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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet Another Threat to Haudenosaunee Land, Lives, and Liberties

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Harrier, another bird species threatened by the development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governor Hochul Can’t Help Herself

A couple of months back I was deeply critical of New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who seems determined to adopt positions that antagonize and injure the state’s Indigenous Peoples when easier and less controversial options were available. It is as if she seeks conflict. I mentioned this in a piece I wrote about how Hochul engineered funding for the new Buffalo Bills stadium.

At the end of last year, Governor Hochul vetoed a bill that passed both houses of the New York State Legislature unanimously. 47 states have adopted legislation that does what the New York Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act would do. According to a statement made by the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society quoted in the East End Beacon:

Forty-seven states have laws that protect the remains of indigenous people and others from desecration and destruction, and now Gov. Hochul is the only person standing in the way of New York joining that list. This is yet another slap in the face in line with centuries of brutal settler colonialism and violent land theft.”

Governor Hochul said that the law, as passed by the legislature, did not adequately respect the private property rights of landowners who might uncover the remains of Indigenous peoples on their own land. The bill, she said, would require all activity to cease at a site where human remains were discovered. An archeologist would then be granted access to the site to determine as much as possible about the remains and then issue a report to the Native American Review committee.

“Throughout this process,” Hochul complained, “which does not have a specified end date or window, the property owners would have no authority over their own real property, and be forced to accept decisions that impact their property.” While expressing sympathy for the need for a law treating unmarked graves, Hochul said that “any process addressing the handling of unearthed human remains that also involves the private property of New Yorkers must appropriately protect both interests. This bill, as drafted, does not do so.”

This is obscene. New York took its current shape, and became the Empire State, through a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession. It is difficult to imagine a situation so urgent that landowners could not await a determination about the nature of the human remains buried on their land. Hochul has shown that she is little different than generations of New York governors who value only the land rights of those whose property was wrested from the Indians in a process that at times violated the laws of the United States. Hopefully the legislature will quickly override the Governor’s veto, and lead New York to do what it ought to have done long ago.

I Read Maitland Jones’ Op-Ed So You Don’t Have To

Once there was a chemistry professor with decades of experience teaching Organic Chemistry, “a difficult and important course, a rite of passage for future medical doctors, scientists, and many engineers, professions that require the ability to reason well from a set of new data.” He was a bigwig, an important guy, an esteemed scholar, who came to New York University in 2007 after forty-three years of teaching at Princeton, where this “Sage on the Stage” had “tenure and an endowed chair.”

At first, all went well at NYU. But sometime around 2012, this brilliant molder of young minds began to notice something. The students were not doing as well as they used to do. They “were increasingly misreading exam questions,” despite his “careful attention to the wording of problems.” Exam scores declined, as did attendance “in the traditional large lecture section of the course.” These problems grew even more pronounced when COVID hit. Students rarely watched the professor’s video-recorded lectures. “Single digit exam scores became common and we even had zeros on exams, something that had never happened before.” While 60% of his students still received A’s and B’s, the rest were struggling.

The students let their opinions be known. They filled out teaching evaluations which, the professor claimed, were “once highly useful.” But now they “have become just another social media opportunity to vent. Evaluations are now often personal and sometimes profane.” Many of the students thought the teacher’s course was too hard, his grading too severe. They organized a petition, and last summer, the professor was fired.


These kids sound terrible.

Except they aren’t.

The students I teach are not the same as those I taught pre-Covid. They are not the same as those I taught during the Clinton and second George Bush years, either. Jones worries that his firing will have a chilling effect on the profession. Will untenured professors be afraid to offer challenging material because students may rise up in defiant protest? “Teachers must have the courage to assign low grades when students do poorly without fear of punishment,” Jones wrote. “In these times when critical thinking skills are desperately needed, it is more important than ever to dedicate ourselves to the high standards of education. Without those standards,” Jones maintained, “we as a nation will not produce those individuals–doctors, engineers, scientists, –Citizens!–will guide us toward a better future.” Sounds like there is a lot at stake.

Give me a break.


I teach history, not chemistry, but I have been in classrooms for a long time. Like a lot of people at colleges like mine, much of my time is spent teaching students who are not history majors. I have taught many, many students majoring in Chemistry and other sciences since I began my teaching career in 1994. I have, I think, some perspective.

Of course we want high standards. Of course we can agree with the esteemed Dr. Jones that we want and need educated students capable of reasoning at the highest levels. But there are different means to those important ends, and what Dr. Jones’s story suggests to me is that he was failing to reach, by his own admission, 40% of the students in his classes. Dr. Jones blames the kids and the culture, but I would suggest that before he casts a generation into the dustbin, that he and scholars who share his fears take a good long look in the mirror. And there are a lot of teachers who share his fears.

Be brave, my friends. Don’t be afraid of the students you teach. It is a really bad look.

We are teachers. And when students fail to complete our assignments, or fail to meet our standards, that’s on us, not them. We may have to accept the reality that what we have done in the classroom, in Jones’ case for generations, may no longer work. We have to adapt. We have to teach the students that are in front of us, not those we long for from a distant past.

Maybe the “traditional” large lecture course is no longer an effective way to teach chemistry. Maybe the innovations Jones is so proud of no longer work. Maybe his delivery of material is staid, tired, and boring. Maybe he failed to change with his students.

I used to go to a meeting of faculty on campus where some of my science colleagues lamented that the students my college was admitting “were not good enough.” One of them said “we are admitting them, and then we flunk them out.” This refrain was repeated at subsequent meetings. I stopped attending.

Because the position they took, and the position Dr. Jones takes, strikes me as profoundly amoral and a colossal abdication of responsibility. If we admit students, we need to teach them. Our colleges are taking large sums of money from families and students who want and expect an education. If they are poorly prepared to receive our wisdom when they arrive, we have some extra work to do. We can, as Dr. Jones does, lament how we have been relegated to casting our pearls before swine, or we can teach. And teaching means changing. It means reading the room. It means talking with and listening to students. Actively, honestly, and openly. And taking what we learn and applying that in the classroom. Every one of these students, one of my retired colleagues told me one, is the most important person in someone’s life. If teaching the current generation of kids is more difficult, please stop bitching and moaning about it and find something else to do. Lord knows, there is a job crisis out there, and there are literally hundreds of people who are willing to do the job if you are not committed to doing so.

So, Hey!


Leave those kids alone.

They will do fine, Dr. Jones, and I suspect they may do better without you.

Some Thoughts on Sovereignty and Activism in Native America

I have been thinking a lot about a quote from Angela Russell, a citizen of the Crow Nation in Montana who participated in the African American Civil Rights Struggle, but who was also inspired by Native American protests like the “Fish-In” movement in the Pacific Northwest, where Indigenous peoples courted prosecution under state fish and game laws to demonstrate their commitment to their federal treaty rights.  Reflecting on what she saw around her in the 1960s and 1970s, she wrote “that it was the Indians who probably originated demonstrations and public protesting.” She could think of “countless examples in Indian history of demonstrations and protest.”

Say We Are Nations 1st edition 9781469624808 146962480X
Russell appears in Daniel Cobb’s Say We Are Nations, a book I use in my Indigenous Law and Public Policy course.

          I like this quote a lot, as simple as it is, because it forces us to think about what we mean when we talk about Native American activism, in terms of content, chronology, and context.  If you take a second, and think about the images that come to mind when you read the word “activist” or “activism,” I am willing to bet that the images that come to mind do not embrace the breadth and depth of the Native American experience.

            So, activism.  What does it mean? And what does it mean in the specific context of Native America?  As members of political communities the existence of which long predated the United States, they quite often have organized, and protested and fought to protect and defend their nationhood, their sovereignty, and their very identities as members of native nations.  At times this has taken forms that will likely be familiar to all of you, images similar to what came to mind when I asked you to think about the meaning of the word “activism”: protest and demonstration designed to either bring attention to an issue or to provoke a tension, in Martin Luther King’s words, that makes clear the fundamental injustice of the current state of affairs in a given time and place. We saw examples of this nearly a century ago when Haudenosaunee peoples joined in something called the Indian Defense League of America to cross the Lewiston Bridge over the Niagara River between New York and Canada to demonstrate their treaty right to cross and re-cross the international boundary without interference or impediment from settler states.  You have seen it in the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1960 and 1970, the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973, and, more recently, at Standing Rock in 2016 and now at Oak Flat in Arizona. These all share in that they were big, dramatic, attention getting events.

            Daniel Cobb, a fine historian who has written extensively about this subject, defined activism as “politically purposeful acts.”  That is a broad definition, perhaps too broad, but useful nonetheless for understanding the long history of Indigenous peoples’ assertions of their continued right to exist in a society that sees them as little more than a part of the past, or as a source of raw materials, or a stockpile of romantic images about the past cashed in or exploited to serve the needs of white people, or the occupiers of lands laden with mineral wealth and fossil fuels who need to get off and go away so that we can feed our societal addiction to petroleum.

            Activism in Native American communities, in an American society that challenges their very right to exist, questions their nationhood, and in the not so very distant past invaded their homelands, dispossessed them, removed from them their children, infected them with diseases, and destroyed the basis of indigenous economies, can take many forms as they challenge those forces that have done so much damage and try to undo the lingering demands that colonization makes through the exercise of sovereignty and self-determination.

            I write about the Onondagas.  Over the centuries they have weathered invasions of their homeland, infectious imported diseases, attempts to dispossess them, and eradicate their entire culture and, yet, they still are there.  In the face of state and federal policies they have consistently asserted a powerful autonomy and live lives of independence.  It is an incredible story. If any number of people had had their way, the Onondagas would no longer exist. They would be gone. But there they are. Challenging the settler state; asserting autonomy and functional independence—this activism is significant and challenges the status quo. Assertions that we are still here, despite all the US and the state has done, are significant acts.  There are others.

Native History: AIM Occupation of Wounded Knee Begins - Indian Country Today

            The Red Power movement—Alcatraz, the BIA takeover, and Wounded Knee—along with a notion that Native peoples are victims and helpless and tragic– has received so much attention that it has obscured the other varied efforts of native peoples to act on the principles of self‐determination, sovereignty and nationhood, to promote the interests of their communities. Women in Native American communities in the 1960s, for example,  organized and marshaled evidence to counter something called the Indian Adoption Project, which resulted in part in between 25 and 35% of Native American children being removed from their families, either into the foster care system or adoption.  This movement by Native American women was arguably the most successful activism of the era, pushing Congress to enact the Indian Child Welfare Act, a measure of great significance in the preservation of Native American families, even if it remains under siege by conservative evangelicals who continue to see Native American families as degraded, debauched, and unfit.

            All sorts of activism. And then there is the quiet work of asserting sovereignty and defending nationhood. These, too, are politically purposeful acts. The Cherokees, for instance, used the award money it received from the Indian Claims Commission to assert itself as a regional economic power. The Cherokee Nation in 1967 built a hotel and restaurant on its land, and employed its own people in the construction and management. A tribal complex followed, which included an arts and craft center and tribal government offices. In 1969, the Cherokee Nation founded Cherokee Nation Industries to provide jobs in manufacturing for Cherokee Nation citizens.   Landless and urban Indians in Washington, in a powerful 1973 report that charged the state government with carrying out a campaign of “ethnic genocide by assimilation,” and supporting the process of “destroying our identity,” announced that they would hold on to “the scraps and parcels” of their culture that remained and to work “as earnestly as any small nation or ethnic group was ever determined to survive and retain its identity.” They were critical of better-known activist groups like AIM, whose protests indeed garnered for them much attention. Unlike AIM, they did not see protest as the way to better their nations.  They spoke of institution‐building. Because the Puyallup Reservation was so close to Tacoma, the tribal government had created a number of programs for the urban Indian population: the Indian Education Center, established in 1971, with representation coming from the Puyallup, Nisqually, and Muckleshoot communities; the Tacoma Area Native American Center (TANAC) incorporated in 1972 “with the express purpose of providing community organization for Indians and Alaskan Natives which in turn would promote unity and cooperation among all Indian people”; and groups for Native American students at Tacoma Community College. There were a host of organizations in Seattle: service organizations like the Chief Seattle Club, the Seattle Indian Center, and the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation; education and employment programs, advocacy groups, legal aid, health, and recreation.  This is sovereignty in action. And it has occurred all over North America.

Always Indigenous — Chief Seattle Club

            Native peoples have used that sovereignty to create and reinvigorate communities, revitalize language and culture, provide for the well‐being of their people, engage in sustainable economic development, and lay plans for a future in which they will play an important role in American society. The United States, and state and local governments, today routinely express their willingness to support self‐determination. This in itself is a significant break from a not‐so‐distant past when federal officials anticipated the disappearance of tribal governments and the assimilation of native peoples into the American mainstream. At times, non‐Indian Americans speak of justice, of building long‐term relationships with their native neighbors. But the recent past has shown as well that despite the significant accomplishments of native peoples in governing their communities and promoting their people’s interests, the promising signs of cooperation, and the increasing presence and acceptance of native peoples on the national stage, that in general non‐Indian Americans will support freedom and autonomy for native peoples only to the point where the exercise of these rights begins to threaten their own interests. Native peoples can meet this challenge. They have little choice. For nearly half a millennia, Europeans expressed their expectations that native peoples would disappear. For much of the nineteenth century, American policy‐makers anticipated Indian extinction. And even within the last half‐century, American officials looked towards the “termination” of American tribes. No longer. Sovereign tribes are stronger today in terms of their culture, their economic strength, their governing capacity than they have been for a long time. They are more active in defining and shaping their identities—with all the ambiguities and complexities that accompany that endeavor—than at any time in the past. I close, then, with a statement that would have been difficult to express at earlier periods when missionaries spoke of converting and transforming Indians, or when soldiers plotted to burn their fields, or reformers carried off their children to boarding schools, or settlers and bureaucrats swiped their lands: native peoples have a future that Native peoples have shaped for themselves, through their own actions, and their own activism.

This Year

Monarch butterflies used to gather in the park half a mile from where I grew up, in numbers too great to count. They hung like orange jewels from the gray-green strands of Eucalyptus leaves.

A lot of my youth took place in that park. I rode through it on my bike to and from the junior high school and, later, on my way to work at a number of those crappy jobs one gets as a teenager. I played baseball there. But for me it’s the monarchs. They gave to that place meaning.

I moved away from Ventura many years ago. The butterflies are mostly gone now. According to a recent report from the Xerces Society, an advocacy group focused on invertebrate conservation, only 1914 Monarchs were recorded overwintering on the California coast. Xerces Society volunteers canvassed 246 roosting sites from the North Coast to Baja California in the south. “This critically low number follows two years with fewer than 30,000 butterflies–the previous record lows–indicating that the western Monarch Butterfly migration is nearing collapse.” The Xerces Society has been watching this migration for decades. The most recent data show “a 99.9% fall from the numbers of monarchs in the 1980s, when butterflies filled trees from Marin County to San Diego County.”

California is changing. Every time I go back it seems drier, hotter, and more desperate. I still see the scars from the catastrophic fires that devastated the town late in 2018. It is difficult to live there unless you have money. Homelessness is rampant. RVs sit in the lots at the park, a place for those who are struggling to scrape by to set up base camp. There are costs associated with all of this. Southern California is so different from what I once knew. Maybe the butterflies are a small matter, but their decline seems emblematic of so much else. The reasons for the devastating drop in the Monarch population are easy to see and entirely avoidable: loss of overwintering, migration, and breeding habitat and the use of pesticides.

Some historians will tell you that they study the past. There is truth to that, of course. But I think it is more on the mark to say that we study change: how and why, and with what consequences.

There has been so much change over the last eleven months. Early in March of last year my mom had a serious stroke. No stroke is well-timed, but having one at the beginning of a global pandemic was particularly devastating. The stroke took place early in March. I flew out to visit. I flew back to New York on the 12th, and everything shut down the next day. After three months in a locked-down rehab facility, as the residents started to fall ill and die from Covid, we moved my mom home. The cost of 24/7 care was enormous and unsustainable, and when Covid hit both my parents late in December, brought into the house by one of the caregivers, we decided again to move my mom, this time out of the house she has called home for sixty years and into a board and care facility. My parents made it through COVID–thanks to the help of a family friend who owned a scuba shop in the harbor we were able to get my dad the oxygen he needed more quickly than the doctor could order it. And we are hopeful we have made the right move. We cannot know for sure and like so many people, we are wracked with uncertainty.

I know we have it better than many millions of people.

I think back over the past eleven months. I think of what has happened since March. George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter protests across the country; the presidential campaign, and its strange, violent conclusion. I think of the constantly increasing death toll, and the millions of people grieving. And the assault on the Capitol building less than a month ago. These are events of significance. I do not doubt that one day students in high school and on college campuses will read about them, if we still have history classes then.

But his past year has made my world much smaller. What are the events that mattered in my own life? A stroke, fraught trips across the country in the midst of a pandemic to try to help, my own bout with the disease from which I am still recovering. And the effect of this crisis on my parents.

Within two weeks of my return to New York, we reached the painful decision to put our dog Bonehead to sleep. It caused a lot of stress and sadness, the days preceding this decision.


We adopted him from the shelter in 2010, an angry and tweaked-out stray with bug eyes, a lantern jaw, and a bad attitude. We named him Stitch, because of how he looked. Gradually he grew into his real name, because of who he was. He never took food from a plate. Sometimes he tried to be nice, and to be playful, but it was never really in him. He was afraid of fireworks and thunder until he lost his hearing. He continued to speak with the ghost of the old man who died in our house many, many years ago. And if you came up to him to say hi with your dog, he would jack you up. Whenever I left town, his anxiety kicked in and he would get the worst case of the shits. He was not a nice dog, and he was a lot of trouble. But after a year like this one, I am feeling like maybe this long 2020 finally won a round, and landed a couple of hard punches. We’re reeling.

During the week I spent in California I pushed my mom in her wheelchair through the park. I scooped up avocados that the wind had knocked down. I know cargo shorts are out of fashion, but sometimes you have to stash things, you know? Avocados, for instance, or cool rocks. I saw a few Monarchs flying around, but nothing like before. Nothing was the same. On my last day I walked out to the backyard, and checked out a few ratty looking milkweed plants. I saw one Monarch caterpillar, munching along, working his way through his cycle before one of a number of possible predators picked him off. Maybe it’s a hopeful sign.

Good Luck, Buddy.

Amy Coney Barrett’s Constitutionalism is a Fraud

            Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett argues that the Constitution and its amendments ought to be interpreted in the manner its creators intended. Originalism, the name for the legal theory to which she subscribes, has its adherents who believe that they can intuit the farmers’ intent from the close reading of the nation’s charter documents and the context in which they were written. But originalism has always been a problematic and ahistorical approach to legal interpretation, because so much of the meaning of the Constitution was contested, ambiguous, and unclear at the time it was written.

            This point is amply borne out by the Indian affairs clause of the United States Constitution.  Article I, Section 8 contains a list of powers that “we the people” bestowed upon the legislative branch of the government. Among those is the right to “regulate commerce…with the Indian tribes.”

            But what does “commerce” mean?

            The first federal Congress, in an attempt to add some flesh to these bare bones, enacted in the summer of 1790 the first of a number of “Trade and Intercourse” acts. These laws asserted federal control over non-native Americans and attempted to regulate their conduct when they engaged in commerce with Indian nations. Traders who wanted to engage in the Indian trade needed a license from a federal agent and so on. But there is nothing in the sparse language of the Constitution, or the subsequent legislation defining that language, that gave to the people of the United States power over the internal workings of Indigenous Nations. Yet, over many decades, the United States has seized control over more and more aspects of life in Native American communities, finding justification for this “plenary authority” in Article I, Section 8. “Commerce” now means pretty much everything and anything.

            Judge Barrett has said nothing about Indian affairs during her relatively short legal career, and it never came up in the questions she avoided answering during her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  But Judge Barrett has made clear her immense respect for Justice Antonin Scalia. During his tenure on the court, tribal interests prevailed only a fifth of the time. Scalia wrote five majority opinions on the subject, all of which were defeats for Native American interests. Yet in each of these cases, the language of the Constitution provided no clear guidance.

            Scalia’s closest intellectual partner on the Court had been Justice Clarence Thomas, who has said very provocative things about the Indian Affairs clause. In 2004 Justice Thomas upheld the constitutionality of a law that allowed Indian tribes to prosecute non-member Indians, but he was troubled by the Court’s arguments. 

            Thomas could not accept the Court’s assertion “that the Constitution grants Congress plenary power to calibrate the ‘metes and bounds of tribal sovereignty.’” He could not “locate such congressional authority in the Treaty Clause. . . or the Indian Commerce Clause.” A decade later, in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013), Thomas again considered the constitutional basis for plenary power, this time in a case involving the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.  “Although the Court has said,” he wrote, “that the central function of the Indian Commerce Clause is to provide Congress with plenary power to legislate in the field of Indian affairs,” neither the text nor the original understandings of the Clause “supports Congress’ claim to ‘plenary’ power.”  The contested adoption proceedings at the heart of the Baby Girl case involved neither commerce nor tribes, and Thomas believed that “there is simply no basis for Congress’ assertion of authority over such proceedings.”

            In 2016, in the case of US v. Bryant, Thomas once again wrote that Congress’s “purported plenary power over Indian tribes,” rests on shaky foundations.  “No enumerated power–not Congress’ power to ‘regulate commerce…with Indian tribes,’ not the Senate’s role in approving treaties, nor anything else, gives Congress such sweeping authority.” And in a 2017 dissent in a case involving the Secretary of the Interior’s decision to take 13,000 acres of Oneida land in New York into trust, Thomas again criticized the Court’s Indian Commerce Clause rulings.  Allowing the federal government to take land within a state into trust on behalf of an Indian tribe, Thomas argued, could not be supported by any language in the Constitution, and it would have shocked the “Founding Fathers” to “find such a power lurking in a clause they understood to give Congress the limited authority to ‘regulate trade with Indian tribes living beyond state boundaries.”

            Justice Thomas defined “commerce” narrowly. If Congress had no acceptable justification for its claim to plenary power, Thomas believed that power must exist in some other entity.  For Thomas, it seemed to be with the states.

            What does “commerce” mean, and what did it mean in 1787, when the Constitution was ratified, or in 1789 when it went into effect? It is difficult to say. Various “Founders” disagreed and changed their opinions over time. Justice Thomas has pointed out that the Court’s Indian Commerce Clause rulings are built on a fiction, that they stand without justification in the Constitution’s language. Plenary power may rest on nothing more than brute force. No principle, no historical document, can justify it.  Many of Justice Thomas’s colleagues disagree. They argue that Article I, Section 8 does indeed grant to the federal government “plenary power” over Indian affairs.  The Founders used the word “Commerce.”  They provide little support for those who see in the Constitution what can best be understood as an extralegal, and extra-Constitutional, extension of federal authority over Indian affairs. 

            Judge Coney Barrett’s commitment to discerning an original meaning to the Constitution conveniently ignores all the gray areas, those realms of law and constitutional interpretation where the matters under consideration have been contested ever since the document first was written, debated, and ratified.  Originalism is a scoundrel’s argument. It will be used by the new Supreme Court majority to injure women, people of color, and our friends and family in the LGBTQ community. We could talk about abortion, or the right to marriage, or the very practice of judicial review itself, the Constitution does not always speak clearly to us.  Originalism, a most tendentious way of deducing its meaning, is a flawed approach that has been used as a lever to prop up the power of the federal state to do, in the end, as much or as little as it wants.

What You Need to Read, June 2020

You have finished a rough semester. Libraries are still closed. Some interlibrary loan services are available, and school will return in some form in the fall. Here is your summer reading list to help keep you up to date on what is coming out in Native American History.

Adams, Mikaela Morgan. “‘A Very Serious and Perplexing Epidemic of Grippe,’: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 at the Haskell Institute,” American Indian Quarterly, 44 (Winter 2020), 1-35.

Bates, Denise E. Basket Diplomacy: Leadership, Alliance-Building, and Resilience among the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, 1884-1984, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

Bethke, Brandi. “Revisiting the Horse in Blackfoot Culture: Understanding the Development of Nomadic Pastoralism on the North American Plains,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 24 (March 2020), 44-61.

Bigart, Robert J. Providing for the People: Economic Change Among the Salish and Kootenai Indians, 1875-1910 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

Bigart, Robert and Joseph McDonald, “You Seem To Like Our MOney, and We Like Our Country”: A Documentary History of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai Indians, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020.

Blanton, Dennis B. Conquistador’s Wake: Tracking the Legacy of Hernando de Soto in the Indigenous Southeast, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020).

Britten, Thomas A. and Charles Trimble. Voice of the Tribes: A History of the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

Cahill, Cathleen D. “‘Our Democracy and the American Indian’: Citizenship, Sovereignty, and the Native Vote in the 1920s,” Journal of Women’s History 32 (Spring 2020), 41-51.

Carr, Kurt W., et. al, eds. The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

DeCoster, Jonathan. Conflict and Accommodation in Colonial New Mexico, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Duwe, Samuel. Tewa Worlds: An Archaeological History of Being and Becoming Pueblo in the Southwest, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2020).

Gage, Justin. We Do Not Want the Gates Closed Between Us: Native Networs and the Spread of the Ghost Dance, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

Gagnon, Celese Marie and Sara K. Becker, “Native Lies in Colonial Times: Insights from Skeletal Remains of Susquehannocks, 1575-1675,” Historical Archaeology, 54 (March 2020), 262-285

Galler, Robert W., Jr., “Converting the Missionaries: The Transformation of Benedictine Priests at Crow Creek,” South Dakota History, 50 (Spring 2020), 48-79.

Glassow, Michael A., et al., Goleta Slough Prehistory: Insights Gained from a Vanishing Archaeological Record, (Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History 2020).

Hall, Philip S. and Mary Solon Lewis. From Wounded Knee to the Gallows: The Life and Trials of Lakota Chief Two Sticks, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

Hall, Ryan. Beneath the Backbone of the World: Blackfoot People and the North American Borderlands, 1720-1877, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Headman, Louis, and Sean O’Neill, Walks on the Ground: A Tribal History of the Ponca Nation, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

Hedren, Paul. L. “Who Killed Crazy Horse? A Historiographical Review and Affirmation,” Nebraska History, 101 (Spring 2020 ), 2-17.

Hilbert, Vi, Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound, 2nd ed., (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020).

Humalajoki, Reetta. “‘Yours in Indian Unity’: Moderate National Indigenous Organizations and the US -Canada Border in the Red Power Era,” Comparative American Studies, 17 (no. 2, 2020), 183-198.

Johnson, Andrew D. and Carolyn Arena. “Building Dutch Suriname in English Carolina: Aristocratic Networks, Native Enslavement, and Plantation Provisioning in the Seventeenth-Century Americas,” Journal of Southern History, 86 (February 2020), 37-74.

Killsback, Leo. A Sacred People: Indigenous Governance, Traditional Leadership, and the Warriors of the Cheyenne Nation, (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2020).

Lappas, Thomas John. In League Against King Alcohol: Native American Women and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, 1874-1933, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

McNally, Michael David. Defend the Sacred: Native American Religious Freedom Beyond the First Amendment, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).

Michna, Gregory. “The Long Road to Sainthood: Indian Christians, the Doctrine of Preparation, and the Halfway Covenant of 1662,” Church History, 89 (March 2020), 43-73.

Navin, John J. The Grim Years: Settling South Carolina, 1670-1720, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2020).

Nielsen, Marianne O. and Karen Jarratt-Snider, eds. Traditional, National, and International Law and Indigenous Communities, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2020).

Ruediger, Dylan. “‘Neither Utterly to Reject Them, Nor Yet to Drawe Them to Come In’: Tributary Subordination and Settler Colonialism in Virginia,” Early American Studies, 18 (Wintero 2020), 1-31.

Saunt, Claudio. Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, (New York: Norton, 2020).

Senier, Siobahn, Sovereignty and Sustainability: Indigenous Literary Stewardship in New England, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

Silverman, David J. “Living with the Past: Thoughts on Community Collaboration and Difficult History in Native American and Indigenous Studies,” American Historical Review, 125 (April 2020), 519-527. Be sure to read as well the replies to Silverman’s review by Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Philip Deloria, Jean M. O’Brien, and Christine De Lucia.

Stofferahn, Steven A. “‘Down Too Deep’: Father Pius Boehm, From Reluctant Missionary to Devoted Caretaker at Crow Creek, 1887-1935,” South Dakota History 50 (Spring 2020), 25-47.

Thornton, Russell and Jamie Geronimo Vela, comps., NAGPRA and the Repatriation of Native American Human Remains and Cultural Objects, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Timmerman, Nicholas A. “Contested Indigenous Landscapes: Indian Mounds and the Political Creation of the Mythical ‘Mound Builder’ Race,” Ethnohistory, 67 (January 2020), 75-95.

Toth, Gyorgy. “‘Red’ Nations: Marxists and the Native American Sovereignty Movement of the Late Cold War,” Cold War History, 20 (May 2020), 197-221.

White, A. J., et. al., “After Cahokia: Indigenous Repopulation and Depopulation of the Horseshoe Lake Watershed, AD 1400-1900,” American Antiquity, 85 (April 2020), 263-278.

Woodard, Buck. “An Alternative to Red Power: Political Alliance as Tribal Activism in Virgina,” Comparative American Studies, 17 (no. 2, 2020), 142-166.

The Coronavirus Pandemic and Native American Communities: A Current Events Reading List

I have just completed reading the first batch of papers from my course on American Indian Law and Public Policy. I require all the students to complete a current events project. The requirements for the assignment is that they have 20 sources (which I have defined broadly owing to the students’ inability to in-person library research or make use of Interlibrary Loan); that they consult with me on the topic beforehand (most did so before the campus shut down); and that they try to write about ten pages. I cannot cover everything in class and, I tell the students, this is an opportunity for them to learn more about a subject that interests them. The added bonus is that I always learn a thing or two from their projects.

This semester, for obvious reasons, a number of students focused on COVID-19 and the Coronavirus and the impact of the epidemic on Native American communities. Because many of you who teach Native American history will have students interested in this issue, particularly with students’ awareness of the long history of epidemic and chronic disease in Indian Country, I decided to compile a bibliography of articles that you and your students might find helpful. This is not exhaustive, and I am sure that we may have missed some stories, but I hope you find this helpful. It is only a first step. Beginning tomorrow I will tweet out all the stories documenting Indian Country’s confrontation with the COVID-19 pandemic that I manage to stumble across. Be careful out there, and stay safe.

Abourezk, Kevin. “’We Are Staying on Top of It’: Oglala Sioux Tribe Declares Coronavirus Emergency.”, March 11, 2020.

Agoyo, Acee. “’Lives Are at Risk’: Coronavirus Cases Continue to Grow in Indian Country as Tribes Push for Action in Washington.” Indianz, March 19, 2020.

Acee Agoyo, “Trump administration moves slowly on coronavirus funding for Indian Country,”, March 23, 2020,

Acee Agoyo, “Coronavirus relief coming to Indian Country with passage of bipartisan legislation,”,March 26th, 2020,

Acee Agoyo, “Indian Country plunges into uncertainty as coronavirus reaches their communities,”, March 18, 2020,

Acee Agoyo, “Indian Health Service works to distribute more coronavirus funding to tribes as cases continue to grow,”, March 24th, 2020,

Barrera, Jorge. “COVID-19 Could Be ‘Devastating’ for First Nations, Says Matawa First Nations CEO | CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 11 Mar. 2020,

Barrera, Jorge. “Doctor Says Pre-Existing Nursing Shortage Leaves Northern Ontario First Nations ‘Vulnerable’ to COVID-19″ CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 18 Mar. 2020,

Becenti, Arlyssa “Workers Battle Coronavirus – and Jiní – at Epicenter.” Navajo Times, March 25, 2020.

Bennett-Begaye, Jourdan. “’We Are Not Ready for This’: Native American Tribes Struggle to Deal with Coronavirus.” The Salt Lake Tribune, March 4, 2020.

Bourque, Scott. “Navajo County Ranks 13th Worldwide For COVID-19 Infection Rate.” Fronteras, March 28, 2020.

Brady, Benjamin R., and Howard M. Bahr. “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1920 among the Navajos: Marginality, Mortality, and the Implications of Some Neglected Eyewitness Accounts.” American Indian Quarterly , vol. 38, no. 4, 2014, p. 459., doi:10.5250/amerindiquar.38.4.0459.

Bryan Eneas, More Sask. “Indigenous communities take measures to prevent spread of COVID-19,” CBCnews, March 25th, 2020,

Cancryn, Adam. “Where Coronavirus Could Find a Refuge: Native American Reservations.” POLITICO, March 28, 2020. .

Carlson, Kirsten. “Tribal Leaders Face Great Need and Don’t Have Enough Resources to Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Chicago Reporter, March 27, 2020.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “History of 1918 Flu Pandemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Mar. 2018,

Dubois, Stephanie. “Maskwacis activates ‘medicine chest’ treaty clause, declaring state of emergency,” CBCnews, March 24th, 2020,

Laurel Morales. “Navajo Access to Water Compounds Response to
Coronavirus.” Arizona Public Media, March 26, 2020.

Deer, Jessica. “5 People including Hospital Personnel Test Positive for COVID-19 in Mohawk Community.” Last modified March 24, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2020.

Ebbs, Stephanie and Cheyenne Haslet, “Indian Country Faces Higher Risks, Lack of Resources in COVID-19 Fight.” ABC NEWS, 3 April 2020.
Fonseca, Felecia. “Tribes Take Measures to Slow Spread of New Coronavirus.” ABC News. ABC News Network, March 21, 2020.

Giago Davies, James. “It Was Called the ‘Spanish Flu.’ But It Killed Hundreds of Indians Too.”

Givens, Maria. “The Coronavirus Is Exacerbating Vulnerabilities Native Communities Already Face.” Vox. Vox, March 25, 2020.

Goldman, Kara N. “The White Scarf on the Door: a Life-Saving Lesson from the 1918 Flu.” STAT , 23 Mar. 2020,

Hedgpeth, Dana, Darryl Fears and Gregory Scruggs. “Indian Country, Where Residents Suffer Disproportionately from Disease, is Bracing for Coronavirus,” Washington Post, 4 April 2020.

Heinsius, Ryan. “COVID-19 Relief Package Includes $8 Billion for Tribal Assistance.” KNAU:Arizona Public Radio. Last modified March 27, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2020.

Hollingsworth, Julia, et al. “Corona Virus Live Updates.” CNN World News , 22 Mar. 2020,

Horn, Matt, and Navajo Nation. “Navajo Nation Helps Provide Medical Supplies during COVID-19 Crisis.” AZFamily, March 26, 2020.–crisis/article_5dc62a0a-6fb5-11ea-af2f-3fbde1c350ef.html

Indian Health Service. “Disparities: Fact Sheets.” Newsroom , U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Oct. 2019,

Kassam, Ashifa. “’Be Careful’: Spain’s Last 1918 Flu Survivor Offers Warning on Coronavirus.” The Guardian , Guardian News and Media, 22 Mar. 2020, s-warning-on-coronavirus.

Lakhani, Nina. “’Timing Is Critical’: Native Americans Warn Virus May Overwhelm Underfunded Health Services.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 20, 2020. .

Lakhani, Nina. “Native American Tribe Takes Trailblazing Steps to Fight Covid-19 Outbreak.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 18, 2020.

Laychuk, Riley. “Opaskwayak Cree Nation Declares State of Emergency, Takes Steps to Keep COVID-19 out of Community | CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Mar. 2020,

Lee, Kurtis “No Running Water. No Electricity. On Navajo Nation, Coronavirus Creates Worry and Confusion as Cases Surge.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2020.

Malbeuf, Jamie. “Northern Alberta Community Limiting Access in Effort to Keep COVID-19 out | CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Mar. 2020,

Mapes, Lynda V. “As a Coronavirus Pandemic Sweeps the World, American Indian Communities Turn to One Another, Teachings.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times Company, March 24, 2020.

Michels, Holly K. “Browning Works Together to Feed Kids in Time of Coronavirus.”
Independent Record. Last modified March 18, 2020.

Moulson, Geir, and Matt Sedensky. “Worldwide Coronavirus Infections Top 600,000.” Indian Country Today. Last modified March 28, 2020. Accessed March 30, 2020.

(NCAI) The National Congress of American Indians. “The National Congress of American Indians Calls for More Attention to COVID-19 Impacts to Indian Country.” NCAI , 2020,

Newland, Bryan. “Opinion | Indigenous Americans Must Not Once Again Pay the Price for the Mistakes of Others.” The Washington Post. WP Company, March 25, 2020.

Newton, Creede. “Navajo Nation: Fears of Hunger as Covid-19 Lockdown to Intensify.” April 7, 2020.

Riley, Dr. Melissa. “Indian Health Services Is Ill-Prepared for the Coronavirus Crisis. Indigenous People Will Suffer.” Rewire.News. Last modified March 24, 2020. Accessed March 28,

Srikanth, Anagha. “How the Coronavirus Threatens Native American Communities.” TheHill, March 26, 2020. .

Trout, Lucas, Corina Kramer, and Lois Fischer. “Social Medicine in Practice: Realizing the American Indian and Alaska Native Right to Health.” Health and Human Rights 20, no. 2 (December 2018): 19-30.

What Is Yours Is Ours

I have visited the British Museum in London many times. The first time was in 1988, a couple of months after I completed my undergraduate degree. I had taken two courses in Ancient History, another in Medieval Europe, as we called it back then, and I was was eager to see the museum’s “treasures.” I was an uncritical consumer, excited to see things that I had read about but could see nowhere else.

That was over thirty years ago. Now I am a more critical consumer of museums, so much so, that my family has to tell me to lighten up whenever we visit one. I am teaching my college’s Western Humanities course in England now, and we are based as a class in Oxford’s Lincoln College. Western Humanities, required of all students at Geneseo, began as a “Great Books” course taught over two semesters by a significant percentage of the faculty. Recently we pared that requirement down to one course, and faculty are slowly modifying the original menu of works they might assign.

I think the course is one of great value. And to understand more deeply what they are reading: Sophocles, Thucydides, Plato, Cicero, the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, More, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we have arranged a number of excursions. On Friday we took in a performance of Measure for Measure by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. I sent the students on their own to the Ashmolean, a minature version of the British Museum here in Oxford. And a week from Friday we will visit the British Museum in London.

I want the students to think critically about what they see there. I had no guidance when I went, but I would like them to explore how and why it was that they came to see these objects in London, and what, really, we can learn from them. I want the students to look at the museum’s collections and decide if they can see past the artifact to the actual people behind it. In the statuary, the religious items, the decorative arts, and the household objects on display, can the students arrive at a sense of what these people valued. From these items, collected and displayed, can the students arrive at an understanding of what these people considered good and bad, beautiful and loathsome, funny or boring? What did they view as heroic? Cowardly? What frightened them, or kept them up at night? What values did they see as worthy of emulation?

It is easy, I worry, for students to view a trip to the museum as an assignment where they are required to look at stuff, often for some vague set of reasons: because this is something that you should do, or because these are an important part of the students’ cultural inheritance, with which all the heirs of that tradition ought to be familiar. I agree with these statements, I suppose–how could I not–but there is more to it than that. Look for the people who made these things, who attempted to communicate or to evoke some feeling or response in those who saw their work. If history is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures, the student’s human connection to those people far removed from them spatially and chronologically is an important part of the understanding we want to encourage. As I watched the thousands of people milling about, moving through the uncomfortably warm exhibit rooms, looking at everything a bit, I wonder what really do the hordes of tourists get out of this.

I want the students to think, as well, about why these objects are considered classic and significant. Who gets to decide? The British Museum’s “collections,” a word they use a lot, have a fraught history, to put it politely. The British Museum, in my view, has not adequately addressed how it came to amass such a large collection. Take, for instance, the famous “Elgin Marbles,” looted, according to some sources, from the Acropolis in Athens.

Other items, from other parts of the world, appear in displays with little information on how these objects arrived in London and what the descendants of those people whose culture is represented feel about this. How might various people talk back to the interpretive signs and displays that museum visitors see?

For instance, the British Museum has an “Enlightenment Gallery” that might just as well be called the “Colonialism and Empire” Gallery. As a history student, this room seduced me. I loved it. Old books like the shelves surrounding the room. Artifacts are placed on these shelves and in case around the room. Little remarked upon is the significance of these objects. What did they mean to the people to whom they originally belonged. Some of them were looted from graves, from collections around the world. There is no museum in Cairo or Athens where so large a collection of English treasures are housed. The English took these objects, and their curators will tell us what they mean. And if that requires presenting funerary objects and other items of sacred significance, it matters little.

It is unstated, but so clear when you think about it. What was yours, the British Museum says, is now ours, and we will decide what it means and its value. The Museum still says that whatever one thinks of Lord Elgin, his decision to snatch a large chunk of Athens’ cultural patrimony saved it from destruction, loss, and damage. We know better than you how to collect.

I do not follow the museum world as closely as I should, but I certainly am aware of a growing movement to “decolonize the museum.” If the British Museum is any indication, we have a long way to go.