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Summer Reading for Perspective on Current American Indian Policy Debates

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The debt ceiling negotiations are deep underground. While there’s plenty of action on the surface—posturing, mostly—there are also quiet talks about both temporary and real solutions. Indeed, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told CNBC on Monday that there will be a “deal” and that default is off the table.

Hopeful news. We’ll have to stay tuned. Meanwhile I am in Alaska on assignment ... so I thought this might be a good opportunity to write about what I’ve been reading this summer.

My three picks:
• Walter Echo-Hawk’s In the Courts of the Conquerors: The Ten Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided.
• Roberta Ulrich’s American Indian Nations from Termination to Restoration, 1953-2006.
• Alison Owings’ Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans.

These three books have relevance to today’s headlines.

Echo-Hawk’s book ought to retire the entire debate about judicial activism. It has become a conservative article of faith that judges should narrowly follow the law when deciding cases. But Echo-Hawk methodically picks apart that fiction. He shows that even sainted justices, such as John Marshall, invented a legal theory from dust about the doctrine of discovery in Johnson v. M’Intosh. “Marshall claimed that the nation had no choice in how it dealt with the tribes and that the normal rules of international law did not apply,” Echo-Hawk writes. “Thus, the normal rules governing the relations between the conqueror and conquered were simply ‘incapable of application’ in the United States. It was the Indians' own fault.”

Marshall had a financial stake in the case that would not be permitted under today’s standards. And, Echo-Hawk points out, this was the same justice who at the end of his career became famous for Worcester v. Georgia, where he supported the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation against the state.

The dark history that Echo-Hawk chronicles takes on another form in Roberta Ulrich’s book about termination. She does a good job of capturing the sheer force of personality of Sen. Arthur Watkins. The Utah Republican championed termination and would not listen to any alternative. In his “typical fashion” Watkins would let a Senate hearing witness speak for a few minutes and then badger the witness. He frequently interrupted, pestering repeatedly until the senator heard the answer he wanted that “Indians should take the lead and stand on their own two feet and become full-fledged American citizens.”

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The Watkins and termination story is important today because the seeds of that disaster are sprouting again in public policy. The post-war environment, like today's, was shaped by the idea that the U.S. government could no longer afford social programs for American Indians.

The third book, Alison Owings’ Indian Voices, is an antidote to these sober (but critical) histories. She listens to native people today, and reflects their stories back, revealing current challenges and hopes. I have to add, many of my friends are profiled in this book, people I consider amazing and wise.

One of those remarkable people that’s portrayed in Indian Voices is Emma George. She’s Lemhi Shoshone, the Shoshone band that first encountered Lewis & Clark. The Lemhi reserved a small reservation on the Lemhi River through a treaty signed in 1875, but that document was never ratified, and after the turn of the century her people began their long sad walk to Fort Hall. Yet for George and many other families from the Lemhi band home will always be back in that Salmon River country.

“There’s things you go through in life and they’re hard, but other people have harder lives. It makes you humble and grateful to be blessed with life, no matter what the situation is. To live another day,” George says in the book.

Indeed, history’s harsh accounting is not complete without that one idea on the other side of the ledger. No matter how a court invents law to steal land; or how Congress extinguishes a tribal government; or, even when a homeland remains an project for the future, there still the blessing to live another day.

And that will remain true even if the deficit talks completely blow up.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.