Bordewich, F.M. (1996). Killing the White Man’s Indian: Reinventing Native Americans as the end of the twentieth century. New York: Doubleday.
The “white man’s Indian” in the title of the book refers to archetypes such as “drunk Indian”, “noble savage” and “selfless caretaker of the earth” that obscure the real complexity of Indian identity and complicate relations to the rest of the United States. This book is a history of those relations organized around various themes: the changing attitude of majority government towards Indians, the legal conflicts over defining who counts, the history of land relations, Indians and their identity as environmentalists, conflicts over Indian remains and artifacts, alcoholism, and education. The book is written in a casual register in that it uses an episodic style: each theme is separated into a chapter and introduced with a story opener. Once the story opener lays the outline of the conflict, the chapter goes into more depth about relevant history, describing significant persons in personal detail, mentioning relevant legal acts, and including related stories about experiences of other individual Indians in other tribes. The chapters generally close with a conclusion of the opening story.
In the introduction the author explains his choice of the term “Indian”, as opposed to Native or Aboriginal, as the term most currently used in institutions and by tribes themselves. Indians differ significantly from other minority groups in that they have reservations and tribal status. The theme of the book is that clarity around our shared history is necessary for us to move forward.
Our shared history starts out in conflict for land. Although the colonies and the early U.S. Government made various efforts to restrict settlement and reserve land for Indians, invariably those agreements were not respected by settlers in search of land, and often treaties and agreements were simply betrayed by the government. The key story in this section is one of lost opportunity: the Cherokee Nation in the southeast made an effort at assimilation: they adopted a constitutional government and they adapted many American ways. The new US Government essentially sold them out to the state of Georgia in 1802 by agreeing to evict the Cherokees in return for Georgia relinquishing claims to modern-day Alabama and Mississippi. The author notes that precedent dates back to the Scots being evicted from the highlands with a change in rule, and the Acadians being booted to Louisiana from Canada. In 1828 gold is discovered in the heart of Cherokee land and Georgia formally annexes the land and begins revoking Indian rights. The Cherokees sued and lost in court, then supporting missionaries sued and won but to no avail, in 1828 federal troops hearded the Indians into camps and begin the Trail of Tears, marching them off to Oaklahoma. This process marked a clear shift in relations from ambiguity and sometime equality to clear subjugation by the U.S. government. During the 1800s Indians were simply regarded as a barrier to Manifest Destiny in need of extermination. Ranchers could actually get government funded off-season work killing Indians. This history is largely overlooked but the effects carry through to today. The Cherokees did eventually recover as a tribe and the author interprets this as a parable of persistence, renewal and adaptation.
The question of identity has long been a tricky one: whites have both romanticized and demonized the Indian image, and the federal government has wanted simple tests for benefit determination once they committed funds in a shift from extermination to management. Who is an Indian? Possibilities include: someone who wears feathers and beads, someone who lives on a reservation, someone who is enrolled in a tribe, someone who self-declares on the census, someone who matches the Hollywood ideal, someone who obeys tradition, or someone who can prove descent or a blood quantum level. Current laws are actually contradictory – the definition of an Indian for the purpose of distributing benefits is not the same as the definition of an Indian to get product artisan labeling in some states. Tribes at the time of colonization actually varied considerably in size and structure, and over time they’ve been decimated, scattered and formed into new alliances. The government has recognized tribes and dropped recognition over time.
Relations with tribes finally begin to shift significantly in the 1970s, in a way that impacts all the issue areas covered in the book. In 1975 the Indian Self Determination Act formally shifts administration of Indian benefits from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the tribes themselves, and in 1977 a review commission asserts that Indian tribes are sovereign political bodies and relations should be founded on principles of international law. While this has been the basis of much forward movement, most importantly allowing Indian Tribes to finally control their land and resources, the transition from wards to self-determination is a rough and still evolving story. Like any local government, tribal governments have been vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement, but tribal members have had little success appealing to the federal government for intervention. Details of legal jurisdiction have dragged on through multi-year legal disputes: do Indians have jurisdiction over other Indians on their land?; do Indians have jurisdiction over white property owners within reservation boundaries? (such private property was created during a period in the 1930s when the government attempted to convert Indians away from communal property ownership); can Indians enforce old treaty rights?; do Indians have legal claim to their own artifacts that were essentially looted in the 1800s? The 1970s through the 1990s have been a period of fairly steadily strengthening Indian rights and claims, to the point where tribes now exercise real power over water and land, and whites are beginning to lose out in conflicts. But without a shared understanding of history, it’s difficult to come to a shared understanding of current settlements and many whites feel bitterly wronged.
Two challenging aspects of Indian identity stand out as part of their struggle today: the definition of Indians as the original caretakers of the environment, and a historically molded pattern of defining their identity in opposition to whites. These two frameworks create challenges for maintaining Indian identity while building economic power based on the natural resources Indians now control such as water, fishing rights, land and forests. Building that economic power also requires education, political negotiation, and using white-developed expertise—tools with a long history of ultimately being used to the detriment of Indians. A mix of history and environmental ideology leads many individual Indians to take isolationist positions and creates barriers to the negotiation necessary for economic integration that can alleviate poverty and underdevelopment. The challenge is to align that development with “the resanctification of the earth that has become for a great many Indians a medium of salvation that far outweighs its economic cost, a way to reconnect with the tribal past and with the lives of ancestors who, during generations of systematic cultural repression, seemed beyond reach across a vast divide.”
This book was recommended to me by an associate of the Squaxin Island Tribe. [2013 update: at the time of this post the book seemed out of print, but it is now available.] www.bookfinder.com is my favorite used book search engine.