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Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty, by Daniel M. Cobb. University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Daniel M. Cobb's Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty reimagines and redefines the academy's understanding of Indian activism in the postwar era. This book is an argument against the historical profession's "tendency to fixate on AIM," the American Indian Movement. Cobb tells us he is attempting to "decenter and resituate [AIM] within a larger context of Native political action." In doing so he does not desire to [End Page 98] diminish the efforts of AIM, but to illuminate the actions of a broad variety of Native American political activists, including both those "who never embraced militancy—and those who did" (2). He focuses on the efforts of leaders preceding the events generally considered seminal in terms of Native activism, in the hopes of showing the reader the roots of modern Native activism.

The author applies Jean and John Comaroff's metaphor of the "intricate fugue" to describe the intellectual bases of the militancy, activism, and change that developed in tribal communities, on and off reservations between the 1940s and about 1970, positing that, underlying the motivations of the native and non-native activists in this era, "one can discern the resonant tones of postwar anthropology, community development theory, modernization ideology, anticolonialism, anticommunism, cultural dissent, nationalism, and the politics of race, class and war" (194).

Employing chronological narrative, Cobb builds his story beginning with tribal opposition to the termination policy and culminating in the federal policy shift toward self-determination. He describes the lessons learned by participants in the summer Workshops on American Indian Affairs and follows the leaders who developed their powerful ideas for reform under the tutelage of Robert Thomas, D'Arcy McNickle, and others. He analyzes divisions and developments that grew out of the American Indian Chicago Conference of 1961, which contrasted the leadership ideas of the old guard in Indian Country with the increasingly impatient, budding young leaders.

This conflict is well represented in the analysis of direct action tactics of young leaders, on the national and sometimes local scenes, in contrast to the staid approach of entrenched tribal leadership. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), under the direction of Vine Deloria Jr., acted under the notion that "[t]ribes had much to gain and nothing to lose from working the system" (154). In an increasingly volatile America, Indians were viewed as a "'safe' minority" and representative of the "deserving poor" (152).

The politics of the National Indian Youth Council, the National Congress of American Indians, federal bureaucrats and policymakers, and non-Indian friends and allies created a fertile and sometimes dissonant atmosphere in Cobb's version of the intricate fugue. In telling the story of these people, events, and activities, he provides powerful insights into the motivations of the participants in the history. These included national Indian leaders, federal and tribal policymakers, Indian and non-Indian intellectuals, and local activists who moved into and back out of the national scene. The author uses a broad variety of archival records, supplementing these sources with interviews he conducted between 2001 and 2007 with more than a dozen and a half of the Indian and non-Indian actors in this history. The archival records included a [End Page 99] wide variety of writings by Indian and non-Indian participants in the story's events, as well as oral history interviews and recordings of the participants.

This story culminates with the War on Poverty and the efforts of the Poor People's campaign. In the latter, Cobb describes "the many roads that carried . . . hundreds of . . . Native people to Washington, D.C." (148). He believes that "[a] narrative focused narrowly on Alcatraz and the American Indian Movement reduces these many roads to a superhighway. Those who travel it might be able to get to their final destination quickly and efficiently, but they never come to know the space between" (148).

The space between is multifaceted and complex in Cobb's telling of history. Tribal leaders and their allies used cold war anti-colonialist philosophies and models to argue for tribal needs for self-determination, but federal officials used the models of U.S. response to underdeveloped nations to define American responses to tribal needs within the Untied States. This caused paternalistic, top-down problem solving to continue to serve as the framework for U.S. policy efforts, even as national policymakers believed they were supporting nation building in Indian Country. President Lyndon Johnson's policies and advisors are presented as both paternalistic and almost terminationist in their efforts.

Nonetheless, the Community Action programs of the Johnson administration drew power away from local Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officials in Indian Country and put it in the hands of tribal leaders, creating a significant shift toward self-determination. In some tribal communities this brought about positive change, while in others the history of underdevelopment only caused the continuation of patterns of chaos and dysfunction. Ironically, Blackfeet leader Forrest Gerard observed to Cobb that, as one result of the development of Indian professionals in this era, "Now we have an Indian bureaucracy!" (202).

Although Cobb analyzes this growth of Indian leadership at the national level and in reservation communities, he does not explore the conundrum of a BIA that developed from this era with an increasing representation of Indian employees—yet failed to break out of its colonialist modes of action, control, and decision making. To what extent does the development of Indian bureaucracy within reservations and within the BIA force the colonized to become the colonizer? This was the first generation of leaders in many tribes for whom English was the first language. What role, if any, did that play in the evolution of tribal leadership in this era? Cobbs' focus is on community empowerment; nonetheless, his work raises these as questions for researchers interested in the development of modern tribal America to address.

Native Activism in Cold War America provides an intricate view of the changes occurring in Indian Country during the years of the greatest [End Page 100] modern federal attack on Indian communities. Upon reflection, the reader can see in this story the roots of change in tribal leaders' perceptions of how to work the system, the roots of modern tribal governing systems in relation to federal policy, and the limitations of and opportunities for tribal self-determination in the modern era. This book brings to light the efforts of a broad variety of Native leaders who shaped the future of Indian intellectualism, Indian policy, and tribal development in the latter twentieth century. It will be used best in upper-division or graduate courses and is essential reading for anyone attempting to understand the forces of change and the precursors to AIM in the years between the end of the Second World War and 1970.

David R. M. Beck

David R. M. Beck is professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana, in Missoula. He published a two-volume history of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Siege and Survival: History of the Menominee Indians, 1634-1856 and The Struggle for Self-Determination: History of the Menominee Indians since 1854. Both books won the Wisconsin Historical Society Book Award. His latest book is Seeking Recognition: The Termination and Restoration of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, 1855-1984.

Additional Information

ISSN
1533-7901
Print ISSN
0749-6427
Pages
98-101
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-13
Open Access
No
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