The problem with reading the history of American Native Peoples and their virtual annihilation by my European ancestors is that one can become very depressed at the horrors they endured for centuries. From the initial deprivations under the early settlers, on through the ‘opening of the West’, and well into the last century their story is a heart-breaking one of mass extermination amounting to genocide. And so, to read a book that has a happier tale to tell about Native Americans is something wonderful. Charles Wilkinson describes a resurgent Native American movement intent on reclaiming its rights and on bringing an end brutal and degrading treatment (the book is subtitled ‘The Rise of Modern Indian Nations’). It is not at all an unqualified success story. There is still a long way to go and of course entitlement to the full extent of the lands which were stolen from them (i.e., all of North America!) can never be adequately addressed, but this book gives an account of the many successes Native American tribes have had since the middle of the last century in reclaiming at least some of their heritage, both in terms their traditions and of their lands, and this has had the effect of restoring confidence in themselves and in their efforts to assert their rights.
The question of when began this rowing back of age-old mistreatment is a bit clouded, but Wilkinson locates it somewhere around the mid 1950s. The burgeoning civil rights movement was a big influence, although it seems that there was a somewhat uneasy relationship between the black people and native Americans despite the ill-treatment they suffered in common. Black/coloured people had been forcibly removed from their homelands and shipped to America, where as the Native Americans were forcibly deprived of their (sovereign) homelands in America by the various means of fraudulent treaties and genocidal massacres.
The resurgence of the Native American movement to assert this sovereignty was greatly helped by the returning Native American war veterans who had put their lives on the line for their country and expected better treatment at home than had been afforded their parents. Many of these men and women used their education grants to study law and then to use their skills to further the cause of their people, many of whom were still living in the reservations they had been forced into long ago and in which they were also still enduring appalling conditions.
Other books I have read have gone into considerable detail about these conditions and the assaults on the dignity of these ancient and civilized peoples and, quite rightly, the tone has often been one of sincere regret and severe condemnation. Wilkinson eschews a ‘horrified’ tone and allows the facts to speak for themselves. In so doing, he lays bear in a matter-of-fact way the unspeakable injustices of expropriation wreaked on these aboriginal peoples in the fevered days of the white man’s land-grabbing in the ‘New World’. The book is not just another denunciation of the white man (indeed there is mention of white men and women who have fought the Indians’ cause along the way). It is a reasoned and factual account of what was lost and the relatively recent efforts to turn the tide and make better the life of today’s tribes. The successes are enumerated along with the future difficulties. Furthermore, most of the accounts and narratives are given by Native Americans themselves, with Wilkinson adopting a facilitator’s role.
Recent events that mark this change in attitudes towards the Indian Peoples can be seen in the return of many lands important to the tribes culturally, for example the return of Blue Lake and its surrounding forestry to the people of the Taos Pueblo by President Nixon in 1970. There had been a long road to travel through red tape and bureaucracy before this happened, but it did happen in the end. Like in other instances, the persistence and resilience and courage of native Americans, coupled with dedicated legal know-how, finally won the day. The American Indian always had plenty of courage, but legal know-how is a more recent acquisition and has made all the difference.
This book also has the advantage of being one more deadly blow against the self-serving notion which has it that Europeans found their ‘New World’ virtually devoid of people and with vacant land there for the taking. I find this still a commonly held view here in Ireland. In fact, as this book shows conclusively, the array of nations and cultures present when the white man arrived was widespread over the entire continent. Wilkinson also provides maps of Indian reservations which show their present lands and what has been gained since the more recent affirmative actions of the tribes. The comparisons of their present holdings with what was the extent of their original territories says it all, as is evident in the Taos Pueblo map (above) of the 1970s returned lands.
The best thing about this book, apart from its being a scholarly but eminently readable achievement, is that – like I said at the start of this piece – its message is positive. There’s a lot to be done yet, but the position of the American Native Peoples is improving, even though the progress is slow and the road ahead anything but easy. And because 10 years have elapsed since its publication I am driven search out news of developments since then.
About the author:
Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado, Charles Wilkinson is the author of twelve books, including American Indians, Time and Law and Crossing the New Meridian. A former attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, he has travelled to more than one hundred Indian reservations. Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation said of him: “Of all the students of American Indian law, Charles Wilkinson is the best. He is down to Earth, loves the people, and appreciates the beauty of the land.” Wilkinson currently resides in Boulder, Colorado. (2005)