February 24, 2013

Book tracks Native American persistence in face of adversity

“This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made” by Frederick Hoxie (Penguin, 467 pages, $35)

“This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made” by Frederick Hoxie (Penguin, 467 pages, $35)

According to the 2000 Census, American Indians lived in every county in the United States, and more than half made their home in cities, all exercising rights as American citizens under the Constitution.

Tribes, recognized under U.S. law, operate autonomously in many respects, policing their own highways, regulating their own independent businesses, operating their own schools, colleges and social services – activities that bring them into intimate contact with non-Natives every day. Successful gaming operations employ thousands of American Indians.

Reservation schools conduct classes in accordance with state and national curriculum standards, and tribal colleges earn accreditation from the same bodies that certify the quality of non-Native institutions.

And even though many Native Americans live in poverty and suffer from extreme rates of alcoholism, diabetes and other maladies, tribes and native culture are no longer external to the dominant culture of the United States.

Frederick Hoxie’s solid and intelligent assessment of American Indian activism shows how a succession of Native politicians, lawyers and organizers oversaw a revolution in tribal life and in Indian relationships with a white culture determined first to exterminate, then to marginalize, fractionalize, demonize and mythologize Indians, extinguishing any breath of their cultural and personal freedom.

Hoxie’s story begins in the late 18th century, when American Indians were considered by the great powers (France, Great Britain and Spain) to be individual nations whose relations would be governed by treaty. And so, great leaders such as the Mohawk Joseph Brandt and the Creek merchant-politician Alexander McGillivray sat down at diplomatic tables with their counterparts to decide issues of peace and war.

After the Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolution, Americans were in no mood to treat Indians as a separate nation. When Americans did make treaties, they were consistently broken or ignored.

Hoxie, Swanlund Professor of History, Law and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, shows how our historical understanding of Native American progress has been overshadowed by our cultural bias in stories about warriors such as Sitting Bull, Geronimo and Crazy Horse.

Instead, Hoxie’s book focuses on politicians such as James McDonald, a Choctaw and the “first Indian lawyer,” who attempted to counter the argument that seemed to offer Indians no options between the American choice of “surrender or death.”

Hoxie shows how William Potter Ross, a Cherokee, and Sarah Winnemucca, a Piute, toured the country, worked in Washington, D.C., and rode the rails, giving speeches and organizing legal ripostes. They began Native organizations, all devoted to fighting the drift toward extinction.

Remarkably, the story includes accounts of Ojibwes fighting to preserve their tiny reservation at Mille Lacs, Minn., against the depredations of land-grabbers, squatters and local businessmen who coveted even the tiny garden plots maintained by the tribes.

The book ends with the famous professor Vine Deloria, whose books appeared during the 1970s, a period of sometimes violent Indian activism.

“This Indian Country” is a proud, if somewhat stolid, account of what it takes to get things done in the face of overwhelming resistance. Persistence may not be as heroic as war, but the Indians in Hoxie’s book fought just as hard as Crazy Horse.

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