Category Archives: Uncategorized

“We’re Going to Physically Remove the Infant”

There is a video that has been circulating on Facebook. So many people viewed it and it generated so much attention that the Toronto Globe and Mail picked up the story. A young woman, quietly sobbing in her hospital bed, rocking her newborn baby. Her family surrounds her, one of them recording the event on his phone. One of them wails loudly as Canadian social workers in Winnipeg, backed by the police, explain that they must take the baby away from her mother. She was intoxicated when she entered the hospital in labor, they have said, but the family denies it. They say that if the baby cannot stay with its mother, perhaps the child could go with grandparents or another family member. Their protests do not matter. The child is placed in a car seat, and carried away by the police. The mother will find out on Wednesday if she gets her baby back.

According to the Globe and Mail, one newborn baby is taken for her mother every day in the province of Manitoba, and 90% of those newborns come from First Nations communities. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls the practice “heinous,” but it continues nevertheless. The Prime Minister, members of his government, and many Canadians speak of reconciliation. They established a commission to bring about truth and reconciliation, to acknowledge and start to undo the damage, or to at least understand the traumas the Canadian government inflicted upon native peoples through the “Sixties Scoop” and its network of residential schools. That these institutions were the site of massive suffering and abuse is beyond dispute.

Reconciliation sometimes seems like a one-way street. Sure, it has sparked conversations about the pain and the burdens of colonialism in Canada that Americans would never consider engaging with, though these sentiments are obviously not shared by Gerald Stanley, or the jury that acquitted him, or the doctors who, reports indicate, continue to sterilize First Nations women against their will. And all this news appears against the backdrop of a report that the number of children separated from their parents and thrown in cages at the southern border of the United States is far greater than the Trump Administration let on, literally unknowable, because they did not keep records.

This is heavy, all of it, when you add it up. It leads me to the conclusion I have been sharing with students in my classes for several years now: that one could write a history of the native peoples of North America using the cruelty meted out upon indigenous children by settler states as the thread holding together the narrative. Cruelty to children runs through the entire story.

These thoughts were on my mind several years ago when I began the work of revising Native America to produce a new edition. The second edition, I realize, shows this focus: the discussions of acts of terrible cruelty or callousness carried out by the English, French, Spanish, and, later, the United States, upon Native American children. There is Columbus, scooping up indigenous children as slaves; the murder of Paspahegh children by armed colonists from Jamestown. I think of the burning of Mystic fort, or other massacres, where native children fell beside their parents, victims of a style of warfare practiced without restraint by “civilized” peoples against their “savage” enemies. I think of the slaughter of Christian Conestogas by the Paxton Boys, the mass murder at Gnaddenhutten, the epidemics that carried off native children and sparked the Ghost Dance, or the boarding schools who collected and removed indigenous children from their homes. Were I to write a third edition, I would emphasize these stories even more.

And today, when we can read of the murder of native peoples by well-armed police, the too-frequent disappearance or murder of Native American women and girls in both Canada and the United States, and the travesty of South Dakota’s treatment of Native American families in its foster care system, it all seems heavier still.

Reconciliation. It is a one-way street. Too often, in practice, we can see the reminders that colonialism starts at the top. “We are ready now,” Canadians who support the movement sometimes seem to be saying. “Now that we’ve taken your land, limited the powers of your governments, mauled your culture, and damaged your children, we’re hoping that we can patch things up. We want to make things better, to understand what happened.” Meanwhile, a crisis in suicide continues, injustice continues, and monstrous scenes like that in Winnipeg continue to be played out, and young women continue to disappear. And the land remains firmly in the grasp of those who seized it.

Can it get better? Really?

I think so. I have to think so, or it would make a mockery of my work in the classroom. I have applauded the movement for reconciliation in the past. But with stories like this, and when tens of millions of Americans continue to support a President whose ignorance is matched only by his avarice, his amorality, and his cruelty, a man who uses the massacre of native peoples at Wounded Knee as a way to mock his principal opponent, deeply flawed in her own way, it is sometimes hard to be optimistic. I find that this is one of the principal challenges in teaching Native American history, and in writing a book like Native America: The struggle to keep my own sense of the darkness of the subject from crowding out the tender shoots of hope that progress is always possible.

What You Need to Read, December 2018

Adams, James David, Jr., and Troy Phipps. “Los Angeles Area Indian Land Ownership after the Civil War,” Journal of the West, 57 (Spring 2018), 7-13.

Andersson, Rani Henrik. A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country: Lakota Voices of the Ghost Dance, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

Arnett, Chris and Jesse Morin. “The Rock Painting/Xela:Is of the Tsleil-Waututh: A Historicized Coast Salish Practice,” Ethnohistory, 65 (January 2018), 101-127.

Ben-Zvi, Yael. Native Land Talk: Indigenous and Arrivant Rights Theories, (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2018).

Berkey, Curtis G., Alexandra C. Page and Lindsay G. Robertson, “The Misuse of History in Dismissing Six Nations Confederacy Land Claims,” American Indian Law Review 42 (number 2, 2018).

Billings, Andrew C. Mascot Nation: The Controvery over Native American Representations in Sports, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018).

Birch, Jennifer and Victor D. Thompson. The Archaeology of Villages in Eastern North America, (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2018).

Bjork, Katharine. Prairie Imperialists: The Indian-Country Origins of American Empire, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

Blantsett, Kent. A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018)

Bloch, Lee. “Tales of Esnesv: Indigenous Oral Traditions about Trader-Diplomats in Ancient Southeastern North America,” American Anthroplogist, 120 (December 2018), 781-794.

Brown, Kaitlin M. “Crafting Identity: Acquisition, Production, Use and Recycling of Soapstone During the Mission Period in Alta California,” American Antiquity, 83 (April 2018), 244-262.

Bruchac, Margaret and Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018).

Byram, Scott, et. al., “Geophysical Investigation of Mission San Francisco Solano, Sonoma, California.” Historical Archaeology, 52 (June 2018), 242-263.

Caison, Gina. Red States: Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, and Southern Studies, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018).

Cash, Sherri G. “Roots in the Valley: Ginseng and the New York-Iroquois Borderlands, 1752-1785,” New York History, 99 (Winter 2018), 7-37

Chambers, Ian. “The Kootenai War of ’74,” American Indian Quarterly, 42 (Winter 2018), 43-86.

Cleary, Patricia. “Possessing and Defining Native American Places in East St. Louis,” Missouri Historical Review, 113 (October 2018), 1-21.

Den Ouden, Amy E. “Recognition, Antiracism, and Indigenous Futures: A View from Connecticut,” Daedalus, 147 (Spring 2018), 27-38.

Ebright, Malcolm and Rick Hendricks. Pueblo Sovereignty: Indian Land and Water in New Mexico and Texas, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Ebright, Malcolm.  “Benjamin Thomas in New Mexico, 1872-1883: Indian Agents as Advocates for Native Americans,” New Mexico Historical Review, 93 (Summer 2018), 303-338.

Edwards, Tai S. Osage Women and Empire: Gender and Power, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018).

Erdrick, Heid E. New Poets of Native Nations, (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2018).

Flaherty, Anne F. Boxberger. States, American Indian Nations, and Intergovernmental Politics: Sovereignty, Conflict and the Uncertainty of Taxes, (New York: Abingdon, 2018).

Gaines-Stoner, Kelly, et. al., The Indian Child Welfare Act Handbook: A Legal Guide to the Custody and Adoption of Native American Children, (Chicago: American Bar Association, 2018).

Garrison, Nanibaa A. “Genetic Ancestry Testing with Tribes: Ethics, Identity, & Health Implications,” Daedalus, 147 (Spring 2018). 60-69

Gilbert, Matthe Sakiestewa, Hopi Runners: Crossing the Terrain Between Indian and American, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018).

Grillot, Thomas. First Americans: U. S. Patriotism in Indian Country after World War I, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

Grossman, Zoltan. “Planning the American Indian Reservation: From Theory to Empowerment,” Geographical Review, 108 (January 2018, 168-170.

Haggerty, Julia Hobson, et. al., “Restoration and the Affective Ecologies of Healing: Buffalo and the Fort Peck Tribes,” Conservation and Society, 16 (no.1, 2018), 21-29.

Harness, Susan Devan. Bitterroit: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018).

Hart, E. Richard. American Indian History on Trial: Historical Expertise in Tribal Litigation, (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2018).

Hauptman, Laurence M. Coming Full Circle: The Seneca Nation of Indians, 1848-1934, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Hedren, Paul L. Rosebud, June 17 1876: Prelude to the Little Big Horn, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019)

Heerman, M. Scott. The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

Hill, Matthew E., Margaret E. Beck, Stacey Lengyel, Sarah Trabert, and Mary J. Adair., “A Hard Time to Date: The Scott County Pueblo (14SC1) and Puebloan Residents of the High Plains,” American Antiquity, 83 (January 2018), 54-74.

Jacobs, Jaap. “‘ACt with the Cunning of a Fox’: The Political Dimensions of the Struggle for Hegemony over New Netherland, 1647-1653,” Journal of Early American History, 8 (no. 2, 2018), 122-152.

Jordan, Kurt A. “Markers of Difference or Makers of Difference? Atypical Practices at Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Satellite Sites, ca. 1650-1700,” Historical Archaeology, 52 (March 2018), 12-29.

Justice, Daniel Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018).

Keyes, Sarah. “Western Adventurers and Male Nurses: Indians, Cholera, and Masculinity in Overland Trail Narrarives,” Western Historical Quarterly, 49 (Spring 2018) 43-64.

Knight, Vernon James. “Puzzles of Creek Social Organization in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Ethnohistory, 65 (no, 3, 2018).

Koehler, Rhiannon. “Hostile Nations: Quantifying the Destruction of the Sullivan-Clinton Genocide of 1779,” American Indian Quarterly, 42 (Fall 2018), 427-453.

Kokomoor, Kevin. Of One Mind and Of One Government: The Rise and Fall of the Creek Nation in the Early Republic, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

Krupat, Arnold. Changed Forever: American Indian Boarding School Literature, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018).

Lee, Jacob F. Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019).

Lycett, Stephen J. and James D. Keyser, “Beyond Oral History: A Nineteenth Century Blackfeet Warriors’ Biographic Robe in Comparative and Chronological Context,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 22 (no. 4, December 2018), 771-799.

Mathes, Valerie Sherer and Phil Brigandi, Reservations, Removal, and Reform: The Mission Indian Agents of Southern California, 1878-1903, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

Matthews, Christopher N. and Allison Manfra McGovern. “Created Communities: Segregation and the History of Plural Sites on Eastern Long Island, New York,” Historical Archaeology, 52 (March 2018), 30-50.

Morman, Todd Allin. Many Nations Under Many Gods: Public Land Management and American Indian Sacred Sites, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

Nesper, Larry. “The 1914 Meeting of the Society of American Indians at UW-Madison,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, 102 (Winter 2018), 28-37.

Nolan, Raymond. “The Midnight Reader: The EPA and Tribal Self-Determination,” American Indian Quarterly, 42 (Summer 2018), 329-343.

Ramirez, Renya K. Standing Up to Colonial Power: The Lives of Henry Roe and Elizabeth Bender Cloud, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018).

Ray, Jack H. “Ear Spools, Ceramics and Burial Mounds from Southwest Missouri: Caddoan and Spiro Connections on the Northern Frontier,” Southeastern Archaeology, 37 (April 2018), 58-81.

Rensink, Brendan. Native but Foreign: Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in the North American Borderlands, (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2018).

Rindfleisch, Bryan. “My Land is My Flesh: Silver Bluff, the Creek Indians, and the Transformation of Colonized Space in Early America,” Early American Studies, 16 (Summer 2018), 405-430.

Rosenthal, Nicolas G. “Rewriting the Narrative: American Indian Artists in California, 1960s-1980s,” Western Historical Quarterly, 49 (Winter 2018), 409-436.

Schulze, Jeffrey M., ed., Are We Not Foreigners Here? Indigenous Nationalism in the U.S. Mexico Borderlands, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

Shriver, Cameron.  “Wily Decoys, Native Power, and Anglo-American Memory in the Post-Revolutionary Ohio River Valley,” Early American Studies, 16 (Summer 2018), 431-459

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. “Presidential Address: Eighteenth-Century Indian Trading Villages in the Wabash River Valley,” Ethnohistory, 65 (no. 3, 2018).

Smithers, Gregory D. Native Southerners: Indigenous History fro Origins to Removal, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Stockwell, Mary. Interrupted Odyssey: Ulysses S. Grant and the American Indians, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2018).

Sundstrom, Linea, ed., Archaeological Perspectives on Warfare on the Great Plains, (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2018).

Teasdale, Guillaume. Fruits of Perseverence: The French Presence in the Detroit River Region, 1701-1815, (Montreal: McGill Queens University Press, 2018).

Tone-Pah-Hote, Jenny. Crafting an Indigenous Nation: Kiowa Expressive Culture in the Progressive Era, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Trafzer, Clifford E. Fighting Invisible Enemies: Health and Medical Transitions among Southern California Indians, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Treuer, David. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native Americans from 1890 to the Present, (New York: Riverhead, 2018)

Tusler, Megan.  “Toward a Native Archive: Chicago’s Relocation Photos, Indian Labor, and Indigenous Public Text,” American Indian Quarterly, 42 (Summer 2018), 375-410.

van den Hout, J. Adriaen van der Donck: A Dutch Rebel in Seventeenth-Century America, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2018).

van de Logt, Mark. Monsters of Contact: Historical Trauma in Caddoan Oral Traditions, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians Against the Puritans of New England, (New York: Scribner, 2018).

Witgen, Michael. “Seeing Red: Race, Citizenship, and Indigeneity in in the Old Northwest,” Journal of the Early Republic, 38 (Winter 2018), 581-611.

Wood, Peter H.  “Missing the Boat: Ancient Dugout Canoes in the Mississippi-Missouri Watershed,” Early American Studies, 16 (Spring 2018), 197-254.

The Onondagas and the Movies, Part II: John Big Tree

On July 7, 1967, Chief John Big Tree died on the Onondaga Reservation.  Born Isaac Johnny John, perhaps in 1877 in Michigan, the Seneca actor appeared in nearly five dozen movies between 1915 and 1950.  He played a scout in “Stagecoach” along side a young John Wayne in 1939, and with Henry Fonda in “Drums Along the Mohawk,” and, again with John Wayne, in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”  That was 1949, his second-to-last film. He played Chief Pony That Walks.

After his retirement from the movies, Big Tree settled at Onondaga, where he stayed near the center of the community’s life.  According to a story about the upcoming Green Corn Dance hosted by the nation in 1951, an event that was open to the public and well-promoted in the Syracuse newspapers, the Post-Standard noted that “Chief Bigtree, motion picture actor, and is wife, Cynthia, will appear” along with Mrs. Bigtree’s “famous green corn soup and ghost bread.”  Two years later, along with Percy Smoke, Nelson Schenendoah, Jimmy Noland, and others, Big Tree joined with Onondagas at the Syracuse Boys’ Club’s Camp Zerbe to “relate Indian lore and demonstrate tribal dances.”

In 1964, Big Tree appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine in a pose that looked back to what he seemed to consider his most famous role.  Big Tree claimed that James Earle Fraser used him as one of his models when he sculpted the image for the “Indian Head” or “Buffalo” nickel, which circulated from 1913 to 1938.  Big Tree claimed as well to have posed for Fraser’s most famous sculpture, “The End of the Trail.”

Fraser denied this.  In a letter he wrote to Calvin Coolidge’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the summer of 1931, he wrote that “the Indian head on the Buffalo Nickel is not a direct portrait of any particular Indian, but was made from several portrait busts.”  It was, in a sense, a composite image.  Fraser wrote that he “used three different Indian heads.” The name of one of them, perhaps Big Tree, he said he could not remember.  The other two included “Irontail, the best Indian head I can remember; the other was Two Moons.” Some thought that the third Indian was not Big Tree but Two Guns Whitecalf, but Fraser was certain this was not the case.  Fraser was not always precise in his recollection.

Nonetheless, John Big Tree made many appearances as the “Indian on the nickel,” and when he died in 1967 the reports identified him as the model for Fraser’s image.  Big Tree, the wire-service story in the Syracuse Post Standard noted, was best “known for his acting and for his likeness on the Indian head nickel.”

As I’ve indicated in previous posts, my research right not consists of reading lots of newspaper articles about the Onondagas. I have quite literally thousands still to read through.  John Big Tree, obviously, is a very tiny part of the much larger story I intend to tell.  At a period when Onondagas appeared at the Indian Village at the New York State Fair in Plains Indian dress, an effort to assert their identity as native peoples as they fought state efforts to tax their lands, as they contended with polluters on the reservation, and began to assert that wampum belts and other items housed in the New York State Museum were part of their cultural patrimony, John Big Tree was a former celebrity whose presence appealed to his audience’s nostalgia.  That’s revealing.  White people in the state carried powerful assumptions about who native peoples were and who they ought to be.  More than anything, they tended to view native peoples, and their culture and their language and their ways of living, as part of the past.  If any number of white people had their way and any number of points in their history, I tell my students, the Onondagas would have been gone. In a sense, they had to appear in a certain manner–that of the Plains Indian–in order for white people to see them, to consider them authentic.  At the time John Big Tree died in 1967, that was beginning to change.  And the magnitude of that change will be most visible when we get to our next film next week.

Patterned Acts of Violence

Brooke Crews butchered Savanna Greywind.  Crews wanted a baby, and her young neighbor was eight months pregnant.  On the night of 17 August last year she lured Greywind into her home. While Savanna was still alive, and passing in and out of consciousness, she cut the child from her womb. When Crews’ boyfriend arrived, she presented him with the baby.  “This is our baby,” she reportedly said. “This is our family.” Together, they cleaned up the blood. Together they disposed of Savanna’s clothing. And, together, they wrapped her body in plastic sheeting and dumped of it in the river, where kayakers found it sometime later.

JUST OVER A YEAR BEFORE Savanna Greywind’s murder, another twenty-two year old, Colten Boushie, set out from his reserve west of Saskatoon. The car Colten and his friends were riding in got a flat tire, and the guys pulled into the farm of Gerald Stanley.  Boushie and his friends had been drinking.  They may have committed some petty thefts, though the testimony is confused.  Young guys, engaging in mischief.  Committing some minor crimes.  (If you were ever a young adult, you probably have done this sort of stuff, too). But, here, at Stanley’s place, they seem to have wanted nothing more than help fixing a flat tire.  What happened next is a matter of dispute. Stanley said that the 70-year-old handgun he wielded in order to scare the young men off misfired. Others that he carried out an act of vigilante justice against a group of young men he feared had come to rob him.  And others still believed that Stanley was an Indian-hating westerner from the Canadian Plains.  Whichever, the case, Colten Boushie, who was seated in the vehicle’s front seat, died from a gunshot wound to the head.  The bullet was fired by Stanley, from his old gun.

Last week, Savanna Greywind’s killer was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Stanley’s trial for the murder of Colten Boushie began last week. Both stories struck me as so evocative of the long and troubled history that I teach.  Both stories scream with the echoes of the past.

The news is increasingly filled with stories of missing and murdered indigenous women and children.  In response to Greywind’s murder, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp has introduced “Savanna’s Law,” which will “help address crisis of missing and murdered Native American women.”  Specifically, the act would

  • Improve tribal access to certain federal crime information databases. The bill would update the data fields to be more relevant to Native Americans, and mandate that the Attorney General consult with Tribes on how to further improve these databases and their access to them. The Attorney General would then submit a report to Congress on how the U.S. Department of Justice plans to implement the suggestions and resolve the outstanding barriers Tribes face in acquiring full access to these databases.
  • Require the Attorney General, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health and Human Services to solicit recommendations from Tribes on improved access to local, regional, state, and federal crime information databases and criminal justice information systems during the annual consultations mandated under the Violence Against Women Act.
  • Create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans. These protocols would take place in consultation with Tribes, which would include guidance on inter-jurisdictional cooperation among tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement.
  • Require an annual report to Congress with data. The report would include statistics on missing and murdered Native women, since there is little data on this problem and there isn’t a central location for keeping that information. The report would also include recommendations on how to improve data collection.

I wish Heitkamp well. I hope her legislation passes, and I hope it helps.  It mainly aims at attempting to improve information about a problem that all acknowledge is poorly understood.  That is a good thing, but it seems to me it is at best a half-measure. So much more than information is needed.

Heitkamp’s proposed piece of legislation addresses nonetheless deep and systemic problems that cut to the core of the Native American experience in North America.  Native American women have always been objects of white violence.  Long ago, for instance,  George Percy told the story of how he ordered the Queen of Paspahegh stabbed to death after his men had earlier entertained themselves by throwing her children from the boat and shooting out their brains in the water.  Edward Moseley, that mercenary who sold his services to the Puritan Saints during King Philip’s War, boasted about how he unleashed his war dogs on an Algonquian captive his men had taken.  The dogs, Moseley noted, tore her to shreds. The mutilation of women’s bodies by American soldiers at Sand Creek: that, too, is part of a long, long story.  Sexual violence rests at the core of this history and it continues: along the Canadian Highway of Tears and, if the spotty records are correct, on reservations across America.  And in Fargo.

Brooke Crews stole Savanna Greywind’s baby.  There is a long history of white clergymen, government officials, military officers, and bumbling do-gooders who have scooped up Native American children.  Canada, much more than the United States, has started a discussion of the legacy of residential schools and the problems that continue to plague them. European colonizers and their colonial heirs long have collected the orphans whose parents they killed, sold them into slavery, bound them into servitude, and still, today, distribute them to white families in some states through broken and racist foster care systems.

Colten Boushie’s story, too, has so many ties to a vicious and violent past, for white people, throughout the history of this continent, have murdered native people. That reality runs through every book I have written, including Native America: Arthur Peach, the killer of a Narragansett messenger, Northern Neck racists who murdered Susquehannocks; Pennsylvania Frontiersmen who murdered Senecas with impunity, leading Federalist Timothy Pickering to lament that, for most white people living in close contact with native peoples, killing an Indian was no crime at all. Read the annual reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:  they are full of complaints from federal policy makers who felt powerless to stop the violence meted out on Indians by the white frontier population.  It was frontier whites, American officials understood so well, who were responsible for frontier violence.  Indians were usually victims.

You cannot miss this in the documents. It is all there. It is always there.  And still it goes on.  The police treated Boushie’s body with a callousness they would not use for white crime victims. And the police, when they came to Boushie’s house to tell his mother and father that their son had died, searched the house.  They came in with guns drawn. They treated Mrs. Boushie with disrespect and cruelty.  If the Boushies’ account is accurate, the Canadian police behaved like racist thugs.  It is a heart-breaking tale that should shame police officials in Saskatchewan.


GREYWIND’S MURDER has provoked discussion and legislation in the halls of Congress to address a problem that native peoples have talked about for generations, but that Congress is only now starting to act upon.  Boushie’s murder has caused deep-seated racial tensions to surface and has brought into the open, his grieving friends and families say, the sorts of racism and violence First Nations people face every day.  The trial is receiving heavy coverage in Canada, where Boushie is being described as the “Rodney King of Canada.”  Maybe something good will come from airing out these issues.  That is what some hopeful people say.  I am doubtful, because this violence has gone on forever.  The headlines in the newspapers point out that the case has caused racial fears to increase, and that white people, one story said, are fearful of retribution. White people are worried.  Fear of the other.  Fear of the marginalized. Fear of the neighbors whose ancestral homelands you now occupy. I heard the expression of that fear when I lived in Montana: from my landlord, a feisty old woman who would not rent to Crows because, she said, if you let one in, soon you would have the whole tribe; from my students who, in unguarded moments, embraced baldly racist stereotypes; to the angry ranchers who extracted their livelihood from what had once been Crow land, and who refused to place themselves voluntarily under the authority of tribal officials. I hear it in small-town New York, too, where one can still see the faded “Upstate Citizens for Equality” sign along the sides of roads throughout the Finger Lakes.

We are historians.  Many of us have heard the old line, that if we do not learn from the past we will repeat our mistakes.  We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  And, in Native American history, it is the continuities that stand out: with a Secretary of the Interior who views anything he cannot kill as something he might drill, and who views nothing as sacred save for his own conservative evangelicalism; with violence continuing across the continent; with a hostile legal system assaulting native nationhood; and with a Chief Executive whose infantile racism makes clear what many of us have long argued: this is a deeply racist country, and many of us continue to benefit from that systemic injustice.  We have numerous examples of how difficult it will be to achieve meaningful change.  That is realistic, not pessimistic.

My students are shocked when they read about stories like those of Savanna Greywind and Colten Boushie, and even more so when I take the time to place them in the context of a much larger, and much more violent, history than they have ever been taught. They seem empowered, some of them, and determined to “do something.”  Others, they sense that the obstacles are formidable. And so on we go, teaching and writing, fighting against the dark belief that things will not get better. We choose the stories we want to tell.  We must remember that.

Talking About Christianity and Native American Communities

I was raised in a Catholic household by parents who are now Unitarians.  I was never confirmed, was withdrawn by my parents from Our Lady of Assumption school after I finished sixth grade, and long ago left the church.  There is nothing that I can accept as true in the Apostles’ Creed I was expected to memorize as a child.

I write this to let you know where I am coming from when I tell you I am nonetheless sometimes disturbed  by uncritical and decontextualized denunciations of churches in general and the role they played in the encounter between natives and newcomers. Religious people did hideous things in the name of their particular variants of Christianity, a fact which no historian of Native America can deny.  Still, though there are plenty of villains, as in most matters of the soul this is no simple morality play.  It is worth taking the time to get it right. There are some truly outstanding historians writing about this religious encounter, but the sophistication and subtlety of their work has not trickled down to popular understandings of the incredibly diverse array of relationships that developed between different native peoples and organized Christianity.

For the past several years, for example, I have been conducting research on a history of the Onondaga Nation.  There is little doubt that the Jesuit fathers who came to Onondaga in the middle of the seventeenth century hoped to sneak in through the “Smoke Hole” of the Onondaga Longhouse.  They wanted to minister to the Wendat adoptees residing in Onondaga communities.  The Onondagas, much later, allowed several Protestant denominations to operate missions on their reservation but they did not allow the Catholics. “It’s because of what Image result for jesuit relationsthey did to us,” one person with whom I spoke told me. But the Jesuit missionaries, at the end of the day, came to Onondaga only because the Onondagas permitted them to do so.  They planted their mission on an elevation overlooking Onondaga Lake, because that is where the Onondagas permitted them to do so.  Wendat adoptees looked at and listened to the priests but the Onondagas took little interest.  The priests, indeed, felt isolated and threatened. They used the church they had constructed to secretly build the canoes they would use when they fled one winter’s night from Onondaga. The Jesuits had that little influence upon the Onondagas. Priests did not always dominate, intimidate, or exercise any control over native communities. Sometimes they were barely tolerated. At other times they did exactly what they were told by their native hosts.  They stayed on only so long as they were tolerated, and native peoples had complex reasons for wanting them around, some of which had nothing to do with acceptance of their religion.  When we focus upon the bigotry of the missionaries, and when we cast the story in simplistic terms, we can lose sight of how native peoples understood their encounters with Christianity.

Still, we who teach and write about Native American history need to discuss the misdeeds of the various religious denominations, however uncomfortable that might be for some of our students. Missionaries, after all, hoped to cause a huge chunk of Native American identity to disappear.  The story of Christian missionaries in Indian country is often one of bumbling good will, or cultural arrogance and spiritual bigotry.  They attempted to erase Native American spirituality. And this bigotry is fundamental to the entire story of Christian missions to native peoples in North America.  And the abuse and the violence, too:  there are stories there that must be told.

I have just finished watching, for instance, a Netflix documentary series called “The Keepers,” a deeply unsettling story of rape and murder at a Catholic girls’ school in the Diocese of Baltimore. It is a story of clerical sexual abuse on steroids that long predated the Spotlight investigation in Boston and the exposure of this widespread rot at the Catholic Church’s core. And it is the story of the generational trauma this sort of abuse and criminality can cause.

My students are pretty attuned to what’s available on Netflix, and it is worth telling them, I think, that the problem of clerical sexual abuse highlighted in “The Keepers” extended into Indian country.  Just a couple of months ago a Montana newspaper, the Great Falls Tribune, produced a series investigating how the Catholic Church used Indian reservations in Montana as “dumping grounds” for predatory priests.  In my American Indian Law and Public Policy course at Geneseo I expect my students to watch the PBS Frontline documentary “The Silence,” reported by Mark Trahant, about a small Catholic church in a remote Alaska native village overseen by a number of serial abusers, and the wreckage the priests and their accomplices left behind.  It is painful to watch. When I have shown the film in class it has left my students stunned, struggling to find the words to describe their feelings. 

For many years I have used in class Luke Lassiter, Clyde Ellis and Ralph Kotay’s book, The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity, and Indian Hymns. The University of Nebraska Press published the book with a CD including recordings of these the Christian hymns sung by the Kiowas. What the book does, beautifully and meaningfully in my view, is show how in the Kiowas’ hands Christianity became a Native American religion, the center of their lives, and the heart in a heartless world.  It is a story that complicates the narrative of Christian missions my students heard in high school, if in fact they heard anything there at all.  There are other books and essays that can serve a similar function.  There are several chapters in Matthew Dennis’s Seneca Possessed that provide a nuanced portrait of the Quaker missions at Allegany and Cattaraugus early in the nineteenth century; Linford Fisher’s The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America is outstanding on New England in the eighteenth century; Steven Hackel’s study of the Spanish missions in California, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis; Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint on one of the Catholic Church’s newest saints; Dan Mandell’s Behind the Frontier and Tribe, Race, History; articles by Robert James Naeher and Harold Van Lonkhuyzen that appeared in the New England Quarterly; the chapter on Kahnawake in David Preston’s Texture of Contact; Tammy Schneider’s article on the Mohegan Joseph Johnson which appeared in Reinterpreting New England Indians and the Colonial Experience, edited by Neil Salisbury and Colin Calloway; David Silverman’s Red Brethren and Faith and Boundaries; Laura Stevens’s The Poor Indians and Erik Seeman’s book on Death in the Atlantic World are all outstanding.  Recent works worth checking out include Benjamin Kracht’s Kiowa Belief and Ritual; Louis Warren’s God’s Red Son and Mark Clatterbuck’s Crow Jesus: Personal Stories of Native Religious Belonging.  This list is far from exhaustive, and if you have other suggestions, I will be happy to share them.

Religion can be many things. It can be, in its most formal sense, a set of rules and regulations, things to do and things to avoid if one wants to achieve salvation. It can be judgmental and cruel or, at its best, a message of love, for everybody, of liberation and equality and compassion. You might dismiss it as myth or nonsense, or as a salve or an opiate to calm your fears and ease your pain.  Or it might give you the confidence and courage to do extraordinary things.  It can be all of these things, I suppose, to each of us at different points in our lives. And none of the beliefs you hold about religion or, for that matter, about politics, economics, or society, need keep you from doing good historical research if you are honest, as free from bias and prejudgment as you can be, and if you keep your eyes, your ears, and your heart open. We must all strive to understand the people we write about, even those we detest. Compassion, understanding, empathy: they are important tools of the historian’s trade. And when you understand, yes, you must condemn and criticize where it is warranted and, above all, you must teach these disturbing stories when your training and the instincts you have honed leave you convinced that these stories matter.  If you are honest, you have nothing to fear.

My Imposter Story: Some Thoughts on Ralph Ketcham

A couple of weeks ago I attended a memorial service for one of my graduate school professors, Ralph Ketcham, who had died last spring.  A great and productive scholar and teacher, active up until the end.  A lot to admire.

I wanted to finish Ralph’s final book, Public Spirited Citizenship: Leadership and Good Government in the United States, before I wrote more about my experience with him.  As in so much of Ralph’s scholarship, James Madison’s political writings, and Madison’s quest for a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government,” weighs heavily on this book.  But Ralph covers much more ground than that, from Plato to Cicero, to Erasmus and Swift and Pope and Jefferson and, of course, Publius. Ralph said that the authors of the Federalist spoke enough with one voice that they should be considered as one, even if I never quite believed that.

Ralph lamented in this final book the loss of public spirited-ness, a common theme in the works of the political writers he spent his career studying. He lamented how the factionalism which Madison sought to control had broken the republic into a menagerie of competing “interest” and “identity” groups, each pursuing their own tribal interest.  This tribalism placed, and places, little value on far-sighted leadership and, importantly, it asks little of citizens other than that they register to vote for this cause or another, and that they mobilize and join with others of like mind and devotion to the same cause to protect their partial interests.  The notion of a public good had shriveled in the heat of this factional competition, stoked by leaders who looked only to their next election.

I had not seen Ralph in the several years before he died, and I wonder how hopeful he was for the future. Not after the electoral college placed in the Oval Office a corrupt and unlettered brute free of the tiniest ounce of public-spiritedness and bearing nothing more than a narcissistic devotion to his own reputation, image, and desiccated sense of honor.  If one wanted evidence that “the people” had failed, that the system had not worked, the election of a man so clearly devoid of all but the most minimal qualifications for the office and whose fitness for the job has been openly questioned by members of his own party, seemed abundant proof.  Trump’s election seemed to make the case that perhaps the “citizens” are not up to the fulfilling the vital duties of citizenship.

“What is needed to attain good self-government, then,” Ralph writes in the closing pages of Public-Spirited Citizenship, “is broad and deep, as well as clear and simple.”  What we need are “citizens and leaders who are in some degree knowledgeable, wise and public-spirited.” Easier said than done, perhaps.  But Ralph expressed faith that the citizens of this republic were equipped or could be equipped once again to develop the “habits of the heart–that give them not only such perception of the public good but a passion to seek it in the polity.”

Such a growth and development is an essential part of the change needed in the ‘bewildering and disconcerting,’ even dysfunctional, group pressure and conflict-of-interest politics now dominant in the United States. The potentially present moral and emotional qualities of human beings, of citizens, though, need earnest, careful, widespread nurture and teaching to fulfill a genuinely public-spirited citizenship. That, in fact, is a crucial part of overcoming the present political culture to achieve one closer, again, to that of the Athenian Oath: ‘We will strive increasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty; thus in all these ways we will transmit this city, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it has been transmitted to us.”

When I went back to Syracuse for Ralph’s service, I spent some time in the University Archives. I am working on a book on the history of the Onondaga Nation, and one of the university’s early chancellors was at the center of a number of unsuccessful efforts to break up the Onondaga reservation and allot its lands to individual Indians.  I spent some time there, then ate at one of the few places that remained on Marshall Street from when I was a student there more than twenty five years ago, and then walked up to Maxwell Hall, where I saw in the lobby the statue of George Washington, framed by the Oath of the Athenian City State. I went to Ralph’s service at Hendricks Chapel, listened to the stories Ralph’s colleagues and former students told, and what I heard there informed how I taught Cicero when I got back to Geneseo the next day.  I felt very fortunate to have known Ralph, and to have had him as a teacher.  A lot of good memories.

And I remembered very clearly that I owed Ralph a lot.  When I got to Syracuse in 1990, with a generous fellowship, I had imposter syndrome. Big Time.  I had the Maxwell School’s most prestigious fellowship, and at my first class every class meeting at Syracuse, in Ralph’s class–man, some of those people were so smart.  It was a history of early American political thought and it drew students from the history department but also from philosophy, political science, public administration, and cultural foundations of education.  I found these other students intimidatingly bright, so well-spoken, so confident.  But the class was too large for good discussions, Ralph thought, so he broke it into two groups, and I went with the historians.  I was doing all right here, I guess, but not well enough to know that I was going to make it in graduate school.

Our first paper assignment involved analyzing the works of a number of Puritan writers, some in England like William Ames and the Lord Saye and Sele, and others in America like Roger Williams.  John Winthrop factored largely in my paper, and I still use bits of what I wrote when I teach the early history of New England. I cannot recall all of the works we read, but I remember benefiting greatly from working through them.  I did the paper, my first in graduate school at Syracuse, and waited apprehensively for the result. Professor Ketcham, if I remember it right, said that both halves of the class would meet as one, a committee of the whole, at his house a short distance from campus that evening. Something had gone wrong, or bothered him about the papers. I cannot remember if this was a conclusion I drew myself, or one that emerged from the usual worried scuttlebutt that ran through the graduate students’ hangout, a bar on the South Campus called the Inn Complete.

Professor Ketcham let us have it–gently, but unmistakably so. He mentioned that history or political science of whichever field we were serving our apprenticeships in was, at the end of the day, about writing. He might have said something about stories, but I am not sure. He certainly mentioned the importance of clarity and style as essential ingredients in a persuasive and effective paper. I wish I still had my marked up copy of that paper, but it did not manage to make the trip during one of my many moves since I left Syracuse in 1994.

Ralph told us all this, and then he began reading.  He said that he wanted to provide an example of an effectively written paper. He began to read mine.

I knew that I still did not feel very accomplished, or as if I had just beaten the world.  Self-doubt would continue to plague me, as I suspect it does many students of history.  But I did feel like I imagine a baseball player feels like after he hits a groundball single in his first at bat. No great accomplishment by itself. Need to keep working, and keep improving.  But, still, I can do this.

Graduate school in many ways for my cohort of students seemed to generate lots of feelings of inadequacy, of self-doubt, of imposter syndrome.  We worried if we would ever find academic jobs, though nearly all of those who finished were lucky enough to do so.  I am not sure how typical my program was. At the time, there were some very, very fine historians at Syracuse. One of my classmates, who came to Syracuse via an Ivy League undergraduate program, quipped that Syracuse’s history department had an inferiority complex that we all paid for with a very heavy workload. It came up between beers, wings, and fries at the Inn Complete. I actually liked my time in school, self-doubt aside, and liked doing the reading.

No big deal.  The paper was read. I got a good grade.  But I was grateful for that. It helped me through a trying first year at Syracuse.  I was a Southern Californian who had never seen snow fall before in my life, and here I was living three thousand miles away in a city known for its foul weather.  For that first class I have always been grateful to Ralph. He was always interested in my work. I know, from our interactions over my four years on campus, and from the times I saw him when I went back, that Ralph thought highly of me and my work.  His support was one small piece of the puzzle of how I managed to succeed as a graduate student and an academic historian in my own right.

I will be teaching the History of the Early Republic in the spring.  I have not taught it since my last year at MSU-Billings, which was twenty years ago.  I have always had a fondness for the field–originally I went to Syracuse to study that period.  Other things came up along the way and I followed a different path, but I moved back into the field when I researched and wrote my books on Canandaigua and on Eleazer Williams. I have started working through the broader scholarship again, refreshing my memory, making note of what is new.  I revisited Ralph’s edition of Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention, which he paired with a nice selection of Anti-Federalist writings.  I looked again at his Presidents Above Party and his massive and authoritative biography of James Madison.  If if were not so huge I would consider using it class.

We who succeed in this field are the products of a lot of hard work to be sure, but also of the efforts of those with whom we study. My interpretations of this or that were framed during discussions and debates in reading seminars and my teaching style, I am sure, though it has changed much over the years, still bears traces of Ralph and the other folks who I watched teach, and from whom I learned so much.



This Friday is Sorry Day in Australia.  Though it has antecedents in aboriginal protest and commemoration, Sorry Day has taken place every May 26 since 1998.  It followed in its current form from a May 1997 report by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission called Bringing them Home, which acknowledged that “Indigenous children have been forcibly separated from their families and communities since the very first days of the European occupation of Australia.”  That report was tabled twenty years ago this year.  Children in Australia’s boarding schools experienced physical and sexual abuse. They received little education of value. The Australian government admits that now.

In February of 2008, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology. You can watch his powerful statement here.  He spoke of the brutality of Australia’s historic treatment of its indigenous neighbors.

Until we fully confront that truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us and our future as a fully united and fully reconciled people.

It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.

To the stolen generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry.

I offer you this apology without qualification.

We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted.

We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied.

We offer this apology to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments.

In making this apology, I would also like to speak personally to the members of the stolen generations and their families: to those here today, so many of you; to those listening across the nation – from Yuendumu, in the central west of the Northern Territory, to Yabara, in North Queensland, and to Pitjantjatjara in South Australia.

I know that, in offering this apology on behalf of the government and the parliament, there is nothing I can say today that can take away the pain you have suffered personally.

Whatever words I speak today, I cannot undo that.

Words alone are not that powerful; grief is a very personal thing.

I ask those non-indigenous Australians listening today who may not fully understand why what we are doing is so important to imagine for a moment that this had happened to you.

I say to honourable members here present: imagine if this had happened to us. Imagine the crippling effect. Imagine how hard it would be to forgive.

My proposal is this: if the apology we extend today is accepted in the spirit of reconciliation, in which it is offered, we can today resolve together that there be a new beginning for Australia.

And it is to such a new beginning that I believe the nation is now calling us.

Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot.

For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.

Rudd’s statement, which is worth reading in its entirety, goes far beyond anything the United States has considered. There is in this country a substantial number of people who do not like to hear about the negative parts of US history.  I have heard this sentiment a lot over the years, and it takes different forms: discussion of the negative parts of American history is unpatriotic, or demoralizing, or depressing; telling these stories might come at the expense of telling more positive and uplifting stories that could bring young people to respect and revere American institutions; or, occasionally, telling the stories of those individuals and groups who have fallen by the wayside or who suffered as a result of American progress somehow diminishes the dominant narrative and those white people who populate and benefit from it.  These reactionary forces are powerful.  Those who bring these stories up can expect to be criticized severely, to have their integrity and their objectivity as scholars questioned, or to be dismissed with that empty-headed epithet that their work is “politically correct.”  I saw this first hand when I taught in Montana at the beginning of my career in the 1990s.  Speaking out on these issues, it turned out, nearly cost me my job.

Sorry Day in Australia is a limited response.   It does not go as far as the guys in the Australian rock band Midnight Oil wanted to go when they called upon their fans, in “Beds are Burning,” to return the land to its original owners.

Sorry Day does not pretend to fix every problem. But it does open up a discussion, a day when the government of Australia encourages its citizens to reflect upon what it has done, even in the relatively recent past, to Aboriginal Australians. That is more than the United States has done.

Canada, too, despite continuing problems with First Nations youth in provincial institutions, despite the large numbers of missing indigenous women, and the deep structural problems that gave rise to the Idle No More movement, has undertaken efforts to talk about its painful past.  I have mentioned on this blog the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation housed in Manitoba: it is a marvelous project that might equip Canadians to tell the story of Canada’s residential schools, the young people taken by law and by the authorities from their families to be educated, and the consequences and legacies of these wrong-headed and evil policies.

In the United States, in places, there are efforts to begin an accounting for the nation’s past misdeeds. Confederate memorials are coming down, a long-over due policy beautifully defended by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu.  Some buildings, on some college campuses, named after racist and cruel figures from the American past, are being renamed, though not without controversy.  Some universities with ties to the slave trade, like Brown and Georgetown, have undertaken programs to atone for their sins.

But when it comes to native peoples, we are way behind Canada and Australia.  Small gestures, no doubt, are taking place: some members of some religious congregations have pushed their churches to renounce the so-called “doctrine of discovery,” a symbolic gesture that in the end would cost these churches little.  More real, perhaps, was the recent decision by the Society of Jesus to return land given to it by the United States on the Rosebud Reservation to the community. But a larger accounting has not occurred.

And without such an accounting, young people can only with great difficulty arrive at an understanding of the moral complexities of their nation’s past.  We need more than an apology, couched in legalese, that nobody knows about. I have mentioned the congressional apology on this blog. You can read it here, and see how truly deficient a document it is.  It is as if a Senate staffer went through an American history textbook, found the points where bad things happened to native peoples, and cobbled them together into a tepid and half-baked statement of regret.  We are sorry, but want it understood that nothing in this apology opens us up to suit.

The resources to write and teach this history are out there, and contrary to what you might have been taught, native voices are not hard to find in the historical record.  In the Agency records housed at the National Archives, for instance, hundreds and hundreds of reels of microfilm, each containing hundreds of pages of documents, allow committed researchers to reconstruct the government’s systematic programs to incarcerate native peoples on reservations, Christianize and civilize them, and take their land, all in the name of “Progress.”  Scattered around the country in state, local, and organizational archives are the historical documents that reveal the herculean efforts of native peoples to survive these policies. In these records are the stories of native peoples who lived their lives under this oppressive regime.  Their stories are worth talking about.  Obviously if I did not believe this very strongly I never would have written Native America.  We need to know these stories, for without comprehending the damage done we can hardly understand that for which we apologize.

On the last day of class in my Native American survey course, I talk about apologizing for the past.  I mention the periodic calls for an apology for slavery, or the efforts of the Reagan administration to accept responsibility on behalf of the American people for the policy of “internment” during the Second World War. I ask, “What about native peoples?” Does the United States owe native peoples an apology? I play them a video of Rudd’s apology and I might have them look at the American apology resolution.  Are these actions adequate? If not, what more might be done? Has so much historical damage been done that nothing can set things right?

You can imagine the student responses.  We (they readily identify themselves with the government still) will get sued, or when will it end, they ask.  They worry of an ill-defined slippery slope.  I had nothing to do with it, some might say, for my family came to the United States long after all of this history had occurred.

I try not to say too much. I try to let the conversation evolve.  If there is a lag, I mention some of the stories I have told them over the course of the semester.  I do not talk about the larger processes of dispossession or colonialism, but smaller stories, about individuals and local groups.  Don’t these stories cause you to feel sorrow? Regret?

We do not apologize well, I tell them.  I will mention whatever celebrity is in the news who said something that he or she regretted, followed by a “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”  No, I will point out.  It would have been better for this person to have said, “I’m sorry that my words hurt you.”  And if the government does not owe native peoples an apology, I ask the students, “Do you?”

It is time for us to pull these records together.  The National Archives does a lot.  Archivists across the country do great work, and digitization projects are underway all over the place. But these institutions need resources (Yes, I know about the Trump administration’s draconian budget proposal).  Let’s start compiling the material to tell this story comprehensively.  It is time for an accounting. Look, as I mentioned in an earlier post, at the ground beneath your feet. It does not diminish us in any way to admit that non-Indian citizens of the United States have prospered because their ancestors made native peoples suffer. It is the truth.  We need to confront it.

The Trump Administration Keeps Alive Fears of Termination

In the midst of all the other foreboding news coming out of Washington, it is difficult for me sometimes to follow Indian affairs as closely as I would like. Nonetheless, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently made some comments that caught my attention.

Several weeks ago on this blog I suggested that fears of a return to Termination under President Trump are overblown.  The Indian policy of the United States for roughly the quarter-century following the Second World War, Termination included a number of related components, together which were designed to get the United States government out of the “Indian business.”  I discuss the termination era in Chapter Nine of Native America.  If you want to read more about it, check out the materials in the Manual.  I have some suggested readings and the relevant documents available for your use.

First, there was the Indian Claims Commission, established by act of Congress in 1946.  The ICC would settle claims Indian tribes had against the United States for the value of lands illegally or unfairly seized at the time that seizure took place.  An urbanization program was designed to assimilate Indians into American mainstream by encouraging them to leave their reservations for American cities. The states, meanwhile, through PL 280 and other enactments, were encouraged by Congress to extend their criminal and civil jurisdiction over Indian Country. Finally, a series of “termination acts” formally ended all relations between certain Native American communities and the United States. If terminated tribes were to continue their business enterprises, one option left open to them was to incorporate.

At the beginning of May at the National Tribal Energy Summit, Secretary  Zinke suggested that it was “time for a dialogue” on the “1934 Indian Reorganization Act,” the centerpiece of the so-called Indian New Deal which preceded the Termination era.

The IRA was an incredibly significant piece of legislation, and the brainchild of John Collier, who served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 until 1945.  The IRA encouraged tribes to write tribal constitutions (many of these governing instruments remain in effect) and corporate charters to allow them to develop reservation resources.  The IRA formally ended the disastrous policy of Allotment, and placed remaining reservation lands into federal trust. Collier envisioned a reservation future for native peoples, and the transformation of Indian reservations from prisons into homelands.

For some listeners, Zinke seemed to question the utility and continued relevance of the IRA innovations.  “What are we going to be 100 years from now?” he asked.  Will the lands belonging to native peoples continue to be held in trust forever?  “Is there an off-ramp? If I offered today that the tribe would have a choice of leaving the Indian trust lands and becoming a 501c3 corporation, another entity, some tribes would take it.”

It is not clear what Zinke was trying to say.  Perhaps he was suggesting a proposal to take lands out of trust.  Perhaps he was contemplating for the Lower 48 states something akin to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which divided up lands and left them to the control of native corporations.  It is hard to say.  It was a careless statement.

Zinke did say “quite frankly” about the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is placed administratively within the Interior Department, that “I’m not sure in many ways we’re value added.”  This much is true.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs has badly mismanaged its trust responsibilities in the past, and there is no secret that Zinke wants to make it easier for Indian tribes in the west to develop their natural resources as they see fit.  “My job,” Zinke said, “is to make sure that if you want to, to get out of your way so you can do it, to be helpful, to be the advocate in your corner, so sovereignty is a word that has meaning. And consultation is not a last minute idea.”  He wanted to help tribes develop their oil, gas, and mineral resources “so we as a nation can have infrastructure.  And why does energy matter anyways? Well, it matters if you are going to have a job. In some tribes, coal or energy is the only job.”

In this there is little that Zinke said that is inconsistent with his earlier statements.  The BIA is too bureaucratic.  He wants to allow tribes to develop their energy resources.  He understands sovereignty, self-determination, and self-government, at least to the extent that federal authorities allow tribes the right to exercise these powers.  To clarify further, in a letter dated May 5 from the “Delegated Authority of the Deputy Secretary” at Interior to Jacqueline Pata, the head of the National Congress of American Indians, James Cason wrote that he was “disturbed by media mischaracterization” of Secretary Ryan Zinke’s comments, and that Zinke “supports tribal self-determination, self-governance, and sovereignty, and believes the Federal Government should meet its trust responsibilities.”

It was a decent attempt to clarify Zinke’s comments.  That this sort of miscommunication, however, can stir up fears of a dark time in American Indian policy, suggests that Zinke and the eventual undersecretary at Interior for Indian Affairs, should President Trump find the time to appoint one, will need to be very careful about what they say, and understand that their actions are being watched very closely and critically by native peoples.

On the Notorious RBG and Sherrill

Many of my friends have a great deal of affection for United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  My own enthusiasm for the “Notorious RBG,” however, is tempered by a consideration of the 8-1 opinion she wrote in the case of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation in 2005.  Today is the anniversary of that momentous decision.

The Oneida Indian Nation had purchased on the free market lands within the small city of Sherrill, New York, in 1997 and 1998.  The lands in question were once part of the Oneidas’ 300,000 acre reservation. The State of New York had acquired the lands  early in the nineteenth century in a series transactions that clearly violated the terms of the Federal Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, which stated that purchases of Indian land without a federal commissioner present and without subsequent ratification by the Senate were null and void and of no effect.

With cash from their gaming operations, the Oneidas purchased some of these lands back.  They considered the lands as part of their original reservation, and, exercising their rights as a sovereign nation, they refused to pay taxes to the City of Sherrill.  The town began foreclosure proceedings against the Oneidas.  The federal district court, and then the circuit court, ruled in the Oneidas’ favor.  These rulings, indeed, were entirely unsurprising.  But then came the Supreme Court, and the Notorious RBG.

Writing for the 8-1 majority, she shot the Oneidas down.  “Given the longstanding non-Indian character of the area and its inhabitants, the regulatory authority constantly exercised by New York State and its counties and towns, and the Oneidas’ long delay in seeking judicial relief against parties other than the United States, we hold that the tribe cannot unilaterally revive its ancient sovereignty, in whole or in part, over the parcels at issue.”


Too much time had passed since the original wrong, Ginsburg wrote.  Any remedy now, after the passage of time, would be too disruptive.  It would not be fair to the non-Indian land owners in the region who bought their land, she suggested, in good faith.  Thus the Court must prevent “the Tribe from rekindling the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.”

The Oneidas, it is true, own less than 2% of the land in the contested area and make up less than 1% of its population.  Because courts were closed to the Oneidas until 1974, they could not pursue their claims against parties other than the United States.  And the State of New York had exercised regulatory and legislative authority over the entire area even though its authority for doing so was murky at best.  The book by the Syracuse attorney George Shattuck, who helped get the Oneidas’ land claim cases into the court system, and the Syracuse University dissertation by Philip Geier do a nice job of telling much of this story.

I have strong feelings about the Sherrill decision.  We have to deal with the case.  It is law, and it has had consequences. We have to confront it.

Ginsburg’s opinion was based upon a long and flawed history. Much has been made about her decision to draw upon the so-called “discovery doctrine” and Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the 1823 Johnson v. McIntosh case.  There is in this a legal and ideological critique of Ginsburg’s ruling that has some heft, though not as much as some people think.  I would rather challenge this ruling for its willful ignorance of the region’s history.  Upstate New York, and specifically the Oneidas’ aboriginal homeland, she wrote, now had few Indians who owned little land.  Of course.  But this was the result of a historical process through which New York became the Empire State, part of a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession.  The loss of Indian lands in New York State and the advance of white settlement was not the playing out of God’s manifest destiny. It was a crime against the laws of the United States.  The region lost its Native American character because of the actions of the state of New York.

Once an Indian tribe lost its lands, even if those lands were obtained illegally in a manner that violated federal law, and even when the tribe reacquired those lands from willing sellers on the open market, Ginsburg and her colleagues on the Court held that there was no longer any remedy open to the Indians.  The only way to revive sovereignty over lost lands was to have Congress take those lands into trust. The very existence of the Oneida Indian Nation was not enough to do this.  Tribal sovereignty, the Court implied, was a quaint and antiquated notion not worthy of its consideration. The passage of time had made history irrelevant. Let that one sink in for a minute.

And keep in mind, at issue in Sherrill was not an Indian nation’s exercise of criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.  The tribes had lost that power in 1978.  Nor were we taking about the efforts of a native community to regulate or tax the activities of non-Indians on Indian lands. That, too, the Supreme Court had held was out of bounds.  No. In Sherrill, the issue was whether the Oneida Indian Nation would pay taxes to the City of Sherrill on lands the Nation owned, that stood within the bounds of its historic reservation, and that they originally had lost through illegal transactions.  Where is the disruption?  The Oneidas were dispossessing nobody.  They were imposing their authority over no one.  They were merely buying back lands that had been illegally acquired from them two centuries before.  And Ginsburg thought this was too disruptive.  That it was not fair.  The Oneidas sought not redress for waves of epidemic disease, or the military invasions of their homeland, or dispossession, or diaspora, but merely the chance to purchase the land and rebuild their nation.

Ginsburg accepted the premise that New York had acquired these lands in a manner that violated the law.  She refused to allow any remedy.  And with lower courts applying her ruling even more broadly to dismiss all Iroquois land claims, Ginsburg essentially validated illegal acts and excused the state’s misdeeds.

Ginsburg has written some helpful and valuable opinions in my view, but not in this case.  The Supreme Court is not a promising arena for native peoples to look to for the resolution of their claims.  And Sherrill, it was among the worst. It was a cowardly and cynical decision. Yeah, Justice Ginsburg seemed to say, your lands were taken from you illegally.  But even if the law says those sales are of no effect, there is nothing we can do for you now. It would not be fair.  Not to the white people who make up the majority of the population in the claim area.  History, and the law, are written by the winners.  You are out of luck.

What You Need to Read

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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