Diverse Interventions in the Public Sphere by Historians of Native America

Zachary Conn

Of the two umbrella terms for public engagement in wide use by English-speaking historians, “public history” tends to refer to efforts pitched toward the people at large, with the less common “applied history” used for conversations between scholars and policymakers. Historians should try not get too attached to the public vs. applied history binary. In a representative democracy, after all, there is supposed to be a two-way relationship between the citizenry’s views and the government’s actions.

Formal group photograph of the Supreme Court as it was been comprised on June 30, 2022 after Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the Court.  The Justices are posed in front of red velvet drapes and arranged by seniority, with five seated and four standing...Seated from left are Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Samuel A. Alito and Elena Kagan.  Standing from left are Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Historians of Native America have been instrumental in shaping opinion on certain key cases impacting Native communities. The Supreme Court, pictured here in 2022, ruled to maintain key provisions of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act in part due to amicus briefs produced by historians. Credit: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Supreme_Court_of_the_United_States_-_Roberts_Court_2022.jpg.

Recently, the field of Native American history has provided numerous inspiring examples of scholars bridging discourses to enlighten and persuade. These scholars confront formidable headwinds. In the realm of policy, Native people’s specific needs—the product of a too-little-understood history—still often go unconsidered, with such imperfect progress as has been achieved through the reforms of the New Deal and “The Sixties” under a very real threat of reversal. In the broader culture, especially east of the Mississippi, it is difficult to exaggerate the level of ignorance. Polling suggests that many Americans do not even know that Native Americans exist in the present tense.[1]

Though the challenges are fierce, and impossible for one discipline or profession to defeat alone, no one could accuse specialists in Native American history of shirking from the fight. Naturally, different historians specialize in different forms of public outreach. Collectively, however, there has been a productive blurring of the lines between academia, policy, and the broader culture.

An area where the stakes are particularly high, and the scholarly contribution particularly impressive, is that of constitutional law. In recent years, historians have provided key contextual information as authors of amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs submitted to, and cited by, jurists deciding enormously important cases in “Indian law” (still the official term).

In 2022, the Supreme Court considered eliminating key provisions of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. For over a century, state and federal government stole generation after generation of Native children from their families, first with barbarous boarding schools, then with state policies that prioritized placing Indigenous children in white families as foster children or adoptees.[2] A reversal of the law would have been disastrous. Fortunately, by a vote of 7–2, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

Historical scholarship played a meaningful role in Amy Coney Barrett’s majority opinion and a large one in a concurring opinion Neil Gorsuch wrote “to add some historical context.”[3] In addition to citing individual works of scholarship, the justices drew upon two amicus briefs from historians: one endorsed by the AHA and OAH and a separate one from the Stanford legal historian Greg Ablavsky.[4] Both documents, naturally, had excellent bibliographies, likely leading to a greater impact on the opinions than can be observed from direct citations of the briefs themselves.

Ariel shot of the Field Museum looking north.

Chicago’s Field Museum has been one of numerous cultural institutions rethinking its presentation of Indigenous narratives due to the contributions of scholars of Native North America. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Field_Museum_N.jpg.

Scholars have also contributed to belated efforts to center Native perspectives within the museum world. In 2022, Chicago’s Field Museum unveiled a long-overdue overhaul of its permanent Native North America Hall under the title Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories. Visitors now encounter much-needed narratives about specifically Indigenous forms of modernity; for example, the very first room introduces museum-goers to the work of the Lakota rapper, songwriter, and producer Frank Waln.[5] Several scholars participated in this important effort, including the Paiute curator and public historian Meranda Roberts and the Ojibwe journalism professor and popular-history author Patty Loew. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, first shown in 2018 and revived in 2023 (it is still up at the time of this writing), reflects contributions from  such experts as the Purepeche and Apache American scholar Patricia Marroquin Norby and the Western Shoshone historian Ned Blackhawk (also the winner of the 2023 National Book Award in History for The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History).[6]

Many other forms of media, new and old, have broadcast valuable interventions by historians of Native America, along with historically inclined scholars in other disciplines. Far too many examples exist to name here. For several years, the Cherokee scholar Adrienne Keene and the Swinomish visual storyteller and educator Matika Wilbur have produced the remarkably engaging podcast All My Relations. The show shares Native perspectives on numerous aspects of contemporary life and turns a critical eye on representations (often misrepresentations) of Indigenous nations in American culture.[7] The Ojibwe historian Anton Treuer, among other several other contributions, is a prolific, highly “watchable” YouTuber, on subjects ranging from history to pop culture to the Ojibwe language.[8] A third Ojibwe author, the constitutional-law scholar Maggie Blackhawk, epitomizes the ability of engaged scholars to contribute to public discourse in multiple registers, ranging from an amicus brief for the Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Supreme Court case to a recent New York Times op-ed building upon public interest in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.”[9] Children also have the opportunity to learn from historians of Native America, thanks to works like the young readers’ edition of Treuer’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians and Were Afraid to Ask and the Ojibwe historian Brenda Child’s picture book Bowwow Powwow. [10]

Historians’ work in the classroom is perhaps our greatest opportunity of all to bring Native American history to public audiences. Here there is a role for all who teach about the American past, not just Native American history specialists. Introductory American history classes now generally integrate Indigenous stories and perspectives into their coverage of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. However, sometime after the defeat of the pan-Indigenous coalition led by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, mentions of Native historical actors—much less claims about the relevance of Indigenous communities to broad changes over time in North America—tend to slow to a trickle. Teachers at all levels should challenge themselves to learn more about the Native role in events like the American Civil War, the World Wars, the New Deal, and the activism of the 1960s and 1970s in order to share this knowledge with our students.

Scholars’ many efforts to bring the lessons of Native American history into the public sphere transcend the binary baked into the separate terms “public history” and “applied history.” For all the diversity of these scholarly interventions, perhaps we can think of each of them as contributing to a broad “1493 Project” centering the persistence of North America’s sovereign Indigenous polities.


[1] For detailed polling on public knowledge of and attitudes toward Native Americans, see Reclaiming Truth: A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions, “Research Findings: Compilation of All Research” (June 2018).

[2] On these traumatic histories, see, among others, Brenda J. Child, Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900–1940 (Lincoln, NE, 1998); David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1918, second ed. (Lawrence, KS, 2020); Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940 (Lincoln, NE, 2009); Jacobs, A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World (Lincoln, NE, 2014).

[3] Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, et al. v. Brackeen et al., 599 U.S. 255 (2023).

[4]American Historical Association and Organization of American Historians, Brief of Amicus Curiae American Historical Association and Organization of American Historians in Support of Federal Parties and Tribal Defendants in the Haaland v. Brackeen case, No. Nos. 21-376, 21-377, 21-378 & 21-380 in the Supreme Court of the United States (Aug. 19, 2022). Gregory Ablavsky, Brief of Amicus Curiae Professor Gregory Ablavsky in Support of Federal Parties and Tribal Defendants in the Haaland v. Brackeen case, No. Nos. 21-376, 21-377, 21-378 & 21-380 in the Supreme Court of the United States (Aug. 19, 2022).

[5] Field Museum, “Exhibitions: Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories.”  Field Museum, “Press Release: Field Museum Presents Groundbreaking Exhibition Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories,” Field Museum Website, May 17, 2022.  Field Museum, “Blog: Making Room for Native American Voices,” Field Museum Website, Nov. 8, 2018. Marc Vitali, “‘Native Truths’ Offer Fresh Perspective at the Field Museum,” WTTW Website, Nov. 7, 2022.

[6] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Website.. Gaylord Torrence and Marjorie Alexander, “Bringing Native American Art to the American Wing,” Perspectives, Metropolitan Museum of Art Website, Oct. 3, 2018. Ned Blackhawk, “Historian Ned Blackhawk on Native American Artworks,” Perspectives, Metropolitan Museum of Art Website. Ned Blackhawk, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History (New Haven, CT, 2023).

[7] See, for example, Matika Wilbur, Desi Small-Rodriguez, and Adrienne Keene, “ThanksTaking or ThanksGiving?” All My Relations Podcast, Nov. 20, 2020.

[8] See, for example, Anton Treuer, “Tribal Sovereignty,” YouTube Video, Nov. 7, 2023, https://www.metmuseum.org/perspectives/videos/2018/10/metcollects-art-of-native-america.

[9] Maggie Blackhawk, “How ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Presses Up Against the Limits of Empathy,” New York Times Digital Edition, Jan. 25, 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/25/opinion/killers-flower-moon-scorsese-empathy.html.

[10] Anton Treuer, Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask: Young Readers Edition (Hoboken, NJ, 2021). Brenda Child, Bowwow Powwow (St. Paul, MN, 2018).

21 March 2024

About the Author

Zachary Conn is a historian of relations between the early United States and Native American polities and a postdoctoral fellow at the SMU Center for Presidential History in Dallas.

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