Category Archives: Race and Racism

Creative Destruction: Or, Let’s Bash Some Monuments

It’s what we do, at least metaphorically. For historians, the destruction of monuments can be a good thing, a visceral and often-times important act of revision. It is an opportunity to replace dated and damaging interpretations of the past with more complicated, nuanced, and correct stories. We do not necessarily need to destroy Confederate statues to do this, but certainly we can reinterpret them, knock them down a few pegs, and re-write the stories that these racist monuments to white supremacy attempt to tell. Stick them in a museum, if you want, but let’s not pretend these are sacred sites.

There was a news story I caught at the end of last week.  Among the many vicious clowns and tiki-torch bearing, racist weenies in Charlottesville, was Mr. Jerrod Kuhn, a graduate of Honeoye Falls-Lima High School. It’s about ten miles from where I live. Kuhn was photographed marching with the white supremacists while they chanted “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” “Blood and Soil,” and “White Lives Matter.”  Kuhn said, however, that he was neither a Nazi nor a white-supremacist.  Rather, he was a “moderate Republican”(!) marching to protest efforts to eliminate statues and monuments commemorating the Confederacy and the cause for which it stood–White Supremacy.  When some of Kuhn’s anti-fascist neighbors saw his picture with the marchers, they publicized this bit of news, arguing that local residents should know that there is a Nazi in town.  And Kuhn cried foul. He was afraid. Some of his neighbors were being mean to him.  Boo-Freakin-Hoo. If you dance with the devil, people are going to think you are a sinner, and the monuments Kuhn marched to protect and which commemorated the Confederacy were erected not immediately after the Civil War, but several decades later, at the beginning of the Jim Crow era.  It is an interpretation of the Civil War that has endured, in the face of all the evidence, for far too long. If taking down statues which lionize slave-owners who were willing to kill US Soldiers in order to hang on to their human property and the system of white supremacy that lay at the bedrock of southern society is what’s at stake, then let them fall.

I have thought a lot about Charlottesville.  I have thought about the President’s support for the so-called “Alt-Right” movement.  As I mentioned in a post last week, I really do not care what the President says: systems of white supremacy are deeply ingrained. Trump has emboldened the Nazis and the Troglodytes, but those people have been living under rocks quite contentedly for generations, surfacing periodically. Even though Steve Bannon has lumbered away from the White House, and Donald Trump is saying whatever the hell it is that he occasionally says, white supremacy will endure. It is institutional, and it is part of what we are as a nation.

I have thought, however, about what all of this might mean to those of us who teach and study Native American history, a field in which we might not discuss white supremacy enough.

After I moved to Montana in 1994, one of my first trips was to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield site, about an hour or so away from Billings.  In the small visitor’s center stood a iron plaque, about a yard square, that had been placed at the battlefield by Native American activists in the summer of 1988.  It read,

In honor of our Indian Patriots who fought and defeated the U.S. calvary. In order to save our women and children from mass-murder. In doing so, preserving rights to our Homelands, Treaties and Sovereignty. 6/25/1988 G. Magpie, Cheyenne.

You can read about the history of this plaque here.  It was a protest.  An attempt to replace one monument with another, a somber remembrance of the men Custer led to their deaths in June of 1876 with a monument commemorating the efforts of the Lakota warriors who fought to protect their homelands, even if the battle took place in Crow Country. Some viewed the plaque as an act of vandalism.  But it forced a conversation. Custer was no hero.  His men fought to eliminate Lakota people, to take their homelands, and the mineral wealth that lie beneath it.  The native peoples who fought them were not obstacles to progress.  But that is how they were depicted.

The protest mattered. It gained attention.  It forced a conversation, a reconsideration.  The National Park Service responded.  When a permanent monument was erected at the battlefield site in 2003, the native peoples who participated in that protest, who defied the rangers and cemented their iron plaque over the list of Custer’s dead cavalrymen, came as invited guests.

History is not merely a collection of facts.  You can see, for instance, how Custer has been depicted over the years.  Walt Whitman described him as a Christ-like figure, one who sacrificed himself in the name of western civilization and the conquest of the American West.

From far Dakota’s canyons,
  Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lonesome stretch, the
      silence,
  Haply to-day a mournful wall, haply a trumpet-note for heroes.

  The battle-bulletin,
  The Indian ambuscade, the craft, the fatal environment,
  The cavalry companies fighting to the last in sternest heroism,
  In the midst of their little circle, with their slaughter’d horses
      for breastworks,
  The fall of Custer and all his officers and men.

  Continues yet the old, old legend of our race,
  The loftiest of life upheld by death,
  The ancient banner perfectly maintain’d,
  O lesson opportune, O how I welcome thee!

  As sitting in dark days,
  Lone, sulky, through the time’s thick murk looking in vain for
      light, for hope,
  From unsuspected parts a fierce and momentary proof,
  (The sun there at the centre though conceal’d,
  Electric life forever at the centre,)
  Breaks forth a lightning flash.

  Thou of the tawny flowing hair in battle,
  I erewhile saw, with erect head, pressing ever in front, bearing a
      bright sword in thy hand,
  Now ending well in death the splendid fever of thy deeds,
  (I bring no dirge for it or thee, I bring a glad triumphal sonnet,)
  Desperate and glorious, aye in defeat most desperate, most glorious,
  After thy many battles in which never yielding up a gun or a color,
  Leaving behind thee a memory sweet to soldiers,
  Thou yieldest up thyself.

A century later, Richard Mulligan portrayed Custer in “Little Big Man” as an unhinged madman, a preening martinet, in love with his own reflection, and lusting for Indian blood.  He spouted lines that would have sounded familiar to a movie audience exhausted and angry about the Vietnam War. He represented all the foolishness, the arrogance, and the stupidity that led the United States into an imperial war it could not win.  Custer, Westmoreland, light at the end of the tunnel, we must always advance.  It was a stunning revision of Custer’s carefully cultivated image.

Interpretations change.  Monuments are not history. They are interpretations of history.  And as such, they are not sacred.  They are open to challenge, to question.  And if the claims they make are wrong or over-simplified or pernicious–Custer was heroic, or the South fought for “States’ Rights,” for example– than they ought to be replaced, revised, rewritten.  My point is that we historians, when we do our jobs well, destroy monuments ALL. THE. TIME.  We ask tough questions.  We challenge long-cherished assumptions.  We are not precious, and we should hold nothing sacred but a determination to work the sources thoroughly and honestly in order to get the story right.

And then there is the story of Juan de Oñate’s foot.  A statue of the Spanish Conquistador, considered a “Founding Father” of New Mexico, stood in the town of Alcalde.  In January of 1998, as the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Mexico approached, protestors armed with a chainsaw cut the right foot off the statue.  For them, this conquistador was no hero. They were, in effect, writing an alternative version of the Oñate story, commemorating the violent Spaniard’s brutal order to cut the right foot off of two dozen Acoma Pueblo prisoners who had resisted his advance.  I wrote about this event in Native America. The sculptor repaired the statue, but the missing foot never was returned.

We can call this act vandalism, or the destruction of public property, the sort of stuff that Vice-President Mike Pence has said he deplores.  It was those things, but it also was an act of reinterpretation, of historical revision. Douglas Seefeldt made this point in a paper entitled “Oñate’s Foot: Histories, Landscapes, and Contested Memories in the Southwest,” published in Across the Continent: Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and the Making of America, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2005. Seefeldt edited this volume, along with Jeffrey L. Hantman and Peter Onuf. While some might excuse Oñate’s violence, and celebrate his founding of the Spanish province that became the state of New Mexico, and his bringing the cattle industry to what became the American Southwest, the people who removed the foot from the statue reminded New Mexicans of another side to the story, and demonstrated that history consists of many narratives and many voices.  Not all these voices are heard.  Not all of them are listened to.  And sometimes, to register, to move the debate, dramatic acts are necessary.

I like this poem that tells the story of the removal of Oñate’s foot, and the subsequent celebration of another, larger, statue of the conquistador erected near El Paso:

The Right Foot of Juan De Oñate”By Martín Espada

On the road to Taos, in the town of Alcalde, the bronze statue
of Juan de Oñate, the conquistador, kept vigil from his horse.
Late one night a chainsaw sliced off his right foot, stuttering
through the ball of his ankle, as Oñate’s spirit scratched
and howled like a dog trapped within the bronze body.
Four centuries ago, after his cannon fire burst to burn hundreds
of bodies and blacken the adobe walls of the Acoma Pueblo,
Oñate wheeled on his startled horse and spoke the decree:
all Acoma males above the age of twenty-five would be punished
by amputation of the right foot. Spanish knives sawed through ankles;
Spanish hands tossed feet into piles like fish at the marketplace.
There was prayer and wailing in a language Oñate did not speak.
Now, at the airport in El Paso, across from Juárez,
another bronze statue of Oñate rises on a horse frozen in fury.
The city fathers smash champagne bottles across the horse’s legs
to christen the statue, and Oñate’s spirit remembers the chainsaw
carving through the ball of his ankle. The Acoma Pueblo still stands.
Thousands of brown feet walk across the border, the desert
of Chihuaha, the shallow places of the Río Grande, the bridges
from Juárez to El Paso. Oñate keeps watch, high on horseback
above the Río Grande, the law of the conquistador rolled
in his hand, helpless as a man with an amputated foot,
spirit scratching and howling like a dog within the bronze body.

Interpretations of Native American history are everywhere, and I often encourage students to seek them out, to engage them in a debate, to interrogate their biases and assumptions.  Good comes from this.  Every day from first through sixth grade I saw this mural on the wall of Our Lady of Assumption Church in Ventura, where I grew up and went to elementary school.  It presents a rosy picture of the arrival of the Spanish priests at Mission San Buenaventura, one not at all consistent with how scholars see that encounter today.  Nobody has suggested removing this mural to my knowledge, but it stands testament to an interpretation highly favorable to the Catholic Church.

We write history; we do not create monuments. Our purpose is not civic education or instilling patriotism. As I have said before, history is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space in peoples, institutions, and cultures.  That requires asking tough questions, researching relentlessly, and presenting answers that are sometimes painful to hear.  And too much of the history that has been included on these Confederate monuments and monuments to conquistadors and conquerors is, quite simply, bad history.

In two weeks the town of Geneseo, where my college is located, will be commemorating the 1797 “Treaty of Big Tree.” It is a big deal in town. As a guest of the college, you might stay in the Big Tree Inn.  Dining halls on campus are named after Mary Jemison, who knew much about the treaty, and Red Jacket, who got screaming drunk before he signed it.  For those who do not want to drink where students drink, the tavern at the Big Tree is one of a small handful of choices along Geneseo’s short main street.  If you want to take in the sights, you can go to the Livingston County Historical Society, spitting distance from the campus, and see what its curators claim is an actual piece of the “Big Tree,” under which the treaty was negotiated.  And according to a historical marker located in a campus parking lot, this treaty was significant.  The sign reads, “Treaty Of Big Tree:  Site Of Memorable Treaty Releasing Seneca Title To 3,600,000 Acres Of Land September 15, 1797.”

Releasing title.  3. 6 million acres.  Wow.  This treaty was an alcohol-soaked affair in which Thomas Morris, the non-bankrupt son of the bankrupt financier of the American Revolution and not-too-successful land speculator Robert Morris, employed bribery and alcohol to obtain signatures to a grotesquely corrupt real estate transaction. The Senecas, who had little choice, signed over the right to nearly all of the land in New York State west of the Genesee River save for eleven reservations. Over time, those reservations were whittled down to four, and then two, and now three.  In return for this massive cession, and the bribes he agreed to pay several Seneca leaders, Thomas Morris invested $100,000 dollars in stock of the Bank of the United States, the interest of which was paid to the Senecas most years thereafter.  Some years the amount came to nearly six thousand dollars; other years it was half that.  Why did this happen?  Stuart Banner answers tough questions like this in his excellent How the Indians Lost Their Land, a book I use in my Indian Law course.  The territory was massive; the Senecas’ population small.  The speculators and the settlers were coming.  Better to sell now, get something, and preserve a few key locations than walk away empty-handed. Dispossession.  Land loss. The removal from homes and homelands.  That story is given short-shrift in the celebratory histories of Geneseo and Livingston County. Signs like this one, as the Haudenosaunee scholar Rick Hill has argued, should be re-written.   Rick put together a pamphlet some years ago in which he wrote brief retorts to these ethnocentric markers that seemingly justify the dispossession of Haudenosaunee people and the resulting Iroquois diaspora.

So to those of you who marched in Charlottesville, or sympathize with them, let me make this clear: when we historians suggest that your markers and monuments ought to come down, we are not trying to steal your history and heritage.  History belongs to no one and your heritage, well, good luck with that.  You are on your own. We are suggesting that the interpretation of the past that you cling to, rather, is not only incorrect and oversimplified, but in some cases pernicious and a justification for past evils and continuing historical crimes. We hope we can reason with you, and persuade you with evidence to see things our way.   We are educators, after all, who have spent our adult lives studying history.  We know some stuff. (Some of the other people complaining about you? Yeah, they think you’re racist assholes, and some of them want to beat you up, but I don’t speak for them).  Facts, evidence, explanation: That is the world of the historian.  Myth, fantasy, and ideological comfort food–that is where the monument boosters stand.  Our goals are different. Yours are about justifying your views of the past.  Ours?  We like to think that we are speaking and writing about the truth.

And here’s a challenge for those of you who do not like what we say.  I tell my students this every semester. Ask us for the evidence.  I promise you, we will do the same.  We will support our claims with evidence, and ask that you do, too. If you hear something that you do not believe, ask us for the proof.   That is fair. I tell my students, it is entirely fair for them to ask their history professors not only, “What is the evidence for this claim?” but, also, “So What? Why does this story matter?” No historian worth his or her salt will be threatened by that question.  We can take it.  Can you?

 

Why I Should Probably Boycott the NFL this Season

It’s not because the Buffalo Bills will be terrible.  As a long-suffering fan, I am used to all that the Bills give their supporters–strange draft choices, poor coaching, fluky management, and a game-day environment that all-too-often can resemble an afternoon on the Ice Planet Hoth but with way more shitty, over-priced beer.

In part, it is because of the increasing evidence of the danger of the sport.  Years ago, both of my sons played football in high school.  Today, I would try to persuade them to do something else.  There is something truly disturbing about supporting a “game,” or business, that produces thrills and excitement to be sure, but also broken bodies and damaged brains. The NFL has made some token gestures to try to make the sport more safe, but it does not seem like they have done enough. Maybe they can’t do much.  Maybe it is only a matter of time, as Arizona Cardinals Quarterback Carson Palmer once said, before a hard hit kills a player on the field.  Wonder what the League’s contingency plan for that event is.  Would you be surprised if the game went on? Cart him off, stick him on ice, and snap the ball.

Partially it is the treatment of former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been blackballed by NFL owners and management for first deciding to take a knee during the National Anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  His protest was respectful and never “disruptive.” His teammates said he never was a “distraction.” Kaepernick is not a bad guy, and he has put his money behind his actions, supporting parolees, for instance, by giving them new suits.  His treatment by the NFL is appalling. I have never played football, but I refuse to believe he is a worse player than some of the 70 some quarterbacks who will be on NFL rosters when the season begins in a couple of weeks.  I mean, have you watched the Jets? Jeez.  And I know the Bills could use him.  He is like Tyrod Taylor, only tall enough to see over the defensive line.  The political conservatism of the NFL is notorious, and its persecution and punishment of Kaepernick absolutely infuriates me.

And, in part, it is the NFL’s unwillingness to do anything at all about the Washington football team’s use of a racial slur as its team name.  Several years ago, I wrote an editorial which appeared in an Albany newspaper about the R-skins logo.  At the time, I honestly believed some progress was being made, that market forces and adverse decisions in the federal court system would increase pressure on or eliminate trademark protection for the team.  I wrote that “the Redskins name should go and likely will as pressure mounts on Redskins owner Dan Snyder and the NFL from prominent athletes, U.S. senators, native peoples, the general public, and most recently [Hilary} Clinton. The team will continue to protest. Its lawyers, predictably, will continue to fight. But it is only a matter of time. The mascot issue is a problem where the solutions can come easy, and it is an issue that growing numbers of non-Indians support.”

But I also felt in 2014 that it was an issue of less consequence than many of the others facing native peoples.

Forcing Daniel Snyder to change his team’s name likely will do little to help solve the significant problems facing native nations. While a growing number of non-Indian Americans have joined in efforts to counter offensive Native American mascots, they pay too little attention to more difficult issues that affect the lives of millions of Native American people.

Too many Indian communities, for instance, continue to struggle to enjoy the measured sovereignty permitted them by the most anti-Indian Supreme Court in American history. State and local governments mount aggressive campaigns designed to skim the cream off of the fragile prosperity that has emerged in some native communities, looking to tax gaming and retail businesses located on Indian land in opposition to a constitutional logic that has stood for almost 190 years. They challenge American Indian tribal sovereignty, and the pressure at times is relentless

Meanwhile, Native Americans have lower life expectancy, higher rates of death from cancer, injury and suicide, and are more likely to be poor, unemployed, and the victims of violent crime than their non-Indian neighbors.

These other problems facing Indian country are more vexing, the solutions more elusive, than abandoning a team nickname. What is to be done about poverty and unemployment and a lack of opportunity in Indian communities, all the bitter fruits of colonization and subjugation? What can be done to restore lands taken illegally, or for a fraction of their real value, from native peoples? What to do when federal courts have limited the religious rights of native peoples to worship as they so choose, and curtailed other freedoms as well?

I still feel that way, but the stubborn protection of the team’s name by the league and owner Daniel Snyder is deeply troubling.  The R-skins helmet insignia draws upon images from the Native American past.  Ask any non-native person to recite to you the images that come to mind when you say “Native American” or “American Indian.”  What images will come to their minds?  They will speak of images from the past, of leather, feathers, and beads. Snyder and many of the team’s fans assert that the name honors native peoples. Please. His is a patently stupid argument. By casting native peoples as part of the past, even if doing so was not meant to offend, it becomes easier to deny the just grievances of native peoples today.  No group of people in North America spends more time justifying and explaining their existence to white people as do Native Americans.  In the NFL, players can be fined for twerking.  They can be fined for pretending to slice the throat of an opponent, or for pretending to fire an arrow. But the NFL does nothing about a team nickname that depicts native peoples as savage and warlike, and feeds upon long enduring racist stereotypes.

I am surrounded by delusional Bills fans, those who despite all evidence expect the team to somehow end a playoff drought that is older than three of my children.  Like a burning car on the side of the road, it is sometimes difficult not to watch the Bills.  Despite my best intentions, I may find myself watching a portion of a game. But I will no longer be able to do that with a clear conscience.

On Charlottesville, and Our National Character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a. Slavs

b. Celts

c. Cherokee

d. Zawa Chemi.”

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

Indian-Bashing in Syracuse? The Crisis at the Onondaga Nation School

This is a story worth watching.  Laura Lavine is the superintendent of the Lafayette School district, which operates with state funding the Onondaga Nation School.  She is also the Republican Party candidate for mayor in the city of Syracuse. 

Lavine runs on the slogan that she is “Progressive, Professional, and Prepared,” and there is scarce mention of the Grand Old Party on her website. She has pledged to get tough on crime in the city, improve its schools, and improve the quality of life in Syracuse neighborhoods.  She clearly attempts on her website to cast herself in a more open, welcoming, and tolerant manner than the national Republican party.  From my perspective, it does not appear to be working.

Onondagas have fought for this school.  The Onondaga Nation has placed on its website this 1978 video highlighting some of the school’s history. The founding of the school is a central part of the story of the awakening of Onondaga activism beginning in the early 1970s.  There have been Onondaga and non-native principals, and the relationship between the Nation School and the Lafayette school board has long been tense.  Onondagas have boycotted the school before.  They have debated intensely among themselves what they want the school to achieve.

I have not watched Lavine’s candidacy closely, and I know little firsthand about the tone of politics in Syracuse. But I have been studying Native American history for a long time, and my next book will be a history of the Onondaga Nation. I have spent my free work time reading its history.  When the current principal announced her retirement, the Nation hoped that the district would hire Simone Thornton, a teacher at the school with 20 years experience, an Onondaga, and a member of the community. Instead, the district hired Warren Smith, a vice-principal from nearby Fayetteville-Manlius who was not Onondaga.  Smith ultimately turned down the job, but Lavine announced that the district would not hire Thornton, the clear preference of the Onondaga leadership.  Onondaga Nation parents then withdrew their children from the school.

If you have watched any of our politics over the past few years, you will likely note that race and racism and their consequences are at the center of our debates, and the Republican Party, in places, has enjoyed great success in stirring up white resentment to the “complaints” made by people of color.  The language of race was woven through the Trump candidacy, and he skillfully deployed racist and anti-Semitic dog whistles to attract voters.  White voters, in many places, it seems are tired of  affirmative action, and important movements like Black Lives Matter, and the burgeoning Native Lives Matter movement I have written about on this website.  Lavine, I suspect, was unlikely to have received many Democratic votes in Syracuse, but she certainly can shore up her base (and stir up the dingbats) by playing tough with the Onondagas.  It is unfortunate, and it is ugly.  But in our tense political climate, that a Republican Party candidate engaged in Indian-bashing is not surprising at all.  It is up to Superintendent Lavine to explain her thinking and do the right thing.  If she truly wants to run as a “progressive,” a word that seemingly has lost all meaning, she needs to think about the consequences of her actions.

 

#NativeLivesMatter

Two important stories came across the line yesterday, and those of us who teach Native American history need to do a better job of following them.  On June 5, police officers killed Zachary Bearheels, a twenty-nine year old man with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Bearheels was punched in the head and shocked by a taser several times.  Omaha police have admitted that the officers’ conduct was a violation of departmental policy and that two of the officers involved would be terminated. 

According to the story reported on the Indian Country Today Media Network, Bearheels had been traveling from South Dakota to Oklahoma City aboard a bus. After a passenger complained about his conduct, he was kicked off and left stranded in Omaha.  Bearheels was behaving in a manner that police were called by witnesses.  He was attacked and abused by the police. Witnesses, and the internal reports of the Omaha Police Department, both indicated that Bearheels posed no threat and that the violence was entirely unjustified, and “egregious violations of the Omaha Police Department’s policy procedures and training on the use of force and the use of a taser.”

 

Bearheels’ death at the hands of the Omaha Police is one more example of the larger problem reported in a story looking at “The Police Killings No One is Talking About” that appeared In These Times. The story was written by Stephanie Woodard, and the evidence she presents is harrowing.  Police killed twenty-one Native Americans in 2016, up from 15 in 2014.  According to a 2014 study from the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other demographic in the United States. Native Americans are 3.1 times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans.

Joseph Murphy, for example, a thirty-three year old veteran of the Iraq War:  He died of a heart attack in a holding cell in a Juneau jail.  He had called for help, but guards yelled “Fuck You” and “I don’t care” in response to his pleas for medical assistance. Others were shot sitting in cars, or while holding knives, or while distraught and unwilling to listen to police demands that they comply. In nearly every case, the homicides were ruled justifiable.

And the parallels to what we have witnessed in the African-American community are clear.  Many reservation border towns are rife with racism and discrimination against native peoples.  I saw this first hand in Hardin, where I attempted to conduct interviews nearly twenty years ago. I had heard some of my Crow students describe the racism they faced at Hardin High School. I wanted to get at relations between the Crows and their white neighbors.  I was not able to immerse myself in the community deep enough to get white people to talk to me, but the problems were not hard to see there.   And in Billings, sixty miles from Crow, where I lived, and where native peoples were a despised and unwelcome minority.  Expressions of racism towards native peoples were, to me, shockingly common and public.

I have spent a large part of my career, in a sense, writing about white violence against native peoples. In my first book, I looked at the violence of the Anglo-American frontier, and the sources of the racial antipathy that took route there .  I wrote about the race wars pitting native peoples against land-hungry settlers in New England and the Chesapeake in the seventeenth centuries.  I wrote about the murder of an Algonquian weroance near Roanoke Island in 1586, and the consequences of that violent act.  In my relatively recent book on Canandaigua, I wrote about the violence on the Pennsylvania and New York frontier, where the unpunished murder of Senecas by frontier whites served as one of the major grievances American officials and Haudenosaunee diplomats needed to address.   I could teach my courses in Native American history focusing on acts of violence every day if I wished, from Roanoke to Jamestown, to Marblehead to the Lancaster Workhouse to Gnaddenhutten and Sand Creek, from Wounded Knee to Omaha and border towns throughout Native America where, too often, law enforcement officers are ending the lives of native peoples.  It is an old, old story, this, and it needs to stop.

Black Lives Matter has brought massive attention to the slaughter of African Americans at the hands of police.  The entire Black Lives Matter movement has done such important work in focusing attention on racism and discrimination and violence perpetrated by police against African Americans. At the same time, as Woodard points out, “a larger narrative is at play: racial issues in the United States tend to be framed as black and whites, while other groups are ignored.”

I plan on assigning Woodard’s piece when I teach my Indian law class again next spring, and spend some time on this issue.  Students come to college inclined to think of native peoples as being part of the past.  Their understanding of civil rights and discrimination and race relations is, as Woodard points out, too often limited to thinking in terms of matters black and white.  They can only benefit by reading closely these powerful stories, and learning that the police, in all too many instances, are viewed as a threat by the people they are supposed to protect and serve.

 

The Loving Decision and the Concealed History of Virginia’s Native Peoples

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre that took place a year ago in Orlando, the largest mass shooting in recent US History.  It was also the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, the case which struck down laws that prohibited marriage across the color line.

You may have seen the beautifully quiet and restrained telling of this story in last year’s Oscar-nominated film that starred Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving and Joel Edgerton as her devoted husband Richard.  The film avoided grandiose speeches, courtroom melodrama, and focused instead on the struggle of a couple, white and black, to hold things together in the Jim Crow south.

There was more to the story, however, for Mildred Loving always claimed that she was Native American, a descendant of Virginia’s native peoples.  This story is told in Sally Jacobs’  piece that appeared on WGBH. You might find Jacobs’ story useful in your classes.

[UPDATE: And you might find it useful for more than just the story.  Arica Coleman, mentioned below, wrote a fantastic book on this subject, and she has accused Jacobs of plagiarizing her work.  You should read Coleman’s criticism here and in the comments section which follows Jacobs’ piece.  Professor Coleman presents a powerful case, and we need to hear Jacobs’ response. MLO]

Mark Loving, Mildred’s grandson, contacted the Virginia Department of Historical Resources because he objected to the description of his grandmother on a state historical marker as “a woman of African-American and Virginia Indian descent.” So said Jacobs in her piece for WGBH. Mark Loving objected to the suggestion that Mildred Loving was anything other than a Native American woman.  “I know during those time that there were only two colors,” he said in an interview from last November, “but she was Native American.  Both her parents were Native American.  Mildred herself insisted in 2004 that she had no black relatives, according to Arica Coleman, who interviewed her for the fantastic book she wrote on mixed-race marriage.

Race is never simple, and Virginia’s history is a messy one.  In 1924, for instance, the Virginia legislature passed its “Racial Integrity Act” which defined white people as having “no trace whatever of any blood other than Caucasian.” The act included the so-called “Pocahontas exception,” stating that “persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed white persons.”  Many Virginians, blissfully unaware that some of Pocahontas’s descendants had sired children with slaves, attempted to tie themselves firmly to Virginia’s romantic past by claiming descent from Pocahontas. Their interests had to be protected. Anyone who was not white, under the provisions of the law, was “colored.”

I take some time with laws like these in my classes in order to explain to them how nonsensical and ridiculous all of this is at a fundamental level.  Race is a construction, an invented category. The blood that flowed through one’s veins did nothing to effect culture and belief and values and behavior.  Still, Virginians enforced the Racial Integrity Act with a vengeance, and the Commonwealth’s first registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, Walter Ashby Plecker, was a true believer.  “Let us turn a deaf ear,” he wrote revealingly in 1925, “to those who would interpret Christian brotherhood as racial equality.”  Virginia Indians, he believed, were not real Indians: they had been mongrelized, mixed with peoples of African descent, and as such he ordered his employees to alter the birth certificates of Indian children.  This was erasure, an attempt at extermination carried out with pens and paper. The certificates now would read “colored.”  Plecker claimed that he had science on his side—the same “eugenics” that later fueled the Nazi holocaust—but he admitted to close friends that he routinely changed racial designations from Indian to colored without any evidence.

Plecker’s racist crusade made it difficult for many native peoples in Virginia to prove that they were Indians.  The vital records upon which such a designation relied, after all, had been altered.  Native peoples in Virginia asserted a third racial identity in a biracial society.  They did not attend black schools because they felt no necessity to accept Plecker’s logic.  Many wanted access to the better facilities available to white Virginians.  Some of those who could pass as white did so, but many of Wahunsonacock’s descendants struggled in the face of this racist legal code.

During the Second World War, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier complained about Plecker’s strict enforcement of Virginia’s racist legal code but Plecker was convinced that thousands of “mulattoes” in Virginia “are striving to pass over into the white race by the Indian route.” Plecker determined to keep the races pure, and the lines between them distinct.  When a draft board in Richmond ordered three Rappahannock men to report to an induction station for African American soldiers in Maryland, they refused. Authorities in Virginia prosecuted the men and sentenced them to six months in prison.  The government allowed Chickahominy soldiers to serve in white units only after the tribe demonstrated its own racism toward African Americans:  Chickahominies who married black people faced expulsion from the community; they tried to keep African American farmers away from the reservation, and prohibited black doctors and preachers from visiting their communities.  Most of the Virginia Indians who served did so in white units, but not without an enormous struggle.

There were solid historical reasons for Mildred Loving’s family to claim to be Indians.  But people on the margins intermarried throughout the South.  They always did, and racial identity could be fluid on the marchlands of the empires and the colonial state.

As Jacobs shows, in Virginia, along Passing Road, where the Lovings lived and loved, there is today debate about Mildred Loving’s identity.  Who she is still is debated.  In an attempt to navigate these troubled waters, Jacobs reported, “the state of Virginia rewrote its highway marker to describe the Lovings simply as an interracial couple and removed all mention of her being either African-American or Native-American. But that didn’t quell the controversy.”

In the face of local opposition, the state last week moved the location of the highway marker away from a roadside several miles from the Lovings’ gravesite. It’s now to be near the former Virginia Court of Appeals in Richmond, where the Loving case was once heard, over an hour’s drive away. Despite the controversy, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is set on Monday to dedicate the marker, which has been in storage for over a year.

That some of your students likely will have some familiarity with the recent film version of the Lovings’ story, and the recent salutary discussion across the country of how love must trump hatred, bigotry and racism, it might be useful to discuss this important case in Native American history classes.  And if not the Lovings’ story, there are similar cases throughout the American South, and throughout Native America.