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This Indian Country: Excerpt


This Indian Country coverFor the past several years I have taught Native American history to college students in the Midwest. Since the subject is new to most of them, I usually begin each course with a simple exercise. I ask students to take out a sheet of paper and write down the names of three American Indians. Most who have responded to this question-- bright young men and women in settings that have shifted with me over the years from a small liberal arts college to a large private university to the massive research institution where I now work--have grown up in middle-class suburbs or urban neighborhoods where they rarely have encountered Native people. "Everybody knows something about Indians," I tell them; "this exercise is a way of inventorying the extent of your knowledge as it exists today." I have conducted this exercise dozens of times, and the results seldom vary. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo are the Indians most frequently mentioned. (Following the release of Disney's Pocahontas in 1995, the Virginia "princess" frequently nudged one of the other three off the podium.)

After tabulating their answers, I ask the students to reflect on the result. If visiting Martians were to arrive suddenly and examine this outcome, what would they learn? The ensuing discussion always generates new insights, but the general conclusion is inescapable. Most Americans instinctively view Indians as people of the past who occupy a position outside the central narrative of American history. Three of the most frequently mentioned individuals were warriors, men who fought violently against American expansion, lost, and died. (Pocahontas was a "good Indian," remembered for assisting European expansion--and then dying.) The exercise suggests that Americans believe "real" Indians dwell in some distant time and place, apart from their own lives, and that Native history has no particular relationship to what is conventionally presented as the story of America. The images in my students' heads seem to underscore the idea that the United States is a "new" nation whose history stretches back to a founding moment that involved violent conflicts that "won" the land for "us" and left the Indians dispossessed. These images suggest Indians had a history too; but theirs was short and sad, and it ended a long time ago.

There is of course a great deal of truth in this conventional view. Native Americans were (and are) outsiders in America. Over the past two centuries most Indians resisted the rule of the United States and scoffed at the Americans' claim that their new nation embodied the triumph of human freedom. Native people had their own traditions which differed fundamentally from those the early explorers brought with them from Europe. At their first contact with Europeans, Indians were not Christians, nor were they preoccupied with private property. While consensual, their societies were not "democratic" in the European sense of the term. To Indians, iconic American frontiersmen like Daniel Boone or Andrew Jackson were hardly heroic or admirable; they were simply the latest intruders. They were not impressed that Jackson championed the "common man" because they understood the connection between his populist politics and his equally fervent campaign to expel the tribes from the eastern United States. Native people understood that opening new areas for "settlement" would mean the devastation of their ancient homelands.

The point of my first-day exercise is not to heap scorn on the nation's pioneers but to kindle curiosity about the real story of American Indians in the United States. If "real" Indians are warriors and the warriors were defeated and killed, how do we explain the Native people who survived the founding of the United States? What about the vast majority of Indians who were not warriors and who refused the Pocahontas role of assisting European settlement? Were they "real"? Do they have a history? And if the national myths tell only part of the story of the Native past, where do we look to find the rest? My informal quiz is intended to prod students to look beneath the surface of the popular beliefs that define Native people as exotic and irrelevant. I also ask students to consider why it is that Americans so easily accept the romantic stereotype of Indians as heroic warriors and princesses? Why don't we demand a richer, three- dimensional story? I pose a Native American version of the question the African American writer James Baldwin often asked white audiences a generation ago: "Why do you need a nigger?" My question is the same: Why do Americans need "Indians"--brave, exotic, and dead--as major figures in national culture?

My first-day questions are not unique. For many years historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars have repeated versions of my exercise in both their teachings and their writings about the Native American past. Confronting an earlier scholarly tradition that viewed Indian people as tethered to tradition and bound down by their exotic tribal cultures, proponents of a "New Indian History" have pierced through old stereotypes and distortions to portray Native Americans as three- dimensional actors, performing on the stage of history in accessible and comprehensible ways. This scholarship has uncovered the record of remarkable men and women who managed to survive the European invasion and participate actively in the creation of the modern world. While not denigrating nineteenth- century warriors like Tecumseh or Chief Joseph, the "New Indian History" has taught that since 1492 Native people spent far more time negotiating, lobbying, and debating than they spent tomahawking settlers or shooting at soldiers.

This insight has inspired historians to tell stories of men and women who adapted ancient traditions to new circumstances or married new phenomena like Christianity or Western technology to the needs of their people. The "New Indian History" has recovered Native voices that allow students to hear previously ignored tribal perspectives on historical events. But even as we framed this new history, historians were confronted again and again by the public's enduring preference for warriors, feathers, and stories of Indian defeat.

This book counters that preference by presenting portraits of American Indians who neither physically resisted, nor surrendered to, the expanding continental empire that became the United States. The men and women portrayed here were born within the boundaries of the United States, rose to positions of community leadership, and decided to enter the nation's political arena--as lawyers, lobbyists, agitators, and writers--to defend their communities. They argued that Native people occupied a distinct place inside the borders of the United States and deserved special recognition from the central government. Undaunted by their adversary's military power, these activists employed legal reasoning, political pressure, and philosophical arguments to wage a continuous campaign on behalf of Indian autonomy, freedom, and survival. Some were homegrown activists whose focus was on protecting their local homelands; others had wider ambitions for the reform of national policies. All sought to overcome the predicament of political powerlessness and find peaceful resolutions for their complaints. They struggled to create a long-term relationship with the United States that would enable Native people to live as members of both particular indigenous communities and a large, democratic nation.

The story of these activists crosses several centuries. It opens in the waning days of the American Revolution, as negotiators in Paris set geographical boundaries for the new nation that ignored Indian nations that had fought in the conflict and had been recognized previously in international diplomacy. Native activists take center stage in the 1820s, when nationalistic U. S. leaders abandoned an earlier diplomatic tradition and pressed Indian leaders to surrender their homes to American settlers. The Choctaw James McDonald, the first Indian in the United States to be trained as a lawyer, is the protagonist of chapter two. McDonald became his tribe's legal adviser and drew on American political ideals to defend Indian rights, thereby laying the foundation for future claims against the United States.

A generation after McDonald, the Cherokee leader William Potter Ross developed and widened the young Choctaw's arguments. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century he traveled among Indian tribes in the West as well as to Washington, D. C., to recruit other Native leaders to defend tribal sovereignty. Among those who followed in Ross's wake were Sarah Winnemucca, a Nevada Paiute who in the 1880s became a nationally famous writer, lecturer, and lobbyist, and a group of remarkable Minnesota Ojibwe tribal leaders who battled both at home and in Washington, D. C., to preserve their tiny community on the shores of Mille Lacs Lake.

In the twentieth century the leading activists were often polished professionals like Thomas Sloan, an Omaha Indian who became an attorney and established a legal practice in Washington, D. C. The first Indian to argue a case before the U. S. Supreme Court, Sloan helped found the Society of American Indians in 1911 (serving as its first president) and encouraged other community leaders to create similar networks of support. In the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal offered those leaders opportunities to speak out in defense of their tribes, these networks brought forth tribal advocates such as the Seneca Alice Jemison and the Crow leader Robert Yellowtail, as well as a new generation of intellectuals and thinkers, among them the Salish writer and reformer D'Arcy McNickle and the visionary scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., who by the time of his death in 2005 had become the leading proponent of indigenous cultures and tribal rights in the United States.

By the start of the twenty-first century the threads of activism developed by these individuals had woven themselves together so tightly that they produced the complex reality we observe today: a world where the descendants of indigenous societies and the children of the
Americans who had dispossessed them can imagine living together as fellow citizens. The eight chapters that constitute this book focus on a dozen or so individuals who, at different times and places, took up the challenge of winning recognition for their communities within the political and institutional framework of the United States. While a great many other men and women were involved in this process, the stories of this small group of activists allow us to view the broad outlines of Indian America's long engagement with the power and political pretensions of the United States. They shared a common conviction that Native Americans, who had never consented to the establishment of the United States, nonetheless deserved recognition from its institutions and justice from its leaders.

The activists in this book were originals and innovators. Sarah Winnemucca, for example, had no more than a grammar school education, yet she forged alliances with humanitarian reformers across the country and argued forcefully that the trans-Mississippi West, which most non-Indians believed had already been "won" for civilization, was still a landscape of violence and brutality. Thomas Sloan, the Omaha lawyer, proposed that American citizenship would give Indian people the freedom they needed to claim their rights as members of tribal communities as well as the legal status to resist the dictatorial power of government bureaucrats and Indian agents. Similarly, the leaders of Minnesota's Mille Lacs band of Ojibwes, many of them illiterate in English, took the unprecedented step of hiring a team of prominent attorneys to press their claim for recognition and justice in U. S. courts.

These figures overlapped sufficiently with one another that through them we can follow an ongoing train of thought and action. This is not a simple story of linear progress and triumph in a climactic court case or legislative victory. Rather, it is a tale of continuous reflection, argumentation, and reform. The activists presented here were engaged in a grand conversation that produced a collective achievement beyond each one's imagination. James McDonald was a mentor and friend of Peter Pitchlynn, the Choctaw leader who later fought alongside William Potter Ross on behalf of autonomy for Indian Territory. Ross protested encroachments on Cherokee sovereignty in Washington, D. C., just as Sarah Winnemucca was speaking out against American national expansion in major cities across the country. Thomas Sloan established his Washington legal practice at the same time that the Mille Lacs Ojibwes were bringing their case into court. Sloan, in turn, was an ally of Robert Yellowtail, a successful Crow reservation politician who was promoted to agency superintendent by the same New Deal reformers who appointed D'Arcy McNickle to a senior post in the Indian Office. The latter two leaders worked together in the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) during the 1940s, debating their views with the Seneca activist Alice Jemison, and joining with her to defend treaty rights and the power of tribal governments. Both Yellowtail and McNickle lived long enough to work alongside Vine Deloria, Jr., the author, lawyer, and activist who championed Native sovereignty in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and who carried their struggle into the twenty-first century. The connections among these activists grew stronger over time, reflecting the rise of pan-Indian organizations such as the NCAI and the growing prominence of lobbyists who traveled to Washington, D. C.

The collective struggle of these men and women reveals the extent to which Native activists generated the ideas and constructed the legal and political doctrines that made it possible for Native American communities to survive in the United States. Taking place as it did in a nation founded on the presumption of Indian invisibility, theirs was a powerful humanistic achievement. Their lives teach us that Native survival was made possible by Indian people and their allies who had faith in their ideas and in nonviolent political activism. Their victories were triumphs earned by Native people who acted in accord with basic indigenous values: loyalty to one's homeland, mutual respect, and the central importance of human relationships.

This story of Native American activists should be a far more useful guide to the contemporary scene than tales of Geronimo's guerrilla warfare or Sitting Bull's stoic heroism. Most twenty-first-century Americans know that the old story of Indian defeat and disappearance makes no sense. There is too much evidence of Native survival surrounding us. People in the United States today easily recognize the artistic and cultural achievements of the continent's Native people and readily appreciate the contributions they have made to national life. Galleries and museums trumpet indigenous cultural achievements. And while popular tales of the Olympian Jim Thorpe or the World War II Navajo code talkers may themselves be two-dimensional sidebars, they nevertheless directly contradict the old notion that Native people were always and everywhere the enemies of progress. Similarly, though Indian shamanism may be caricatured or dismissed by some, it is rarely labeled "paganism," as was the case only a few decades ago.

Outside the arena of popular culture, Americans are regularly reminded that Indian people are fellow members of our contentious democracy. In recent years tribes have been remarkably successful at asserting and defending their treaty rights to water and other resources. Likewise, instead of ignoring or denigrating tribal leaders, Congress and the White House regularly seek them out for consultation and negotiation. None of these aspects of politics and policy making exists without controversy, but it is unthinkable today that a Supreme Court justice could declare (as Justice Stanley Reed did in 1955) that "[e]very American schoolboy knows that the savage tribes of this continent were deprived of their ancestral ranges by force, and that . . . when the Indians ceded millions of acres by treaty in return for blankets, food and trinkets, it was not a sale but the conqueror's will that deprived them of their land." 1 Most Americans now know that Indian treaty councils involved more than the "conqueror's will" and that Native American history contained more elements than "savages" and "trinkets."

Within my lifetime American political institutions have come to appreciate that the words inscribed in long-ignored Indian treaties were actual agreements between sovereign powers that carved mutual promises into the edifice of the law. At the same time, religious organizations such as the National Council of Churches have come to accept the wisdom and integrity of ancient Native customs and beliefs. Many Native religious practices now enjoy legal protection, while Native veterans are honored, and tribal logging, fishing, and farming enterprises compete with their non-Indian neighbors for profits and market share. Closer to the nation's more densely populated areas, gleaming casinos now produce significant cash (and political clout) for Native groups. Poverty and the effects of past injustice remain in many places, but the simple, two-dimensional story of white progress and Indian suffering suggested sixty years ago by Justice Reed is clearly inadequate.

The people at the heart of this book provide an alternative to the old tale of conquest and victimization. Their story demonstrates that during the past two centuries Native people met the birth and territorial expansion of the United States with an array of strategies that ranged from direct and forceful opposition to flexible negotiation and accommodation. While striking different poses at different times and in different places, American Indians always insisted that for them, the United States did not embody human freedom. It was not, in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, a true "empire for liberty." These Native activists and the thousands of others who worked alongside them knew better, and they struggled both to be heard and to find settings where they too could enjoy American freedom. In a way, the story of their struggle is distinctly American, for it illustrates that the appreciation of tribal cultures and tribal governments we see today had its origins in the self-reliance and creativity of Native activists who engaged politically with a government that wanted them to disappear.

These activists rejected the idea that the worlds of Indians and non-Indians did not overlap and could not coexist, and their enterprise is part of the broad chain of events Adam Smith imagined in the pages of The Wealth of Nations: the struggle of "natives" from the "remote countries" to overcome the "injustice" visited upon them by Europeans in order to achieve an "equality of courage and force" in our own time. That larger story stretches across the globe and involves many others who refused to accept the colonizers' versions of events. The portion told here is a piece of that larger whole.

None of the figures in this book has ever made one of the lists generated by my opening-day exercise, but they all were recognized in their lifetimes as individuals unafraid to speak out on behalf of Indian rights and community survival. While many were of mixed ancestry, all were members of American Indian tribes. They exhibited extraordinary courage, though none confronted the United States on the battlefield. Their achievements occurred largely in legislative chambers, lecture halls, and courtrooms. They shouldered a common task: defining a place for American Indian communities within the boundaries and institutions of the United States. They also employed a common strategy: to use the invader's language, values, and institutions to create and defend that place. They believed that "Indian country" did not lie in the West or the North or the South, out beyond the borders of the nation but instead that it was located wherever Indians gathered together and resolved to live in accord with their ancient traditions and histories. This is their story and, through it, the story of this Indian country.

From This Indian Country by Frederick Hoxie. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Frederick Hoxie, 2013.