This new book in the series First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies examines the contributions of reformers and activists to the Indian policy debates of the late-nineteenth century. While [End Page 619] we know the outcome of the postwar attempt to solve the “Indian question,” this book takes us deep inside the struggles for sovereignty that engaged both white and native participants.
Author C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa is asking us to enter a world of alternative reality. His work focuses on the political moments when viable alternatives to forced assimilation of American Indians existed and offered a new (unchosen) vision of federal Indian policy. He focuses on reformers and activists like Ely Parker and Thomas Bland in the period 1838-1935. The theory is that by focusing on historical moments we can look at “paths not taken” or moments that reveal alternative possibilities (p. 4). However, he identifies only three periods of opportunity—the postwar Reconstruction period, the Progressive reform craze sweeping the late 1870s and 1880s, and the Great Depression, which he deals with only in the epilogue. And, of course, the obvious question for alternative histories is “so what?” To his credit, the author foresees this question and argues that at several moments genuine reform alternatives emerged and destabilized the status quo in federal Indian policy development. He says that by studying these, we know more and “improve our interpretations,” by studying their “techniques, motivations, and struggles” whether they failed or not (p. 5).
The post-Civil War world began with a vision of a unified nation, embracing opportunity for all. We all know how quickly that dissolved into an Indian-hating, Jim Crow-loving, imperialist nation. The author argues that the nineteenth century saw a radical change in U.S.-Indian relations. The “Indian problem” of the nineteenth century was how to reconcile the contradictory concepts of natives as autonomous communities and dependent subjects. The answer was to chip away at tribal sovereignty, both external and internal. One important development in the postwar era was the unilateral ending of treaty making. The continuous federal and state attacks on treaty rights, sovereignty, and autonomy are a well-known history. This work purports to “complicate the standard narrative” of declining Native sovereignty. It may complicate it, but it does not change it. [End Page 620]
The complications are alternatives to the standard idea of the breakup of tribal lands through forced allotment. Genetin-Pilawa defines viable policy alternatives as ideas that challenged established and entrenched policy combinations while appealing to comparatively large numbers of policy-makers and reformers. To make his point he focuses heavily on a few persons and case studies. Ely Parker’s contributions from the Towanda Seneca’s prewar battles with the Ogden Land Company through his role in the Peace Policy era are minutely examined. Extensive use of Parker’s letters makes this a thorough study. In the end, Parker’s legacy as a reformer was undermined by opposition and unwelcome focus on his personal choices. Most Americans prefer to remember him as a Civil War general (William Armstrong’s, Warrior in Two Camps, 1978). Although Parker is the star here, the lesser-known Thomas Bland and his National Indian Defense Association (NIDA), which ultimately lost to the assimilationist vision of Herbert Welsh’s Indian Rights Association, put up a heroic fight for alternative policies.
The focus of the book on the NIDA is informative and Ely Parker deserves this broader exploration of his contributions to Indian policy. However, I am not sure the book tells a story much different from previous works in detailing the effects of Sand Creek, the role of reformers in trying to shift U.S. policy, and the ultimate failure to rein in the worst excesses of Indian haters. In the end, the losses of Native sovereignty during the post-Civil War period remain the history with which we must live. [End Page 621]