure is that once he got free or escaped or finished his term, he made his way to Tonawanda to live with his sister and her husband.  His mother joined him there shortly thereafter. 

            It is not clear to me exactly what happened next. I am certain that after some sort of confrontation that involved Hill asking Peters for money, Peters asked Hill to leave his house.  Some time later, Hill shot Peters as he exited the house, delivering to his brother-in-law the fatal wound.

            In every account Hill is described as educated and stunningly good looking. But sullen, and angry, as well.  After the shooting, he ran for it. Neither his sister nor his mother claimed to know where he had gone, but the police never believed them. They thought that he could be hiding in Syracuse, or on the Onondaga Nation territory, where he still had relatives. The police offered a reward for his capture, and two days later a sheriff captured him near the farm of a guy named Byron Gardner in Wyoming County.  According to the report in the Buffalo Courier, Hill “was walking in the road when he met the officer, armed with a loaded revolver from which two cartridges had been fired, and the sheriff believes that had the prisoner known him he would have had difficulty capturing him.”  Hill did not know that Peters had died.  The Courier reporter wrote that

 Hill is nineteen years of age, bright and intelligent looking, neat in appearance and speaks good English. He at one time attended the Carlisle Indian School and wore several pins on his coat, one of which was a fraternity pin from Carlisle. On arriving at the jail, he made a complete confession of the crime.

There is no evidence that Hill ever attended Carlisle.  It is hard to say where he got these pins, but undoubtedly he had family members who had spent time in Pennsylvania.  The description of Hill’s confession paints a vibrant, if incomplete picture, of a young man who found himself in a great deal of trouble:

He says that on the morning of the day of the shooting Peters turned him out of the house and he has a very quick temper it made him very mad and he determined to get revenge by shooting him.  He says he went to Peters’ house in the evening and concealed himself behind a clump of bushes near the rear of the house and that when he saw Peters coming from the barn he took aim and fired the bullet.  He says he fired but once and then ran, and after going to his room at Johnson’s and getting a package he walked that night to Oakfield and Batavia, and then to LeRoy and south to Pavilion.  He says that Tuesday and Wednesday nights he slept in barns and finally reached Gardner’s farm where he found a job cutting wood.  He stayed at Gardner’s Thursday night.  When asked if he was sorry for what he had done he said he was not; that he did not care much. He takes his arrest cooly and does not appear to be at all concerned over his fate.”

Many Onondagas attended boarding school.  Some went to Thomas, the state-run institution that remained open into the 1950s. Others went to the infamous Carlisle School in Pennsylvania.  A small number went to schools elsewhere—Lincoln, in Philadelphia, or the Haskell Institute in Kansas, and some others that I cannot think of. Some of them struggled when they came home. Some put their skills to use and did well for themselves.  For many, attending Carlisle was a badge of honor—even Harrison Hill who never went there wore Carlisle pins on his jacket. 

            I do not know how Simeon George felt about his time at the boarding school  He arrived at Carlisle in 1893. His student record is sparse, little more than a couple of information cards.  He attended sporadically, going home at his parents’ request between each May and October. After May of 1896, he never returned to the school. As a 22-year old, he was too old to attend the school any longer.

            I have not been able to find out much about George and his life at Onondaga.  He doesn’t show up in the newspapers. I cannot travel to the Nation territory to talk to people there about him until the pandemic subsides.

            What I do know for sure that is on April 21 1907, while Harrison Hill sat in jail awaiting trial on charges of murder, George was in his home on the reservation, eating supper. A knock at the door. George answered It was a sheriff’s deputy from Madison County, Michael Mooney.

            Deputy Mooney told George to finish his supper, but to come outside when he was done. Mooney told him he would wait.  George finished his meal quickly, and grabbed his coat.  He placed a loaded revolver in his pocket. When the deputy put his hand on George’s shoulder, he pulled out the gun and fired, wounding Mooney in the shoulder. As Mooney fell, George fired again, hitting him in the back.

            George ran into the house, leaving Deputy Mooney for dead.  He told his nineteen-year-old wife Lydia Billings, who he had married ten months before, that he was going to kill himself.  He ran from the house and headed toward an expanse of woods to the south.  “It was believed at the reservation yesterday that George had carried out his threat,” the Syracuse Post Standard reported.  That is what Lydia believed. She told police that one of George’s brothers had committed suicide four years earlier.

            But where was his body?  Police searched the woods for a couple of days.  People from the community, I imagine, must have helped out. They found nothing. By the 26th, police began to suspect that George was alive, that his announcement of his intent to kill himself was an attempt to throw the police off his tail.  Keep them busy, looking for his body, while he fled from the reservation.  A mail carrier in East Hamilton, about 45 miles east of the reservation, reported seeing an Indian who matched George’s description going door-to-door begging for whatever the residents might spare.

            The mail carrier, it turned out, had spotted someone who was neither George nor an Indian.  On the 29th, as Detective Mooney slowly recovered from his wounds, officers found George’s body, a bullet wound in his head, his revolver by his side.  They found him in the wounds a short distance from his house where he said he would go.

            Whatever his own demons, whatever he had done, Simeon George was loved.  His funeral took place at the reservation Wesleyan Methodist Church.  200 people attended, “the little church crowded to the doors.”  The entire twenty-one members of the Onondaga Indian band performed in his honor.  They performed a dirge entitled “Forest Home,” composed in 1898, and another piece called “Religioso.”  His life, about which it is so difficult to learn much at all, mattered immensely to those people at Onondaga who knew him.

Harrison Hill’s trial began three weeks after George’s funeral at the United States District Court. His attorney argued that Hill shot Peters in self-defense and never intended to hurt him.  Hill had gone to Peters’ house to ask for some money to help his brother, Moses Hill, who was incarcerated in the Onondaga County Jail on charges of grand larceny. Peters went after Hill, who fired the gun in an effort to frighten him. Hill took the stand in his own defense, and was “subjected to a sharp cross-examination on the part of the people, but in the main struck to the story given in his direct examination.” 

            The judge overseeing the trial, in his instructions to the jury, told them that Hill was entitled to a fair and impartial trial, “but that you must not be influenced by sympathy for his youth and must not consider it in your deliberations. There should be no prejudice against his race or color,” the judge said, “and nothing about his manner of testifying should influence you. You know,” he continued, “the nature of the Indian is stoical and any hesitations in answering questions should not militate against him.”

            I have not had a chance to try to find the trial record. The jury believed Hill. He was acquitted on all charges. I do not know what happened to him after that.  But I did find this story in the Rochester  Democrat and Chronicle seventeen months later: 

Robert Hill, 20 years old, an Onondaga Indian, was brought to jail last night by Railroad Detective Elliott. Hill was arrested on Thursday morning by Constable Charles Platt, of Gates, who arraigned him before Justice of the Peace Leddy on charges of burglary and larceny.  Hill was caught after he had broken into a freight car in the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburg yards in Lincoln Park.  …..Hill is a bad Indian.  Despite his years he has seen a good deal of the country. Some nine months ago he shot and killed his brother and law in an Indian settlement near Batavia. He was tried, but was acquitted. Next he was accused of having stabbed a brakeman in Salamanca.  He got away, and at Wyoming took off his coat and flagged a train. He rode into Rochester where he was arrested by Detective Spillings and railroad Detective Elliott. He wasn’t held long, as it was impossible to prove that he had done the stabbing.  Thursday morning Constable Platt found the red man industriously breaking open packages in a freight car in the Lincoln Park yards. When he started to place the Indian under arrest the latter drew a revolver. Platt didn’t wait for him to use it, but laid his flat on the Indian’s nose. The blow was so straight and so effective that Hill surrendered without further ceremony.  Director Whaley caused Hill to be photographed yesterday. He thinks the Indian is wanted in some Western state.

The details do not match up completely, but you have to admit that there are some similarities between the story of Robert Hill, a 20-year old from Onondaga arrested in October of 1908, and Harrison Hill, a 19-year old arrested in 1907.  It is a question I have not been able to investigate. Lydia Billings, Simeon George’s young wife, left the reservation after his suicide and found work at the Columbia Hotel in Niagara Falls as a domestic.  When the upper floors of the hotel caught fire in January of 1909, she jumped from the fourth floor to save her life.  According to the Buffalo Evening News, she “sustained a broken rib on the right side, a fracture of her right wrist and a fracture of the left ankle.”  I have many more unanswered questions, but for now, the trail has grown cold.

There has been in our profession a flourishing “microhistorical turn” over the span of the past decade or so.  I expect more of us will be drawn to these small stories if the suffering caused by the coronavirus continues and increases, as every informed person says it will.

The historical record left from these years will surely highlight the incompetence of the executive branch in the face of a global crisis and the grotesque self-dealing of the arrogant bunglers.  We will have numbers and charts and data, telling the story of the pandemic’s spread, and the damage it did as it slashed its way around the world. What might not show up easily in the archives of the future will be the brutal but quiet reality that this pandemic will have been the most important event in the lives of millions of Americans. It was this virus that took from them their lives and their loved ones, or led them to lose their jobs, their homes, or their businesses.  Dreams shatter.  The cord breaks in the spring of 2020, and nothing for these many people will ever be the same again.

            We historians look for the significance in the events that we write about. We do not simply recount the past. We identify and explain why it mattered.  We might find significance in a battle, an election, and act of Congress or an act of God.  Perhaps with this pandemic more of us will recognize that the events that make us who we are can be as small as a death in the family.

            In Native American history, we have become more attuned to historical trauma as a force shaping indigenous communities. Often we tie this to a history of violence, dispossession and disease.  In my own attempts to understand the history of the Onondagas, an indigenous community that would have disappeared long ago if their white neighbors had their way, I find immense meaning in these small stories, a way of knowing and seeing this history not often available in the conventional sources, conventionally read. If the coronavirus pandemic continues to inflict trauma as some people fear it might, these small stories will not only offer an essential means to view the history of this country during this ear, but an important means for speaking truth to power. There are those like this President and his craven supporters, for instance, who will attempt to distance themselves from the destruction their incompetence has wrought. These millions of small stories will stand as witness against them.  Perhaps it is true what one of the very wise Geneseo students who accompanied me to Oxford last year had to say: the bigger the issue, the smaller you write.

Thoughts on the Dakota 38

The last week in December forces those of us who study history to remember two particularly gloomy, and revealing, episodes in the Native American past.  On December 29th, 1890, American soldiers massacred Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, an atrocity for which the United States government awarded a number of medals of honor.  Congress is considering legislation to revoke those awards. And on the 26th of December, 1862, American military officials executed at Mankato, Minnesota, thirty-eight Dakotas identified as “ring-leaders” in their war against the forces of American colonialism. I have been thinking about both of them over the course of the past two weeks.

            There was a fair amount of commentary on these horrific events on and around their anniversaries.  In reading about the execution of the Dakotas, I learned that after the execution, William W. Mayo, who later founded the world-famous Mayo Clinic, dug up at least one of the recently buried bodies of the condemned, dissected it in front of his physician colleagues, and kept the bones around his house as a child’s play thing.

            I had never heard this before. I read about it in a tweet.  I asked the person who posted it about the evidence.  This was a stunning story, revealing in what it says about Minnesotans’ attitudes toward their native neighbors.  But I could not share it with my students until I knew for sure that it was true.  The person who posted suggested I visit Google; he was merely repeating something he had heard.  I poked around, on Google and elsewhere, and found some news stories that demonstrated that this tale of grave-robbing and desecration was indeed true.

            In September of 2018, the Mayo Clinic apologized for desecrating the grave and body of Marpiya Okinajin, known to the Americans as Cut Nose. His remains stayed at the Mayo Clinic until 2000, when they were repatriated and reburied.  Jeffrey Bolton, a Mayo Clinic administrator, flew from Rochester, Minnesota, to the Santee reservation in Nebraska.  The Mayo Clinic was establishing an endowed scholarship for Native Americans who aspired to work in medicine, and Bolton wanted to apologize formally for the Mayo Clinic’s hurtful act in person on the reservation.

            Bolton’s apology was widely covered in Nebraska and Minnesota news media, but I missed the story when it came out.  The coverage was kind to the Mayo Clinic, generally pointing out that after the passage of a century and a half, it was trying to set things right.  Stories of white apologies for the past are sometimes covered like this, it seems.  Reporters and columnists celebrate the courage of those who apologize, recognize their bravery and their contrition, but they too often do so without delving into the violence and dispossession that provided the vital context for the particular act in question.  That really bothers me. 

We’re all apologies, but only for the fouls we commit in a game that you must know was rigged from the very beginning.

            The execution of the Dakota 38 was an atrocity, no question. But it was not the only one committed before, during, and immediately after the Dakota “Uprising.” 

By the end of the 1840s, most Dakota Sioux were destitute. The number of white settlers in Minnesota, which became a territory in 1849, continued to increase. Hard-pressed and impoverished, the Dakotas, under the leadership of Little Crow, signed treaties in 1851 at Mendota and Traverse des Sioux in which they gave up their claims to all their lands in Minnesota save for reservations along both sides of the Minnesota River north of New Ulm, and extending upriver for 140 miles.

The Dakotas signed the treaty in 1851 after accepting federal assurances that the cession would benefit them. They trusted their white father. The sale would provide them with the annuities they needed to purchase the necessities for survival in a tightening circle. But             Federal officials viewed the treaty differently. They hoped to civilize and Christianize the Santees, to teach them the value of private property, and transform them into farmers on the white model. By reducing the amount of land they owned, and opening the ceded lands to white settlement, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea noted that the Dakotas would now “be surrounded by a cordon of auspicious influences to render labor respectable, to enlighten their ignorance, to conquer their prejudices.” Reservation life would bring preservation to the Dakotas.

            The government established two federal agencies to oversee the civilization program, the Lower Sioux Agency at Redwood, and the Upper Sioux or Yellow River Agency. Some Dakotas accepted the changes proposed by their agents. Leaders like Wabasha, Wakute, and Mankato cut their hair. Others encouraged their followers to begin farming and living and dressing like their growing numbers of white neighbors. Yet these changes generated divisions. According to Big Eagle, those who “took a sensible course and began to live like white men” received special treatment from the agents. “The government built them houses, furnished them tools … and taught them to farm.” The “Blanket Indians,” or the “Long-Hairs” who rejected the benefits of American civilization, resented this special treatment. They objected to the pushiness and cultural arrogance of the agents and missionaries. As Big Eagle observed, “the whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men … and the Indians did not know how to do that, and did not want to anyway.” Too much change, Big Eagle said, called for in too short a period of time. Big Eagle and many other Dakotas resented the racism of white men who “always seemed to say by their manner when they saw an Indian, ‘I am much better than you,’” and he did not like that “some of the white men abused the Indian women in a certain way and disgraced them.”

            Some warriors assaulted the farming Indians. Some may have shot at and poisoned Christian converts. Those who accepted the government program seemed to ignore many of their obligations to their neighbors. The houses built for farmer Indians had their own cellars that encouraged the hoarding, rather than the sharing, of food. The acceptance of Christianity signaled in part the abandonment of the teaching of Dakota shamans. The refusal to join warriors at the agent’s request signaled the declining authority of traditional leaders. The civilization program threatened in fundamental ways Dakota culture and community, and their world was out of balance.

            Other sources of tension gripped the Dakotas. The white population of Minnesota continued to grow as large numbers of Germans and Scandinavians settled near the two agencies. Many Dakotas learned to hate the emigrants, who not only took their land and ran off their game, but refused to share what they had with hungry Indians. The Dakotas viewed them as intruders.

            The settlers did not want Dakota hunters trooping across land that they felt was theirs, but the conduct of federal authorities at the agencies left them with little choice. Agents and other employees used their positions all too often for personal enrichment. They overcharged the government for goods and services that they provided to the Dakotas, and they claimed for themselves a share of the Dakotas’ annuities. They held much of the rest of the annuity money for payment of debts to traders. What’s more, in an effort to encourage Dakotas to embrace the civilization program, the agents withheld annuity payments to traditional Dakotas. Without food and money, the discontented left to search for game. They viewed the farmers and traders and agents as fundamental threats to their existence. They were very hungry. When Little Crow complained about the behavior of the traders, Andrew Myrick, one of their number, announced that “so far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.” Astute observers recognized how dangerous the situation had become. The Episcopal Bishop for Minnesota, Henry B. Whipple, solemnly warned that “a nation which sowed robbery would reap a harvest of blood.” Nobody paid him much heed.

            By the summer of 1862, the annuities still had not been paid. Four Dakotas rummaging for food killed several white settlers who confronted them near Acton, Minnesota. Rather than surrender the four warriors, the traditional Indians at the Redwood Agency resolved upon war. Before they struck, however, they sought the advice of Little Crow. He had participated in the government’s civilization program. He told the warriors that “the white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one—two—ten,” he said, “as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them.” However many you kill, ten times more will come to kill you. “Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count.”

            He doubted that the Dakotas could prevail, but he reluctantly joined in the assaults. He feared the consequences of the earlier attack on the settlers, and he knew the demands for vengeance would be great. Best to take a stand now. On August 18, 1862, the Dakotas fell upon the Redwood Agency, killing two dozen agents and traders. The attacks thereafter became more general. Nearly 400 settlers died in the first few days of fighting. The Dakotas then attacked Fort Ridgely and New Ulm. The settlers drove back both attacks and from late August the Dakotas went on defense. Some called for opening negotiations with the federal authorities for peace. Light Face, a Sisseton, said that “he lived only by the white man and, for that reason, did not want to be an enemy of the white man; that he did not want the treaties that had been made to be destroyed.” Meanwhile, the federal forces converged on the Dakotas. Led by Colonel Henry Sibley, the American troops defeated a Dakota attack at Wood Lake in September.

            Many of the Dakotas fled. Sibley convened a military tribunal to collect evidence against those who participated in the uprising. By November, he had condemned over 300 to death. As the condemned marched downriver, they faced the insults and anger of the frontier population. White settlers pelted the prisoners as they moved toward the place of execution. A white woman, one observer noted, rushed “up to one of the wagons and snatched a nursing babe from its mother’s breast and dashed it violently upon the ground.” The child died several hours later.

President Lincoln pardoned most of the condemned, many of whom, along with their families, had converted to Christianity while imprisoned. They had found some hope in the new religion. The President ordered them incarcerated at Davenport, Iowa. Thirty-eight others, Lincoln concluded, did deserve to die. His decision was unpopular in Minnesota.  An editorial in the Winona Daily Republican thought that all 300 should die. 

                        “It would be amusing, were the circumstances too solemn to be turned into a subject for ridicule, to point out the subtle distinctions which are thus made in the cases of these murderous barbarians—how one Indian is to be hanged by the neck until dead, because he fired the fatal shot which sent a defenceless white settler suddenly into eternity—how another is to be pardoned because he stood by approvingly until the shot had been sent on its mission of death, and then indulged his savage instincts by scalping the victim and horribly mutilating his dead body.  The barbarian ravishers of women and the butcherers of infants are to be divided into two classes, guilty and innocent, upon the principle of nice metaphysical distinctions which turns over to execution one assassin where it directly applauds the conduct of ten others by pronouncing them worthy of again entering into society and running at large as the independent lords of a land laid desolate by their devilish deeds of outrage and blood.”

 On the day after Christmas, they went to the gallows. As they waited for the trap to open, they sang their war songs and said their farewells to their families. It was the largest mass execution in American history. And it clearly wasn’t enough for many Minnesotans.  The St. Cloud Democrat resented the in depth coverage of the executions, and the treatment received by the condemned.  “The soldiers, reporters, officers and preachers, who shook hands with those demons, should each and every one wear his paw in a sling during the term of his natural life, or dip it into boiling lye and skin it.”  The paper’s editorial writer continued:

                        “It makes one sick to think of the cunning, cowardly brutes thus lionized in sight and hearing of many of their surviving victims and in close neighborhood to the unburied bones of others, as they bleach in the wintry winds. Uncle Samuel’s soldiers are so busy feeding Indians, guarding Indians and shaking hands with Indians, that they have not had time to bury the neglected remains of their victims.”

White settlers killed by “miscreants,” “pigs,” and “wild beasts.”  They were animals, and should be disposed of like the menace they were. If Minnesotans “do not shoot, or hang, or drown, or poison with wolf-bait, these erring misguided, unfortunate, wronged injured Siox [sic] hyenas they will deserve and receive the contempt of the civilized world.”  White people in Minnesota “should kill them as they would crocodiles.”  They were not worthy of the sympathy reporters showed them.  “The sights and sounds of horror, the tales of death partings and hideous tortures brought into St. Paul by hundreds of survivors of the massacre of fifteen hundred whites has not occupied half the space in the St. Paul dailies which is consumed in the farewell grunts, dying hypocracies, and obscenities of thirty-eight of these demon-brute murderers.”

Little Crow escaped, but only for a time. He fled west, but returned later to the Minnesota valley. On July 3, 1863, a settler gunned him down as he picked berries near Hutchinson, Minnesota. His scalp was placed on display.   The Dakota Sioux were driven out of Minnesota.  Any Indian presence was too much for white Minnesotans in the aftermath of race war.

The New York Times 1619 Project has been in the news a good bit lately.  Older historians, some of whom have not done much work at all in the history of slavery and the enslaved, have dismissed the enterprise.  That older historians dismiss the work of their younger colleagues is nothing new, of course. It is the way that hey dismissed this important work that is troubling. They question the centrality of slavery in the formation of the American state and society.  They see the institution of slavery as standing in contradiction to the nation’s founding principles. 

As a scholar who studies Native American history, the opposition of these old-timers at elite institutions to their younger colleagues is baffling.  They may still have power and influence, but no longer much by way of respect.  Not any more.  I look at the past and see a continent taken from native peoples, built on stolen lands, with labor seized from enslaved Africans and African-Americans.  Dispossession and slavery, colonialism and racism: they rest at the black heart of the American story, from the arrival of Columbus to its Trumpian apocalypse. The founders, who too many people still revere as demi-gods, knew what they were doing and were open about it. True, they spoke occasionally of civilizing and assimilating native peoples, but that effort cannot be separated from the larger effort o acquire Indian lands and erase their culture.  The Mayo Clinic has taken significant steps to address this repugnant part of its past, of its own history.  This country has barely even started.

President George H. W. Bush, (1924-2018)

President George Bush died late last week.  His funeral will take place in the next few days at the National Cathedral in Washington, before his family flies his body to College Station, where they will bury him on the grounds of his Presidential Library at Texas A&M University.

Bush lived a long life in public service.  He served as a pilot in the second World War, as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, as Vice-President  under Ronald Reagan, and President himself from 1989 to 1993.  Some have praised his temperament, his character, his devotion to service. Some have criticized his failures and his mistakes.

I am ambivalent about much of this.  I agreed with few of his policies, and was disappointed by his many shortcomings, but I also can see the merits in viewing him as one of the most consequential one-term presidents in American History.  While I imagine I would have agreed with him on few issues, I expect he would have been an interesting and interested conversationalist, a man who stands in stark contrast to the current occupant of the White House.

This is the final week of classes at Geneseo, and in my Native American survey course, we will be discussing some of the accomplishments of Bush in the realm of Indian affairs as I rush to do as much as I can to bring us up to the very-near present.

In June of 1991, President Bush issued a special statement on Indian policy.  He would continue the policies of the Reagan-Bush years by “recognizing and reaffirming a government-to-government relationship between Indian tribes and the Federal Government.”  This relationship, he continued, “is the result of sovereign and independent tribal governments being incorporated into the fabric of our nation, of Indian tribes becoming what our courts have come to refer to as quasi-sovereign domestic dependent nations.”  This relationship “has flourished, grown, and evolved into a vibrant partnership in which over 500 tribal governments stand shoulder to shoulder with the other governmental units that form our Republic.”  Referencing the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, an important piece of legislation that allowed tribes to “contract” with the federal government to run programs on their reservations, Bush pointed out that “an Office of Self-Governance has been established in the Department of the Interior and given the responsibility of working with tribes to craft creative ways of transferring decision-making powers over tribal government functions from the Department to tribal governments.”

Recognizing the problems that would lay at the heart of the Cobell case, President Bush planned to establish within interior an office responsible for “insuring that no Departmental action will be taken that will adversely affect or destroy those physical assets tat the Federal Government holds in trust for the tribes.  He took pride, he said, “in acknowledging and reaffirming the existence and durability of our unique government-to-government relationship.”  Bush make clear that he could not monitor events in every native nation, and that he could not “deal directly with the multiplicity of issues and problems presented by each of the 510 tribal entities in the Nation now recognized by and dealing with the Department of the Interior,” he would do what he could.  He concluded by stating

The concepts of forced termination and excessive dependency on the Federal Government must now be relegated, once and for all, to the history books. Today we move forward toward creating a permanent relationship of understanding and trust, a relationship in which the tribes of the Nation sit in positions of dependent sovereignty along with the other governments that compose the family that is America.

That is certainly not a ringing endorsement of tribal sovereignty and at best a qualified statement acknowledging native nationhood. Still, Bush’s presidency was a consequential one for native peoples. During his four years in office, the United States Supreme Court decided the important religious freedom case of Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith adversely for the Native American drug treatment counselor who originally brought the case, and Duro v. Reina, which expanded upon the logic of Oliphant by barring tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-member Indians.

Bush can not be blamed for the actions of the Supreme Court, of course, and he ought to be acknowledged for some of the legislation that he signed. In November of 1989, he signed the National Museum of the American Indian Act, which would “give all Americans the opportunity to learn of the cultural legacy, historic grandeur, and contemporary culture of Native Americans” through the construction of a American Indian Museum on the National Mall. He signed legislation establishing a joint federal-state Commission on Policies and Programs Affecting Alaska Natives and, later, an act establishing an “Advisory Council on California Indian Policy.” He signed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 “to promote the development of Indian arts and crafts and to create a board to assist therein,” in establishing standards of authenticity for Native American arts and crafts.  And most importantly, President Bush signed the very important Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which required that any entity receiving federal funds identify and offer to return to native peoples the human remains they housed in their collections.

George Bush, like many historical figures, was complicated.  Historians can accept that.  He lived a long life. He served his country. He did some important things, and he did things that were destructive. There is no need to rush to judgment about the meaning of Bush’s career.  I will try to get my students to assess these policies this week, add them up, and decide how significant they were for America’s native nations.

Town Destroyer in Paradise: How George Washington Ended up Just Outside Handsome Lake’s Heaven

I recently read Colin Calloway’s book on The Indian World of George Washington, and that got me thinking about two very different depictions of our nation’s first President.  I write about the Senecas, with whom these particular depictions originate, in Native America. In the late 1790s, the great Seneca prophet Handsome Lake experienced a series of visions that became the basis of the Gaiwiio, the good news of peace and power, the “old time” religion still practiced by many Haudenosaunee Iroquois traditionalists in New York State and Canada.   This was a critical moment in Seneca history, and the emergence of this gospel, and Handsome Lake’s message, was one of enormous significance, bringing hope and an explanation for their historical experience to Haudenosaunee peoples.  As related in the 1850s to the early anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan by the Tonawanda Seneca Jemmy Johnson, George Washington “stood preeminent above all of the white men” because “of his justice and benevolence to the Indians.”  Johnson told Morgan that the Senecas believed “that the Great Spirit had received” Washington “into a celestial residence upon the plains of heaven, the only white man whose noble deeds had entitled him to this heavenly favor.”  The only one. Not in paradise, but just outside. Washington resided there, silent and content.  “No word ever passes his lips. Dressed in his uniform, and in a state of perfect felicity, he is destined to remain through eternity in the solitary enjoyment of the celestial residence prepared for him by the Great Spirit.”

It is quite an image, and one difficult to reconcile with the man known by many Indians as the “Town Destroyer,”  a name originally claimed by his great-grandfather for the fighting he did along the Potomac frontier in the 1670s, and which our Washington appears to have appropriated and used when it served his purposes.  From his birth to his death, Washington lived in a world carved out of Indian land.  Washington spent nearly his entire career thinking about and fighting against native peoples, engaging them in diplomacy, and laying plans and conceiving of policies to acquire Indian lands for himself, for his fellow investors, and, later, for his nation. Indeed, Washington was instrumental in the dispossession of native peoples. The country he played so fundamental a role in founding rose on lands lost by native peoples.

During the colonial period, during the era of the Revolution, during the Confederation and under the new Constitution, Americans could disagree intensely over the conduct of Indian policy. This long-running debate, however, for white Americans was always over means, not ends.  The debate boiled down to defining the nature of the Indians’ defeat.

Washington’s treatment of Native America makes clear that the answer would involve violence. During the Revolution, Washington ordered invasions of the Iroquois that resulted, if we choose to believe Haudenosaunee voices, in the rape and murder of Onondaga non-combatants by New York militiamen following Colonel Goose Van Schaick. It resulted in what can justly be called war crimes against Senecas and Cayugas as well the destruction of their crops and orchards, and dozens of towns in 1779 as part of the infamous Sullivan campaign.  Washington hoped that Sullivan’s men would “distract and terrify” the Indians and, in Washington’s own words, “extirpate them from the Country.”  Sullivan’s soldiers drank a toast promising, among other things, “civilization or death to all American savages.”

As my kids sometimes say, “That’s pretty racist.”  Not a pretty picture at all.  So how did this guy end up outside the Senecas’ heaven, close to, but not quite inside, paradise?

To best answer that question, I suggest that we flip the narrative, and try to look at these important events in American history as native peoples might have experienced them. As I point out in Native America, we can start with the words we use.

Words like ‘Indian,” for example, or phrases like “Native American,” of course are flawed.  They obscure more than they reveal, and they would have meant little to peoples whose names for themselves often translated as “people” or “the real people,” or “the real human beings.”  But the problem with words goes even deeper than this.  Too many historians, for too long, have relied upon flawed dichotomies: there was a “pre-contact” or “prehistoric” period that came before “contact” and before the arrival of Europeans ushered in the “historic” era.  Native peoples obviously had long histories on this continent before Europeans arrived. They interacted and exchanged with and fought against native neighbors near and far, and these contacts bred a host of cultural practices that pertained to their “contact” with others.  They did not simply drop these aboriginal practices when Europeans arrived.

Language can be difficult, and words tricky things.

Colonists “settle” but Indians do not: they are depicted nomads who wander and roam when they in places were more fixed and tied to place than the newcomers.  Europeans plant crops, but Indians do not, according to conventional wisdom; colonists serve as soldiers while native peoples fight as warriors. Language can emphasize difference, and an emphasis of difference can be misleading, for example, because it might make violence seem inevitable, or reinforce racial and racist stereotypes.  In reality, the differences between natives and newcomers at the outset might not have been as great as our flawed language leads us to believe. Both, for example, relied upon an agriculture centered upon corn to stay alive. Both supplemented their agricultural produce with sources of protein they acquired systematically.  Native peoples, for instance, managed forests, burned underbrush, and generated new growth that attracted game that hunters could more easily harvest.  Newcomers, meanwhile, turned their livestock loose and allowed it to forage and fend for itself.  When the settlers got hungry, they went out into the woods to hunt down their nearly feral cattle and hogs.

Some more words.  The “Founding Fathers,” the patriots, and white settlers who encroached on native peoples’ lands, Indians saw not as freedom fighters but as “perfidious cruel rebels” and, tellingly, as “white savages.” They referred to them not as champions of liberty but as “Butchers,” and “Killers,” and “Madmen.” They called them “Big Knives” or “Long Knives,” names that chillingly reflected the violence with which they were associated.  Native Americans in this part of the country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries feared that Americans acted with genocidal intent, and they said it again and again and again. One solution to the Indian question, for some white settlers, you see, was extermination, and groups of white Americans expressed that desire and acted on it in ways that confirmed the nightmares of native peoples.  You can think of the murder and mutilation of children carried out by the Paxton Boys late in 1763, acts of horrific violence that have brought my students to the edge of tears.  Children murdered by white vigilantes armed with tomahawks.

Or the massacre at Gnaddenhutten, 1782.  Gnaddenhutten– “The Houses of Mercy.” That’s what that name means.  No mercy there for the Christian Indians who lived and prayed and worked there. The soldiers from Pennsylvania surrounded the Christian Indians at Gnaddenhutten.  They had them at their mercy.  So they held a vote on whether or not to kill the one hundred Christian Indians they had taken captive.  This was, for many native peoples, what American democracy looked like.  I have written about the massacre at Gnaddenhutten on this website.   It is a devastating history. One could write a history of Native Americans that uses the violence meted out on native children as the vehicle driving the narrative, from the earliest period to the present.

I tell my students about these violent episodes.  These events allow us to mess around with words.  Murder at Gnadenhutten becomes an expression of democracy. Frontier settlers become savages.  I try to decenter things, to upset expectations.  And I think we need to do this if we are to understand why so many native peoples so forcefully and effectively resisted the newly independent United States. And, also, how the Senecas,–the victims of a brutal invasion ordered by Washington and by acts of vigilante justice for decades thereafter– might pass a silent George Washington, the man who ordered the burning of their towns and forced them to flee their homeland, on their way into heaven.

After the war, after he resigned his commission, Washington’s advice was sought out and given on Indian affairs.  In a letter he wrote to James Duane of New York in the fall of 1783, he called for effective and meaningful oversight of the settlement of the western territories.  He always had distrusted squatters, and feared the unregulated expansion of white settlement. He wanted peace and order on the frontier, to acquire land without conflict. “To suffer a wide extended Country to be over run with Land Jobbers, Speculators, and Monopolisers or even scatter’d settlers,” he wrote “is pregnant of disputes with the Savages, and among ourselves, the evils of which are easier, to be conceived than described.”  Native peoples, he asserted, had sided with Great Britain against the American states and all good advice.  A “less generous people” than we, he said, would drive them out.  Recognizing that this would involve a renewal of conflict with native nations that had been battered but not defeated during the war, Washington suggested that the Indians be told that the past will be forgotten. The United States, however, whether they liked it or not would “establish a boundary line between them and us beyond which  we will endeavor to restrain our people from hunting, or settling, and within which they shall not come, but for the purpose of Trading, Treating, or other business unexceptionable in its nature.”  Indians would give up lands in the process, to the United States or to the states with the best claim to those lands.  The sale of Indian lands allowed states to pay their soldiers.  The sale of Indian lands allowed New York to abstain from taxing its citizens before the War of 1812. Indian dispossession made New York the empire state.

But the result of these Confederation policies was chaos.  The Articles of Confederation, the new nation’s first constitution, established a limited government in which the states retained all rights they had not explicitly granted to the national government.  In Article IX of the Articles, which listed Congressional powers, the states granted the national government the “sole and exclusive right and power” of “regulating the trade and managing all affairs with the Indians, not members of any of the States, provided that the legislative right of any State within its own limits be not infringed or violated.” Who might these Indians be? New York? Virginia? North Carolina? Georgia?  This crazy ambiguity allowed aggressive states like North Carolina, Georgia, and New York, and even entities like the upstart “State of Franklin,” to conduct their own Indian policies, negotiate their own treaties, and extract their own land cessions, at times in defiance of Congress and, in the case of Georgia, at the point of a gun.  Land speculators, squatters, cattle rustlers, timber cutters, state politicians, congressional commissioners, and Indian killers—they all assaulted the Native American estate.  And Congress itself, in the treaties it convened with Indian nations it claimed to have defeated, operated on a “conquest theory,” asserting that because the Indians had aligned themselves with Great Britain, and Britain had lost, so too had the Indians.  Native peoples seethed with resentment at the treatment they received from national and state officials during the Confederation, as congressional commissioners cast aside long-established protocols for conducting diplomacy, and thumped Indian leaders in the chest demanding cessions.

This could not stand, for these native nations maintained the capacity to resist.  Washington certainly supported efforts to replace the Articles of Confederation with a more powerful central government based on the imperial model.  He agreed with the Virginians who saw the faults in the Articles.  Like James Madison. In his white paper laying out the “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” Madison placed as number two on his list “encroachments by the States on Federal authority,” and he gave as an example “the wars and treaties of Georgia with the Indians,” state aggressions against the powerful Creeks that threatened the entire Southern frontier. Washington frequently expressed a similar complaint.

The new constitution of 1787 eliminated the ambiguity of the Articles of Confederation. In Article I, Section 8, we the people granted to Congress power “to regulate Commerce with Foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” That’s it. That is all it says.

To flesh out that spare language, Congress in 1790 passed the first of several Indian trade and Intercourse Acts. (The first was enacted in 1790, the last in 1834).  The law, which reflected perfectly the views of Washington and his secretary of War Henry Knox about the conduct of Indian policy, provided rules governing those instances when native peoples and newcomers came into contact.  Legal land sales required the oversight of an appointed federal commissioner and the subsequent ratification of the transaction by the Senate.  Trade without a license obtained from federal agents was prohibited.

It is important to say a few words about this important piece of legislation, the nation’s first Indian law. Washington, in a letter written to the Senecas in December of 1790, saw the new law as a watershed.  The Iroquois had indeed lost much to the State of New York during the Confederation years but now, he wrote, “the case is entirely altered—the general government only has the power to treat with the Indian nations, and any treaty formed and held without its authority will not be binding.”  The Trade and Intercourse Act would provide “security for the remainder of your lands.” The United States, he continued, “will never consent to your being defrauded,” “will protect you in all your just rights,” and “considers itself bound to protect you in all the lands” you still possess.  Washington never claimed any power over the internal workings of native nations.  Nor did the Constitution grant to the national government any powers over the internal workings of native nations.  Sovereign native nations were a force Washington and his contemporaries recognized.

Washington needed a peaceful and orderly frontier, but the government he commanded was a tiny thing.  The total number of non-uniformed employees of that national government in 1801, the first year for which we have good figures, was less than three thousand, and the vast majority of these worked in customs or other revenue-related functions, or the postal service.  The number of federal officials in all of New York working in Indian affairs, for instance, could be counted on one hand.  The government and its agents, then, could do little to curb encroachment, or prevent theft, or timber cutting or cattle rustling, by white people in Indian country.  Even if the will was there—and that is a matter that is debatable—the institutional apparatus was not.

The states continued to purchase Indian lands.  Settlers continued to encroach.  Conflict erupted in Georgia, the Carolinas, and in the Ohio Country, where growing numbers of militant native peoples came together in a spirited resistance against American expansion.  This territorial and physical aggression unquestionably frustrated Washington, but aware fully that power claimed but not exercised was power lost, he largely held his tongue. Controlling state governments was one thing; controlling the violence of settlers still another.  Thirteen Senecas, to cite one example from some of my own work, were murdered by white frontiersmen between 1784 and 1790 and probably another half-dozen more in the couple of years that followed that.  Native peoples found their life, liberty, and property in jeopardy.  For them, these were times that tried men’s souls.

And here’s the thing.  These grievances were significant, and Washington understood this.  He mentioned them in his annual messages to Congress.  He worked to negotiate treaties to resolve them, always looking for additional cessions of land.  Indians in the so-called Northwest Territory shared many of these grievances.  So while the government hoped to extract cessions and purchase the land upon which settlers settled and squatters squatted, native peoples increasingly committed themselves to protecting their homelands by force.  So they were ready when, in September of 1790, General Josiah Harmar led a force of 1450 regular soldiers and Kentucky militiamen out against the native towns along the Wabash and Maumee rivers in what today is the state of Indiana. Native peoples from many nations—Shawnees, Miamis, Ottawas, Potawatomis, Weas, and Kickapoos—ambushed Harmar’s force along the Maumee and killed 180 of his men. The defeated American force returned home by the end of October.

The defeat of Harmar’s invasion emboldened those native peoples willing to resist American forces, and swelled their ranks. Potawatomis and Shawnees, along with Delawares and Miamis, attacked a settlement called Dunlap’s Station just north of Cincinnati in January of 1791, while Potawatomis joined with Ottawas and Chippewas to attack targets elsewhere along the Ohio. By the spring, land speculators in the Ohio country complained that they found it difficult to recruit prospective settlers. “The Indians kill people so frequently,” they wrote, “that none dare stir into the woods to view the country.”

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.” Many of those who lived in the Ohio country saw in the United States, whatever its claims to desire peace, a truly existential threat, the menace of genocide.

Meanwhile, Congress had already laid plans for another military invasion to take place in 1791. Arthur St. Clair, whose chief qualification was his seniority, led American forces into the Miami River Valley in September. Most of his soldiers were militiamen, poorly trained and poorly supplied. Before dawn on November 4, a force that consisted of Potawatomis, Shawnees, and large numbers of others—Ottawas, Chippewas, Wyandots, Mingos, Delawares, Miamis, and a few Chickamauga Cherokees—attacked St. Clair’s much larger force. The soldiers panicked and ran. Over 640 soldiers were killed or captured or unaccounted for. Another 250 were wounded. Fewer than 500 men made it to safety unharmed. They killed only a small number of Indians in the largest defeat ever suffered by American military forces at the hands of native warriors. Twenty percent of the American military had been wiped out in one day.

By 1792, native peoples from many nations had gathered at a site called the Glaize, near today’s Defiance, Ohio. There they reflected upon the meaning of their victories over the American forces. Native peoples with grievances against the Americans settled there, and their numbers included Potawatomis, Shawnees, Delawares, Miamis, Sacs, Foxes, Ottawas, Hurons, Munsees, Conoys, Mingos, and Cherokees and Creeks. The presence of the southern nations showed that the diplomatic connections between militants north and south remained strong. American agents feared that the powerful and well-armed Creeks and Chickamaugas would join with the Shawnees and other northerners to attack American settlements. The Indians gathered at the Glaize, according to the Shawnee leader Painted Pole, would unite to resist further invasions. The inability of the American government to control its vicious backcountry settlers, and its own rapacious desire for Indian land, had unified its many enemies into a powerful native force.

With the British still occupying forts on American soil, and imperial officials brazenly discussing the policy of creating a neutral Indian barrier state north of the Ohio River, with native peoples hostile towards the United States insulating Britain’s holdings from American expansion, the situation was dire indeed.  It is stunning.  Britain hoped to snap off that part of the United States north of the Ohio River to create a neutral Indian barrier state.  If powerful groups like the Senecas, with the potential to receive easily British arms and ammunition from Fort Niagara joined with the victorious northwesterners, the entire frontier could be set ablaze.  Washington ordered another invasion of the Ohio Country.   Late in the summer of 1794, American general Anthony Wayne led his force of 3000 soldiers toward the Maumee Valley. There, on August 20, he defeated the confederated tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Although casualties were roughly the same on each side, the Americans took the field, and razed the Indian towns. The fleeing warriors headed toward the British post at Fort Miami. British agents had remained active in the Northwest since the close of the Revolution, and they had armed and encouraged the natives’ resistance to American expansion. Now, however, they kept closed the gates to their forts and refused to fire upon the pursuing Americans. Once again, the British abandoned their native allies and demonstrated, if the point still required demonstration, that native peoples in the Old Northwest needed the British more than the British needed them.

They now had no choice but to make peace with the United States. A year after the battle, at Greenville, the Potawatomis, Shawnees, Delawares, Ottawas, Chippewas, Miamis, Weas, Kickapoos, Piankashaws, and Kaskaskias agreed to a peace that “shall be perpetual … between the United States and Indian tribes.” They paid as the price of that peace a massive cession of lands to the United States. The confederated tribes gave up tracts of land in Indiana and Illinois, and, more significantly, all of southern and eastern Ohio.

The Treaty of Greenville revealed the sort of changes that the President and the Secretary of War hoped to bring to their defeated enemies.  Each of the nations signing the treaty would receive an annuity, a yearly payment of money and other items the tribe could use to supply its wants. If the tribes should “desire that a part of their annuity should be furnished in domestic animals, implements of husbandry, and other utensils convenient for them, and in compensation to useful artificers who may reside with or near them, and be employed for their benefit,” they need only to inform the federal agent stationed nearby and “the same shall at the subsequent annual deliveries be furnished accordingly.” The United States would thus see to the civilization of the Indians, by transforming them from wandering hunters into settled farmers on the American model. Because farming required less land than the hunt, the thinking went, more land soon would be opened for white settlement and expansion. To make this argument, of course, required the Americans who wrote the treaties, like Wayne, and those who ratified and proclaimed them, like the members of Senate and the president, ignore the vast Indian cornfields that American forces destroyed, or the herds of cattle and swine that even now native peoples relied upon for food. To save the Indians, Americans would civilize them, and civilization required that they live upon less land. Americans took native land in the name of helping native peoples become civilized. Taking, as one historian put it, became giving.

There were still the problems in Iroquoia that caused Senecas to contemplate joining the Indians to their west.  Their disaffection was real, the threat they posed to the United States significant. As Anthony Wayne invaded the Maumee valley, the American commissioner Timothy Pickering met with the Six Nations at Canandaigua in western New York. He hoped to resolve long-standing difficulties with the Senecas. Their lands formed the central issue at the council. Through the Treaty of Canandaigua, signed on November 11, 1794, Pickering and the Senecas redefined the boundaries of the Seneca estate. The new western boundary of their lands ran “along the river Niagara to Lake Erie.” This gave to the Senecas access to the river and the islands and access to British Canada to their west, a freedom, they hoped, that gave them an outlet and the opportunity to avoid the fate of other encircled Indian tribes. The Senecas did not wish to become “mere makers of baskets and brooms.” This was an important concession. The ability to move through space, to interact with Haudenosaunee communities distant from them, was of immense importance to Iroquois peoples. Pickering also agreed to pay to the Senecas “a quantity of goods to the value of ten thousand dollars,” and, further, that “with a view to promote the future welfare of the Six Nations,” an annuity of $4500.

As with the treaty negotiated eight months later at Greenville, the United States sought to civilize the Six Nations and transform them into farmers on an American model. To the Senecas, however, the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua recognized their sovereignty.  This is why it is so critical. It is why they honor Washington still and commemorate the treaty every year.  Pickering, on the president’s behalf, pledged that the United States would never claim the Senecas’ lands, “nor disturb the Seneka nation, or any of the Six Nations, or their Indian friends residing thereon and united with them, in the free use and enjoyment thereof.”  The Free Use and Enjoyment of their lands: it is a critical phrase. They could, they hoped, live upon their lands without the interference of outside authorities, and with the protection of the United States against unlawful intrusion. The treaty, the Senecas believed, recognized their right to exist upon their ancestral lands as a nation free from outside interference.  It recognized their nationhood.

1794, by any standard, was a momentous year in the history of the Early Republic.  There’s the Whiskey Rebellion, and the foreign policy problems occasioned by war between France and Great Britain.  And Indian affairs. That year, Washington said that he had hoped to oversee the orderly expansion of American settlement while pursuing a policy “calculated to advance the happiness of the Indians and to attach them firmly to the United States.” He wanted peace, and to see to the “civilization” of native peoples. To this end, congress enacted and he signed the Trade and Intercourse Acts, designed to ensure order along the frontier and peace in relations between native peoples and the citizens of the young republic. He abandoned the conquest theory advanced by the Continental Congress in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution for a system based on treaties that, he hoped, would regulate American expansion while guaranteeing native nations the lands that they did not cede—at least until the next treaty council.

Yet Washington that same year lamented “the insufficiency of the existing provisions of the laws toward the effectual cultivation of peace with our Indian neighbors.” By 1796, the final year of his presidency, Washington still hoped to restrain “the commission of outrages upon the Indians,” but he feared that “scarcely anything short of a Chinese wall, or a line of troops, will restrain Land jobbers, and the encroachment of settlers upon the Indian territory.”

A Chinese Wall was out of the question.

The policies advanced by Henry Knox and he failed to achieve their cardinal goals for a number of reasons. Many native peoples, of course, already considered themselves civilized, and saw little attractive in the arrogant assumption that they must abandon their culture in order to survive. Others dressed like their white neighbors, bore Anglo-American style names, and lived in American-style housing. Many of them spoke English. They may even have listened to missionaries who worked to save their souls. Many already were members of Christian congregations. But they borrowed selectively, took what they wanted, and they lived on the margins of American society in communities of their own making. Though they incorporated substantial amounts of Anglo-American material culture into their lives, they remained quietly indifferent to what many Americans felt they had to offer native peoples.

Those native peoples who did work with the Americans—the leaders who, hoping to avoid the horrors of wars they feared they could not win, or the continuing loss of their lands—signed treaties guaranteeing them all that remained until they were ready to sell. They may have attended to the missionaries, accepted agricultural implements and livestock, and tried to make changes in their ways of living because they believed that doing so offered the best chance for their people to survive. But making these changes raised all sorts of challenges.

The frontier, we must remember was a violent and at times a frightening place. Many settlers living on war-ravaged frontiers simply could not trust their Indian neighbors, no matter how small a sliver of their original lands they retained. 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 and they found in their fears justification for horrible acts of terror. They could, as did those Ohio country settlers in 1782, conclude that the singing of psalms by Christian Indians at the Moravian mission at Gnadenhutten was not the expression of praise for a peaceful and loving God, but the ranting and boasts of savages who had wet their hands in the settlers’ blood.

These acts of violence, along with the failure of the young republic to control its land-hungry settlers, and the continued suffering in many native communities, gave encouragement to those leaders who called for an armed resistance against the Americans. By 1794, much of this resistance had collapsed, and native peoples paid an enormous price for it. Warfare, and the resulting dislocation, devastated native communities. The Cherokees surrendered over 20,000 square miles of their territory. The Six Nations, combined, lost much more, and the population of both nations declined significantly between 1776 and 1794. The birth of the new republic, an “empire for liberty” in Jefferson’s view, proved catastrophic for many native peoples.  Washington always wanted to dispossess Indians, to acquire their lands. He hoped to do so peacefully, through treaties, with a minimum of cost and violence. Unlike, say, Jefferson, who wrote at length about native peoples, he never gave much thought to their history and culture. Native peoples were, for him, an obstacle, and a problem to be solved.  A creature of empire, his solutions were imperial, even if his was an imperialism tempered by his limited control over his countrymen, and a recognition of the power, and the nationhood, or native peoples.  Some of these natives succeeded against long odds in remaining upon their lands.  That was the case with the Senecas and the Tuscaroras I visited yesterday, who in their casino enterprises, their tribal businesses, in their programs for cultural preservation, continue to assert their untrammeled right to the “free use and enjoyment of their lands” as their departed relatives move past Washington, who signed the treaty that recognized their enduring nationhood, on their way into paradise.



Donald Blakeslee, an archaeologist at Wichita State University, may have found with his students the site of Etzanoa, where perhaps 20,000 people lived along the Walnut and Arkansas Rivers in Kansas between 1450 and 1700.  Both Francisco Coronado in 1541, and Juan de Oñate sixty years later, passed through this part of what is now Kansas.  I discuss both the Coronado and Oñate expeditions into the Great West in Native America, and I look forward to sharing Blakeslee’s work with my students.  I read about investigations at Etzanoa in an article that appeared in the Wichita Eagle back in April and another piece, written by David Kelly, that appeared in the Los Angeles Times last week. I look forward to seeing more scholarship published soon.

As Kelly writes in the Times, as Oñate’s part explored the Plains in search of gold, slaves, and Christian converts,

they ran into a tribe called the Escanxaques, who told of a large city nearby where a Spaniard was allegedly imprisoned. The locals called it Etzanoa.

As the Spaniards drew near, they spied numerous grass house along the bluffs. A delegation of Etzanoans bearing round corn cakes met them on the riverbank.  They were described as a sturdy people with gentle dispositions and stripes tattooed from their eyes to their ears.  It was a friendly encounter until the conquistadors decided to take hostages.  That prompted the entire city to flee.

Oñate’s men wandered the empty settlement for two or three days, counting 2000 houses that held 8 to 10 people each. Gardens of pumpkins, corn and sunflowers lay between the homes.

The Spaniards could see more houses in the distance, but they feared an Etzanoan attack and turned back.

That’s when they were ambushed by 1500 Escanxaques. The conquistadors battled them with guns and cannons before finally withdrawing back to New Mexico, never to return.

This, then, was an important site.  The Plains may seem empty.  Spaniards crossing them felt at times like they were lost at sea, the lack of landmarks baffling to them.  But in the heart of the continent, an area beyond the interests of so many historians of the colonial period, stood a Native American city with influence, power, and wealth.  American history looks much different, and much more rich, when we view native peoples as central to the story.

Between the first and second editions of Native America, I learned of the important work of Richard and Shirley Flint.  We ate dinner together in Providence, all of us attending a meeting of editors working on Oxford’s planned edition of Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations.  I read as much of their work as I could get my hands on. Their articles compelled me to revise significantly my coverage of Coronado.  We live and learn. We read and revise.  It is a part of our jobs with which historians are comfortable, but that I do not feel we always impart successfully to our various publics: that the record is never settled, that new evidence can and will be found and, sometimes, quite literally unearthed.  With that new evidence comes the obligation to reassess what we thought we knew.  It is challenging.  It can be frustrating at times.  But it is exciting, too. Every year the historians I know re-write lectures, revise their reading lists, reconsider assignments and discussion sessions in light of new scholarship and new discovery.

As for the site Blakeslee investigated in Kansas, much of it remains unexcavated and on private land.  Talk is beginning about organizing tours, to increase public awareness and education about a city that may have rivaled Cahokia in terms of its power and regional influence.   Done well, that offers an exciting prospect.


We Need To Get Woody Guthrie Right, Now More Than Ever

Every couple of months I read on Twitter another denunciation from someone in the Native American/Indigenous Studies community of Woody Guthrie’s famous song, “This Land is Your Land.” It’s a “obvs hella-colonial” song, the critique goes, because Guthrie’s claim that the entire continent “from California, to the New York Island” belonged to you and me ignored the original Native American owners of North America.  As such, Guthrie erased the reality of Native Americans’ antecedent claims to the continent and, in effect, whitewashed the long history of American Indian dispossession in the United States.

As scholars we need to counter the colonialist project of erasing native peoples and their histories from the land, but this critique of Guthrie is facile at best. Those who teach and write about Native American history, those of us who have worked with these communities in their present-day struggles to regain control of their ancestral lands, have bigger problems than a 75-year-old folk song.

Here are the full lyrics to the song:

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie wrote the song after hearing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a patriotic anthem that borders on the jingoistic.  (If you want a song that celebrates an “America: Love It or Leave It” ethos, this ought to be your target). Guthrie wrote during a period in American history when the economy had failed catastrophically, where millions of people were out of work, and federal efforts to provide relief, recovery, and reform, as radical as they were for the time, did not fundamentally challenge the basic structures of American capitalism.

Guthrie stood against the injustices in American society, the exploitation of labor, the impoverishment of hard-working, ordinary people  He stood against the selfish rich, those who gamed a system already rigged in their favor.  This was protest music of the first order.

So, yeah, you can hate Guthrie’s lyrics if you want, but as scholars we have an obligation to read deeply, honestly, and thoroughly.  Unlike, say, Fox News, we are not allowed as scholars to take words out of context, not if we are to claim that we are hard-working, honest, and open-minded in our approach to the past.  And as citizens, we could use more voices like Guthrie’s, willing to denounce the injustices of a system that seems to spiral farther and farther away from its expressed highest ideals every day.

Obligations: More Thoughts on Teaching and Learning on Native Ground

A while back I published a piece in the local newspaper arguing that the State University of New York ought to provide free tuition to Haudenosaunee peoples on whose lands many SUNY campuses stand. (Actually, SUNY should provide free tuition to ALL New Yorkers, but that is another argument).  My essay read as follows:

New York State is to be applauded for implementing the Excelsior Program to make attendance at a SUNY school affordable for working-class families. But because Excelsior does not cover room, board, and books, and because students must maintain a full course load, the plan is hardly perfect for the state’s most disadvantaged populations. Given the state’s history and its historical relations with its Native American populations, New York should provide funding to cover all the costs associated with attending a SUNY school for Native American Students.

          Colleges and campuses around the country have begun to explore more critically their complicity in the injustices of the American past. Georgetown, for instance, is wrestling with its legacy of slaveholding. Brown University has examined critically its early involvement in the slave trade. Both schools have devoted significant sums of money for increasing opportunities for students who were, in a manner, the descendants of those who suffered from these historic injustices.

          But university systems have done little to explore their historic connections to native peoples and obligations that come with teaching and learning on native ground.

My campus in Geneseo, for instance, is located in the historic homeland of the Senecas. Before Geneseo was the county seat of Livingston County, Senecas from town of Chenussio  played important roles in the history of this region and the three successive empires that vied for control of what became western New York: France, England, and the United States. New Yorkers coveted that land, and speculators swooped in after the Revolution.

New York became the Empire State through a systematic program of Indian dispossession. Indian losses were New Yorkers’ gains. New Yorkers advocated the removal of the Iroquois decades before Andrew Jackson became President.  New York’s Indian boarding school, the Thomas Asylum, lasted for a century into the 1950s, commencing before, and lasting long after these institutions had fallen out of favor.   Disease, warfare, dispossession, coercive assimilation: New York’s native peoples have faced them all.

The records of the state’s treaties and transactions are chock full of instances of deception and deceit, fraud and coercion. If you own a home in this state, you have benefited from the state’s concerted effort to dispossess its native peoples.  And nearly every SUNY campus stands on what was once native ground, on land acquired by foul means.

Providing the funding necessary for this will not be easy. Money always is in short supply. But it is simply a matter of choice, of deciding what matters.  Syracuse University for more than a decade has covered all costs associated with attendance through its “Haudenosaunee Promise” program.  Standing on ground that once was the geographic and cultural center of the Iroquois League, Syracuse decided to recognize that past.

SUNY could follow Syracuse’s lead. Excelsior, and the paltry funding provided for Native American students through scholarships overseen by the New York Department of Education, are not adequate. We should do more.

If any number of state officials had their way during New York’s long history, the Iroquois and other New York Indians would have disappeared. They would have been driven out of the state to new homes in Canada, Wisconsin, Arkansas, or Oklahoma—anywhere but here.  The people and their culture would have been eradicated, the language erased.  Yet Native Americans in New York State, from Long Island to Niagara, and from the North Country to the Allegheny, have survived all that this state has thrown at them.  They are still here, and the State’s debt is huge. It is time to pay it back.

Geneseo has made some small, superficial changes.  Last fall the College Senate approved a resolution recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  The school is traditionally closed that day as part of what we call “Fall Break.”  The college approved a new diversity statement recognizing that the college stands on lands in the historic homeland of the Seneca Nation and Tonawanda Seneca Indian Nation, though that statement has not yet been placed on the college’s website. I am still waiting for staff to install the Haudenosaunee flag in the Student Union’s gallery of flags representing all our foreign students’ countries, despite receiving assurances that it will happen.

These actions, limited as they are, do matter.  They are more than mere symbolic gestures.  Flying the flag will announce to Haudenosaunee students that they are welcome at our college, that we value them as individuals and that we recognize their membership in native nations.  At commencement each year, the flags of our foreign students’ countries are part of the ceremony; we certainly should fly the Haudenosaunee flag as well. Publicly acknowledging the college’s location on what was once Haudenosaunee land shows that we know our history, and that we understand that native peoples’ losses were too often in New York State history white people’s gains.  One of my few Haudenosaunee students gave me a gift and a card on graduation day, in which he wrote that “nothing makes me more proud to see Geneseo recognize that the land that this great university rests on was once Indian country.”

The Haudenosaunee Flag flies on campus ……only in my office.

But all of this is easy.  It costs my college absolutely nothing but the labor of a large number of committed faculty to write a new diversity statement, or to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  A Haudenosaunee flag can be purchased for a few bucks, so I am not sure what the delay is in putting it up, but still, chump change.  Easy work.

At the end of the week in which my editorial appeared, the college announced an opening in admissions for an international recruiter to lure foreign students to Geneseo.  In the past days, I have seen announcements for two additional openings in admissions.  None of the positions mention anything about outreach to the state’s small but significant Native American population. I have been quietly urging the college to hire a person to work on recruiting and retaining Native American students. So far nothing.

Anyone who follows the news in higher education knows that money is tight.  Wisconsin-Stevens Point is going crazy eliminating academic majors in the liberal arts. Catholic University of America is preparing a plan to lay-off tenure-track faculty. The University of Montana has appointed a clown with no experience in academia to begin deep cuts in programs and spending.   SUNY has been chronically underfunded for years and my school’s leaders have done an enormous amount with very little for a long time. I understand that there is not enough money to do everything that every faculty member wants.

But let’s not pretend that we do not have choices.  For the money that the SUNY sytsem fritters away on Division I sports every Native American student who wanted to attend SUNY could do so.  From my perspective, we are talking here about obligations, about acknowledging the history of the state, the town where my college is located, the native ground upon which it stands. At my college, as I have pointed out before, we wine and dine visiting dignitaries at the Big Tree Inn. Its named after the treaty negotiated in town in 1797 in which the Senecas lost all of their lands west of the Genesee River save for a number of reservations, only four of which remain.  We have dining halls named after Red Jacket and Mary Jemison, important figures in Seneca history, and historical markers on and around campus point to the region’s history–as the Western Door of the Longhouse, as a zone invaded by Sullivan’s Continental soldiers waging a scorched earth campaign in 1779, and as lands coveted by speculators and settlers afterwards.  We trade in this history at Geneseo.  The town I teach in could not exist without a systematic program of Indian dispossession.  It is easy to acknowledge that history.  It is more difficult to do something to make an often uninterested community aware of historical obligations, that what they have is possible because of the losses suffered by native peoples. But it can be done.  And it should.