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 sorts are out of fashion, but sometimes you have to stash things, you know? 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.
Barack Obama’s presidency had been one of great consequence to the nation’s five and a half million Native Americans, and he left large shoes for the angry ogre with little hands to fill. Trump’s presidency, I wrote a couple of days after his inauguration, left me feeling depressed “because I am not sure what will happen next.” I said at the time that I was not optimistic, “and that I am not optimistic really bums me out, because there are a hell of a lot of problems out there that sane political leaders from our two major parties might be able to solve.”
Impeached twice, the considerable damage he has done limited by incompetence, laziness, and Covid 19, it is time to assess the consequences of the Trump Administration for Indigenous/Native American peoples.
After four demoralizing years, it appears that the Trump Administration will slink off into history as it began, with an assault on lands deemed sacred to Indigenous peoples. A couple of days ago, Apache Stronghold filed suit against the Trump Administration to stop the transfer of Oak Flat, or Chi’chil Bildagoteel, to a multinational mining operation. This transfer of lands sacred to the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache tribes, and many others, is being rushed through before the Trump Presidency comes to a close. The mine will create a crater two miles across and one thousand feet deep. And it is certainly not the only instance of the Trump Administration threatening lands sacred to Native American peoples. When Tohono O’Odham people peacefully protested last fall “the ongoing desecration of sacred and burial sites by the U. S. Customs and Border Protection’s construction of a border wall in their homelands,” federal agents attacked them with tear gas and violent removal.
None of this is surprising. One of Donald Trump’s first acts as President, after all, was to sign an executive order authorizing the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, cutting underneath burial grounds and lands sacred to the Oceti Sakowim at the Standing Rock Reservation . President Trump ignored the legitimate arguments raised in the stunning protest movement mounted by Water Protectors against DAPL, and did nothing to stop corporate thugs and state and local law enforcement officials from targeting them with extraordinary violence. (In all fairness, the Obama Administration did too little, too late, to stop DAPL, and Hillary Clinton was hardly an outspoken opponent).
Trump also showed at the outset of his administration that he had no interest in consultation with Native American communities as required under the entirely uncontroversial Executive Order 13175 issued by President Bill Clinton in early 2000. You can complain all you want, Trump suggested, because he was not listening.
Trump’s interest in Indian Affairs picked up when it intersected with the concerns of his corporate allies. But there was as well the President’s strange fetish for Andrew Jackson, in whom some of Trump’s most servile advisers suggested he might see parallels. Trump’s affection for Jackson is clear–a portrait of Jackson hung in his Oval Office and, in a tweet, he thanked #POTUS7 for his service to the country.
What service was that? The Battle of New Orleans? The slaughter of Creeks at Horseshoe Bend? Perhaps. Or was it Jackson’s distaste for the 1st Amendment in the form of his support for the congressional “Gag Rule,” or restricting abolitionist materials from the US Mail? Did Trump like Jackson’s desire to go medieval on the Nullifiers in South Carolina?
Maybe it was because Trump embraced the myth that Jackson was an outsider, the people’s candidate, a kindred spirit of sorts, even if based on a flawed historical analogy. Perhaps the ruinous Bank War inspired him, where Jackson’s personal spite and lack of knowledge about how banking worked led him to destroy the economy. Or Jackson’s brutal embrace of majority rule whatever the consequences?
The sheer number of biographies he has inspired is evidence enough that for many people Jackson is a compelling figure, but Trump took his Hickory Crush a couple of steps farther. On the Ides of March, 2017, Trump visited Jackson’s plantation and stood silently in salute at Jackson’s grave. That same day, a federal court in Hawaii struck down the president’s second attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from a handful of countries. Mike Huckabee, the dad joke-telling Wormtongue of GOP politics, said that like Jackson when confronted by a Court that challenged a fundamental assumption of his Indian policy, Trump should resist the judicial branch of the federal government. Huckabee became, in effect, the first person in the 21st century to see Jackson’s dismissal of the Court’s authority as admirable, and created the impression that this is a presidency run by men who have little knowledge of this nation’s past and less regard for the historic sufferings of its people of color. Trump embraced the image of a president inextricably tied to the suffering he caused Native Americans.
Obviously, President Obama’s decision to replace Andrew Jackson on the Twenty-Dollar Bill with Harriet Tubman could not be allowed to stand. One obvious reason was that for Trump, anything favored by Obama was automatically worth opposing. Second, Jackson was white, and Tubman black. Trump opposed Obama’s decision, and Jackson will stay on the bill until after Trump leaves office. A more astute politician, not to mention a more sensitive human being, might have acknowledged the costs of Jackson’s policies–policies that were popular at the time, and from which millions of non-Indian Americans continue to reap the benefits. A more historically aware President might have talked about the complexities of the past. But that was not Donald Trump’s style. He showed over this term that he was not a deep thinker. Shortly before visiting Jackson’s “Hermitage,” after all, Trump had congratulated the long-dead Frederick Douglass for the good work he is doing, Trump showed no signs that he has any interest in or knowledge of America’s troubled past. And that was especially the case when it comes to the victims of American history.
Indeed, in his annual Columbus Day proclamations, Trump went out of his way to ignore the suffering caused by the arrival of Europeans in America. Columbus was a hero to Trump, and any criticism was to the President the despicable ranting of elites who hated America. In his final proclamation this past October, Trump broadened his defense of Columbus to embrace all historical figures subjected to the “Cancel culture” of people who “hate America.” The President said that
These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy. We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history.
Therefore, the President said, we will squash the activists. We will punish you if you suggest that our history is something other than goodness and light. And Donald Trump emphasized that he will save the western heritage from the scholarly barbarians at the gates. He mentioned that earlier in 2020, for example, he signed Executive Orders punishing acts of vandalism against monuments on federal property, calling for the creation of a “National Garden of American Heroes,” and establishing the “1776 Commission,” which, he wrote, “will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor the founding.” What’s more, President Trump pointed out that in September of that year he signed an Executive Order intended “to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage.” Much was at stake, the President said. “Together, we must safeguard our history and stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division.” While states and municipalities around the country began taking steps to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day, the President said that “as long as I’m president,” the United States will never honor the heritage and contributions of Indigenous peoples.
Trump himself did all he could to stoke hatred and division through his treatment of one of his most articulate and powerful critics, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren played right into Trump’s hands by claiming to possess a small fraction of Native American DNA, but she was right to call out the President for his racism. Trump, undeterred, mockingly called Warren “Pocahontas.” So what? I put it this way in February of 2017, when the slur first arose:
For President Trump, it seems, Native American identity can be determined by a quick glance. He looked for certain characteristics and did not see them in the Pequots, or in Senator Warren. Centuries of intermarriage, enslavement, and the complex, messy, and tangled history of native peoples mattered in his determination not a bit. For him, native peoples were individuals with certain easily distinguished racial features, and not members of political entities that possessed an inherent but limited sovereignty that predated the creation of the United States.
But here’s the thing. Too many Americans share Trump’s views about who Indians are and what they ought to be. Too many Americans view Indians as part of the past. Think about the most commonly held stereotypes about Native Americans: What images enter your mind? Ask your friends what they think. Chances are a lot of those images come from the past.
And when we speak of Native Americans as being part of the past, we are aiding in an ongoing colonial project which erases native peoples in the present. And if they are viewed as part of the past, or inauthentic, it becomes easier to dismiss the legitimacy of Native Americans, as individuals and as members of semi-sovereign nations, as being out of time and place and, as a consequence, irrelevant. It becomes easier to ignore the very real problems of inequality and injustice in Indian Country; it becomes permissible to cheer for a football team with a racist name; or to silently assent to a President’s decision to authorize a pipeline through lands that a Native American community deems sacred. It also makes it possible to call into question the sovereign right of native nations to develop their economies, protect their lands, and against immense odds preserve their cultures. When the President casts Indians as part of the past, he makes it more difficult for many Americans to recognize the importance of native peoples’ calls for justice today.
The Pocahontas name-calling, in this sense, was inherently destructive, and not just to Senator Warren.
Trump did have some legislative accomplishments. In January of 2018, he signed into law the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017. The legislation granted federal recognition to six Virginia Indigenous nations: The Monacan, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Nansemond, Upper Mattaponi, and the Rappahannock. This bill had widespread bipartisan support and would have become law no matter who was president. This was a long time coming. He also signed Savana’s Act and the Not Invisible Act in October 2020. This legislation was designed to counter violence against Native American women. It followed from the formation in November of 2019 by Executive Order the “Operation Lady Justice Task Force.” Trump declared that May 5th is “Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day.“ During Trump’s years in office, Americans finally began to follow this issue, memorialized with the Twitter hashtags “#MMIW” and “#MMIWG.”
Little came of the effort. At a listening session last June, the Trump Administration unsurprisingly demonstrated that its real commitment to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women is shallow and so limited as to be effectively meaningless. As Native Americans who attended the session pointed out, the President’s approval of pipe lines and other projects brings large numbers of non-native “man camps” into areas close to Native American communities. Many observers have asserted that a relationship exists between such projects and reports of missing and murdered Native American women and girls. Indeed, Kristin Welch, a community organizer for Menikanaehkem, a Wisconsin group, asserted that cases of violence against Native American women are increased 70% by the presence of these man camps.
Task Force members repeatedly ignored these questions. When asked about the 1978 Oliphant decision, which held that non-Indians can not be held criminally liable for their actions on Indian land by tribal authorities, Task Force Member Marcia Good said that “Oliphant is currently beyond the scope of [Operation Lady Justice] at this time.” Indeed, the Trump Administration called for cuts in funding that have adversely affected policing on reservations, and limited the ability of tribal governments to combat domestic violence and substance abuse. He did nothing to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which permitted tribes a sliver of protection by allowing them to prosecute non-Indians for intimate partner violence committed on reservations.
Without restoring power to Native nations to allow them to prosecute the crimes non-Indians commit against Native American women on reservation land, the Trump Administration has removed from the table what all experts assert is a vital part of any solution to this heart-wrenching problem. President Trump, in other words, supports policies that threaten to exacerbate the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women while permitting no discussion of a critical part of the solution. The Trump Administration seemed interested only in the appearance of action, except when it chose to behave in a destructive manner.
Trump administration officials early in his term reawakened fears that he would bring back the long-discredited federal policy called “Termination” by working to privatize Indian land holding on reservations. He informed the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe that its reservation will be disestablished. Federally-protected lands would be removed from trust status. He stated his opposition to federal programs for Native Americans on the grounds that they were “race-based,” rather than a recognition of Native American tribal sovereignty. Trump disestablished the White House Council on Native American Affairs created by President Obama, and never held a White House Conference for Native American leaders, as his predecessor had done.
In the Courts, the news was mostly bad. Lower court justices delivered an ominous blow to the Indian Child Welfare Act. In Brackeen v. Zinke, a federal district court in Texas found the ICWA unconstitutional. Texas Attorney General and staunch Trump loyalist Ken Paxton intervened in the case, and hoped that the Fifth Circuit would uphold the district court’s ruling. So far Paxton has been disappointed, but the case could eventually arrive at the Supreme Court, where the fortified conservative majority there may find Paxton’s arguments persuasive. They have shown themselves, after all, ready to toss federal laws because the legislation discriminates on the basis of race when white people feel themselves to be the victims.
Congress enacted the ICWA in 1978, an important piece of legislation designed to halt the traumatic removal of native children from their homes through fostering and adoption. The problem was severe. Dakota Sioux at Spirit Lake, about whom I write in Native America, asked the Association of American Indian Affairs to conduct an investigation, and the AAIA reported that of the 1100 Dakotas under the age of 21 who lived at Spirit Lake in 1968, 275 had been removed from their families. In states with large Native American populations, the AAIA found that “child welfare” agencies had removed between 25 and 35 percent of children from their homes. Native peoples organized to halt this highly destructive practice, and the battle for the passage of the ICWA, according to its best historian, “represented one of the most fierce and successful battles for Indian self-determination of the 1970s.” The legislation committed the United States “to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.” Native American children, under the legislation, must be placed with family members, with members of their tribe, or with members of another native nation, before they are placed in the care of non-Native American foster parents.
Paxton, and a growing number of conservatives, argue that the law has gone too far. “In practice, the ICWA compels states to disregard the ordinary approach of determining a child’s best interest and to treat Native American foster children differently based on nothing more than their race,” Paxton wrote. “The law gives Indian tribes a trump card to play in any state child-welfare proceeding, allowing them to dictate outcomes whenever a child is or even could be a member of a tribe.” For Paxton, it’s a states rights issue. “If no biological family members can be found, the law requires state courts and agencies to make a priority of adoption by other ethnically Native American families.”
“Native American children, strictly because of their race, thus can be kept apart from foster families eager to adopt them. If federal law treated any other class of people this way, it would be roundly condemned, and rightly so. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 10,529 American Indian/Alaska Native children were in foster care in fiscal 2017.
Some claim that the ICWA relies on a political designation, rather than a racial one, because a tribe is a political entity. But no political or cultural link to a tribe must exist for the Indian Child Welfare Act to apply to a given child. Tribal eligibility — determined in virtually every case by genetic ancestry — is sufficient. The idea that the ICWA relies on a political designation rather than a racial one is further undermined by the fact that if no family from the child’s tribe volunteers to adopt, any Native American from any tribe, anywhere, takes automatic precedence over a non-Native American couple. This requirement relies on racist and reductionist assumptions about the supposed interchangeability of drastically different tribal cultures.
You would not know it from Paxton’s piece, but his opinions are those of a distinct minority. Twenty-one state attorneys-general, along with thirty child welfare organizations, 325 tribal governments and fifty-seven tribal organizations have expressed their support for the Indian Child Welfare Act. The law, they write, “was designed to reverse decades of cultural insensitivity and political bias that had resulted in one-third of all Indian children being forcibly removed by the government from their families, their tribes and their cultural heritage.” The law was a signal achievement, and it has done its job. The ICWA ensures the “stability and cohesion of Tribal families, Tribal communities and Tribal cultures,” in the face or organizations and entities that have sought their destruction.
Still, this is exactly the sort of case I fear the Supremes have been waiting for. Paxton’s arguments, though they rely more on the 10th Amendment to the Constitution than a strict construction of Article I’s “Indian Commerce” clause, dovetail nicely with the reasoning deployed by Justice Thomas, about which I have written here. And that is what makes this case so ominous for native peoples, who throughout much of their history have seen their children targeted in government efforts to extinguish their identities as members of native nations.
The solid conservative majority Trump placed on the Supreme Court will affect Native nations for decades to come. I fully expect in the coming months that court will blast tribal sovereignty in a case involving tribal police powers.
Early in 2016, tribal police officer James Saylor pulled up behind a pick-up truck parked along the side of a road on the Crow Reservation in Montana. It was 1:00AM, and Saylor stopped to see if anyone in the vehicle needed assistance. Inside the truck Saylor found Joshua James Cooley and his small child. Saylor could see that Cooley’s eyes were bloodshot and watery. He could see two weapons in the truck’s front seat. Saylor concluded that Cooley was non-Indian on the basis of his appearance but also that he could not be allowed to drive in his current condition. Saylor took Cooley into custody, placed him and his child in the backseat of his patrol car, and called in for the county sheriff to take the non-Indian suspect into custody. When Saylor went back to the truck to retrieve the keys, he saw in plain sight clear evidence of methamphetamine use and possession.
Cooley was indicted on federal drug charges, but the criminal court threw out all the evidence acquired through Officer Saylor’s search of the vehicle. The district court and the Ninth Circuit agreed that all evidence obtained by Officer Saylor when he entered the vehicle to get the keys was an illegal search and seizure and violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Now the case is on its way to the Supreme Court, where Cooley’s attorney has argued that “the authority of a tribal officer on a state highway that passed through a reservation is limited.” A tribal officer may “initiate a traffic stop, but when doing so,” his authority is limited “to determining whether the violator is native or non-native. If the violator is native, the officer may proceed with his investigation. If the violator is non-native, the tribal officer’s authority is limited to detaining the violator for delivery to state or federal authorities.”
Think about this. You are a Native American police officer, patrolling your reservation in the middle of the night. You see a vehicle pulled off to the side. Though the driver is cooperative, and opens the window, you see cause for alarm. He seems impaired, to begin with, and then there are the guns. And the one-year-old child. It is not hard to imagine that Saylor felt it necessary to investigate further.
Yet every court has agreed thus far with Cooley. United States v. Cooley will provide new justice Amy Coney Barrett her first chance to rule on a Native American case.
The United States argued in its petition for a writ of certiorari that the Ninth Circuit decision to throw out all the evidence obtained by Saylor is an “unprecedented, unwarranted, and unworkable curtailment of the sovereignty of Indian tribes,” that “precludes tribal officers from routine law-enforcement activities necessary to protect both the public and the public at large from dangerous and criminal activity within the boundaries of the tribe’s reservation.”
What do you think? Do you agree with the US Solicitor General, or with Mr. Cooley? Both sides agree that Indian tribes have no criminal jurisdiction over non-natives, but is it possible to distinguish the ability to arrest and prosecute from the need to uphold public safety on already under-policed Indian reservations? The Court’s precedents show clearly that tribal law enforcement possesses the authority to detain suspects and hand them over to state or federal authorities, which Officer Saylor did. But what about the evidence uncovered in the interim before those state or federal authorities arrive? The exercise of police authority in this case, the United States argued, “does not subject non-Indians to tribal laws and regulations,” but, rather, “it simply facilitates the exercise of sovereign authority by state and federal governments which plainly do enjoy jurisdiction over non-Indians.” The evidence Officer Saylor uncovered helped United States authorities enforce the laws of the United States.
The United States argues that it is dangerous to permit a tribal officer “to ask only one question to determine whether a suspect is an Indian” and then require that officer to accept that answer. This would allow “serious criminals to escape law-enforcement through the expediency of a simple lie that officers will be powerless to expose through follow-up questioning or investigation.”
So there is a lot at stake in this case, much more than the fate of a suspected drug dealer who pulled his truck over along the side of a road late one night on the Crow Reservation. Think of the recent Violence Against Women Act, which gave to Native nations a limited right to arrest and prosecute non-natives for intimate partner violence committed in “Indian Country.” In an amicus brief written by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and joined in by all the Indian Nations whose lands lie in the Ninth Circuit, Sarah Deer pointed out under VAWA, “many tribes across the United States now detain, arrest, investigate, and prosecute anyone who committed certain domestic violence crimes arising in Indian Country–regardless of whether the perpetrator is Indian or not.” The Circuit Court’s ruling, if allowed to stand, “will merely encourage criminals to lie about their identity, as a simple statement that an individual is non-Indian, regardless of whether it is the truth, will now strip law enforcement of any authority to detain them for suspected illegal conduct.”
If, for example, a “Pascua Yaqui law officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver of a vehicle on the reservation is committing a crime of domestic violence, must the officer ascertain the citizenship of the suspect before effectuating a . . . stop, despite the fact that Congress has passed a law restoring that officer’s full authority to arrest non-Indians who commit domestic violence crimes on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation?”
Native American women face the highest rates of violence in the country, and the majority of those committing these crimes are non-Indian. Across the United States, many non-Indians live and own lands on Indian Reservations. With almost half of all Native American women experiencing intimate partner violence, and with Native American women more than two and a half times more likely than non-Native women to be victims of rape or sexual assault, the stakes in this case are enormous.
Earlier this year the Court issued what I considered a surprising decision in the McGirt case. McGirt involved treaty rights at congressional “plenary authority” over Indian affairs. Land which the State of Oklahoma thought was under its criminal jurisdiction was still legally “Indian Country” because no federal act had changed the status of the land. Cooley touches on what happens when white people living on or passing through Indian Country commit crimes. Originally, Indian tribes were thought to be able to do whatever they wanted, unless they were specifically prohibited from doing so by a treaty or an act of congress. In 1978, the Court modified that, ruling that tribes could do whatever they wanted, unless prohibited by treaty or act of congress, or if the practice in question was somehow inconsistent with their status as domestic dependent nations, like prosecuting non-Indians for crimes committed on reservations. The Supreme Court’s history toward Indian tribes can be understood in terms of the significant erosion of tribes’ ability to exercise sovereign authority. And these rulings, in terms of crimes uninvestigated, unprosecuted, and unpunished, have literally ruined the lives of too many Native peoples. The Cooley case could make it even more difficult for tribes to protect themselves from criminals who pass through their lands. I have no idea how the Court will rule, but I worry very much about its consequences.
The President’s mishandling of the COVID 19 pandemic–his denial of its seriousness; his refusal to encourage basic public health measures; his denigration of health experts who called upon him for action, his inattention and cruel incompetence–all intensified the suffering of millions of Americans who fell ill or who were left grieving, and nowhere was that more clear than in Native American communities. According to a CDC report released in December of last year, “American Indian and Alaskan Native people were nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 compared to non-Hispanic whites.” The age-adjusted mortality rate for Native peoples was 1.8 times higher than it was for whites, a measure that translates “to 55.8 deaths per 100,000 compared to 30.3 deaths per 100,000 in AI/ANs and whites, respectively.
Why was this so? The CDC Report said that “Long-standing inequities in public funding; infrastructure; and access to healthcare, education, stable housing, healthy foods and insurance coverage have contributed to health disparities that put indigenous peoples at higher risk for severe COVID-19-associated illness.”
The Trump Administration excluded small businesses on Indian reservations from the first round of applications from the Paycheck Protection Program, the first effort to address the economic devastation that followed the outbreak of the pandemic. His administration, even during the Covid-19 outbreak, repeatedly threatened the Affordable Care Act, jeopardizing health care on Indian Reservations and initially excluded tribes from the CARES Act before Senate and House leaders secured ten billion dollars in funding.
It turns out that if you elect an insensitive fool as President of the United States, that president will do insensitive and foolish things. And that foolishness, buttressed by racism and spite, is nothing to laugh about. IT is lethal. The Trump Administration, because of COVID-19, and its own incompetence, corruption, and cruelty, has ruined peoples’ lives. If you have grieved in the past year, or fell ill yourself, or felt the economic pains this administration has refused to meaningfully address, of course you know that. For Native peoples, everything you have felt has been many times worse. The Trump Administration caused massive and unnecessary suffering during an already difficult period. It has coarsened racial discourse in a country with deep and obvious problems with structural racism and inequality. It has led by encouraging the fear and anger and hatred of white people who feel any gain by people of color is a loss for them. And it has acted consistently as if any legitimate grievance by Indigenous peoples is unworthy of attention. It has been a brutal four years, and those who have supported this president have done enormous damage to the fabric of this tattered republic.
Like many professors, I have learned a lot this past Pandemic Spring teaching at my small, under-funded, public liberal arts college in Western New York State. Most of all, I have learned much about the strength and resilience of my battered students. I have been amazed by their ability to complete their work in the face of significant disruptions in their lives and, in a few cases, horrifying stories of personal tragedy and grief. I have had students email me their papers from their cars, sitting outside a McDonald’s with its free wi-fi.
I have also learned that so many “thought leaders” and “change agents” writing about the future of higher education seem to have very little sense of what it is that we college professors do in the classroom. Many of them seem to write from the Ivy League. They appear to have no familiarity with the sorts of colleges and universities most American college students attend.
Whether we are talking about Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ suggestion that professors wall themselves off from their classes with a prophylactic plexiglass shield, or others’ suggestions that our Zoom lectures can be packaged, marketed, and reused to create economies of scale in academia, the fact of the matter is that few of us lecture any longer. The “sage on the stage” model is old and less effective than other methods in reaching today’s students. This is not a lament about “kids these days.” It is, rather, exciting, a development that brings a vibrancy to the classroom that makes the learning experience more rewarding and impactful for all.
We are neither talking heads nor orators bound to a lectern. Our classes are not one-way streets, with faculty speaking and students listening. We move around the room. Our students do, too. In my history and humanities courses, I try to talk with, rather than at, students. True, some instructors lecture very effectively and engagingly with their students, but too often this mode of instruction renders students passive. They absorb “course content” which is often supplemented by massive, expensive textbooks (True Story: No college professor reads a textbook for enjoyment or out of interest, yet too many of us expect our students to do so). Students in these courses take notes, periodically regurgitate what they think is important, but otherwise play little active role in their own education. It is rote and it is terribly dull, but a lot of people think it is what we do.
It is not. College classrooms look much different today than they did when I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s.
We know it is better to have students learn by doing. Students in the liberal arts and humanities learn by asking questions, and by listening, conversing, and engaging in discussion and debate. They collect evidence, read critically, and analyze. We work hard to create critical thinkers and writers. In my classes, we discuss the sources to assess their strengths and weaknesses, their biases and prejudices, and to see what sorts of information this source might yield. We urge students to consider their own preconceptions that might color how they interpret the past. And together we engage in urgent Socratic dialogue which exposes the weaknesses in our reasoning and forces us to confront long-held assumptions. Or job is to help students learn, and that is something so much more than merely distributing to them over video selected course content.
The content of our courses, after all, can change dramatically over time. History is not a static collection of names, dates, and places. Rather, it is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures. History is not a science, but it is a discipline, as we set out to answer the questions that present themselves to us in a deliberate, systematic, and rigorous manner. The questions we seek to answer can change with the world around us. Not only does new scholarship force us to rethink old assumptions, but the world itself insistently raises questions about the way things are and the way things ought to be.
There are of course many different ways to teach effectively. Different academic disciplines lend themselves better to some teaching methodologies than to others. But we must dispense with the outdated notion that college professors provide rote course content by lecturing in ways that can be packaged and replicated semester after semester. So much student learning takes place in libraries and in the archives, in faculty offices and in the hallways outside the room before and after class. Students learn through internships and through working closely with faculty mentors on research projects.
There has been so much loss over the course of the past three months. The inconvenience and financial blows colleges and universities are experiencing may pale in comparison to the needless suffering of so many families across the country. If, however, higher education is deemed in need of reform, I would urge these advocates to reflect upon the best learning experiences they had themselves in college. It likely was not something that took place as they sat in a massive lecture hall, or watched a video, or labored through a chunky textbook. To help higher education, let’s look towards adequately funding public colleges and universities, reversing the long-standing trend towards a highly continent teaching faculty. It is a smart, long-term, investment. Let’s equip faculty to provide students with the resources to provide students with the high-impact learning experiences that can awaken in them a new sense of the possible and that can change their lives.
We are in our seventh week of shut-down, I think. It feels like we have been indoors for a long time. On a walk in a state park Saturday on a beautiful spring day, I saw too many hikers choosing not to keep their distance from others, choosing not to wear masks. It may be a burden, but please, help flatten the curve and stop the spread of Coronavirus. There are so many stories of grief and mourning. Let’s not add to them.
To get a sense of the human cost of this epidemic on the Navajo Nation, I encourage you to follow Arlyssa Becenti, a journalist working this story. She is posting on her Twitter feed GoFundMe calls for funeral expenses for Indigenous peoples felled by the pandemic. Yesterday Becenti reported in the Navajo Times that “the total number of positive COVID-19 cases for the Navajo Nation has reached 1716,” and the “total deaths remain at 59.” She is a fantastic reporter who you need to follow if you want to understand this story. An essay by Heather Covich in the New England Journal of Medicine is also useful for giving some perspective on this devastating crisis. Meanwhile, Face shields manufactured in Massachusetts are being carried by private plane to the Navajo Nation, to help address the desperate need for personal protective equipment. Calls for donations and assistance are being answered from many sectors, but more help is needed still.
Much of the media attention has focused on Navajo Nation, but other Native American communities are suffering from the pandemic, and in these states, many have complaints about how their governors are choosing to address the crisis. I wrote about affairs in Nebraska last week. In South Dakota, Julian Bear Runner, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, called upon the state’s governor Kristi Noem to take more decisive action. “It makes no sense to put people at risk because you feel most people have common sense. That is an oversimplification of this disease.” Bear Runner pointed out that “things could not be more urgent for South Dakota’s tribal nations.” Case Iron Eye, from the Lakota People’s Law Project, has written in an email campaign that Governor Noem’s “refusal to act is governmental negligence,” and that “for our communities, the elderly, and the immunocompromised,” the Governor is costing lives. “We need as many people as possible, right now,” Iron Eye wrote, “to help us wake her up.”
In Canada, the Gull Bay First Nation will open a COVID19 facility to help the community contend with the outbreak. In Australia the national government is planning to roll out remote testing for COVID-19 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote areas. The 83 testing sites should be operating by the middle of next month.
There is a great deal of news on when and how to reopen and restore the American economy. On the ongoing saga of the $8 billion in funding designated for Native American communities recently by Congress, a federal judge is expected to issue a decision in the case today. In other news related to the economic fallout from the coronavirus-induced shutdown, the Small Business Administration “on Friday confirmed that small Indian gaming operations qualify for loans through the Paycheck Protection Program.” The announcement resulted from bipartisan pressure on the Trump Administration to clarify program guidelines. As for reopening, the Governor of Acoma Pueblo, Brian Vallo, urged the governor of New Mexico to take any measures necessary to prevent small businesses in Grants, New Mexico, from reopening. The town’s mayor. “Modey” Hicks, “has encouraged small businesses to reopen next week and has implored fellow mayors to do the same.” He is doing so in the face of opposition from the governor and the Pueblos.
Of course this is a global pandemic, affecting indigenous peoples around the globe. According to a story carried by Reuters, “Indigenous tribes in Peru’s Amazon say the government has left them to fend for themselves against the coronavirus, risking ‘ethnocide by inaction,’ according to a letter from natives to the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.” The Saturday Papercarried a story by Amy McQuire showing how, “despite being chronically underfunded, the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector has reacted swiftly and effectively to the Covid-19 outbreak, underscoring the importance of their services.”
Stay safe, everyone. And please feel free to share this information with your friends and colleagues.
Happy Earth Day. It is snowing today in western New York. Here is your latest update.
The shutdown of colleges and universities has brought significant change and challenges to families around the country. In Indian Country, where internet access can be limited, attendance and enrollment have declined as courses have moved online. You can read a Montana Public Radio story focusing on Aaniiih Nakoda College on the Fort Belknap Reservation here.
There is a growing number of stories focusing on racial disparities in coronavirus cases. BBC posted a story that makes mention of Native American communities. One particularly hard-hit community is the Navajo Nation. Mary Louis Kelly of NPR interviewed Dr. Loretta Christensen, the Navajo Area chief medical officer at the Indian Health Service about conditions there. NBC, too, posted a story on how the coronavirus pandemic has devastated Indian Country, “exposing infrastructure disparities.” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez expressed his frustration at the slow pace of distributing federal aid, adding his to the many voices calling out the Trump Administration for its inept response to this global crisis. “Tribal Nations are the first citizens of this country,” he said, “but sometimes we feel that we are pushed aside and that we are bidding against each other.” You can listen to Representative Deb Haaland talk about her plans to obtain help from Congress for Native American communities at Indian Country Today. On MSNBC, Haaland pointed out that the Native American population of New Mexico is 11%; the infection rate is closer to 40%. Cronkite News has a series of stories looking at the pandemic in Arizona. For those interested in donating to the Navajo Nation, you can go to this link.
Native American groups across the United States have joined forces to counter the Interior Department’s decision to include Alaska Native Corporations in the “Indian Tribes” singled out in the recent coronavirus relief package passed by Congress. You can read about the lawsuit here. Meanwhile, tribal leaders are furious over word that the federal government “engaged in such shoddy document handling practices that their sensitive data, containing information about their people and their finances, landed in the hands of outsiders on Friday.” This comes in the wake of nearly every Native American nation in the lower 48 expressing their lack of confidence in Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, a Trump administration appointee. Politico ran an in-depth story investigating Sweeney’s malfeasance.
As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the country, the damages the Coronavirus does in Native American communities is getting more attention. Senator Tom Udall’s denunciation of federal incompetence in dealing with tribes and tribal governments was picked up by Huffington Post. The Democratic senator from New Mexico pointed out that the Treasury Department “is not familiar with tribes,” and that it does not “know how to interact in the appropriate way with tribes and they’re not getting the job done.” Similar complaints have been made by Oregon senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden.
The crisis at Navajo Nation continues to grab attention. As theNew Mexico Republicanreported on Wednesday, “while states on both coasts are forming regional alliances to coordinate the eventual reopening of their economies, New Mexico is working on a different type of pact,” a joint effort with neighboring states and the Indian Health Service “to address the impact of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation.” New Mexico Governor Lujan Grisham said on Wednesday that the state had 1484 cases, and half of its new case “were in the northwestern New Mexico’s McKinley and San Juan counties, which have high Native American populations.” Native Americans make up more than a third of New Mexico’s COVID cases.
Prairie Public Radio out of North Dakota has looked at the spread of the Coronavirus among that state’s Native American population. It will take you less than two minutes to listen to the story. On the problem of the invisibility of native peoples in too many discussions about how to combat and treat Coronavirus, check this story out. it includes information on philanthropic groups committed to fighting COVID 19 in Indian Country.
My students learn relatively little about Alaska Native Corporations. A story in the Anchorage Daily News explains how tribes in the Lower 48 have expressed anger that some of the CARES Act funds will be shared with Alaska natives. President Trump’s head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Tara Sweeney, according to Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association head Harold Frazier, “has lost the confidence of Indian tribes. Charged with a large public trust, she unfairly sought to divert emergency Tribal Government resouces to state-chartered for-profit corporations owned by Alaska Native shareholders, including her and her family.” Sweeney, the letter continues, “seeks to deny the very existence of Indian country.”
Governor Steve Bullock of Montana has released a report analyzing infection rates by race. 3.7 of the reported cases in Montana are Native American. In Minnesota, only about 1% of the cases thus far have occurred in the state’s Native American population. Still, the Shooting Star Casino on the White Earth Reservation has opened a drive-thru coronavirus test site. Minnesota does not compile detailed figure by race. Los Angeles County is trying to gather more data on infection rates by race and ethnicity, and that information will help determine the scope of racial disparities involving COVID-19. Inland from Los Angeles, Riverside County reported one death among its Native American population.
There is more news on the hard-hit Navajo Nation, which has the highest rate of infection per capita outside of New York and New Jersey. COVID-19 has struck Native Americans in Arizona disproportionately. Now limited mobile coronavirus testing is available on the Navajo population, which has a population of 174,000 people. One quarter of the cases to emerge in neighboring New Mexico struck the state’s Native American population.
There is plenty of news coverage of the Coronavirus Pandemic, but information on how the outbreak is affecting native peoples is harder to find. I know that many of my students are interested in this most important story, so perhaps yours will, too. I will post the stories I find to the blog as frequently as my other duties permit.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has been bringing attention to her state’s struggle against the outbreak, pointing out that the state faces a unique challenge. On CNN Sunday, she said that 25% of the state’s COVID-19 cases are Native American. “Some of these areas, particularly in Navajo nation, you’re in a situation where you’ve got folks living without access to water and electricity and this creates unique challenges.” Governor Lujan Grisham is one of the few public elected officials to bring up racial disparities in coronavirus cases with reference to native peoples. The Arizona Department of Health Services has pointed out similar figures. 4.6 of Arizonans are American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the Census Bureau, but “Native Americans make up 16% of those who have died from COVID-19, among the cases for which race and ethnicity are known.” Governor Lujan Grisham said on CNN that “We’re looking at a regional strategy to support the leadership at the Navajo Nation between Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.” Efforts so far, she said, include setting up field hospitals and triage centers, and delivering food through the National Guard. More on the figures from Arizona and the Navajo Nation can be found here, here, here, and here.
The New York Times has begun to look at factors related to ethnicity, race, and class that intersect with pandemic mortality. Meanwhile, National Geographic reported on the first coronavirus deaths in the Amazon. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, while pointing out that people of color were not biologically or genetically prone to infection, said, according to a piece in Yahoo Finance, that “known health predispositions that have dogged black, Latino and Native American populations historically,” like “asthma, high blood pressure and obesity all exacerbate COVID-19’s effects.”
There is plenty of bad news. But as historians who study Native American history know, native peoples have always reacted creatively in the face of epidemic disease. An AP story over the weekend shows how “Native Americans across the u.S. are organizing online and social-distancing powwows and posting videos of dances as a way to offer hope and spiritual support during the coronavirus pandemic.” You can read about it here.
That’s all for today. Stay safe, everybody, and stay home.
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.” Indianz.com, March 11, 2020. https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/03/11/we-are-staying-on-top-of-it-oglala-sioux.asp
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. https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/03/19/lives-are-at-risk-coronavirus-cases-cont.asp
Acee Agoyo, “Trump administration moves slowly on coronavirus funding for Indian Country,” Indianz.com, March 23, 2020, https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/03/23/trump-administration-moves-slowly-on-cor.asp
Acee Agoyo, “Coronavirus relief coming to Indian Country with passage of bipartisan legislation,” indianz.com,March 26th, 2020, https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/03/26/coronavirus-relief-coming-to-indian-coun.asp
Acee Agoyo, “Indian Country plunges into uncertainty as coronavirus reaches their communities,” indianz.com, March 18, 2020, https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/03/18/indian-country-plunges-into-uncertainty.asp
Acee Agoyo, “Indian Health Service works to distribute more coronavirus funding to tribes as cases continue to grow,” Indianz.com, March 24th, 2020, https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/03/24/indian-health-service-works-to-distribut.asp
Barrera, Jorge. “COVID-19 Could Be ‘Devastating’ for First Nations, Says Matawa First Nations CEO | CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 11 Mar. 2020, www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/covid19-first-nations-housing-overcrowding-1.5494077.
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, www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/covid-19-northern-ontario-1.5500780.
Becenti, Arlyssa “Workers Battle Coronavirus – and Jiní – at Epicenter.” Navajo Times, March 25, 2020. https://navajotimes.com/coronavirus-updates/workers-battle-coronavirus-and-jini-at-epicenter/
Bennett-Begaye, Jourdan. “’We Are Not Ready for This’: Native American Tribes Struggle to Deal with Coronavirus.” The Salt Lake Tribune, March 4, 2020. https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2020/03/04/we-are-not-ready-this/
Bourque, Scott. “Navajo County Ranks 13th Worldwide For COVID-19 Infection Rate.” Fronteras, March 28, 2020. https://fronterasdesk.org/content/1507036/navajo-county-ranks-13th-worldwide-covid-19-infection-rate
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, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/indigenous-community-measures-preventing-covid-19-1.5510275
Cancryn, Adam. “Where Coronavirus Could Find a Refuge: Native American Reservations.” POLITICO, March 28, 2020. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/28/native-americans-coronavirus-152579 .
Carlson, Kirsten. “Tribal Leaders Face Great Need and Don’t Have Enough Resources to Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Chicago Reporter, March 27, 2020. https://www.chicagoreporter.com/tribal-leaders-face-great-need-and-dont-have-enough-resources-to-respond-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic/
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, www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm
Dubois, Stephanie. “Maskwacis activates ‘medicine chest’ treaty clause, declaring state of emergency,” CBCnews, March 24th, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/maskwacis-state-of-emergency-medicine-chest-treaty-clause-covid-19-coronavirus-1.5507902
Laurel Morales. “Navajo Access to Water Compounds Response to Coronavirus.” Arizona Public Media, March 26, 2020. https://www.azpm.org/p/home-articles-news/2020/3/26/168576-navajo-access-to-water-compounds-response-to-coronavirus/
Deer, Jessica. “5 People including Hospital Personnel Test Positive for COVID-19 in Mohawk Community.” CBC.ca. Last modified March 24, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/5-people-including-hospital-personnel-test-positivefor-covid-19-in-mohawk-community-1.5508843?cmp=rss.
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. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/tribes-measures-slow-spread-coronavirus-6972711712
Giago Davies, James. “It Was Called the ‘Spanish Flu.’ But It Killed Hundreds of Indians Too.” www.indianz.com/News/2018/05/24/it-was-called-the-spanish-flu-but-it-kil.asp.
Givens, Maria. “The Coronavirus Is Exacerbating Vulnerabilities Native Communities Already Face.” Vox. Vox, March 25, 2020. https://www.vox.com/2020/3/25/21192669/coronavirus-native-americans-indians
Goldman, Kara N. “The White Scarf on the Door: a Life-Saving Lesson from the 1918 Flu.” STAT , 23 Mar. 2020, www.statnews.com/2020/03/23/white-scarf-door-lifesaving-lesson-1918-pandemic/.
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. https://www.knau.org/post/covid-19-relief-package-includes-8-billion-tribal-assistance.
Hollingsworth, Julia, et al. “Corona Virus Live Updates.” CNN World News , 22 Mar. 2020, www.cnn.com/world/live-news/coronavirus-outbreak-03-22-20/h_0ff44fe3fd52f6ea7471206d0b7ff501.
Horn, Matt, and Navajo Nation. “Navajo Nation Helps Provide Medical Supplies during COVID-19 Crisis.” AZFamily, March 26, 2020. https://www.azfamily.com/news/continuing_coverage/coronavirus_coverage/navajo-nation-helps-provide-medical-supplies-during-covid–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, www.ihs.gov/newsroom/factsheets/disparities/.
Kassam, Ashifa. “’Be Careful’: Spain’s Last 1918 Flu Survivor Offers Warning on Coronavirus.” The Guardian , Guardian News and Media, 22 Mar. 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/22/be-careful-spains-last-1918-flu-survivor-offer 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. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/20/coronavirus-outbreak-us-native-americans-health-services .
Lakhani, Nina. “Native American Tribe Takes Trailblazing Steps to Fight Covid-19 Outbreak.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 18, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/18/covidcoronavirus-native-american-lummi-nation-trailblazing-steps
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, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/opaskwayak-cree-nation-state-of-emergency-covid-19-1.5502424.
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. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-03-29/no-running-water-no-electricity-in-navajo-nation-coronavirus-creates-worry-and-confusion-as-cases-surge
Malbeuf, Jamie. “Northern Alberta Community Limiting Access in Effort to Keep COVID-19 out | CBC News.” CBCnews , CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Mar. 2020, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/janvier-wood-buffalo-security-covid-19-1.5502372.
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. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/as-a-coronavirus-pandemic-sweeps-theworld-american-indian-communities-turn-to-one-another-teachings/13
Michels, Holly K. “Browning Works Together to Feed Kids in Time of Coronavirus.” Independent Record. Last modified March 18, 2020. https://helenair.com/news/state-and-regional/browning-works-together-to-feed-kids-intime- ofcoronavirus/article_4b4cdb52-2186-50f4-9aa6c3265330a4f7.amp.html?__twitter_impression=true.
Moulson, Geir, and Matt Sedensky. “Worldwide Coronavirus Infections Top 600,000.” Indian Country Today. Last modified March 28, 2020. Accessed March 30, 2020. https://indiancountrytoday.com/coronavirus/worldwide-coronavirus-infections-top-600-000-Jz6G7zW44k-RVZkMXw4Zbw.
(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, www.ncai.org/news/articles/2020/03/18/the-national-congress-of-american-indians-callsfor-more-attention-to-covid-19-impacts-to-indian-country.
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. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/25/coronavirus-social-distancing-could-devastate-tribal-communities/
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,https://rewire.news/article/2020/03/24/indian-health-services-is-ill-prepared-forthe- coronavirus-crisis-indigenous-people-will-suffer/.
Srikanth, Anagha. “How the Coronavirus Threatens Native American Communities.” TheHill, March 26, 2020. https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/diversity-inclusion/488458-how-the-coronavirus-threatens-native-american .
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. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26542057
What stories will we tell about this pandemic spring, and how will this time of dislocation, isolation and, in places, overwhelming grief, shape the stories we historians tell about those pasts we choose to investigate? The answers to these questions are always more connected than we care to admit.
There are of course the daily stories of the blundering incompetence of our most craven President, who fiddled while the virus burned up much of what seemed familiar and comfortable. There are his brazen lies, his attempts to rewrite the past and erase his many denials of the magnitude of the health threat we all face, and his failure to deliver even a fraction of the testing kits he asserted would be ready by now. Beside the stories of this president’s cowardice and malfeasance, there are the stories of heroic health care workers, doing battle against the virus often without the equipment that might allow them to do their work with less risk. Of course there are the stories of those who have suffered and died, and those who grieve these deaths. There are many more of these stories yet to be written, I am afraid. Anyone with the eyes to see knows this to be true. These stories can overwhelm if we let them.
At home, I attempt to steal away moments here and there to work on the book project that has kept me busy for many years now. It may be my last book. Sometimes I feel that way when I consider the scope and scale of the project. The project gets bigger while my world, in a sense, becomes smaller. I work from home. I no longer encounter my students face-to-face, bump into colleagues, or visit libraries and archives. I keep my distance from others to keep myself safe. The world seems limited and constrained.
When I attempt to look at this project in all its breadth, I find myself distracted, restless and anxious. Working on a project this broad requires me to think of the future, to make plans and set goals. I feel strange doing that now. It is only when I step back and slow down, and when I take a look at the small stories, that I am able to focus and devote some energy to my research. I look at the smallest pieces of the puzzle, the most interesting pebbles on a beach of enormous expanse.
In January of 1907, Harrison Hill, a teenager from Onondaga shot and killed his brother-in-law Elijah Peters on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, located about halfway between Rochester and Buffalo in western New York. Hill had attended the Thomas Indian School on the Senecas’ Cattaraugus reservation beginning when he was eight years old. I have not been able to reconstruct all his movements. He left Thomas after four years. A half decade later he got himself into some kind of trouble, and ended up at the state industrial school in Rochester. The school’s records are housed at the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester, but the archives are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. All I know for sure is that once he got free or escaped or finished his term, he made his way to Tonawanda to live with his sister and her husband. His mother joined him there shortly thereafter.
It is not clear to me exactly what happened next. I am certain that after some sort of confrontation that involved Hill asking Peters for money, Peters asked Hill to leave his house. Some time later, Hill shot Peters as he exited the house, delivering to his brother-in-law the fatal wound.
In every account Hill is described as educated and stunningly good looking. But sullen, and angry, as well. After the shooting, he ran for it. Neither his sister nor his mother claimed to know where he had gone, but the police never believed them. They thought that he could be hiding in Syracuse, or on the Onondaga Nation territory, where he still had relatives. The police offered a reward for his capture, and two days later a sheriff captured him near the farm of a guy named Byron Gardner in Wyoming County. According to the report in the Buffalo Courier, Hill “was walking in the road when he met the officer, armed with a loaded revolver from which two cartridges had been fired, and the sheriff believes that had the prisoner known him he would have had difficulty capturing him.” Hill did not know that Peters had died. The Courier reporter wrote that
Hill is nineteen years of age, bright and intelligent looking, neat in appearance and speaks good English. He at one time attended the Carlisle Indian School and wore several pins on his coat, one of which was a fraternity pin from Carlisle. On arriving at the jail, he made a complete confession of the crime.
There is no evidence that Hill ever attended Carlisle. It is hard to say where he got these pins, but undoubtedly he had family members who had spent time in Pennsylvania. The description of Hill’s confession paints a vibrant, if incomplete picture, of a young man who found himself in a great deal of trouble:
He says that on the morning of the day of the shooting Peters turned him out of the house and he has a very quick temper it made him very mad and he determined to get revenge by shooting him. He says he went to Peters’ house in the evening and concealed himself behind a clump of bushes near the rear of the house and that when he saw Peters coming from the barn he took aim and fired the bullet. He says he fired but once and then ran, and after going to his room at Johnson’s and getting a package he walked that night to Oakfield and Batavia, and then to LeRoy and south to Pavilion. He says that Tuesday and Wednesday nights he slept in barns and finally reached Gardner’s farm where he found a job cutting wood. He stayed at Gardner’s Thursday night. When asked if he was sorry for what he had done he said he was not; that he did not care much. He takes his arrest cooly and does not appear to be at all concerned over his fate.”
Many Onondagas attended boarding school. Some went to Thomas, the state-run institution that remained open into the 1950s. Others went to the infamous Carlisle School in Pennsylvania. A small number went to schools elsewhere—Lincoln, in Philadelphia, or the Haskell Institute in Kansas, and some others that I cannot think of. Some of them struggled when they came home. Some put their skills to use and did well for themselves. For many, attending Carlisle was a badge of honor—even Harrison Hill who never went there wore Carlisle pins on his jacket.
I do not know how Simeon George felt about his time at the boarding school He arrived at Carlisle in 1893. His student record is sparse, little more than a couple of information cards. He attended sporadically, going home at his parents’ request between each May and October. After May of 1896, he never returned to the school. As a 22-year old, he was too old to attend the school any longer.
I have not been able to find out much about George and his life at Onondaga. He doesn’t show up in the newspapers. I cannot travel to the Nation territory to talk to people there about him until the pandemic subsides.
What I do know for sure that is on April 21 1907, while Harrison Hill sat in jail awaiting trial on charges of murder, George was in his home on the reservation, eating supper. A knock at the door. George answered It was a sheriff’s deputy from Madison County, Michael Mooney.
Deputy Mooney told George to finish his supper, but to come outside when he was done. Mooney told him he would wait. George finished his meal quickly, and grabbed his coat. He placed a loaded revolver in his pocket. When the deputy put his hand on George’s shoulder, he pulled out the gun and fired, wounding Mooney in the shoulder. As Mooney fell, George fired again, hitting him in the back.
George ran into the house, leaving Deputy Mooney for dead. He told his nineteen-year-old wife Lydia Billings, who he had married ten months before, that he was going to kill himself. He ran from the house and headed toward an expanse of woods to the south. “It was believed at the reservation yesterday that George had carried out his threat,” the Syracuse Post Standard reported. That is what Lydia believed. She told police that one of George’s brothers had committed suicide four years earlier.
But where was his body? Police searched the woods for a couple of days. People from the community, I imagine, must have helped out. They found nothing. By the 26th, police began to suspect that George was alive, that his announcement of his intent to kill himself was an attempt to throw the police off his tail. Keep them busy, looking for his body, while he fled from the reservation. A mail carrier in East Hamilton, about 45 miles east of the reservation, reported seeing an Indian who matched George’s description going door-to-door begging for whatever the residents might spare.
The mail carrier, it turned out, had spotted someone who was neither George nor an Indian. On the 29th, as Detective Mooney slowly recovered from his wounds, officers found George’s body, a bullet wound in his head, his revolver by his side. They found him in the wounds a short distance from his house where he said he would go.
Whatever his own demons, whatever he had done, Simeon George was loved. His funeral took place at the reservation Wesleyan Methodist Church. 200 people attended, “the little church crowded to the doors.” The entire twenty-one members of the Onondaga Indian band performed in his honor. They performed a dirge entitled “Forest Home,” composed in 1898, and another piece called “Religioso.” His life, about which it is so difficult to learn much at all, mattered immensely to those people at Onondaga who knew him.
Harrison Hill’s trial began three weeks after George’s funeral at the United States District Court. His attorney argued that Hill shot Peters in self-defense and never intended to hurt him. Hill had gone to Peters’ house to ask for some money to help his brother, Moses Hill, who was incarcerated in the Onondaga County Jail on charges of grand larceny. Peters went after Hill, who fired the gun in an effort to frighten him. Hill took the stand in his own defense, and was “subjected to a sharp cross-examination on the part of the people, but in the main struck to the story given in his direct examination.”
The judge overseeing the trial, in his instructions to the jury, told them that Hill was entitled to a fair and impartial trial, “but that you must not be influenced by sympathy for his youth and must not consider it in your deliberations. There should be no prejudice against his race or color,” the judge said, “and nothing about his manner of testifying should influence you. You know,” he continued, “the nature of the Indian is stoical and any hesitations in answering questions should not militate against him.”
I have not had a chance to try to find the trial record. The jury believed Hill. He was acquitted on all charges. I do not know what happened to him after that. But I did find this story in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle seventeen months later:
Robert Hill, 20 years old, an Onondaga Indian, was brought to jail last night by Railroad Detective Elliott. Hill was arrested on Thursday morning by Constable Charles Platt, of Gates, who arraigned him before Justice of the Peace Leddy on charges of burglary and larceny. Hill was caught after he had broken into a freight car in the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburg yards in Lincoln Park. …..Hill is a bad Indian. Despite his years he has seen a good deal of the country. Some nine months ago he shot and killed his brother and law in an Indian settlement near Batavia. He was tried, but was acquitted. Next he was accused of having stabbed a brakeman in Salamanca. He got away, and at Wyoming took off his coat and flagged a train. He rode into Rochester where he was arrested by Detective Spillings and railroad Detective Elliott. He wasn’t held long, as it was impossible to prove that he had done the stabbing. Thursday morning Constable Platt found the red man industriously breaking open packages in a freight car in the Lincoln Park yards. When he started to place the Indian under arrest the latter drew a revolver. Platt didn’t wait for him to use it, but laid his flat on the Indian’s nose. The blow was so straight and so effective that Hill surrendered without further ceremony. Director Whaley caused Hill to be photographed yesterday. He thinks the Indian is wanted in some Western state.
The details do not match up completely, but you have to admit that there are some similarities between the story of Robert Hill, a 20-year old from Onondaga arrested in October of 1908, and Harrison Hill, a 19-year old arrested in 1907. It is a question I have not been able to investigate. Lydia Billings, Simeon George’s young wife, left the reservation after his suicide and found work at the Columbia Hotel in Niagara Falls as a domestic. When the upper floors of the hotel caught fire in January of 1909, she jumped from the fourth floor to save her life. According to the Buffalo Evening News, she “sustained a broken rib on the right side, a fracture of her right wrist and a fracture of the left ankle.” I have many more unanswered questions, but for now, the trail has grown cold.
There has been in our profession a flourishing “microhistorical turn” over the span of the past decade or so. I expect more of us will be drawn to these small stories if the suffering caused by the coronavirus continues and increases, as every informed person says it will.
The historical record left from these years will surely highlight the incompetence of the executive branch in the face of a global crisis and the grotesque self-dealing of the arrogant bunglers. We will have numbers and charts and data, telling the story of the pandemic’s spread, and the damage it did as it slashed its way around the world. What might not show up easily in the archives of the future will be the brutal but quiet reality that this pandemic will have been the most important event in the lives of millions of Americans. It was this virus that took from them their lives and their loved ones, or led them to lose their jobs, their homes, or their businesses. Dreams shatter. The cord breaks in the spring of 2020, and nothing for these many people will ever be the same again.
We historians look for the significance in the events that we write about. We do not simply recount the past. We identify and explain why it mattered. We might find significance in a battle, an election, and act of Congress or an act of God. Perhaps with this pandemic more of us will recognize that the events that make us who we are can be as small as a death in the family.
In Native American history, we have become more attuned to historical trauma as a force shaping indigenous communities. Often we tie this to a history of violence, dispossession and disease. In my own attempts to understand the history of the Onondagas, an indigenous community that would have disappeared long ago if their white neighbors had their way, I find immense meaning in these small stories, a way of knowing and seeing this history not often available in the conventional sources, conventionally read. If the coronavirus pandemic continues to inflict trauma as some people fear it might, these small stories will not only offer an essential means to view the history of this country during this ear, but an important means for speaking truth to power. There are those like this President and his craven supporters, for instance, who will attempt to distance themselves from the destruction their incompetence has wrought. These millions of small stories will stand as witness against them. Perhaps it is true what one of the very wise Geneseo students who accompanied me to Oxford last year had to say: the bigger the issue, the smaller you write.
A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History