Three summer reads in American Indian history to lend perspective to the debt ceiling

Times may seem tough today, but there are lessons in optimism (and stimulating summer reading) in these reflections of American Indian history.

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Times may seem tough today, but there are lessons in optimism (and stimulating summer reading) in these reflections of American Indian history.

The debt ceiling negotiations are deep underground. While there’s plenty of action on the surface, posturing, mostly, there are also quiet talks about both temporary and real solutions. Indeed, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told CNBC on Monday that there will be a “deal” and that default is off the table.

Hopeful news. We’ll have to stay tuned. Meanwhile I am in Alaska on assignment, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to write about what I’ve been reading this summer.

My three picks:

Though they are based in the past, these three books still hold relevant to today’s headlines.

Echo-Hawk’s book ought to retire the entire debate about judicial activism. It has become a conservative article of faith that judges should narrowly follow the law when deciding cases. But Echo-Hawk methodically picks apart that fiction. He shows that even sainted justices invented legal theory from dust, such as John Marshall's ruling about the doctrine of discovery in Johnson v. M’Intosh. “Marshall claimed that the nation had no choice in how it dealt with the tribes and that the normal rules of international law did not apply,” Echo-Hawk wrote. “Thus, the normal rules governing the relations between the conqueror and conquered were simply ‘incapable of application’ in the United States. It was the Indians' own fault.”

Marshall had a financial stake in the case that would not be permitted under today’s standards, which might explain why the ruling was sharply at odds with his later judicial decisions. As Echo-Hawk points out, this was the same justice who, at the end of his career, became famous for Worcester v. Georgia, in which he supported the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation against the state.

The dark history that Echo-Hawk chronicles takes on another form in Roberta Ulrich’s book about termination, the 1953 U.S. government policy that ended the special relationship between tribes and the federal government and gave American Indians citizenship rights. Ulrich does a good job of capturing the sheer personality force of Sen. Arthur Watkins. The Utah Republican championed termination and would not listen to any alternative. In his “typical fashion” Watkins would let a Senate hearing witness speak for a few minutes and then badger the witness. He frequently interrupted, pestering repeatedly until the senator heard the answer he wanted: “Indians should take the lead and stand on their own two feet and become full-fledged American citizens.”

The Watkins and termination story is important today because the seeds of that disaster are sprouting again in public policy. The post-war environment, like today, was shaped by the idea that the U.S. government could no longer afford social programs for American Indians.

The third book, Alison Owings’ Indian Voices, is an antidote to these sober (but critical) histories. Owings has listened to native people today, and reflects their stories back to her reader, revealing current challenges and hopes. I have to add, many of my friends are profiled in this book — people I consider amazing and wise.

One of those remarkable people portrayed in Indian Voices is Emma George. She’s Lemhi Shoshone, the Shoshone band that first encountered Lewis & Clark. The Lemhi reserved a small reservation on the Lemhi River through a treaty signed in 1875, but that document was never ratified. After the turn of the century, government and local settlers succeeded in having the Lemhi reservation rescinded and her people were forced to begin their long sad walk to Fort Hall Indian Reservation, more than 200 miles away. Yet for George and many other families from the Lemhi band, home will always be back in that Salmon River country.

“There’s things you go through in life and they’re hard, but other people have harder lives. It makes you humble and grateful to be blessed with life, no matter what the situation is. To live another day,” George says in the book.

Indeed, history’s harsh accounting is not complete without that one idea on the other side of the ledger. No matter how a court invents law to steal land; or how Congress extinguishes a tribal government; or, even when a homeland remains a project for the future, there is still the blessing to live another day.

And that will remain true even if the deficit talks completely blow up.


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