Tag Archives: Trump

We Have Seen This Before

In Amsterdam last week I visited the Dutch Resistance Museum, dedicated to chronicling the history of the German occupation of Amsterdam, the Holocaust in the Netherlands, and those courageous citizens who chose to resist. The Nazis deported 107,000 Dutch Jews to labor camps. Only 5500 survived.

It was a wrenching museum experience. It must be especially so for those who lost family and friends in the Holocaust. I visited on the Friday of a week in which the President of the United States told four women of color who serve in Congress to go back to where they came from. All four of them were American citizens. When the President spoke at a “rally” in North Carolina the crowd eagerly and enthusiastically followed his racist lead. “Send her back,” they chanted, about a US Representative who migrated to the United States as a child and has been a citizen longer than the President’s wife. We have no need, the President said, for people who hate America, who criticize me in “disgusting terms.” Love it or leave it. Criticism is unwelcome. It is easy and intellectually lazy to make facile comparisons between President Trump’s America and Nazi Germany, but there can be no denying the rhetorical similarities. The President and his supporters parroted in their chants and howls the excesses of the Nazis and their sympathizers. All this was abundantly clear from looking at the exhibits at the Dutch Resistance Museum.

I am not one of those who is surprised and disappointed by Donald Trump. This is precisely what I expected from him, what he has shown himself to be. I am disappointed, but not surprised, that significant numbers of people have no problem with his many well-documented faults, who will bend themselves over backwards to defend him. Completely abdicating any sort of critical thought, or empathy, and ignoring entirely the obligations of informed citizenship, they march along merrily towards despotism. Ignorant of the traditions and history of American constitutionalism, by the tens of millions they roar their support for this tyrant, egged on by a well-oiled propaganda machine that promotes as it shapes this President. Meanwhile, fearful of the backlash that followed Hillary Clinton’s apt description of Trump’s followers as “deplorables,” Democrats offer tepid resistance that thus far does not extend to a concerted effort to remove him from office for high crimes and misdemeanors, including obstruction of justice, violations of the emoluments clause, and allegations of rape. He has assembled an unholy alliance of corporate elites, grifters, racists, and creeps, unopposed effectively by a timorous Democratic party leadership that should call its supporters out into the streets. Any reflection on the history presented in Amsterdam makes clear that we are not doing enough to counter his policies, and the tens of millions of Americans who continue to embrace his racist and cruel policies. I find it difficult to laugh at the many people who make fun of this president, and the crazy things his supporters say. No, I think now. They are dangerous.

I refuse to believe that our current crisis is not a product, in some small part, of assaults on the teaching of history and the liberal arts generally–fields that emphasize to students the importance of questioning and analyzing sources, investigating and researching deeply, and reading and thinking critically. True, the bulk of Trump’s support comes from non-college educated Americans. “I love the poorly-educated,” he once said. But it seems to me that he does not want you to think. You do not need to see or hear the evidence, he says, whether the unredacted Mueller Report or his tax returns or the testimony of cabinet officials lawfully subpoenaed by Congress. You must not question him.

I am teaching my Humanities class in Oxford this summer. We take our cue from Pericles and discuss how the purpose of government is to secure the commonwealth, the good of the whole. That requires that American citizens exercise what the Revolutionary generation saw as “virtue”: the ability to set aside one’s self-interest for the good of the community. Corruption, in this sense, is virtue’s opposite. In order to exercise this virtue, citizens must be independent, able to exercise their will freely, and they must be active, engaged, and informed. Those who are ill-informed, and constitutionally illiterate, and who do not think and reason about the way things are and the way things ought to be, make perfect tools for a tyrant. A citizen, for instance, who knows nothing of the language of Article II of the United States Constitution is unlikely to challenge the president’s spurious and frightening claim that it gives him “the right to do whatever I want.”

Evidence of this assault on engaged citizenship, and the kind of education that promotes it, is visible everywhere you look. The conservative Republican governor of Alaska has effectively shit-canned his state’s higher education system. Ted Cruz, that Texas Senator who combines sadism with unctuousness, has proposed legislation to label the activists in “Antifa” as a terrorist organization, while white supremacists and nationalists continue to regularly gun down ordinary Americans with their military hardware. Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin who with his allies in that state eviscerated its flagship university system, has been placed by President Trump on the board of the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation. The Wilson Center is non-partisan and highly-regarded, while Walker has railed against “the absolute crap taking place on college campuses across the country.” So strongly does Walker oppose the teaching of critical thinking and research on college campuses that he included in this tweet, in all caps, “I AM PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN,” with a large American flag, four tiny American flags, and four statues of liberty (an ironic choice to be sure, given the Republicans’ penchant for caging children carried here by their asylum-seeking parents).

It is a common refrain. You hear it again and again and again. Liberals are corrupting the young. They are teaching “Socialist” and radical lessons in colleges and universities. The policies “radical socialist liberals” favor are dangerous and destructive, even though they are already in place in much of the western world. Liberals are “Un-American,” or “America-Haters” and, especially if they are people of color, they should go back to the “shit-hole countries” and other places they came from. And they teach history in a way that encourages students to hate their country.

These Republican charges are vile nonsense. Republicans want to silence dissent and impose their own white nationalist views of the majority of Americans who find them repellent, even if that means controlling the media, restricting the right to vote, and incarcerating ever growing numbers of Americans. We who educate do not need to become activists. Always we must remember the canons of our discipline. But nevertheless, in the course of doing our jobs as we ought, we will resist and challenge these policies. If truth has a liberal bias, as Stephen Colbert once joked, history shows these Republican operatives for what they are: a grave threat to the Constitution. That tens of millions of Americans continue to support these policies, despite all they might have seen and heard if they kept their eyes and ears open, demonstrates the magnitude of the threat we face. It is a challenge we can and must confront. Our job is, as I have written on this blog, to promote intellectual courage, so that our students will ask probing and important questions, dig relentlessly for answers, and assess carefully and critically what they see and hear. Courageous thinkers will challenge the assertions of those with power. They will demand of them the evidence that supports their reasoning. They will not accept pat answers, slogans, and sound bites. Because they call those in power to account, they are seen as a threat. And, time and again, Republicans have acted on that threat. As historians, most assuredly we can say we have seen this before.

Dangerous Humors

It was all a joke, they said. You saw the video. The people were laughing. They thought it was funny. Geez. Where’s your sense of humor? Nothing was meant by it.

The “it,” of course, was the scene from the President’s latest “rally” in Florida. While riffing on the refugee crisis, the President wondered aloud what might be done about the problem of refugees crossing the border. One Florida Man audience member shouted, “Shoot them!”

The white people standing behind the President laughed out loud, shouted their approval, applauded, and hooted and hollered. The President, who has demonstrated his racism repeatedly, did not discourage this. No. He joined in. It’s genocide humor, and it has a long history. Students of Native American history ought to recognize that immediately.

Sometimes it is useful for historians to consider who is laughing at whom. Whose cultural values can be mocked, scorned, and caricatured?

At the outset of the encounter between natives and newcomers, Indians sometimes laughed at the Europeans they were coming to know. Their appearance, their customs, their cluelessness about survival in a new land: all caused Indians, on occasion, to laugh at them. But that soon changed. A Powhatan priest, for instance, late in the seventeenth century approached the overseer on William Byrd’s Virginia plantation. The priest offered to make rain in exchange for two bottles of rum. The priest began to work, and soon the rain fell. Byrd refused to pay the priest. Byrd, who was only joking, told the priest that “hew as a Cheat, and had seen the cloud a coming.” Only after teasing the priest some more did Byrd provide him with the rum. When another Powhatan healer worked to charm a rattlesnake that the planter William Claiborne had captured, Claiborne hit the snake with his cane, causing it to bite the healer. He recovered from the venomous bite, but to Claiborne it was all a joke. He and his associates got a good laugh out of it. Only joking.

Who is laughing at whom? The process continued. Americans in the 1830s described the Mexicans and Pueblos who inhabited New Mexico as backwards and barbaric, as people “peculiarly blessed with ugliness,” and a “lazy and gossiping people” who lived “in darkness and ignorance.” This racist rhetoric provided, of course, a justification for empire, as American imperialists occupied their land. They would uplift the savages as they took their land. John Watts, a delegate from New Mexico in the 1860s told Congress that it should ban the liquor trade in the territory. If alcohol poisoning, however, was an “easy and a pleasant way to die,” he suggested that Congress might permit “the poor Indian, for whom our sympathies run out in uninterrupted stream, to enjoy the privilege of dying in that glorious manner?” According to the record, laughter followed Watts’ joke, genocide humor on Capitol Hill.

When the suffering of a particular group, today as in history, becomes the subject of a dominant group’s humor, that says much about the morality, compassion, and wisdom of that dominant group. Talk of shooting immigrants will accompany the actual shooting of immigrants. Indeed, less than a month ago federal authorities arrested a self-constituted militia leader who held refugees at gunpoint on the southern border. Talk of native peoples’ inhumanity always preceded violent acts of inhumanity by the dominant group. It preceded George Percy’s expedition against the Paspaheghs early in the seventeenth century when the English soldiers amused themselves by “shooting out the brains” of the Native American children they had taken captive. It preceded the “trophy taking” that took place after the Sand Creek Massacre, when Colorado militia forces castrated the bodies of the men they gunned down, and it preceded the standing ovation opera-goers gave in Denver when scalps taken by these cavalrymen were displayed at intermission. It preceded the “many bad deeds” white people did to the Crows after they settled on their Montana Reservation. White Ranchers, the Crow woman Pretty Shield said, “gunned down Crow horse, she recalled bitterly, as though they “were wolves that killed the white man’s sheep.” She recalled the time when “white cowboys mead a deaf and dumb Crow boy on the plains, and because he could not answer their questions, could not even hear what they said, they roped him and dragged him to his death.” James Byrd, the African-American man dragged to his death in 1998 in Jasper Texas: his death, too, took place at the hands of men deeply committed to their racist values, including their racist jokes.

The President is stirring up a noxious brew of lethal ingredients. The dangerous humors unleashed are toxic, and will have horrible consequences. He was only joking, you might say. Loosen up. It was meant to be funny. But we all know that racist activity is on the increase, that those who hold these views have been emboldened. The white people in the photograph at the top of this post–they are smiling, too, at a lynching. The brutal rhetoric that preceded this sort of violence is becoming more common. It is encoded, but it is there. And it is happening more openly and more often. Those who laugh at the notion of racist violence, at genocide humor, will be judged harshly by historians. They might be “very fine people” individually, but theirs is a moral failing, and it is racist. We who study the past have seen this before. Too often, dehumanization leads to violence. Dehumanization is the precondition to violence.

Donald Trump is Lying, Again

The President tweeted out this morning a call to his fellow Republicans to oppose H.R. 312, the “Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act.”

This is rich. Six Republicans have co-sponsored the bi-partisan bill.

INDIANZ.COM offered a useful summary of the legislation:

The bill was introduced to resolve questions about the tribe’s ability to restore homelands through the land-into-trust process. Congress enacted a similar law in 2014 and did the same in 2018 to clear up doubts that have arisen as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar.

According to the ruling, a tribe can only go through the land-into-trust process if it was “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934. The Mashpee didn’t gain recognition of their status until 2007, well after the cut-off date

But the Bureau of Indian Affairs, during the Obama administration, concluded that Carcieri wasn’t a hindrance to the tribe because its citizens were living on a reservation in 1934. The Trump administration has since reversed course in response to litigation filed by opponents of a planned casino in the city of Taunton, only about 20 miles from an existing casino across the border in Rhode Island.
The reservation, however, remains in trust at this point. The BIA has confirmed that it lacks a mechanism to take a tribe’s land out of trust, something that hasn’t happened since the disastrous termination era.
The Trump administration had proposed regulations that would have provided such a mechanism. Due to tribal opposition, the newly confirmed head of the Department of the Interior has said the BIA won’t move forward with the changes.

Why on earth would the President claim that this legislation is unfair, and does not treat Indians equally? Because, conceivably, the Mashpee Wampanoags could engage in gaming, should they follow the processes spelled out the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Too many people view gaming as an unfair privilege possessed by Native American peoples. They view gaming as one of a number of “special rights” Indians possess that other Americans do not. Trump either wants those who read his tweet to think that Senator Warren is pushing legislation that discriminates against native peoples, or he is lamenting that native peoples have unfair advantages that allow them to compete all-too-successfully with his seedy gaming enterprises. Nobody familiar with Trump’s history will be surprised to learn that the latter option is what fueled his angry tweet.

Native American tribes have something called inherent sovereignty. It is a concept that is described at length in Native America. Because native peoples belong to polities that predated the creation of the United States, under the American constituitonalism they have some of the attributes of sovereign nations. Essentially, Native American tribes can do whatever they want as governments unless they have explicitly lost that right as the result of a treaty or an act of Congress, or because the power in question is somehow inconsistent with their status as “domestic dependent nations.” Gaming, the Supreme Court held in the late 1980s, was a right that native communities retained under their inherent sovereignty, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which soon followed, limited the tribe’s ability to exercise that right.

The Mashpee Wampanoags want this bill, and their supporters across Indian country agree. You can read the statement tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell here. Donald Trump has trampled upon so many constitutional norms. Let’s call him out for each and every lie.

On Garp, Enrollments, and Grace

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an interview with John Irving, the author of The World According to Garp, and a hostof other well-received novels. Irving published Garp forty years ago, and he reflected in this CBC interview about the importance of the book, and upon how well he thought the book still held up.

            The most stable character in the story, Irving said, was Roberta, the transgendered former football player.  It was a new thing, Irving contended, to write a transgendered character in the 1970s.

            Irving mentioned the Trump Administration’s hostility towards the transgendered community. If you want to measure the justice and the goodness of a society, Irving said, look to its weakest and its smallest minority.  Watch the treatment they receive, and you will learn a lot about what your community holds dear, and the depth of its commitment to compassion, mercy, and basic human decency. 

            I mentioned the Irving interview to the students in my Western Humanities course. Some of them had heard of Irving.  None of them had read Garp. A few, I think, said that they had seen the movie with Robin Williams.   

            All of them, however, understood what he was getting at. They understood his point in the light of all that they had read to that point in the semester: the ancient Greeks’ warning that a yawning gap separates law and justice in a tyranny; the Bible’s call to treat the immigrants and the refugees with generosity and compassion, and its call to seek out injustice and correct oppression.

             I read as well a couple of weeks back about the AHA report by Benjamin Schmidt that the number of history majors nationwide isfalling. I wondered why our experience at Geneseo is so different, where we have seen steady increases in each of the past three years.  Why are we bucking this disturbing national trend?

            I am not sure, but I have a few hunches.  We have a department filled with fine teachers to be sure.  For a department with a heavy teaching load, we are productive and well-connected scholars.  I think my colleagues, as well,have done a nice job of fostering an intellectual community in the department,and we provide our students with a lot of support.  Our best teachers, moreover, do a lot of their teaching in general education and core courses, where we reach non-history majors and undecided students early in their academic careers.  We have “converted” more than a few students to our program through engaged and creative teaching. And, finally, while millions of Americans cheer on our Bronze Creon while uncritically slouching towards despotism, we at Geneseo engage with the present.

            Think about the justifications you have heard for studying history.  Likely the old chestnut from George Santayana that those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it will come to mind. By studying the past, we have often been told, we can avoid making the same mistakes again, and again.  If these statements are even partially true,how can we historians not engage with the present? How can we not talk about current events?  How can we not speak truth to power?  Doing so rests at the heart of our profession, or it ought to.

              I find it difficult to keep up with all of the insanity emerging from the executive branch.  Over this past week, the President said that the military would build his much-discussed border wall if Congress—literally the representatives of the American people—did not appropriate the funds. Before I could decide whether this was an example of the President’s contempt for democracy or an example of his ignorance of American constitutionalism, or both, or neither, and before I could write an op-ed about the long-established precedent that the military does not involve itself in civilian politics, President Trump made the spurious argument that a border wall will prevent terrorism and he threatened to deport from the United States those who had immigrated to this country from Vietnam.  It is insane, and this president, and his feckless Republican allies, have overseen a government unprecedented for its mendacity, cruelty, and avarice.

             So we look at the weakest and the smallest minorities in the country, as John Irving suggests.  As a nation, we are not doing well.  This president will hold on to power and rally his base, not by appealing to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” but to fear, derision, spite and tribal animosities.  We historians have seen this before in tyrants throughout history.  Perhaps one way to erase that downward slide in enrollments in history is to actively engage with the present, to do so creatively and with energy, and to demonstrate that what we see around us flies in the face of thousands of years of wisdom.

            After all, this past weekend a child died of dehydration. She had crossed the border, been taken into custody, and died before receiving appropriate medical attention.  The Right Wing pundit class collectively said, “Shit Happens.”  You don’t want kids to die crossing the border? Don’t cross it, then.  The Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said the death was “a very sad example of the dangers” migrants face.  Unaware that if earlier generations of would-be immigrants acted on this logic, there would be nobody in America named “Kirstjen,” Nielsen showed an utter lack of human compassion. As Father  James Martin wrote in reply, “what a disgraceful comment. Literally:without grace. Why not try understanding what forces families to flee their homes. The Secretary also knows that seeking asylum is a universal human right.This is instead a ‘very sad example of the dangers’ of not welcoming the stranger.”

             We who study the past, who examine the evidence critically, are well-suited to understand the complexities of these issues, to seek out answers to the difficult questions they raise, and hold those in power to account.

The Sins You Forget Can Never Be Forgiven

And the sins you forget, you may commit again.

Are there historical sins that can never be forgiven? Are their historical crimes so great that the guilt can never be washed away?

Last week a story appeared in the New York Times  announcing that the “Holocaust is Fading from Memory.” Many adults, according to a recent survey, “lack basic knowledge of what happened—and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 34.” 41% of Americans, as well as 66% of millennials, had never heard of Auschwitz. And, as Matthew Rozsa pointed out in Salon, it’s not just a Holocaust problem.  Americans of all ages just do not know their history well at all.

I am not willing to fault the young people for that.  Our education system, presided over by the overly-credentialed but unwise and unimaginative adherents of a testing regime, who celebrate STEM fields, who equate positive outcomes with “employability,” and who consistently challenge the relevance and even the necessity of training in the liberal arts and humanities, have done us all a huge disservice.  We know little of where we have been, who we hurt, how we hurt them, who benefited, and how the processes of history have unfolded.  We don’t know what we have done, how, and to whom.  And it seems unlikely that without that knowledge we will ever be able to stop.

There are just a few weeks left in the semester.  At the end of my Indian Law and Public Policy course in a few weeks we will discuss apologies for the historic treatment of America’s peoples.  And in my course on the Early Republic, which I am teaching for the first time in twenty years, we have reached that point in the semester where I am discussing Antebellum slavery and the slave regime in the south.  I like to ask students about apologies for slavery, too, given the horrible brutality of the entire system.

I have been at this a long time, and I can anticipate the answers.  Apologies bring complications.  Lawsuits, for instance.  Or all the exceptions.  My ancestors were not even here back then, and so on.  As a nation, and as individuals, I encounter many people who do not like to second-guess, who are willing to say that the past is in the past and it is time to move on.

But if Americans do not know those histories—of dispossession and colonization in the first instance and enslavement and white supremacy in the second—and if they do not understand the chains binding the past to the present, the likelihood of them understanding what they might apologize for is remote at best. Why do something when you lack the knowledge to understand the problems that exist?

We like villains, for instance. We like to place blame.  Doesn’t take much thought at all. Andrew Jackson was a real bastard, we might point out. But we might also suggest that he was hardly the only person to call for “Indian Removal.”  And he was hardly the only person to benefit.  Those of us who live on what was once native land should know that well. We do not, generally speaking, but we should. To many Americans the injustice that made them who they are remains invisible. I have met many people who sense that there is something off-putting and creepy about President Trump’s fixation with Andrew Jackson, but to ask them to explain why is another matter entirely.

I have been listening to the “Finding Cleo” podcast produced by CBC Radio.  It is a searing story of the legacies of Canada’s brutal decision to carry away 150,000 First Nations children into boarding schools, foster care institutions, and adoptions, in order to assimilate them.  The podcast follows the victimized siblings of one small girl who also fell victim to Canada’s “Sixties Scoop.”  Today is the product of many yesterdays, of many decisions, policies, and actions, the consequences of which whipsaw through time, spreading wreckage as they go.  If your students watch the “The 13th,” they will recognize that slavery is hardly part of the past, that the injustices upon which the South’s “Peculiar Institution” rested are still very much with us.  Incarceration Nation.  Prison reform has received more attention than in the recent past, but the racial disparities in American prison populations quite simply is not a source of concern to many Americans.  We watch our duly elected buffoon preside over the country, and bounce from crisis to crisis, while his trampy kids and corrupt appointees run a smash and grab ring. Important problems, the legacies of our nation’s sins, remain unaddressed, because too many people do not care, and too many people know too little to care.

We Are Not Canada, But We Could Learn A Thing or Two

In a speech delivered last week before the United Nations, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about his country’s history of relations with its indigenous population.  He wanted to show the world that Canada could take responsibility for the “terrible mistakes” of its past.

Whether or not Canada has succeeded in doing, so, Trudeau spoke of the enduring legacies of colonialism.  “Early colonial relationships,” he said, for Canada’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples, “were not about strength through diversity, or a celebration of differences,” but rather an experience that “was mostly one of humiliation, neglect, and abuse.”

And the damage has been long-lasting indeed.  Trudeau spoke of Canadian indigenous communities with unsafe drinking water, of large numbers of missing or murdered indigenous women.  He spoke of “Indigenous parents in Canada who say goodnight to their children, and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won’t run away or take their own lives in the night.” The problems of which Trudeau spoke have been well-documented.

Trudeau has faced significant criticism at home from indigenous spokespeople who feel that his words have not been matched by action.  Many have criticized the Canadian movement towards reconciliation, which I have written about on this blog, as a feel-good movement for white people that does nothing about structural inequalities and injustices deeply rooted in Canadian society. These are significant critiques, and it is well-worthwhile for students of America’s native peoples to watch how Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues its work. (You can access its reports here.)

But despite the criticism of Trudeau and the limitations of his approach, for an American president to even consider saying something close to what Prime Minister said before the UN is utterly inconceivable.  If you saw the excellent “Wind River,” you will recognize that the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women is not exclusive to Canada.  Corporate profit-seeking in Indian Country has led to the devastation of water supplies on American reservations.  I have written much on this blog about DAPL (the documentary “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” is strong on sentiment but weaker in terms of substance) but that is hardly the only example.  More than a third of all Superfund sites are located in Indian Country, and others, like Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, are nearby. Police violence against native peoples, disproportionate rates of incarceration, and higher rates of deficiency on every measure of social well-being: the problems are enormous, the challenges daunting, and the resources available limited.  In both Canada and the United States, these are the legacies of an enduring colonialism.

Now, if I were to ask my students if they should expect President Trump to deliver a speech similar to that given by Prime Minister Trudeau, they would emphatically say “no.”  If I were to ask them why, their answers would be a bit more complex.  For to assert that Trump is a racist or white supremacist uninterested in hearing about complaints from or the conditions experienced by peoples of color, while true, only gets us so far. No American president, whatever his party, has spoken as frankly as Trudeau about his country’s mistakes and misdeeds. No, there is much more to it than the current American president’s long list of shortcomings, inadequacies, and character flaws.

The United States, regardless of its leader, has shown little interest in confronting its long history of colonialism.  The growth of the United States could not have occurred without the wholesale and systematic dispossession of native peoples.  Sure, many of the thousands of transactions where Indian land came into the hands of white people were “legal” in the sense that they were recorded in deeds or ratified in treaties, but these transactions have histories of their own.  They occurred because of the relentless pressure exerted by European farmers and their livestock on native lands, or because native peoples decided to sell lands that they knew from hard experience “settlers” would take from them anyways, or after epidemic diseases reduced an indigenous community’s population and this made their lands seem “vacant” or as “surplus” land. Some of these cessions were the price of peace after a military invasion of conquest and desolation.  Dispossession and violence often walked hand-in-hand.

The loss of land was immense. But it cannot be understood apart from the assault on native peoples’ cultures and ways of living.  Just as Canada had its residential schools, the United States had boarding schools. Still, there was so much more to the assault on Indian identity, and it was so much more thorough than a focus on these sadistic institutions might lead one to believe.  I tell the story of this cultural assault in Chapter 8 of Native America.

We, as a country, are not very good at talking about our misdeeds.  We insulate our children from these stories, for instance, for a variety of reasons: because the stories of the suffering that his country has caused native peoples are so massive that kids could not handle them, or because somehow hiding the country’s crimes from them is the best way to produce loyal and patriotic citizens. So we design curricula that talk about tiny parts of the Native American past, but not in a way that would cause children to question their country’s conduct.  It happened a long time ago. We are free and clear, we tell them.  We’ll blame it on Andrew Jackson, and call it a day.

Meanwhile we cast Indians as part of the past, a point I have raised on this blog many times, because it makes it easier to deny their just grievances today.  We will pat ourselves on the back for renaming a football team, or changing Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day,” or persuading this or that religious denomination to renounce its approval for the Doctrine of Discovery, valuable though these acts may be.  But let’s be clear. These actions cost white people little, and the structural burdens imposed by colonialism and white supremacy survive them and remain intact.  We like to tinker around the edges of significant problems. Too many of us view manifestations of Indian identity as inauthentic, and the expressions of long-held grievances as belly-aching about things that happened long ago.  We do not believe, as a rule, that inter-generational trauma is a thing, or that the burdens of history weigh more heavily upon some people than upon others.

We are unrepentant, unwilling to apologize, and to many of us too ill-informed or too uninterested to learn and understand how Native America’s loss has been white America’s gain.

As I wrote the first draft of this post earlier this morning, the hourly NPR newsbreak came over the radio.  The first story was Donald Trump’s denunciation of those NFL players who, with respect and civility, took a knee to protest police brutality and the continuing slaughter of people of color by the nation’s law enforcement officers.  The second story involved the shooting of a deaf person of color by police officers in Oklahoma. The victim did not hear the officers’ demand that he set down the metal pipe he was holding.

This country, it’s something else sometimes.  As native peoples long have told us, white people in America are comfortable dictating to people of color how they should conduct themselves, the forms of grievance and redress-seeking that are legitimate, not to mention how to conduct themselves religiously, spiritually, emotionally, sexually, domestically, and aesthetically. When kneeling for the National Anthem is viewed as more disrespectful than flying the Confederate flag, and when this proposition can be debated, defended, and taken seriously by millions of almost exclusively white Americans who support the President, it is pretty evident that the sickness is rooted deep.

Justin Trudeau clearly has not come close to doing what his very sincere and committed critics want him to do, but he has done more than any American president, and he is light years ahead of our Brass Creon. Talking cannot do everything, and acknowledging past crimes is not a remedy by itself. But it’s a start. It is a vital precondition to things getting better. The act of acknowledging that I am at least partially responsible for your pain,  and that I have benefited from the historical suffering of your people: it can be a powerful thing.  I am fully aware that I am speaking favorably of Prime Minister Trudeau for doing, at the end of the day, what any informed and honest person would do.  Yet our current leadership, in politics and in public education, in the Democratic and in the Republican parties, are not even close to being able to clear so low a bar.

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.