Native Sovereignty, from History to Standing Rock

Jason Sellers

Webster, Tony. “Sacred Stone Camp,” August 25 2016, Dakota Access Pipeline protest at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The first time I taught “Native American History,” I decided to end in 1890 with the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee. I thought biting off another century of historiography was ambitious enough for a colonial historian, and in terms of content I wanted to end by contrasting the continuing dynamism of Native cultures with the severe constraints under which Native Americans were negotiating U.S. colonialism by the late nineteenth century. I felt we ended with some productive conversations, but a few weeks later as I cautiously reviewed student evaluations, I found one of the more thoughtful critiques of a class I’ve encountered.

This student expressed concern that ending the class in 1890, with no second semester of Native American history offered to extend coverage into the twenty-first century, suggested Native American history ended with Wounded Knee, or at least entered a period that didn’t merit devoted attention. As structured, the course failed to adequately acknowledge, much less address, later historical developments like the Indian Reorganization Act, termination policies, and American Indian activism. The student was right; the question was what I could do about it.

Although I hadn’t included it in my class, I had recently read David Treuer’s Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, which combines history, memoir, and journalism to consider “how reservations began, what they are now, and where they are going.” Treuer covers the major legislative actions and legal rulings that have shaped United States Indian policy since the American Revolution while using human interest stories to illustrate the ramifications of that history for contemporary life in Native communities. I decided next time I’d assign Rez Life at the end of the term to talk about how the history we’d studied within the confines of a semester extended beyond our chronological bounds, and emphasize that Indians haven’t disappeared from American life.

Fibonacci Blue. “Not Your Mascot”, November 2 2014, Protest of the Washington NFL team in Minnesota; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What struck me about this second attempt to wrap up the class, however, was how many students found the book depressing, sliding it into a narrative of Indian victimhood despite our efforts throughout the semester to construct a more complicated understanding of Native history. Certainly, there are sad elements: Red Lake’s walleye fishery collapsing, teenagers overdosing in trailer homes, boarding schools’ assaults on Native cultures and identities. But Treuer also covers more positive experiences: successful natural resource management partnerships between tribes and government agencies, entrepreneurial ventures like casinos and tax-free retail, burgeoning cultural and language programs, the exercise of treaty rights that protect fishing and whaling.[i]

The first major challenge I faced in using the book effectively, then, was steering students toward that more nuanced understanding, and what I think is Treuer’s larger point: that the story he tells is one in which Indians persist in their efforts to control their own lives—both for better and for worse. He points out that the reservations that ground his story were created by treaties made between sovereign nations, and so my second task was to help students recognize that the history Treuer relates—wars, diplomatic negotiations, legal rulings, legislative actions, Native activism—constituted Native Americans’ efforts to preserve their political and cultural autonomy as sovereign peoples. My third goal was thus to suggest that those efforts contributed to a larger sense of Indianness that celebrates reservations as anchors of Native sovereignty.

My construction of the class continued to complicate my efforts to lead students to those larger realizations. By creating a class that ended in 1890, I had built a narrative that ended as many Native American communities reached a nadir. Even though our readings showed Native Americans creatively adapting to changed circumstances to protect their resources, identities, and autonomy, many of the dramatic historical moments we studied in class involved loss, and the overall trajectory appeared to be largely about decline—it certainly struck many students that way. Asking students to step outside that arc proved challenging, but I hoped Rez Life served as something of a palliative, reminding students that Native Americans survived as individuals and communities.

Still, I thought the book had more potential to change the premise of the course, and so even though doing so upended the rough chronology I’d set up, I moved it to the start of the semester the third time I taught the class. Rather than serving as consolation at the end of a declension narrative, it let us establish from the outset that Native Americans constitute a large, diverse, culturally vibrant population omnipresent in the life of everyday America. From there we could ask how their histories both paralleled and departed from those of other Americans, approaching the remainder of the semester aware that we weren’t studying people relegated to history, or the entire history of all Native Americans, but one piece of the history of America.

“Notice to Cherokee Freedman For Enrollment”, From the Muskogee Times-Democratic Phoenix Newspaper to show Cherokee Freedmen enrollment controversy with the Dawes Commission; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This new format also let me ask students to engage in a semester-long research project about the history behind contemporary Native communities’ concerns and experiences. Small groups identify as their research subjects Native communities that (1) are present and active in the United States today, (2) have an identifiable past, and (3) have generated scholarly literature on which students can draw. Students independently research that community’s historical experiences and contemporary concerns to develop a bibliography of primary and secondary source materials, some of which must relate to current or recent events. Individual students annotate their bibliographies, summarizing topics and arguments and methods, but also identifying any contemporary concerns to which the source relates. By the time the group reconvenes mid-semester, everyone has historical background, a collection of sources, and some sense of that Native community’s activities today. At that point, they begin planning group presentations that make “a historical argument that identifies and emphasizes major contemporary issues/themes, and the historical background out of which those arise.” Aside from the research, writing, and presentation skills involved, I want students to make conscious decisions about how they frame history, and in particular to grapple with the complexity and unevenness of change over time when it doesn’t adhere to a clear narrative of progress or decline.

These projects have addressed a wide range of subjects, including the Blackfeet Nation’s Water Rights Compact, education and poverty at Pine Ridge, and Apache sacred lands threatened by copper mining. Some of the best have been tied to current events, news coverage of which groups have incorporated into their presentations. A group that initially wanted to research the Iroquois ultimately presented on the Oneida Indian Nation’s use of casino revenues to support its Change the Mascot campaign against the NFL’s Washington, DC, franchise, and about the history of the term the team uses as its nickname. Another group, intrigued by Congressional debate about Cherokee Freedmen’s citizenship status, found itself researching Cherokee slavery, Allotment, and the Dawes Rolls. Four students simultaneously enrolled in my class on Colonial America explored the fates of several Powhatan tribes, trying to explain why, despite long-standing relationships with the government of Virginia, language reconstruction programs, and small land bases hosting cultural centers and museums, none had—at the time of that project—obtained federal recognition.

Although they appear on first glance to be disparate topics, all of the histories these groups told involved some combination of the maintenance, erosion, and recovery of Native sovereignty. Presentations explored issues of political autonomy and cultural integrity, as well as Native efforts to control their own lives and their representations within a larger American culture. Thematically those were the same basic experiences we read about earlier in the semester as Native Americans responded to colonization, adjusted their material cultures and subsistence regimes, engaged with Christianity, negotiated and fought to defend their lands, migrated, and defined their roles within the colonies and later the United States.

With that, discussions of sovereignty had become a central thread in the course, a 15-week conversation that also lent itself to discussions of current events, the most recent iteration coinciding with members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters gathering to oppose construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The proposed pipeline route passed half a mile beyond the Standing Rock reservation boundary, but potentially threatened sites sacred to the Sioux and to the reservation’s drinking water supply. In what became a regular classroom discussion item, we noticed that Indians on reservations may live within the United States, but as a minority population lacking many of the resources—financial, certainly, but also social resources like visibility and personal connections that underpin political clout—of other Americans, Native communities continue to struggle to shape decisions that affect their lives. As one student pointed out, sovereignty strictly limited to the arbitrary boundaries of a reservation established over a century ago is inadequate to protect the tribe from the environmental impacts of actions taken by entities outside the reservation. Drawing upon our developing historical understanding of tribal sovereignty’s role in upholding the physical and cultural integrity of Native communities, we could see it in action at Standing Rock as a mechanism for pursuing environmental justice. Altering the structure and premise of the class had recast tribal sovereignty, like the peoples whose histories we were studying, as more than simply an artifact of the past.


[i] David Treuer, Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life (New York, 2012), 19.

8 November 2017

About the Author

Jason Sellers is Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

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