Category Archives: Race and Racism

No Mercy

It was a long drive to Gnadenhütten. It was Thursday, last week, and the weather seemed cooler than usual. The rain fell for much of the drive from Rochester. It was a dark day most of the way as we traveled along the Lake Erie shore, and cut south into Ohio.

I listened to National Public Radio on the drive, searching for a new station each time I moved out of range of the one I had been listening to before. Stories repeated over the course of the day. Because different NPR stations run different shows at different times of the day, some stories repeated several times: the end of testimony in the Derek Chauvin murder trial, for instance, and his decision not to testify in his own defense; the arraignment of the police officer who killed Daunte Wright when she pulled out her pistol rather than the taser that she intended to use; and the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer in a back alley. The child had been carrying a weapon, but when he turned toward the officer who pursued him–showing his hands as he had been instructed to do–the officer shot and killed him. Three people of color killed by white policemen dominated the news.

I am sure part of the problem is that police fear that everyone has guns. There are too many guns, and that needs to be part of the discussion about disarming or abolishing the police. Unless you are a hunter, you will never convince me that you need a gun. Owning a weapon is a choice made by those who want to control or threaten others or, for reasons I do not pretend to understand, those who need a killing machine to feel secure in their manhood, or for those who choose to live in fear.

Several months back, I dropped by daughter off at a gym about twenty minutes from our house. Attached to the workout facility was a large hockey center with a couple of rinks where youth leagues played their games. Because the workout lasted for only an hour, I always brought work, and waited outside in the car, doing reading for classes. One time I parked next to one of those over-sized pickup trucks that have become an all-too-common blight on our roadways. You have seen them, decorated with NRA stickers, or some form of The Punisher, or a blue line flag. The driver got out of his truck. He reached back in for something and as he stretched to do so, I could see that he was carrying a holstered gun on his hip. He pulled his black hoodie over belly, bullets and belt, and went inside to watch his kid play hockey, armed and ready for action. Many of the kids going into that rink must have been about thirteen.

Like Adam Toledo. I watched the video of his shooting, placed on an official Chicago website. It happened really fast. So fast. But he was shot and he went down and I saw the blood pouring out of his mouth or nose. I turned it off.

When we reached Gnadenhütten, right there beside the Tuscarawas River, the museum was closed. I called the two numbers on the locked door. The first went to voice mail. I dialed the second number. Tom answered. He drove over from his house, a very short distance away, let us in, and showed us around the museum. Lots of arrowheads. Lots of pictures of the site taken over the years since 1782, when American soldiers murdered the Christian Indians gathered there. Books that had belonged to the missionary David Zeisberger. But what really interested me was outside. The small grave where were buried the “martyrs” (to what cause?). A reconstruction of the Mission House. A site that echoes with the screams of children.

If we are to understand Native American history in all its complexity, I believe that we must confront the lacerating violence of events like Gnadenhütten. We must do so whether we are on the Right or the Left or in the middle.  I would contend that an honest rendering of this event would not differ widely on the basis of who taught it. We might differ in terms of its broader meaning. Last week, after a long drive, I saw it in the same light as I see the murder of George Floyd, the shooting of Adam Toledo, and the killing of Daunte Wright. Examples all of America’s long-enduring race war.

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

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

Tom, the guy who drove over to open up the museum, gave me a pamphlet reproduction of “The History of the Gnadenhütten Massacre,” written in 1843. It tells the story of the “Blackest Page in History of Northwest Territory.” It opens with a poem:

Alas! Alas! For treachery! The bestial white man came
With weapons of destruction, the sword of lurid flame;
And while the poor defenseless ones together bowed in prayer,
Unpitying they smote them all while kneeling meekly there.
The cry of slaughtered innocence went loudly up to heaven;
And can ye hope, ye murdering bands, ever to be forgiven?
We know not, --yet we ween for you the latest lingering prayer
That trembled on your victims' lips, was 'God forgive and spare!"

The pamphlet closed with the following:

May the memory of our red brethren, who at Gnadenhütten sealed their faith with their pious confessions of the Savior in their sufferings, their meek endurance, and triumphant Christian death, bear testimony to the Truth as it is in Jesus, as long as the memory of the atrocious deed shall last.

Just a couple of blocks away, in the center of Main Street, the head of the “Brave” who serves as the mascot for Indian Valley High School is painted in the middle of the intersection. Images inspired by James Earle Fraser’s “End of the Trail” sculpture appear at the entrance to the site and on a hardware store on Main Street. The large obelisk at the site of the Gnadenhütten massacre indicates that the Indians were victorious in their deaths. But they weren’t, were they? They lost before the lost everything. Statements that they prevailed over their murderers might make white people feel better, that the pious converts “went to a better place,” and you can believe that if you want to. I am inclined to believe that they were slaughtered, tossed in a mass grave, under a small mound that stands feet a way from the small gravel parking lot, surrounded on three sides by the graves of the village’s white residents. It is such a sad, sad, place.

I am so conscious that what I do as a historian and educator is viewed with suspicion by those who do not share my political beliefs. I have been told that I teach “children” to hate America, that I emphasize the negative rather than the positive aspects of American history. There is a student at my college–in my classes–who has made himself a polarizing figure on campus by loudly and stridently proclaiming his contrarian conservative politics. Among many things, he has accused those who teach him of being Marxists, Anti-Christian, Anti-American and, implicitly, demonic.

I was tired by the time I arrived at Gnadenhütten. We still had a couple of hours to go to get to Cincinnati. For me, it is a place that forces reflection. What else can one do while standing on the ground where American soldiers murdered nearly a hundred Christian Indians?

The locals remember the massacre at Gnadenhütten as a black mark in their history. But in the small museum on the site, there is little real discussion of the horrible crime itself. There are relics–a large collection of arrowheads harvested from farmers’ fields once worked by Shawnee women. There is plenty of information about the mission and the missionaries. But far less about the murders that took place a short walk from the front door. You learn who lived there, but not how it was that soldiers felt the need to slaughter children.

We thanked Tom for letting us in to the museum. We thanked him for his time and his hospitality. We dropped a small donation in the box, and walked back to the car. I am glad we stopped. I am glad we called him and took him up on his invitation to show us the collections. I took a last look again at the grounds, walked once more around the burial mound. Then I got back in my car, started the engine, and drove away. We saw the giant warrior’s head in the center of Main Street. The hourly news update came on before we left town, indicating that city officials in Brooklyn Center expected another night of protest in the aftermath of the killing of Daunte Wright, the latest battle in a race war that has gone on seemingly without end.

The Biggest Lie in American History

As Americans hit the streets, and monuments to America’s racist past topple down, a growing number of people are waking up to the biggest lie in American history.  This country’s racist roots run deep, from Columbus to the Confederacy to Derek Chauvin. 

            Contrary to American myth, the United States was not conceived in liberty and it has never fully committed itself to the principle that “all men are created equal.”  The United States was built on stolen Native American land, worked by the labor of millions of enslaved Africans and African-Americans.  That deep and fundamental commitment to inequality has come under attack on a variety of fronts in the time since four Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd.

            The common cause of the American Revolution was not enshrined in the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence, but later in the document, when Thomas Jefferson charged the king with stirring up slaves and the “merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions,” to murder white Americans. Countering those fears brought the thirteen colonies together.  The ensuing Revolution was an unmitigated disaster for Native Americans, and it ended with a Constitution that defended the institution of slavery and created a governing structure that effectively guaranteed slaveholding states control of the New Nation. Racism, illiberality, injustice are not aberrations in American history.  They rest at the core of all things.

            We are six years from the 250th anniversary of the Declaration, and it is pretty clear that our commitment as a nation to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans is highly-qualified at best.  We, as a nation, have been at this for nearly two and a half centuries.  If we have yet to live up to our nation’s ideals, maybe it is time to admit that we never held those ideals at all.

            From Columbus’s slaving voyages to the Conquistadors, from the joint-stock privateers and adventurers to the religious bigots who settled Plymouth Plantation and Massachusetts Bay, America’s colonial past was rife with exploitation and violence.  The promises of the Revolution that followed remain woefully incomplete, the protection of individual liberties enshrined in the Constitution applied selectively and partially, such that a country with 5 percent of the world’s population is home to a quarter of the people on earth who live their lives behind bars. You do not have to travel far before you see a Confederate flag. From the children, struggling and yearning to breathe free who the current occupant of the White House tore from their parents and incarcerated, to the millions of Americans who now see militarized police as a threat to their life and liberty, there results a growing awareness that we as a country have much to do to dismantle our deeply racist past.

            At the marches following George Floyd’s death, protestors silently kneeled for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the amount of time Officer Derek Chauvin had his knee of Floyd’s neck.  That is a long time.

            And it has been a long time.

            So keep marching, and take down those statues that lionize slave-owners who were willing to kill U.S. soldiers in order to hang on to their human property and the system of white supremacy that lay at the bedrock of American society. Of course there have been excesses.  There is much debate about the destruction of a statue of Ulysses S. Grant.  But do not lose sight of the larger significance of this moment. If you own property in the United States, you benefit from the historic and continuing dispossession of Native peoples, and from the unequal concentrations of wealth that enslavement, red-lining and other structures make possible.  Monuments are not history. They are interpretations of the past. And they are not sacred. Much of America’s monumental history justifies past evils and continuing crimes.  It is time to write a new story, and erase the biggest lie. The protestors are helping in this important work, but there remains much work ahead. It is going to require much more than police reform and pulling down statues. The removal of monuments unaccompanied by action to dismantle to structures of racism and inequality that they commemorate is nothing more than a symbolic act.

Musings of an Inebriated Historian

Being a historian in a world so full of needless suffering sometimes feels like a sentence to despair and hopelessness. I am not the first historian to feel this way. A long time ago the American historian Clarence Walworth Alvord looked out a world ravaged by the first Great War and wrote an essay entitled “Musings of an Inebriated Historian.” Historians, he noted, for a generation had celebrated “progress.” They assumed civilization emerged from and prevailed over barbarism, the arc moving ever upwards. Historians reminded their readers and students of that progress, or at least they were supposed to. Like the philosopher George Santayana, who famously declared that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, Alvord believed that the story of the past could illuminate the path toward a better future. But then, he wrote, “I remembered that this boasted historical mindedness did not prevent historians of all nationalities losing their sense of toleration and feeling for proportion during the World War.” That realization left him forlorn. What, Alvord wondered, “in heaven, or hell, or on earth is the value of a professor of history?” Had the historian, Alvord asked, “ever offered any plausible excuse for his existence?”

As he wandered “aimlessly amidst the shadows of dead ambitions and frustrated hopes, phantoms of many efforts to save the world from its own insanity,” Alvord lamented that the historians who wrote before the war “experienced no difficulty in discovering signs of an upward progress. To them . . . the nations were goose-stepping in serried columns toward a better world, the millennium itself was evidently on the point of capitulating before the onslaught.”

They should have seen the slaughter coming. He should have seen it, too. But he didn’t and they didn’t. And millions died for causes that were not in the end worth the expenditure of a single human life. That progress? It was a lie. He looked out at the wreckage. “After such an error, what right have professors of history to speak?” Alvord thought none. “As I kick my heels on the edge of nothingness’ chasm,” he wrote, “I look as miserable and repentant as I can in my sackcloth suit and shampoo of ashes.”

WHAT IN HEAVEN, in hell, or on earth is the value of a professor of history? Not a thing, it seems, when they fail to ask tough questions and stop casting upon the evidence a critical eye.

My generation of historians, and the generation or generations of historians who have followed me, are not nearly as Whiggish as our profession once was. We know how bad things are, and we know the deep history of our country’s sins. While we are well aware that the world today is in so many ways better than it was in the past, we are far less inclined to focus on progress. We understand the depth of our imperfections. But too many of us still believe in what must be the biggest lie in American history: that he United States was a nation conceived in liberty, committed to justice for all.

If you have not seen this before, you must see it now. And if you cannot see it now, and if you are one of those who supported the President and his hollow sycophants in the Republican Party, it boggles my mind. How could you? We must stop repeating the lie.

REPUBLICANS HAD BEEN at war with historians long before the awful Lynne Cheney declared its “end” in a dismissive attack on the National History Standards which she published in the Wall Street Journal back in 1994. Those of us who teach Native American history have long told our students about all the colonialism, the cruelty, and the violence that rests at the foundation of this nation’s past. But too many of us describe the acts of racism and state-sanctioned violence, as well as the President’s recent strongman posturing, as somehow “UnAmerican.” “This is not who we are,” I hear people say. I am not so sure about hat. The President might lose the upcoming election and he might leave office afterwards–I am doubtful about both of these points–but the type of politics and the attitudes toward race he embraces are as American as apple pie. It is possible that this is who we are.

LET’S SAY THAT YOU and your partner go to see a therapist for some couple’s counseling. “She keeps breaking my stuff,” the husband says.

“Do you break your husband’s stuff?” the therapist asks.

Wiping away a tear, she nods her head.

“Tell me about that,” the therapist asks.

“I try to get him to talk about our problems. Every time I do he shuts me down. He sees neither my pain nor my anger. The only way I can get his attention is by breaking his stuff.”

“How does it make you feel to break his stuff?”

“I’m angry,” she says. “But it feels good for a minute or two, at least. I know it doesn’t make anything better, but I have been trying for so long.”

The therapist turns to the husband. “Do you hear what she is saying?”

“She’s breaking my stuff,” he says. “She admits it.”

“She has,” the therapist acknowledges, “but do you hear what she is saying about the reasons why?”

“I don’t care,” the husband says. “She is breaking my stuff. It’s wrong to do that.”

MOST AMERICANS, who are bad historians indeed, are like that husband as they look out at the riots. White supremacists–and by that I do not mean the assholes with hoods and swastikas and tiki-torches, but all of those who benefit and uphold systems and structures that have historically privileged white people at the expense of peoples of color–will focus on how people protest and not why.

Historians. We are the people who ask why. We must do this even when it is difficult to do so, even when it is frightening. The couple seeking a therapist will never heal by looking at the superficial. Good therapists share much with historians. They seek root causes. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans say to those burdened by the weight of injustice, “Why are you so angry?” You’re acting crazy. Stop being such a bitch.” So few of us have stopped and listened, acknowledged the pain, and joined in the efforts to carve a new path for this broken shell of a country.

Like Clarence Walworth Alvord, we can wallow in our despair. We can say that these have been some of the worst weeks in American history. But if your eyes were open, you saw this coming. And if your eyes are open you will see that in so many ways it is not getting better. “Racism isn’t getting worse,” Will Smith said. “It’s getting filmed.” It’s getting worse in all sorts of ways. Only a racist or a sociopath could want four more years of this.

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.

Dangerous Humors

It was all a joke, they said. You saw the video. The people were laughing. They thought it was funny. Geez. Where’s your sense of humor? Nothing was meant by it.

The “it,” of course, was the scene from the President’s latest “rally” in Florida. While riffing on the refugee crisis, the President wondered aloud what might be done about the problem of refugees crossing the border. One Florida Man audience member shouted, “Shoot them!”

The white people standing behind the President laughed out loud, shouted their approval, applauded, and hooted and hollered. The President, who has demonstrated his racism repeatedly, did not discourage this. No. He joined in. It’s genocide humor, and it has a long history. Students of Native American history ought to recognize that immediately.

Sometimes it is useful for historians to consider who is laughing at whom. Whose cultural values can be mocked, scorned, and caricatured?

At the outset of the encounter between natives and newcomers, Indians sometimes laughed at the Europeans they were coming to know. Their appearance, their customs, their cluelessness about survival in a new land: all caused Indians, on occasion, to laugh at them. But that soon changed. A Powhatan priest, for instance, late in the seventeenth century approached the overseer on William Byrd’s Virginia plantation. The priest offered to make rain in exchange for two bottles of rum. The priest began to work, and soon the rain fell. Byrd refused to pay the priest. Byrd, who was only joking, told the priest that “hew as a Cheat, and had seen the cloud a coming.” Only after teasing the priest some more did Byrd provide him with the rum. When another Powhatan healer worked to charm a rattlesnake that the planter William Claiborne had captured, Claiborne hit the snake with his cane, causing it to bite the healer. He recovered from the venomous bite, but to Claiborne it was all a joke. He and his associates got a good laugh out of it. Only joking.

Who is laughing at whom? The process continued. Americans in the 1830s described the Mexicans and Pueblos who inhabited New Mexico as backwards and barbaric, as people “peculiarly blessed with ugliness,” and a “lazy and gossiping people” who lived “in darkness and ignorance.” This racist rhetoric provided, of course, a justification for empire, as American imperialists occupied their land. They would uplift the savages as they took their land. John Watts, a delegate from New Mexico in the 1860s told Congress that it should ban the liquor trade in the territory. If alcohol poisoning, however, was an “easy and a pleasant way to die,” he suggested that Congress might permit “the poor Indian, for whom our sympathies run out in uninterrupted stream, to enjoy the privilege of dying in that glorious manner?” According to the record, laughter followed Watts’ joke, genocide humor on Capitol Hill.

When the suffering of a particular group, today as in history, becomes the subject of a dominant group’s humor, that says much about the morality, compassion, and wisdom of that dominant group. Talk of shooting immigrants will accompany the actual shooting of immigrants. Indeed, less than a month ago federal authorities arrested a self-constituted militia leader who held refugees at gunpoint on the southern border. Talk of native peoples’ inhumanity always preceded violent acts of inhumanity by the dominant group. It preceded George Percy’s expedition against the Paspaheghs early in the seventeenth century when the English soldiers amused themselves by “shooting out the brains” of the Native American children they had taken captive. It preceded the “trophy taking” that took place after the Sand Creek Massacre, when Colorado militia forces castrated the bodies of the men they gunned down, and it preceded the standing ovation opera-goers gave in Denver when scalps taken by these cavalrymen were displayed at intermission. It preceded the “many bad deeds” white people did to the Crows after they settled on their Montana Reservation. White Ranchers, the Crow woman Pretty Shield said, “gunned down Crow horse, she recalled bitterly, as though they “were wolves that killed the white man’s sheep.” She recalled the time when “white cowboys mead a deaf and dumb Crow boy on the plains, and because he could not answer their questions, could not even hear what they said, they roped him and dragged him to his death.” James Byrd, the African-American man dragged to his death in 1998 in Jasper Texas: his death, too, took place at the hands of men deeply committed to their racist values, including their racist jokes.

The President is stirring up a noxious brew of lethal ingredients. The dangerous humors unleashed are toxic, and will have horrible consequences. He was only joking, you might say. Loosen up. It was meant to be funny. But we all know that racist activity is on the increase, that those who hold these views have been emboldened. The white people in the photograph at the top of this post–they are smiling, too, at a lynching. The brutal rhetoric that preceded this sort of violence is becoming more common. It is encoded, but it is there. And it is happening more openly and more often. Those who laugh at the notion of racist violence, at genocide humor, will be judged harshly by historians. They might be “very fine people” individually, but theirs is a moral failing, and it is racist. We who study the past have seen this before. Too often, dehumanization leads to violence. Dehumanization is the precondition to violence.

The Problem of Racial Sterotypes–It’s Not Just Native Americans Who Are Victims

Oh, Penfield.

For years you have held a lacrosse tournament the first weekend in May. You call it “Cinco de Laxo,” an obvious play on that made-up American holiday that takes place every May 5th.

To promote this tournament, like most lacrosse tournament organizers and promoters, you produce posters and t-shirts. Nothing surprising in this at all. But in your promotional efforts, you utilize racist caricatures of Mexicans, images as deeply offensive as the Cleveland Indians’ “Chief Wahoo” logo, and the Blackface imagery that still crops up too often (even at my college, unfortunately).

I have been complaining about this for quite some time. My kids have never played in this tournament. They never will, even though they play lacrosse. I wrote to the members of the Penfield School Board. Penfield Lacrosse uses school property for its events, and links to the high school program on its website. I wrote to the superintendent of Penfield Schools. I wrote to every member of the board on Penfield Lacrosse. Not one of you bothered to respond.

I have heard from parents in Penfield who see these images as perfectly acceptable.

They are not. At a time when our presiding tyrant routinely demonizes refugees from Central America, denounces Mexicans as “murderers and rapists,” gins up fears of crimes and drugs crossing the border, and in general stokes the fires of racism and white supremacy by coddling the Klansmen of Charlottesville, the last thing we need is a youth lacrosse league peddling in such damaging images.

Because when you reduce a group of people to a caricature based on some of the worst sterotypes about them, when you appropriate images from the past to falsely and inaccurately define people who are still here today, you in effect trivialize their claims to justice, and aid and abet the racists and vigilantes and the border troglodytes who terrorize refugees while playing army along the southern border. When, through your promotional materials, you deploy images that bestialize an entire group of people, you provide cover for those who feel that these people are “illegal,” or “dangerous,” or an invading force, or that odious policies like family separation are entirely justified.

One parent wrote to me and said that I should suggest an alternative image that Penfield Lacrosse could use. Maybe there is an image of Mexicans you could use to make this more palatable.

There is not. You need to stop. Call your tournament, the Spring Fest, or the May Day Parade, or something other than this. These images are racist and demeaning, they are hurtful and harmful, and they do nothing to make people of color feel welcome in the town of Penfield.

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.

Incarceration Rates for Native Americans

Many of my students have seen The 13th, the scathing documentary that looks at the close relationship between racism and violence in modern America.  Not only does the United States, with 5% of the world’s population, incarcerate nearly a quarter of the people on earth who live their lives behind bars, but it does so in a manner where African Americans are are disproportionately represented in the prison population.  Racism is alive and well in this Incarceration Nation.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the prison system.  My good friend runs a blog detailing her experiences as the wife of an inmate incarcerated under New York’s inhumane Rockefeller drug laws.  And many of our students read Heather Thompson’s book on Attica last fall.  Professor Thompson was on campus, as were a number of people who had been involved in the Attica uprising and its aftermath. A student in my Indian Law class asked about incarceration rates for Native Americans.  I had always assumed that Native Americans, in states with large Native American populations, were over-represented in those state prison populations.

There is information on jails in Indian Country here. It is a broad, national picture.  For the Native American population incarcerated in “local jails,” which are defined as “confinement facilities administered by local or regional law enforcement agencies and private facilities operated under contract to such agencies. They exclude jails administered by federal, state prison, or tribal authorities,” you can read more here. For the federal prison system, an overview can be found here.

In Montana, where I lived and taught for four years. Native Americans were significantly over-represented in the states prison population. The Prison Policy Initiative has assembled a really helpful website that allowed me to increase my understanding of this important issue.


2010 graph showing incarceration rates per 100,000 people of various racial and ethnic groups in Montana


racial and ethnic disparities between the prison/jail and general population in MT as of 2010

For Arizona, a state with a large Native American population, the figures are a bit less stark than they are for Montana.


racial and ethnic disparities between the prison/jail and general population in AZ as of 2010


For other states with large Native American populations, here is a run down on the figures:

State                                          Percentage of Population           Percentage of Incarcerated Population

New Mexico                                               9%                                                           11%

South Dakota                                            9%                                                            29%

North Dakota                                            5%                                                            29%

Utah                                                            1%                                                             4%

Washington                                              2%                                                              5%

Oklahoma                                                 7%                                                              8%

Alaska                                                        15%                                                          38%

Minnesota                                                 1%                                                             8%

For other states, you can see the reports here, including tables on the number of people in each racial demographic per 100,000 in population by clicking here.

There Are Big Problems Out There

Halloween is right around the corner. I have written about why you should not dress up in a Native American costume before on this blog, and there is no shortage of commentary out there on the Internet Machine about why doing so can be destructive, hurtful, stupid, and in bad taste. Dressing like indigenous peoples, and the appropriation of the outward manifestations of Native American culture by non-Indians: they are common complaints. You do not have to work hard to hear it or read about it.

The Pendleton Company, for instance, manufacturer of clothing for your grandparents, has recently come out with a line of Harry Potter-inspired blankets.  That they are ugly we will set aside for the moment. The blankets clearly appropriate Native American motifs and images. Pendleton, indeed, has long stood accused of appropriating Native American imagery in its designs, and despite my feelings about these particular blankets, I imagine they will sell lots of them to people who want to make their homes “feel like Hogwarts.”

We could come up, if we wanted to, with hundreds of pictures of tasteless Native American costumes, hundreds of instances where non-Indian corporations profit or attempt to profit by appropriating Native American culture. (Though dated, Michael Brown’s Who Owns Native Culture is still a useful introduction to the issues).

Cultural appropriation is in bad taste. It is hurtful to some and angers many others. I do not doubt the sincerity of those sentiments for a second.  But these instances of cultural appropriation are relatively easy to point out, criticize, and in some instances, to remedy through education . And, let’s be honest: there are more intractable problems out there and some of them result in more than hurt feelings and pedestrian American Studies papers.  People are losing their lives and peoples are losing their lands.  Some perspective might be in order.

Here is my point. Sometimes I wonder if cultural appropriation is so big a problem that it justifies the amount of time devoted to it. For some people, yes, it is a big issue.  It is an important cause.  But I feel like there are bigger fish to fry.

Is it a bigger problem than the growing number of missing and murdered indigenous women and children in North America, which has become a major public issue in Canada but has only recently begun to attract attention in the United States?

Does it pose a greater challenge than the disparities that have endured for far too long in nearly every measure of social well-being between native peoples and other Americans?  The gaps in many of these areas have closed gradually over the past few decades, but progress has been painfully slow.

Or the readiness with which militarized police forces deploy violence that has, at it has done among African Americans, given rise to expressions that “Native Lives Matter“?  I do not mean to refer solely to the grotesque violence meted out on the peaceful #NODAPL protesters at Standing Rock.  This problem is significant, and it leaves behind it broken lives and grieving people.

Or the avarice and determination with which state governments and the Interior Department under Secretary Ryan Zinke view Indian Country as a resource to be exploited, and which leads them to attempt to skim the cream off of whatever prosperity comes to Native America?

And the continuing assaults on Native American nationhood, the empty pledges made by the United States to honor the commitments that came with its belated acceptance of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

I could keep going.

I spend time in my classes talking about cultural appropriation. I want students to think about its consequences for native peoples, but also to engage with why non-native peoples have for so long felt the need to engage in this behavior, and how their justifications for it have changed over time.  I spend time on the mascot issue, too.

But, for me, there are some things I cannot change, and I have reluctantly come to accept over the years that no matter what I do, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and seven days in a week. I teach my three courses every week, hold office hours, prepare for my classes, and try to do a bit of my own research in addition to keeping up with the massive scholarship in my field. I meet with my advisees, attend the meetings I am required to attend where the many decisions that need to be made on a college campus are sometimes made.  On busy weeks, I spend my time wading through the take-home essays I assign in lieu of in-class exams.  With family obligations to boot, my time is pretty tight.

In other words, I have to choose my battles. The Washington Redskins and Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo? Yes, they are racist, and so are you, maybe just a little bit, if these images do not bother you. And the many instances of cultural appropriation brought to my attention on the Internet Machine? I can laugh them off, ignore them, work myself up and take offense, bitch and whine, or view them as an opportunity to set the record straight, a teachable moment as they say in the education industry.

I have made a similar point before about the “Mascot Issue.” Even if the NFL has been particularly unwilling to budge on this issue, mascots are relatively easy to do away with if you complain loudly enough, and in company with enough of your allies, to a school board, or a college, or a university.  Other issues–lack of protection for native peoples’ lives, liberties, and property in Indian Country; economic injustice and pervasive poverty; resource exploitation and environmental despoliation; attacks on sovereignty, and nationhood, and continuing injustice– these present much more difficult challenges, with progress slow and seldom guaranteed.  Historians will tell you that there are more dangerous racists than this dude to the left here, dressed up for a baseball game. Yeah, he’s an asshole, but there are far nastier people out there.

We who teach have limited resources at our disposal. Our time is limited. For the amount of education we have received, we earn relatively low salaries. If we are active researchers, as we should be, the hours we work are even longer. So we need to choose our battles.  You want to fight over mascots? Go ahead. Thanks to your efforts, and the efforts of your predecessors, these mascots have fallen out of favor nearly everywhere but in Washington, D. C. You want to get angry about Pendleton’s tacky blankets, or at Kylie Jenner for the name she gave to one of her new old lipstick colors, or other appropriations of native culture, go ahead. You have raised awareness, and thanks to your efforts, more people than ever understand that certain types of costume, display, representation, and marketing are hardly innocent.

But let’s not lose sight of the real enemies: racist police forces and law enforcement; the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; poor history and civics education that leaves most Americans entirely ignorant of their country’s Native American past and present; and the enduring colonialism of the American empire.  Do away with the mascots, reduce the amount of cultural appropriation, but let’s not exaggerate its effectiveness. Fewer Native American mascots, fewer Indian Halloween costumes, and less cultural appropriation will not increase life expectancy or  reduce the economic privation experienced by those living in Native American communities. Nor will quality of life improve in First Nations and Native American communities.  The number of young people, in the throes of desperation or enduring a legacy of intergenerational trauma, or the numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and children, will not be reduced one bit. Violence and suffering in Native American communities would not cease, police would not become more tolerant, and state and corporate interests no less avaricious in their desire to exploit Native American lands. And unpacking stereotypical representations of indigenous peoples will not help secure the lives, liberties, and properties of Native American and First Nations people.

So what do you want to fight about? Be honest. Some causes are easier than others, and some will require of you a greater investment, and involvement in them will carry heavier consequences.  Some of these issues are quite literally matters of life and death.  And some of these problems might hurt your feelings.  Others, and you know this if you have read Native America, can break your heart.  It is up to you to decide.


Human Trafficking in Indian Country

“Human trafficking, the exploitation of a person typically through force, fraud, or coercion for such purposes as forced labor, involuntary servitude, or commercial sex,” Gretta L. Goodwin of the Government Accountability Office told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs yesterday, is “occurring in the United States.”  Drawing upon evidence from the Office of the Attorney General,  traffickers seek out vulnerable individuals.  This vulnerability, Goodwin said, “comes in many forms, including age (minors), poverty, homelessness, chemical dependency, prior experiences of abuse, involvement in foster care programs, and lack of resources or support systems.”

Native Americans, she argued, are indeed such a vulnerable population.  Goodwin cited statistics familiar to those of us who study Indian Country.  28 percent of native peoples live in poverty nationwide, compared to 15% of the general population.  According to “the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 27 percent of Native American women have been raped in their lifetime compared to 18 percent of American women overall.”  Native American children are twice as likely as other children to enter the foster care system.

These figures, and their significance, were underscored by Nicole Matthews, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Woman’s Sexual Assault Coalition.  The Native American women she and her associates interviewed demonstrated that historical trauma and childhood sexual abuse “were a precursor or antecedent for the women who were used in trafficking.” Indeed, Matthews testified, “79% of the women we interviewed were sexually abused as children, by an average of four perpetrators; and 67% of victims reported that they had family members who were sent to boarding schools, and most were abused in those boarding schools.”  Matthews’ research is available here.  It is a stunning document.

Cindy McCain, who participates on the Arizona Governor’s Council on Human Trafficking, spoke last at the Committee hearing. She told the senators that she would soon participate in an anti-trafficking roundtable in North Dakota. She wanted the senators to know that the remoteness of the Bakken area in that state, and

“the high unemployment rate of nearby Indian reservations, combined with the oil and gas boom, have created a hotbed for trafficking.  Victims are mostly Native American women and girls transported to the region specifically for sex trafficking. Many of these victims are under the age of 18. Children being sold for sex. Outward and organized child abuse and rape.”

McCain pointed out that human trafficking had enslaved more than 41 million people worldwide.  It is, she said, an organized crime.  But it is also a crime of opportunity for, she argued, “Native American girls and women are all too often trafficked by their own relatives.” McCain had seen herself six small girls “lined up against a wall in an Indian casino outside of Phoenix on display for customers.”

McCain did not provide evidence for the involvement of Native American families in the trafficking of their young relatives, and her claim that Native American girls fetched a high price because of their “exotic beauty” is painful to read.  Still, she and the other witnesses raised some important issues.

There is a dearth of evidence.  Of the 132 tribal law enforcement agencies (LEA) that responded to the GAO’s request for information, 27 reported that they had conducted investigations between 2014 and 2016 that involved human trafficking.  And, according to Goodwin,

“Nearly half of tribal LEA respondents (60 of 132) reported that they believe human trafficking is occurring on tribal land in their jurisdictions beyond what had been brought to their attention. Officials from two tribal LEAs told us during in-person meetings that in their experience some victims do not come forward to report their victimization because they are embarrassed or feel ashamed. Several survey respondents also indicated that they suspect there is more human trafficking than what has been reported to them because of the presence of casinos on their land (14 of 60). For example, officials from one LEA explained that the tribal casino hotel may be used as a venue for sex trafficking. Some respondents (13 of 60) suspect that sex trafficking may be occurring as part of some of the drug crimes that they investigate. Officials from one county LEA we visited near a tribal community told us that officers may not recognize that human trafficking is taking place, particularly when it occurs alongside another crime like drug trafficking.”

The Justice Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Homeland Security–all of them provide grants to help combat human trafficking, but the problem remains ill-defined, one of great magnitude but hazy borders.  More resources are needed still.  Jurisdiction is a critical issue, as well. Much of the trafficking is supported by non-Indians who are in all but a few instances beyond prosecution by tribal authorities.  More information is needed. Tracy Tolou, the director of the Office of Tribal Justice in DOJ said that data limitations are significant.  It is hard to know the scope of the problem when it remains so difficult to investigate and prosecute.  According to Jason Thompson, the acting director of the Office of Justice Services in the BIA, only twelve investigations by his office have been conducted over the past four years, with only 23 defendants prosecuted.

This is crime on the margins. When I discuss problems related to the issues the Senate Committee confronted in my Indian law class, there is a sense among some of my students that this sort of exploitation and violence is inevitable.  Native communities are poor.  They are isolated.  The Supreme Court has made the prosecution of non-Indians by tribal law enforcement officers difficult where it is not impossible. I ask the students what might be done.  They struggle to think of answers.  I understand the difficulties.  I appreciate their efforts to think of solutions.

Native American history is a story of tragedy, of violence, of crime, of theft and plunder. It is, at other times, a story of blundering goodwill.  Even those who want to do right often do damage.  I have made my career teaching students this history and writing about it.  I once got involved in an argument with a conservative friend who said that if these problems went away, I would be out of a job. That I want to find things to bitch about.  It is a stupid argument, and I told my friend this.  I am a historian. I would love for these problems to be part of the past.  And that might be my insight on this story, as a historian.  We, as a nation and as individuals, have choices.  We are not doomed to repeat the past, and we do not have to continue walking that ragged path that we have walked for so long. There are choices here. Write your representatives and senators.  Write the Attorney General and the President. Given the people currently occupying many of those offices, it is difficult to be optimistic, but these are problems that can be ameliorated.  It is a choice.  We can do more.