The Football Name Debate: Are We Missing the Point?

One of several indigenous college students at the CAP panel.

“The debate is over about the R-word; it’s now about whether if it’s proper to have a football team in this country carry on using a defined slur.” That was the closing statement by Jacqueline Pata, the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Her comment capped off a forum at the Center for American Progress, Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth. The Center released a new report that examined several bodies of research about the harmful impact of mascot representations on the self-esteem of AI/AN youth, how they create a hostile learning environment, and the decades-long movement to retire them. The report by Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips looks at recent key findings and incorporates statements from several Native youths, providing context that is relevant today regarding the use of these mascots and imagery.

Sitting on today’s panel was Pata; Travis Waldron, Sports Reporter,; Mark Macarro, Chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; Dr. Michael Friedman, Clinical Psychologist; and Erik Stegman, Associate Director, Center for American Progress. The forum started with very poignant remarks by fifteen-year-old Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, a student at Argonaut High School in California, and a Champion for Change at the Center for Native American Youth. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) also spoke briefly at the event.

Over the last year, the debate over the use of the slur by the Washington professional football team has largely centered on issues of economics and fan nostalgia. The larger issue at hand, however, is beyond the sports soundbites that dominate this discussion. Data and research now shows that the use of such racist and derogatory team names (and by association, ‘traditions’ and fan antics) have real and detrimental effects on Native youth today. With fifty percent of the Native population being of 25 years of age or younger, the danger of perpetuating this practice and continuing the cycle of defeatism, hostile learning environments, and poor self-esteem is all too real.

(R to L): Travis Waldron, Sports Reporter,; Mark Macarro, Chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians

Studies are also showing that these mascots are undermining the educational experience of all students, particularly those with little or no contact with indigenous and Native peoples. These stereotypical representations are too often being understood by the population as factual representations of Native culture and people, contributing to the development cycle of cultural biases and prejudices.

Think that’s not really an issue in today’s progressive twenty-first century? Brown shared some of the experiences that happened in his high school. “Our cheerleaders dressed up one of our own in a Halloween ‘Pokahottie’ costume, tied her to a stake after dragging her out on the field in shackles against her will. They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating her, treating her as a slave. It’s one of the sickest halftime shows I’ve ever seen.” An avid football fan, he nonetheless dreads the game against rivals Calaveras, who use the R-word slur as their team name. “The most offensive stuff doesn’t even come from the [other team fans]. It comes from their rival schools, mine included. I have heard my own friends yelling around me, ‘Kill the Redskins!’ or “Send them on the Trail of Tears!'”

It took a lot of courage for Brown to address the audience, knowing he would be returning home to California and his schoolmates, many whom taunt him and other Natives on a consistent basis for his ethnicity. “When they hear the world ‘Native’ all they see is a football helmet or a big-nosed head on a jersey. Even the staff isn’t immune,” he said. “I was with a group of Natives at school and a teacher asked us what we were talking about. We said we were discussing some Native issues, and the teacher responded with ‘Oh, you are all Indians? I wouldn’t have known by looking at you.'”

Congresswoman McCollum put the debate into perspective. The entire issue was past the debate of the use of the name, and has moved into education on the issue. “It’s important for young people to have a positive image about themselves,” she said. How can that happen if the word is given a free pass in schools and by organizations, and yet other dictionary-defined slurs are considered forbidden? “This is an educational experience we have to be willing to take a journey on.”

Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians and Dr. Michael Friedman, Clinical Psychologist

The panel largely discussed how detrimental these mascots and imagery are towards Native youth. A decade ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a resolution calling for the immediate retirement of all team names, mascots, and other derogatory representations. They found through several key findings that such imagery “undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities–especially those who have had little or not contact with Indigenous peoples.” In 2001, a statement from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said:

The stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious, or other groups when promoted by our public educational institutions, teach all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, a dangerous lesson in a diverse society. Schools have a responsibility to educate their students; they should not use their influence to perpetuate misrepresentations of any culture or people. Children at the elementary and secondary level usually have no choice about which school they attend. (Statement of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols, 2001)

The APA also found that these misrepresentations create hostile learning environments that decrease student academic achievement and the ability to succeed. Native youth today have some of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country and endure poverty at nearly double the national rate.

Ultimately, however, it’s tribal leadership that needs to be there to support their youth. Pata noted that as a tribal leader herself, it’s important that every decision the tribe makes is for the next generation. “Tribal leaders are recognizing the issues our youth are facing today,” she said. “We want their lives to be different, and this is one way [by opposing mascotry] to do that.”

Friedman emphatically noted that the suicide rate among Native youth is two-and-a-half times the national average. “This isn’t a political correctness issue,” he said. “It’s a public health issue.” He noted that these high rates are set against the backdrop of the highest poverty rates, poorest health, and lowest educational outcomes in the country. Combined with rampant substance abuse and poor self- and community-esteem, the challenges are nearly insurmountable for Native youth, holding back their entire community and preventing future opportunities. This carries forward as they age, keeping tribal identities suppressed and perpetuating these ills.

Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, Student, Argonaut High School; Champion for Change, Center for Native American Youth

Before one can brush off such statements, an understanding of the unique perspective of Native communities is necessary. A recent article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology said:

The military action, missionary efforts, the Federal Indian Boarding School Movement, the Dawes Act, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act forever changed the economic, physical, and social lives of AI/AN people. Once self-reliant and self-sufficient, the policies of the federal government forced tribes/indigenous people toward removal, relocations, isolation, and in some cases, termination and extinction, resulting in social, economic, and spiritual deprivations. (Journal of Clinical Psychology 66(8), 2010)

But there’s hope. Native youth today are making their stands. “Our younger generation is now saying what’s acceptable,” said Pata. “Schools are beginning to talk about what’s right, tribal history, and other discussions that helps bolster our youth to formulate change.” The road is hard, however, because the Native minority population in this country is so small; to make their voices heard, a consistent push for change is necessary.

“Part of the problem,” Macarro said, “is that we are invisible by the numbers, so these characterizations and stereotypes perpetuate in society,” making Natives ignored in the conversation. This concept of invisibility is a big deal among tribal leaders, who grew up in the previous era, noted for termination, removal, and revocation policies. Even today, many Native-dominant schools – founded and started by non-Natives – retain similar racial slurs as their mascots and names. “It’s a fact that many Natives do submit themselves to conformity by wearing the apparel, accepting the slur as a team name, perpetuating the racism,” said Macarro. “But what is wrong on the reservation is still wrong in the world.” It doesn’t diminish the argument for change.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)

Despite the fact of such acceptance, trumpeted by some media and opponents of change, Natives are out there facing the task ahead. “It’s not just a fight about the Washington football team mascot,” said Stedman. He indicated other steps that can be taken, or are being undertaken by Native advocates. The report outlined several at the local, state, and federal levels, including working with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education. Similar actions such as that taken by Oregon in banning outright all discriminatory mascots are mentioned, and suggests nonprofit legal assistance programs provide education programs for students and families about their rights, and help file complaints to OCR and other relevant agencies.

Additional research is needed, of course. Stedman recommends that the “federal government work across agencies to identify new research topics to better understand the extend to which these mascots and team names perpetuate bullying, hostile learning environments, and negative attitudes about AI/AN people.”

While the spotlight remains on Dan Snyder and his organization, the fight has progressed beyond the simple economic and soundbite war of using the current moniker. The deeper issue, when one takes the time to wade into the waters, is the ripple effect that washes over Native communities in this country, affecting tomorrow’s Native leaders and continually damaging their communities. The cycle has to end, and eliminating these racial stereotypes is a giant step in the right direction. With all the rhetoric, politicizing, media soundbites, and PR spin, let’s not miss the point.

“The use of these slurs and logos homogenizes tribes and their individual identities into a false grouping and stereotype,” said Macarro. “What it comes down to, fundamentally, is respectfulness.”

Change the name.

NMAI: Hear the Song of the Horse Nation

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

(Originally posted at WeLoveDC on 10-31-11)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors this past weekend to a new exhibition, “A Song for the Horse Nation.” The exhibition, nestled on the third floor of the museum, tells the epic tale of the how the return of the horse to the Americas changed Native culture, from lifestyle to war to art and beyond. “For some Native peoples, the horse still is an essential part of daily life,” said exhibit curator Emil Her Many Horses (Ogala Lakota). “For others, the horse will always remain an element of our identity and our history. The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.”

To walk the exhibit’s path is to walk side by side with the conjoined path of Native and horse. Though horses were introduced to the Native Americans relatively late in North American history—the early 1700s saw the initial widespread explosion of the horse from captured Spanish mounts in the southwest—the image of Indians astride these graceful animals is one that is common to modern Americans. The “Horse Nation” quickly entwined themselves with Native communities, forever altering tribal culture and the Indian way of life.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit seeks to give us a view into that not-so-distant past. But it’s more than just a simply history lesson: subtly but surely, “A Song for the Horse Nation” reveals how interwoven both horse and man became among 38 tribal communities from the Plains and Western United States. The horse was more than a beast of burden or a tool; the animal became a part of Native culture that still resonates among the people today.
Photo courtesy of
‘beaded coat’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

It opens with historical context, showing the arrival of the horse to the North American continent from as early as the 1500s. Believed to have returned to the continent after evolving and moving westward through Asia and Europe, the horse made its return among the exploratory ships of the Spanish and British. The first appearance of the horse was quite the shock to the native peoples and helped the Spanish to quickly overcome any opposition. Natives had never seen an animal that could carry a person and many struggled to come up with a name for the new creature. Many Native names for the horse ended up being a derivative of “dog” such as the Cree’s “big dog” (mistatim), the Lakota’s “mystery dog” (sunkakhan), or the Blackfoot’s “elk dog” (ponoka-mita).

Natives quickly turned their fear of the horse into desire for them. In 1680, the Pueblo Uprising opened up the floodgates as hundreds of captured Spanish horses were traded to nearby tribes. The horse population quickly expanded north and east across established tribal trading networks. Historians often note that as the acquisition and absorption of the horse moved west-to-east, the rifle’s debut and spread among Indians moved east-to-west. By the time of the country’s western expansion in the 1800s, both rifle and horse were fixtures among the encountered Native communities.

courtesy of ‘bhrome’

The exhibition quickly recounts the historical narrative, however, moving from scholarly education into that of cultural definition. By the time of America’s expansion into the West, horses had made their mark among the Indians. Their likenesses decorated shirts, dresses, tipis, blankets, and toys. Because the Native perspective sees creation around them as a partner in life rather than an obstacle to overcome, the horse was a fellow creature to share the land with. It’s grace and beauty were respected and honored by Natives; to own a horse was a mark of prestige and blessing. The practice of “giveaway” became an honored tradition and a symbol of wealth. Owning several horses was one thing; generously giving them away in times of ceremony and to those less fortunate was the ultimate gesture in prosperity and humbleness.

Of note is the lengths the exhibition goes in pointing out the importance of horse capturing to these communities. Young men would often go out either solo or in small groups and raid an enemy’s encampment through taking horses. Several artifacts on display show a warrior’s personal record or stories to that effect, decorating their blankets or clothing with these heroic exploits. A young man who could return to the camp with a captured horse received praise and honor from family and friends. Horse capturing was elevated to an art form. And there was no greater honor for such a young man to return astride such a prize and then give it away to a widow or other unfortunate member of the community. Such actions manifested the man’s generosity of spirit, as well as his bravery.

When seen from this point of view, it isn’t hard to page back through the history books in our minds and remember the stories taught about “Indian horse thieves” and how it was a scourge upon the Western colonists. From the white man’s viewpoint, it was breaking the law. From the Indian view, it was a cultural norm. These contradictory viewpoints were but a part of the constant conflict that clashed repeatedly between the ever-expanding Americans and the Natives of land.

Photo courtesy of
‘cree saddle beadwork’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Even as the West was lost and the reservations became the norm, the horse never left the Native communities. By the 1900s, the horse was irrevocably tied to Native culture, honored in beadwork and drawings in both art and personal belongings. Though many horses were confiscated by the U.S. government (such as the vast herds of the Nez Perce), they remained an undeniable part of the community. As the exhibition winds through the last days of the frontier and the ends of the Indian Wars, the horse is seen more in cultural symbols and traditions of the tribal communities than as a weapon of war.

It becomes obvious that the cultural shift remained permanent. Even as the reservation lifestyle forever altered Indian ways, it did not sever the connection Natives had to the horse. More and more, Native peoples honored the horse through their beadwork and crafts, creating elaborate decorations and ornamentation for use in celebrations, parades, and powwows. The Smithsonian’s exhibition blooms at the end with artwork from the turn of the 20th Century through the modern day. Contemporary artwork using traditional methods such as beadwork and quillwork, as well as ceramics and oil painting, still convey the respect and honor Natives have for the horse. At the very end, a short film highlights the Nez Perce’s continued efforts to rebuild their horse herds through the Young Horsemen’s Program, which seeks to preserve the Appaloosa made famous by their ancestors. Their dedication to not just breeding but in respecting the animal speaks volumes of the attitudes of many tribal communities today.

By showcasing modern artwork through everyday items such as martingales and blankets, masks and paintings, the exhibition ties together and drives home just how important the horse truly is to Native culture and relevance. It is a syncretistic blend of the old and new, adaptation and growth, and a shining example of the spirit of today’s Native people. The Horse Nation is alive and well because of their efforts and will remain an integral part of the history, culture, and understanding of Native America for generations to come.

A Song for the Horse Nation will remain open through January 7, 2013. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The closest Metro station is L’Enfant plaza, servicing the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines. For more information, visit the museum’s website. You can see some of the items in the exhibit on my Flickr site.

The Song of Emil Her Many Horses

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

(Originally posted on 10/28/11 at WeLoveDC.)

out of the earth / I sing for them
A Horse nation / I sing for them
out of the earth / I sing for them,
the animals / I sing for them.

~a song by the Teton Sioux

Emil Her Many Horses is, by first appearance, a quiet, unassuming gentleman. A museum specialist in the office of Museum Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), he is responsible for the facility’s latest exhibition “A Song for the Horse Nation.” A member of the Ogala Lakota nation of South Dakota, his expertise on the Northern and Southern Plains cultures is well served and seen in the exhibit that opens to the public tomorrow.

NMAI’s latest offering is a touching and brilliant display of how the horse has deeply impacted and affected Native cultures since their introduction to the Americas in the 17th century. “The exhibit tells the history of the horse; that they were here once before, migrated to Europe, and returned as the horse we know today,” explained Her Many Horses. “They changed Native culture. The horse had a major impact on hunting, warfare, travel, spirituality. These were big changes.” Changes that extend beyond the European vision of the animal.

Seen as a beast of burden, a tool, a weapon, the horse was brought and used by European explorers and colonists early in America’s “New World” history. And their introduction, according to many Natives, was probably one of the biggest positive changes brought about by the white man.

Emil Her Many Horses, NMAI Museum Specialist (photo courtesy NMAI)

Exploding across the Plains after the Pueblo Uprising in 1680, the value of the horse was readily apparent to many tribes. Their acceptance quickly altered the very fabric of tribal life and culture as Natives admired the animal’s grace, beauty, bravery, and determination. “When American Indians encountered horses—which some tribes call the Horse Nation—they found an ally, inspiring and useful in times of peace, and intrepid in times of war,” said NMAI Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee). “This exhibition shows how these splendid creatures came to represent courage and freedom to many tribes across North America.”

“The horse really became a fellow creature that lives with us,” explained Her Many Horses. “They are a comrade, ally, friend. What we try to establish is a relationship with a fellow living being, something that really reaches into the realm of companionship, as opposed to that of a simple tool or resource.”

That relationship can be seen in Her Many Horses’ own family history. The name is Lakota and that of his paternal great-great-grandmother. “More accurately, the English translation would be ‘Many Horses Woman,’ meaning she owned many horses,” he said. When the first census was made on the Ogala Lakota reservation in South Dakota, her name became the family’s last name. The census takers, however, had mistranslated “Tasunka Ota Win” into English as “Her Many Horses.” And so it stuck.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
Among the Lakota, horses were a measure of wealth, but not in the traditional European sense. To the Lakota—and many other tribes—a more important demonstration of wealth came from giving away horses or other items in honor of a family member. Possession was not as important as generosity. Horses could be given away at naming and memorial ceremonies, or at giveaways, which celebrated anything from the return of a war veteran, honoring a graduating student, or the marriage of a daughter.

In the exhibit is a piece familiar to Her Many Horses. It is familiar because he made the toy painted tipi himself. “I made it to talk about the origins of my last name. It shows a woman—my grandmother—surrounded by many horses. To me, it became an honorable name to have.”

The opening of the exhibit is exciting to Her Many Horses. An expansion of the original exhibit at NMAI’s New York City George Gustav Heye Center location, this one adds an additional 15 major objects. One of the centerpiece displays is a 19th century 38-foot round tipi that stands 16 feet tall. Cavorting across the surface are 110 hand-painted horses, both with and without riders, all in full gallop. “The tipi is Hunkpapa-Lakota, showing horse raiding and battle scenes all along the outside,” said Her Many Horses. His glee at being able to set it up for visitors was evident. “If you look at the drawings, you can see who’s the enemy. It’s Lakota versus the Crow—you can tell because of the hairstyles. It’s kind of a war record of the warrior who lived within.”

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
The tipi was a challenge for the staff to set up, taking them four afternoons. “We knew it had been re-sized, plus it wasn’t being set on open ground but a slick display surface,” he said. It’s safe to say the effort was worth it; the tipi is an exquisite testimony to how personal the horse was to one individual in the tribe; a sentiment still shared across the Native landscape today.

Other objects of life and culture of the Plains tribes decorate places of honor in the exhibit. “We included pieces that are associated with famous people, such as the rifles of Geronimo, Chief Rain-in-the-Face, Chief Joseph,” said Her Many Horses. “And we have photographs of many of these people, showing that link between the object and the person.” These placards are entitled Honor In the Name, introducing them to visitors and providing a glimpse of past lives to those in the modern day.

But primarily, the horse dominates. So entwined into the lives of tribes, they are the subject of beaded artwork on tipi bags, shaped into dance sticks, decorate jackets. Objects of everyday use with the horse, such as saddles, saddlebags, and horse masks, are given individual touches of color and life, providing an intimate look into the relationship between the owner and the animal. “I want the public to walk out of there understanding not just how the horse revolutionized Native life, but how that thread continues even today,” Her Many Horses said.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
Bridging that gap of history to the modern, Her Many Horses invited Native artists to create their own contemporary art for the exhibit. He believes it’s critically important to show that continued thread of relationship still impacts Native life in today’s world. “We may no longer depend on the horse for travel, for hunting, for warfare – but it’s still important to us, our culture.”

To that end, NMAI will celebrate the opening of its new exhibit with a variety of events on Saturday, October 29. Partnering with the Washington International Horse Show, celebrating its 53rd year through this weekend at the Verizon Center, both WIHS and NMAI are providing free programs and activities at both locations. (A free shuttle will run between the museum and the Verizon Center on Saturday only.)

Central to Saturday’s events is a presentation of the U.S. and Crow Nation flags on horseback between Crow equestrian and artist Kennard Real Bird and the DC Mounted Police. Following the presentation, K.J. Jacks of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma will sing the U.S. national anthem. The presentation will happen in the museum’s outdoor Welcome Plaza.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Award-winning bead worker and porcupine quill worker Juanita Fogarty Growing Thunder (Assiniboine/Sioux), whose own art is displayed within the exhibition, will hold demonstrations throughout the day. Children will be able to “dress” a full-sized horse mannequin using pieces that simulate many of those in the exhibit. S.D. Nelson (Lakota/Standing Rock Sioux), a children’s book author and illustrator, will host special storytelling sessions and lectures for both kids and adults.

It’s a jubilee worthy of the exhibition, and one that Emil Her Many Horses and the museum’s staff have worked tirelessly to bring together. It’s a celebration of the horse through many pathways, one that gives a glimpse into the history, life, and culture of many of the 38 Native communities represented.

Photo courtesy of
‘beaded horse mask 1’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

In the exhibition’s companion book of the same name, Her Many Horses points out one particular piece that succinctly symbolizes the power and value of the horse in the Native community. A beautiful and elaborate Lakota horse head cover is on display. Covered in exquisite designs among a glimmering background of white beads, the cover was used at a 1904 Fourth of July parade at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Alone, it is a fascinating work of art in geometric design and stitching.

What stands out, however, is that it appears to have been made with the intention to be recycled later on as different objects. A critical Native eye can discern where a pair of women’s beaded leggings could be fashioned from the “face” of the horse. A pipe bag, from the “cheeks.” Tipi bags (or, “possible” bags, because pretty much anything possible could be stored inside them) and moccasins could also have been made from the upper and lower neck areas.

The resourcefulness of the artist is evident; fortunately for us today, never followed through. The union of gifts never passed on and remains a delicate and intricate symbol of traditions brought together through the celebration of the horse. It stands as a beaded and colorful declaration of the art and the grace of the animal.

To Emil Her Many Horses, it is an expression of life and of culture that will hopefully never fade. “The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.” With the opening of this latest exhibit, Her Many Horses honors his Lakota roots. Through the blend of art and artifacts, stories and characters, community and culture, he presents the public a valuable gift worth more than a simple object. He gives away to all of us a view into part of the past, the present, and the future of Native America.

And that is a song worthy of the Horse Nation.

A Song for the Horse Nation opens on Saturday, October 29 and will remain open through January 7, 2013. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The closest Metro station is L’Enfant plaza, servicing the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines. For more information, visit the museum’s website. WeLoveDC will have a full review of the exhibit on Monday; you can see some of the items in the exhibit on my Flickr site.

American Indians, American Presidents…and a Heritage

Photo courtesy of
‘In the land of the Sioux’
courtesy of ‘Smithsonian Institution’

(Originally posted on 11/10/10 at WeLoveDC)

Ask someone on the street about Native American history and more often than not, they’ll most likely recall the “Thanksgiving story,” the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century, “Custer’s Last Stand,” or probably the (abysmal) movie Dances With Wolves. It’s an era of our nation’s history that I think many know little about – or choose to look the other way – and I cannot blame them for it. It’s not a pretty period of history, nor is it exactly the United States’ most proudest collection of moments.

When I saw the National Museum of the American Indian’s (NMAI) press release regarding the variety of activities in celebration of Native American Indian Heritage Month, one of the events that caught my eye was today’s lecture with NMAI Director Kevin Gover and museum historian Mark Hirsch. They were speaking regarding a book the Smithsonian released last year, American Indians, American Presidents: A History, edited by Clifford E. Trafzer. While I couldn’t attend the lecture, I had wanted to interview both Director Gover and Mr. Hirsch regarding the book and its impact but despite both NMAI and my best efforts, we couldn’t quite make things work out.

Nonetheless, I decided to forge ahead with a look at this book – even though it was released last year – for a variety of reasons. Native American history is a subject very close to me, for starters, and is an era of history I feel is mostly glossed over in classrooms. The struggle of Native Americans during this country’s formation and rise to power is something that cannot be ignored and, I believe, contains lessons for our future as a nation and as a people.

So I asked NMAI for a copy of the book, eager to see what new perspectives awaited within. And…I was left wanting.

Photo courtesy of
‘Indians at dedication (LOC)’
courtesy of ‘The Library of Congress’

From the book jacket:

Here, for the first time, is the little-known history of the American Indians and American presidents, what they said and felt about one another, and what their words tell us about the history of the United States.

In a nutshell, though, it’s not.

The book is separated into five chapters, plus an overlong Introduction. Each chapter focuses on an era and covers the entire span of the United States, from revolution to present day (which is to say, late 2008; there’s no look at Obama’s presidency yet, just a quick blurb about his positioning during his election run). And each chapter is written by a different historian.

I so dearly want to dive in and pull out tidbits of information, divulging them here for you to discover and chew on…but I can’t. It’s not really all that possible with this book. It reads, by and large, like a standard college history textbook. Certainly the important dates and points of various events are covered, but in general terms. And every single presidency is discussed, though very little in depth. The Native American personalities are snapshots; quick names, dates, and tribal affiliations scroll by, sometimes with a point here or there, but with little cohesion. It is, simplistically, a large timeline with small asides here and there to various presidential quotes or citations regarding their Indian policies.

Photo courtesy of
‘President Garfield and his Cabinet’
courtesy of ‘Cornell University Library’

For someone who has never really followed this era of history, it’s appropriate. But it’s not engaging. This period of time is rife with emotional kindling, from families and tribes torn asunder with no respect to personal rights, to the forced “civilization” of Native children, to underhanded and greedy tactics by various people (on both sides) simply to claim land – and its natural resources. Personally, I still find Dee Brown’s excellent Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee a better perspective of the era, an emotionally charged account of various events during the nineteenth century. Because to really understand this era, these tragedies and trials, simple dates and places just don’t cut it. It’s a tale that requires an immersion of our heart and soul, in order to understand it with our mind.

And I think that’s what disappointed me the most about it – I was expecting something to further fuel speculation and thoughtful discourse, and received basically another history textbook. While Trafzer tries in the Introduction to tie all of the sections together with the common thread of the question of sovereignty, the fact is that not every chapter addresses this question. It’s a hot-button issue with all Native American nations (and has been since the first Europeans landed on America’s shores) but it remains an afterthought in this sprawling work of history.

To the book’s defense, however, it is trying to capture a very convoluted, twisted path into a cohesive package, and that’s not easy. Every tribe has its own unique dealings with the U.S. government, and its own perspectives. Not only that, every presidential administration has its own perspectives and dealings with the Native American nations; some moreso involved than others. Trying to document every single viewpoint or dealing that Natives have had with every presidential administration is a strenuous undertaking, never mind attempting to put issues on the table for dissection and discussion. In the end, the book simply tries a little too hard to stretch beyond what is a solid recounting of Presidential history regarding Native Americans.

There is some redemption within its covers. The colorful sidebars of various people, objects, and events are nice diversions from the overarching, dry text. It is here the book really shines; the sidebars are more intimate, personal, and engaging. I do wonder that if the book had more of that tone and content present, it would’ve matched up more to what I had hoped it would be.

The value of understanding how much of a role Native Americans have had in our nation’s history is incalculable. Both for good and for ill, it’s tied into the soil of this country and feeds our future actions. While it’s good that books like American Indians, American Presidents: A History exist, it’s not nearly enough. They only barely scratch the surface, whetting the appetite (or overwhelming it). If you’re new to this realm of understanding, it’s a great primer. But to understand the conflict, the people, the essence? Dig deeper. You’ll find that the plight of Natives in this land will touch your heart and your soul – and both our country and our humanity will be better for it.

If you want to learn more about the people, the culture, and the continuing story of the Native Americans, your best starting place would be the National Museum of the American Indian. There’s tons of events still going on this month, so make sure you check out their Events calendar for more information.