Tag Archives: Current Events

Montana Story, Part II: Apply Yourself

And about that college in Montana. It is not that the people in my department did not care about my research. It’s that they saw any small success that came my way as something to resent. Sometimes I told myself that they saw my work through a lens of insecurity, that my productivity reflected on their own lack of productivity. But I was not all that productive in Montana. Anyways, I know now that this was never the case. They were just mean-spirited bastards, and I let those assholes get under my skin.

I have thought about this a lot in light of the Netflix show “The Chair.” I saw someone on twitter ask about Bob Balaban’s character, the starchy and elitist professor of American literature Elliot Rentz. Pembroke University, the fictional setting for “The Chair,” looks like paradise compared to MSU-Billings, which at the time I taught there was a demoralizing hellscape led by a dunce of a President and a dumbbell Dean.

My department consisted of two Jeopardy Champions. One, who was working on a bibliography of lynching, insisted that the infamous Willy Horton advertisement was perfectly acceptable and had nothing to do with race in America. The other was a Harvard-trained historian of the French Revolution who had been denied tenure at two other institutions before he landed in Billings. He did not drive, and relied on students to drive him around. He liked to hang around the dorms. When I left Billings, he warmly congratulated me, told me how great my new department chair was, and then scurried off to tell him how awful I was. My new chair assured me that this reflected badly on everyone in Montana but not on me.

There was also in the department an Iraqi Seventh-Day Adventist who believed that African Americans were moving to Billings because it was an easy place to commit crimes, and a Missouri-Synod Lutheran pastor who proudly claimed that being a professor “was the best part time job in the world.”

There are all sorts of people in the United States who do not want to hear anything bad about the American past. These people can make our jobs difficult. What I think is often overlooked, however, are the barriers to doing the work we do inside the academic institution: administrators who don’t want to draw the dangerous attention of dingbats in the legislature or on the Board of Trustees by discussing controversial subjects; penny-pinching college leaders unwilling to make the investments, personally and financially, to make the college a welcoming space for Indigenous students; and students, even in areas where Native Americans are the largest minority group of campus, who sometimes care nothing at all and Indigenous peoples and their communities. Racism of these stripes was a genuine repressive force in Billings.

I taught there for four years, in an era when it seemed the internet was still in its infancy, without cell phones, and with no computer provided by the college. And because I was a single parent for three of my four years, I could easily stay out of the loop. I was really busy, and Billings felt far away from everything. The right-wingers like Lynne Cheney and Pat Buchanan who, at that time, denounced “politically correct” history, really did not affect me much at all. Not directly, anyways. What mattered more was teaching a subject that was considered provocative, in a bad way, at an institution presided over by leaders who actively discouraged discussions raising challenging questions about the American past.

I was hired to teach the history of Early America, from the colonial period through the “Age of Jackson.” It just so happened that not only had my predecessor left, but another guy, who taught Native American history was retiring. During my on-campus interview, he drove me forty miles to a bar in Columbus, Montana, where we split a six pack of Budweiser. He was a good guy, I think. He left me a ton of books. He taught the subject as little more than the history of the Plains Wars.

New Atlas Saloon in Columbus, Montana – Legends of America
The New Atlas Bar, Columbus MT.

That wasn’t me. I focused my research on the seventeenth century. I was turning my dissertation into a book. I had a much broader coverage in mind. What do to, then, when the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, in a meeting after my first contract renewal, told me that she wanted to see more “relevant” and “applied” research? No one in Montana cared about the history of the Chesapeake or New England, she seemed to suggest.

Eastern Montana State Normal School, Billings, Montana

Contract renewals were tough. Each year my contract came up for renewal. Each year, the two Jeopardy champions voted to fire me. Each year, the Pastor and the Seventh-Day Adventist voted to keep me around. One student member of the committee, God bless them, voted each year to save my job. It was tense, and I needed every ally I could get.

So I tried to play ball. I started speaking with some of my students who drove to Billings from the Crow Reservation. I learned a lot, things I had read in no scholarly monograph. What came from these conversations was the racism these students faced–in high school in Hardin, Montana, in the city of Billings, and in classrooms at my college. Perhaps there was a story to tell here.

I cannot remember the details. There had been some event at Hardin High. The non-Indigenous students stayed home from some sort of cultural awareness day, their truancy excused by their parents. The Crow kids, as kids will do, made some noise about racism. The next day, distributed throughout Hardin, were copies of some white nationalist text like The White Man’s Bible. I went down to Hardin. I tried to learn more. I tried to blend in and listen. I talked to a few people about racism in Hardin. I had gathered some great insights about racism in a reservation border town. This struck me as immediately significant and relevant to life in Montana and in a host of western states. In the end, it was too difficult to do the research. I would have had to spend a lot of time in Hardin, an hour’s drive from where I lived, and my family life would not permit that. But the bigger barrier was the Dean, who somehow had become the Provost, or something like that. I ran into her, somewhere on campus, whcih almost never happened, and told her about the project. I could see clearly from her reaction that this was not what she had in mind at all.

I left Billings in 1998. At Geneseo, where I have taught pretty much ever since, I have been able to do what I wanted to do. We do not have a lot of money, but in every other way my research has been supported.

And that’s the key point. To do research requires a network of support. It is easier for us to do our work when we have interested colleagues who encourage us and provide pointed criticism, administrators who recognize the value of what we do. With that assistance, we can stand up to the racists, the haters, the bigots and trolls. That part of the job becomes easy. It’s when these things are missing that our academic lives can be miserable.

Federal Recognition for Virginia Native Peoples?

Progress for Pocahontas’s people seeking federal recognition.  The United States House of Representatives last week approved by a voice vote the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, H. R. 984.  The Senate approved its version of the measure back in March. For background on who Thomasina Jordan was, you can read this resolution brought before the Virginia House in January 2000, a short time after her death.

According to the report in indianz.com, the measure would apply to the Chickahominy Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe – Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannocks, the Monacans and the Nansemond Tribe. “All have agreed,” according to the report, “to a prohibition on gaming and all will be able to follow the land-into-trust process if the measure becomes law.”

This measure is important, and if you have read Native America, you will know well the challenges these communities have faced in their efforts to obtain federal recognition: Warfare, dispossession, and enslavement, to be sure, but also the efforts of people like Walter Ashby Plecker to eliminate Virginia’s native peoples from the historical record, genocide by erasure.  I write about Plecker in Native America, but your students might enjoy as well this piece from a couple of years back that appeared in Richmond’s Style Weekly. It’ll be certain to get a discussion going.

Yet despite the bipartisan support for the measure, there are still obstacles.  The president, of course, is a wild card, and he is mired enough in problems of his own making that it may take a herculean effort to bring the measure to this attention.  And then there are members of the Senate who, in the past, have objected to Congressional recognition of American Indian tribes.  The process, they assert, should follow the protocol laid out in the 1978 Federal Acknowledgment statute.  Three times the House has approved this measure.  But because one of those senators, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, has retired, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine is optimistic that this time the outcome might be different.   “We are correcting a historical injustice that we’ve endured since,” said Chickahominy chief Stephen Adkins, “you know Jamestown in 1607, and we just have not been accorded the dignity that we should be accorded as native people.”

I like to assign my students the text of the 1978 statute. I use the edited version in Prucha’s Documents of United States Indian Policy, a reference work I generally assign in the survey course.  The Office of Federal Acknowledgment, which oversees the BIA process spelled out in the statute, has a website that is not easy to use, but might reveal to students something of the complexity of the federal bureaucracy and the sort of work required to submit an acknowledgment petition. The standards the 1978 statute sets for federal recognition for native peoples are extraordinarily difficult for many native communities to meet.  The process is expensive and time-consuming. The problems the current BIA process creates have been addressed extraordinarily well in the volume edited by Amy E. Den Ouden and Jean M. O’Brien entitled Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, and Indigenous Rights in the United States, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2013.  There are some other works listed in the Manual for Instructors and Students if you want to read more deeply.

Because Congress has plenary authority over Indian affairs, it can grant recognition apart from the clunky BIA process.  It has not done so since the middle of the 1990s.  That is a shame.  The BIA process needs repair.  That is a truth acknowledged by everyone with a stake in the process.  Let’s hope that this time, the Senate and the President support the recognition of these native peoples who greeted the soldiers and settlers who planted the first permanent English settlement in North America.

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 Way of the Human Being

Yesterday one of my very good students told me that he was driving through New York’s Finger Lakes region, not all that far from my campus.  He was enjoying a nice spring day, noticing the signs remaining from the heyday of the Anti-Indian group Upstate Citizens For Equality, and listening to one of the blowhards on right-wing radio.  Slim pickings, sometimes, in the Finger Lakes.  Whoever it was that he listened to argued that Native Americans need to move on and “Get Over It.” Stop whining and stop complaining. The injustices they suffered occurred a long time ago.

It is the end of the semester here at Geneseo.  All of us, I suspect, students and faculty alike, are limping into finals week.  The weather is turning nice, the flowers are blooming. It is difficult sometimes for students to focus on schoolwork. I get this.  The last reading I give to the students in my American Indian Law and Public Policy course is Harold Napoleon’s essay, Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being.  It is, in places, a beautiful book, but a small number of my students were pretty hard on it. Disappointingly so.

Napoleon, a Yup’ik, wrote his essay in the late 1980s from a penitentiary in Alaska.  During a state of intoxication that he cannot remember, he killed his child. Napoleon wondered in Yuuyaraq not only how his story ended in prison–college-educated and capable, he had served his community by holding a number of leadership positions–but the larger story of what had happened to his people.

Yuuyaraq was, for Napoleon, a beautiful way of living. Indeed, his essay directly inspired the historian Calvin Luther Martin‘s beautiful but flawed meditation on the experience of native peoples in a book he wrote, also entitled The Way of the Human Being.    The human beings lived in a world in which they interacted with a range of spiritual forces, malevolent and otherwise, and a host of human and other-than-human beings. Ritual allowed this world to work.  Hunters made requests; hunters treated the animals they pursued with courtesy and so long as the animals were accorded the proper respect, no misfortune could befall the people. (Gregory Evans Dowd twenty-some years ago did a wonderful job of showing how these beliefs informed native peoples’ conduct and understanding of the cosmos in the first chapter of A Spirited Resistance, a book I sill assign in my classes).

Look at the primary sources.  Look at the extant accounts.  You cannot miss it. Napoleon discusses the primary sources. Following upon his work and that of a host of scholars and writers, Native American and non-native, I attempted to present this world of ritual and spiritual power in the opening chapter of Native AmericaIt is a world where native peoples paid close attention to ritual in order to deflect the wrath of malevolent forces whose ire could spell ruin for indigenous farmers, hunters, and warriors.

You also cannot miss when you look at these accounts how fragile all of this was.  Epidemic diseases tore gaping, jagged holes in the fabric of native community life.  For Napoleon’s people, the experience was a relatively recent one.  He writes of what his elders called the “Great Death,” which struck Alaska Native communities at the very beginning of the twentieth century.  60% of the people, the real human beings, died.

Wreckage. That is what Napoleon describes, and it is a painful read.  Other native peoples, whether recorded in white sources or in their own writings, have described the resulting chaos and pain in similar terms.  I think here of David Silverman’s searing portrait of Christian Indians in central New York who, when their white neighbors celebrated their independence from Great Britain and acted on their voracious appetites for Indian land, became convinced that they were a people cursed by God to suffer for all of eternity.  Or spelatch, the term Skokomish artist Bruce-subiyay Miller used to describe the world of change that came to his people after the arrival of Europeans.  The Skokomish “fell into disarray,” Miller wrote, his ancestors’ experience akin to that of “a shipwreck where everyone was trying to find something to cling to, to save their lives.”  As with Napoleon’s people, many turned to alcohol.  Some tried to assimilate, or turned to Christianity.  All of them struggled, for they found that “the things that they venerated, that gave them their vital life force and their strength for survival, suddenly were condemned as evil.”

A small number of my students, four out of the thirty in the class, thought that Napoleon was blaming the victims, but they badly misread his work.  The epidemic produced wreckage that most of us, mercifully, can only struggle to imagine.  The epidemics destroyed Yuuyaraq.  The survivors, Napoleon said, with their traditions , their customs, their networks of kin, and their very way of comprehending the cosmos destroyed, began to listen to missionaries who described their culture as sinful and demonic, their ways of living wicked.  Napoleon clearly did not blame the converts.  They were trying to get by, to make sense of a horrifying new world.  He described his people as victims of something very much like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as victims of “cultural genocide” and a historical process that he described as “evil.”

When I teach Napoleon, I think often of the long poem that runs through Leslie Marmon Silko’s masterful novel Ceremony, which in its manner conveys something very powerful about the historical processes described in Yuuyaraq.  If you have not read it, you must. Though a work of fiction, Ceremony can work well in a history class. If you are a student, you can learn much from Silko about the horrifying new world the arrival of Europeans created for native peoples.

In the novel, Silko’s witches begin to duel, and conjure a horrifying vision.


Long time ago

in the beginning

there were no white people in the world

there was nothing European.

And this world might have gone on like that

except for one thing:


Silko’s witches told the story of the arrival of white people on American shores.  It was a horror story, for these newcomers

grow away from the earth.

Then they grow away from the sun

then they grow away from the plants and animals.

They see no life.

When they look

they see only objects.

The world is a dead things for them,

the trees and rivers are not alive.

The deer and bear are objects

They see no life.

They fear

They fear the world

They destroy what they fear

The fear themselves.

The white people would bring a New World to native peoples. The newcomers, Silko’s witches warned,

will kill the things they fear

all the animals

the people will starve…

They will fear what they find

They will fear the people

They will kill what they fear

Entire villages will be wiped out

They will slaughter whole tribes.

There were survivors, but they struggled with the horrifying consequences of this witchery.  Napoleon told his story, after all, from a prison full of Alaska Native who suffered from what one recent report labeled “Intergenerational Trauma.”  Martin, who taught at a penitentiary during a portion of the time he spent in Alaska, met men and women who found themselves incarcerated after committing horrible acts they could not remember.  They were struggling to carry the burden imposed by a legacy of unresolved grief.

Napoleon proposed solutions. He was not an expert, he claimed, nor a wise man.  But he had seen a lot and experienced a lot.  Talking circles, to open up, to restore shattered bonds, to heal.  It is hard to disagree with what he suggests. He was a humble man, and he has continued to struggle to meet the challenges communities like his face since he was granted parole.

Still, the problems remain.  In Canada, too, as the enduring epidemic of suicide in Nunavut attests.

Trauma.  An absence of well-being. Communities still struggle.  Get over it, they are told.  These are the words of white critics who are racist and stupid, and they can be dismissed as such.  But what to do?  In the United States, much of the talk about Native American communities focuses on economic development, sovereignty, self-determination.  Like justice, democracy and pizza, everyone is for these things, but what, really, do they mean?  And with the measure of self-determination and sovereignty determined by the governing structures of the settler state, or decided, as Roger Echo-Hawk put it in his too-long book of several years ago, in “The Courts of the Conqueror”?  How much can the governments of settler states do? What are they willing to do?  How much can their experts achieve?

Napoleon argued that communities needed to solve their own problems, to forcefully advocate for themselves to pursue changes in government policy but also to deal with the grief and heal.  In Wasase, Taiaiake Alfred, (who my students read as well) laments the limitations imposed by leaders who all-too-often act just like white politicians, administering the programs and policies put in place by the settler state.

Alfred, Napoleon, Martin–they are describing communities in the midst of complicated problems, and if we do not force our students to confront them we do a disservice to them as historians. Grief is a force in Native American history.  Read a bit, and you will find it hard to miss.

I know my students sometimes are asked why they are studying this or that field in the liberal arts.  What good is that? I’m willing to bet that if you are a student, you have heard it, too.  Maybe on our post-truth, alternative-fact world, history is not worth much to many of our leaders, but if we keep our eyes and our hearts open, and read with discipline, energy and compassion, we can arrive across the distance of time and geographic space at something close to understanding.  And that is no small thing.



We Cannot Forget What We Do Not Remember

I have told  myself that I would not write about Donald Trump, but the guy is the gift that keeps on giving, if by gifts one means a series of outrages that forebode some national or global calamity.

This week, on the Ides of March, our Bronze Creon visited the grave of Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. Trump’s affection for Jackson is clear–a portrait of Jackson hangs in the Oval Office and, in a tweet, our current president thanked #POTUS7 for his service to the country.  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.  Or the ruinous Bank War? Or Jackson’s brutal embrace of majority rule whatever the consequences?

For students of the Native American past, Andrew Jackson is identified with the policy of “Indian Removal.”  (God, I hate that euphemism.)  More than any of his predecessors, Jackson advocated removal as national policy toward native peoples.  His supporters included many southerners and westerners who wanted Indian land.  He called for removal in his first annual message.  He signed the Indian Removal Bill into law in 1830.  He argued that removal was not mandatory, but that native peoples who remained upon their lands must subject themselves to the laws of the states in which these lands were located. Those states offered no protection for the persons and property of native peoples. Earlier in his career, Jackson negotiated massive land cessions with southeastern Indian nations, and he appointed during his presidency the commissioners who used all means fair and foul to obtain signatures on removal treaties. During his presidency, thousands of native peoples left their homes in the east for new homes in the west.  There is no doubt that thousands of native peoples died as a direct result of the policies pursued by Andrew Jackson.

Our Bronze Creon told one interviewer that though he is very busy doing tremendous things to make America great again, he did find some time to begin reading a book about Andrew Jackson.  I doubt that he learned much.  The same day that Trump visited Jackson’s grave, a federal court in Hawaii struck down the president’s second attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from a handful of countries.  Mike Huckabee, the Le Fou 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.

I have written about all of this before. Jackson is a bad guy.  He ruled by anger.  He shot people in duels. He menaced his enemies.  He held grudges with such ferocity that he makes Nixon seem chill. He trashed the economy, and seems not to have understood banking. We should not shed a tear that he is slated for removal from the twenty-dollar bill.  He is rightly associated with America’s long history of ethnic-cleansing.

But here’s an unpopular point.  Removing Jackson from our currency, or denouncing him as the author of a genocide against Native Americans, does not absolve any of us of the sins of our nation.  Removal is a fact of life in Native American history. It began before Jackson took office, and continued long afterwards.  (If you have not seen it, take a look at Claudio Saunt’s interactive map illustrating Native American land loss). I teach, for instance, at a college called Geneseo.  I routinely drive through or visit places called Canandaigua or Irondequoit, and pass by on the highway places called Onondaga and Canajoharie and Nunda and Cohocton. The place names remain, after the people were removed, or consolidated on reservations in remote corners of New York state.  A half dozen archaeological sites, all previously Seneca towns, are within a half-hour’s drive of where I sit. I walk along the old path of the Erie Canal, that symbol of New York’s rise as the Empire State that could not have been constructed without Iroquois dispossession. Both its original path and its current path pass by within a half mile of my house.  In other words, look at the ground beneath your feet.  It was once Native American land, and if you live in the east, like me, you likely have benefited from the relocations and removes that turned native peoples into refugees and exiles.

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 is not Donald Trump’s style.  He is not a deep thinker.  A man who recently congratulated the long-dead Frederick Douglass for the good work he is doing, Trump has shown no signs that he has any interest in or knowledge of America’s troubled past.  And that is especially the case when it comes to the victims of American history.

Yeah, About that Issue of What is Fair and What is Unfair

A number of disgruntled readers of my piece on Donald Trump have reached out to me with angry emails.  My essay appeared in the Syracuse newspapers a week or so ago.

One reader raised an argument with which may of us who teach Native American history are familiar, and with which we must contend.  Referring to the Oneidas of New York, who operate a lucrative casino and resort complex a short distance from Syracuse and just off the New York State Thruway, this reader asserted that “the ‘sovereign nation’ concept is obsolete and unfair to taxpaying citizens.”

“Last time I checked,” he continued, “most Oneida Indians live within the borders of the US, the County of Madison and the town of Vernon, They drive their cars on public highways, are protected by our military, so on and so on, just like me.”

Oneidas did everything this writer did, he argued, “except pay taxes.”  Asserting that Indians have unfair advantages, he declared that “it’s time to level the playing field.”

If you teach Native American history, you have likely encountered these sentiments before.  If you are a student in a Native American history class, it is a safe bet that some of your classmates share these views.  They are not uncommon.  I heard them when I lived in Montana.  They were for many years the lifeblood of the anti-Indian sovereignty group Upstate Citizens for Equality, which opposed Indian gaming and other commercial operations in New York state and Indian land claims.  Some of their signs still dot the roads coursing through New York’s Finger Lakes region.

We could, I suppose, dismiss these views as anti-Indian racism.  That, in my view, would be a mistake.  We need to engage.  We need to educate, and tackle views such as these head on. Our students, after all, learn nothing about concepts like tribal sovereignty and the place of native peoples in the American constitutional system and, at best, little about Native American history. At times, views like these are expressed with such vehemence that we might feel as if we are casting our pearls before swine, but I believe that these are teachable moments. And I would argue that we let these opportunities pass us by at considerable cost.

When I face views such as these, I try to concede a few points. In other words, if one sets aside the entire historical experience of the native community in question–which historians are always reluctant to do–it might seem that native peoples have certain “advantages.”  But these so-called advantages are often misunderstood, or based upon fallacies, or a lack of information about the constitution and American Indian history.

Sometimes I find this stuff difficult to explain.  Sometimes I think the people who write to me really do not want to hear a history lesson, or an explanation for how things came to be.

So I begin with the fact that native peoples belong to polities that predate the United States.  Under American constitutionalism, native nations retain by virtue of their inherent sovereignty the right to govern most of their own affairs, on their own lands, so long as they have not explicitly lost those rights by virtue of an act of Congress or a treaty, or implicitly because the practice in question is somehow inconsistent with their status as domestic dependent nations.  I will point out that to a great extent they have lost criminal and civil jurisdiction over non-native peoples who own land on their reservations, but that they retain considerable power still.  I point out that over the course of the last forty years the Supreme Court has weakened significantly the powers of tribal governments.

So much for the Constitution.  I also point out that the notion that “Indians pay no taxes” is an oversimplification.  Native Americans pay federal taxes, even when that income is earned entirely on a reservation. States and localities do not have the constitutional right to tax economic activity by native peoples on Indian land.  (The most useful discussion of this issue appears in Chapter 10 of Stephen L. Pevar’s The Rights of Indians and Tribes, (4th ed., 2012)).  I am willing to concede that this might pose a competitive disadvantage to non-native businesses located in the vicinity of Indian reservations, but that this is not simply a product of “special treatment” or an “uneven playing field,” but because of the language of the Constitution which places Indian affairs under the control of the federal government.  I point out that in a number of instances, Congress has allowed states to exercise its authority in Indian country.  This is the case in New York State.

I have been at this a long time. Racism towards Native Americans is a real thing.  The inequalities experienced by native communities are significant.  The statistics do not lie.  New York became the Empire State, as Laurence Hauptman has so ably shown, through a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. You could not have one without the other.

The transactions through which New York acquired Iroquois land happened a long time ago, but these were transactions that violated federal laws the United States lacked the power and perhaps the willingness to enforce.  The Supreme Court has held that these transactions occurred so long ago that nothing can be done to right these wrongs, but that does not mean that the rights retained by native peoples should be ignored.

New York’s native peoples have seen, through a long history, their homelands invaded.  They experienced waves of epidemic disease.  They faced dispossession, and then the effort to “remove” them to new homes in Arkansas, or Wisconsin, or the Indian Territory, and then to re-educate their children, and disable their governments.  Disease, warfare, dispossession, diaspora: the injuries occurred a long time ago, but their legacies remain.  And now, when a community like the Oneidas manage to bring a measure of prosperity to their homelands, after the withering trauma of history, there are those non-Indians who cry out, “Wait! This isn’t fair!”

Give me a break.  Look at the ground underneath your feet.  If you believe that laws matter, that the Constitution matters, that the pledges in a treaty that guarantees to the Six Nations the right to “the free use and employment of their lands” matters, then drop the whining about what is or is not unfair. Please.  I was writing about something else, a president’s name-calling that I considered racist.  Stop sniveling about fairness.  It is not a good look.  It makes you sound racist.


Letter to that Lame Provost in Montana–Some thoughts on History and the Liberal Arts

Dear Provost,

I’ve been thinking a lot about a piece Timothy Egan wrote that appeared in the New York Times back in August. Egan lamented “our Dumbed-Down Democracy,” and saw in the rise of Donald Trump evidence of a failure in, among other things, American civic education.  If Americans knew their constitutionalism, Egan argued, they would be less likely to support a candidate who showed no concern for the American constitutional tradition.  “The current presidential election,” Egan wrote, “may prove that an even bigger part of the American citizenry [Bigger than the thirty million adults who, Egan asserted, cannot read] is politically illiterate—and functional.  Which is to say, they will vote despite being unable to accept basic facts needed to process this American life.”

There has been no shortage of opinion pieces and analyses like Egan’s in recent months.  As a college professor, as a teacher of history and the humanities at a school where, fortunately, these subjects are still valued, I wonder about whether any of the current state of affairs can be laid out our steps.  Are we doing enough to produce critical and informed citizens? Should we do more?

A long time ago when I taught at your college in Billings, Montana, you emphasized that we should be doing “applied research.”  We should strive to be relevant.  I was untenured, and in a deeply dysfunctional department.  You were no help on that front, either. I understood that to survive as a professor I needed to toe the company line. But what on earth did “applied research” mean? I was a historian with training in early American and Native American history.  How, I asked, would I cast these interests in a project that you would consider “applied” and relevant?

You did not expect the question, and I never got a meaningful answer, but I could see plenty of problems on campus. As you might remember, Native American students were the largest minority on campus, and many of them traveled a long way from the Crow Reservation to attend their classes.  There were those on campus who did much to make the college a welcoming environment—staff and faculty.  They did good work.  Students could use Crow to fulfill the college’s foreign language requirement, for instance, and the Intertribal Indian Club was a valuable and effective resource.  Its annual powwow, a beautiful and inspiring event held off campus, was the college’s largest student-sponsored event.  I do not think you knew that.  In the four years I was in Billings, neither you nor the President ever attended because, in the President’s words, it was a thing “for Indians.”

There were a lot of problems on campus. Financial aid was limited.  Some faculty embraced stereotypical and, in places, racist views of Native Americans that could create an incredibly hostile environment on campus.  Many faculty, acting on an assumption that Native American students would not speak up in class, never bothered to reach out.  I heard faculty say, about a student who did well in a class, that “she did really well for an Indian.” I told you about this.  You said something along the lines of, “Yeah, sometimes the Crows will really surprise you when they do well.”  Again, untenured.  I did not tell you how screwed up I thought that was.

But I watched this environment.  Coming from southern California, this was all new to me.  There was an event that caught my attention. I thought it would fit your description of an “applied research” project.  Down in Hardin, a town that borders the Crow Reservation, a series of ugly racial incidents took place.  I do not remember all the details, and I am sure you don’t either. There had been some sort of cultural awareness day at the high school. A significant number of white kids, with their parents’ support, stayed home.  Took a walk.   The Crow kids made some noise about this and, the next morning, distributed on driveways in Hardin was some racist, Christian Identity literature, and texts like “The White Man’s Bible”—really vile stuff.

That’s what I heard.  I heard a lot of stuff. I went down to Hardin.  Tried to talk to some locals.  I couldn’t blend, really. A friend of a friend put me in touch with a local minister, and I talked to her for a while.  She confirmed that there was some ugly and really open racism in Hardin, but also that there were good people trying to make things better. To investigate this problem, would require getting into the community, spending a lot of time, watching and listening and talking.  Producing a piece of “applied” research, then, would be difficult.  I lived sixty miles from Hardin.  I was a single parent, at the time, and I taught seven courses a year.  Time was short.  I could not get into the community enough to understand what these white people were thinking.

I could talk to my Crow students who had attended Hardin High, however. I persuaded a number of them to allow me to record interviews with them. I still have the microcassettes in my desk at Geneseo, even though I no longer have anything upon which to play them.  They spoke of the white ranchers’ kids who drove to school in their big, new trucks, paid for from the proceeds of ranching operations on land that had once belonged to the Crows. They spoke of intimidation.  Of gym teachers who told kids to take a leak before they went out for PE, “because they need something to drink down at Crow.”

When I was a student at Cal State Long Beach, one of my professors in American Indian Studies told me that interest in Native American studies among white people decreases in direct proportion as you get closer to Indian country.  And that seemed to be the case in Billings.  A lot of the people in my classes did not want to hear about racism at Crow, and the statistics that testified to the continuing impacts of colonialism and discrimination.  You and the President proved the truth of that statement, too.

I never did anything with those tapes.  Never did an “applied research” project that accorded with your hazy standards.  But I did keep plugging away at my own research in Early America, and Native America, and I continued to try to improve myself as a classroom teacher.   And I left Billings, and found a job at a wonderful college in the Finger Lakes region of western New York.

I do not like to enter into the debate over what a degree in history is worth in monetary terms, because it brings us value in other ways.  I have drawn upon the advice of so many people, and that advice informs how I teach.  I tell my students that we are the ones who question everything.  I tell them that  I love the questions—the search for answers, the complexity and the absolute lack of definitive answers sometimes, and the stories—the stories are at the heart of all that we historians do as teachers and writers.

In history, these stories can be tough to handle sometimes.  Particularly in my field, I read about horrifying acts of violence, greed, viciousness, and hatred, all the ways in which war is a violent teacher.  It can get you down sometimes, and history can be a brutal business.  But, once in a while, there are these amazing stories: of selflessness, of grace–and of courage.  And I tell them, that to the utmost of their ability, they should try to be intellectually fearless, and to have the courage to not shy away from those things that seem extremely difficult.  To be honest, curious, inquisitive, and relentless to be sure, but most of all, in terms of the questions they ask, the evidence they consider, the ideas they engage with, and the theses they advance, to be as fearless as they can be.  Now, on this campus, in this country, in this global community, more than ever.  This is History, Applied.

My students now live in a world where too many people confuse their feelings and their fears for facts, where being smart and engaged and critical and willing to ask questions can make one an object of scorn.  They live in a world as well where complexity is so often dismissed, where big and difficult answers to the big questions are avoided, that asking these sorts of questions can take a certain amount of courage.  They live in a world where, when we stand up in the face of these problems and ask, “Why?” and when we insist on a reasoned and relevant response to that simple question—it is like an act of subversion, and subversive acts, even small ones, require a degree of courage and fearlessness.

I tell my students this, and that their studies can help them makes sense of this world.   Looking at the spectacle of public life that my generation is in the process of bequeathing to their generation, I tell them, it might be easy to slide into a deep cynicism, but cynicism is an intellectually lazy position, a sort of cop out.  It can take courage to trust and to respect and to appreciate, as well as to care and to love, and to accept the validity of ideas presented by those with whom we would be predisposed to think we might disagree.  To never underestimate others, to take people seriously, whoever that person happens to be, to accept the possibility that those with whom we disagree might have a point and, indeed, to admit that we might be wrong.  To appear vulnerable in the face of those who despise us.  That is not an easy thing to do. That takes courage, and a willingness—a commitment—to approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised.

It is easy to feel like the challenges we face are too big and it is possible, I think, that we all feel at times like we are not enough to make a difference—that we need to be wealthier or have more expertise or access or whatever.  But what if we used our skills and our thoughts and our reason and acted as if we were exactly what was needed? How would we live or have lived if we were exactly what is needed to solve those things we see as problems? If we knew we could close the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, even a little bit, would we have the courage to act?

I am not sure what you would say to these questions.  I do not know that you would agree that the power of history, whatever the subfield, is that it allows us to share in the experiences of people far removed from us in space and time, to take part in our broader, shared, humanity.  That was never something you valued.  You wanted the standards low, the seats full.   I know that.  So I thought of you when I read Egan’s piece. You never realized the merits of the liberal arts, the power of ideas, the feeling of connection one can achieve when they study the past.   You left Billings, and became the president of a small college in a similarly red state, I think, but I did not pay any attention.  But I do know this: history and the liberal arts empower our students to be curious, kind, and fearless in an informed way that makes our world a better place.  That is something that transcends price and simplistic ways to measure learning outcomes.

The Cleveland Indians, FFS

The Cleveland Indians are a game away from the World Series, and the team’s post-season relevance offers an occasion to discuss the use of Native American images as mascots.  Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, is as bad as they get.  According to a nice piece on Deadspin, “the franchise is celebrating by rubbing its racism in the faces of every person tuning in to watch baseball at the peak of its season.”  Despite pledging to rely less upon the Chief Wahoo logo at the beginning of the season, the Indians’ owner Paul Dolan said that “Chief Wahoo . . . is part of our history and legacy.”

Major League Baseball seems to want the entire issue to go away.   A statement from the league read:

                 “Major League Baseball appreciates the concerns of those that find the name and logo of the       Cleveland Indians to be offensive. We would welcome a thoughtful and inclusive dialogue to address these concerns outside the context of litigation. Given the demands for completing the League Championship Series in a timely manner, MLB will defend Cleveland’s right to use their name that has been in existence for more than 100 years.”

So Carry On, Boys!

I have written about racists sports stereotypes in the past.  Mascots are not the biggest problem facing native communities, and nobody claims that they are.   Too many Indian communities, for instance, continue to struggle to enjoy the measured sovereignty permitted them by the most anti-Indian Supreme Court in American history. State and local governments mount aggressive campaigns designed to skim the cream off of the fragile prosperity that has emerged in some native communities, looking to tax gaming and retail businesses located on Indian land in opposition to a constitutional logic that has stood for almost 190 years. They challenge American Indian tribal sovereignty, and the pressure at times is relentless.

Meanwhile, Native Americans have lower life expectancy, higher rates of death from cancer, injury and suicide, and are more likely to be poor, unemployed, and the victims of violent crime than their non-Indian neighbors.  According to the Indian Health Service, Native peoples are six times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes than other Americans, and twice as likely to develop cervical cancer, three times as likely to develop diabetes, eight times more likely to contract tuberculosis, and twice as likely to die from homicide. Efforts to recover lost lands, acquired from them in transactions that on their face violated federal law, have been stymied by hostile federal courts.  The list of challenges facing Native American communities is a long one.

Still, this is an easy one.  Chief Wahoo needs to go.  I mean, really, look at this thing. cleveland_indians_logo-svgIt’s even worse than the old Disney Indians in the film “Peter Pan.”

MLB clearly has permitted the Indians to continue to use Chief Wahoo, and the prevalence of this horrible mascot in the postseason shows that the Cleveland Indians organization, like the NFL’s Washington Redskins, has no intention of doing anything and that they are perfectly content using images that are terribly racist and offensive.


Andrew Jackson’s Removal from the Twenty-Dollar Bill

Royce's Indian Land Cessions, shows that New York Indians lost land as well.
Royce’s Indian Land Cessions, shows that New York Indians lost land as well.

The Treasury Department recently announced its decision to remove Andrew Jackson from the front of the twenty-dollar bill, a decision justified by Jackson’s slaveholding and the large role he played in the odious policy known as “Indian Removal.”

Jackson certainly bears responsibility for the removal of tens of thousands of Native American people from their homes in the eastern United States to new homes in the west.  He signed the Indian Removal Bill into law in 1830, presented Indians with the Hobson’s choice of either leaving or subjecting themselves to hostile state legal systems, and ignored an important Supreme Court decision that protected Indian rights against state aggression.  Men he appointed negotiated removal treaties with eastern Indians.  Thousands of Native American men and women died.

But Indian removal was popular in many parts of the union. Blaming Jackson for the policy might be emotionally satisfying, but it oversimplifies a complex past.  Millions of white Americans supported Indian removal and benefited economically from it. Many still do.  Indeed, New York became the “Empire State” on lands wrested from the state’s native population.  Millions were guilty, even if Jackson was guiltier than most.

Removals began during the colonial period, a product of disease, enslavement, warfare and dispossession.  It continued during the Revolution as the American patriots found it easier to burn Indian towns than to engage native forces in the field.  Thomas Jefferson in 1803 thought the possibility of removing the Indians a justification for acquiring Louisiana from the French.  Cherokees began moving to Arkansas in 1808; Oneidas from central New York left for Wisconsin in the early 1820s, hoping in part to avoid encroachments on their lands that state and federal authorities lacked the interest or the ability to stop.

Removals, then, began long before Andrew Jackson became President. They continued after he left office.  The Cherokee “Trail of Tears” took place in 1838 under Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren. That same year, Iroquois in New York were coerced and defrauded into signing the most corrupt Indian treaty in all of American history at Buffalo Creek.

In a couple of years, Andrew Jackson will be gone, “removed” to the back of the twenty-dollar bill.  Good riddance.  He was a violent and angry man, whose harsh embrace of majority rule whatever the consequences ran roughshod over the rights of minorities and heightened sectional tensions.  Though his was a consequential and importance presidency, he was a man who thought dueling a reasonable way to resolve conflicts, and his economic policies provoked a significant financial crisis.   He attempted to silence the abolitionists, and he embraced and endorsed Indian Removal.  But that heinous policy was bigger than one man, and we should not think for a second that demoting him does much at all to expiate the sins of a very guilty nation.