by Matt Hooley •
Today’s the first day of November, of Gashkadino-giizis. It is the first day of American Indian Heritage Month. And I wonder what that means.
The cagey politics of James’ act—leveraging a national ‘historical’ observance on behalf of a contemporary political debate—proved premonitory. 1989 was declared by South Dakota, a state whose history of violence against Natives is perhaps more devastating and sustained than any other, a “year of reconciliation.” 1992 was a year recognized nationally both as the Columbian Quincentennial and the “Year of the American Indian.” Since 2003, Native Heritage Month has come with a theme reflecting a social or political issue in Indian Country. 2006 was the year of “Tribal Diversity.” 2008 was dedicated to “Tribes Facing Challenges.” Last year: “Life is Sacred: Celebrating Healthy Native Communities.”
In other words, as much as we might suspect American Indian Heritage month of being a tokenizing or anachronizing gesture—as President Bush’s language on the occasion of its inauguration, a time of “paying tribute to the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans,” this is not the case. The act of attention to Native history is, in almost every instance, an irruption into the American political present.
Former Wisconsin historian Jeremi Suri has written a new book Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama. It presents a significant (perhaps overly-rosy, perhaps overly-sweeping) view of American foreign policy. However it is also one fundamentally divorced both from any kind of politically activating performance of Native history (in the spirit of Red Fox James) but from even its basic facts. In a Salon.com article promoting his book, Suri challenges the view of America-as-empire: “From its founding, the United States has been an experiment in building national power without empire…[the founders] sought to create a republic, not an empire, that would grow and prosper while it remained closely tied to the will of the people…” Suri goes on to “differentiate American nation-building from empire” on the grounds that (1) “the United States has never developed institutions or resources for the permanent occupation of other societies,” (2) “the United States has invested…in the creation of economic competitors, not foreign dependents,” and (3) “Americans have withdrawn when nation-building does not work.”
Suri is one of the most accomplished and important historians living today. And so what I want to challenge about his depiction of U.S. foreign policy is not primarily its historical veracity (apart from simply citing this set of cases which, I think, throws it into question: [Re: (1)] The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the annexation of the kingdom of Hawai’i; [Re: (2)] Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Chickasaw Nation v. United States; [Re: (3)] The Indian Removal Act,Termination policy).
Assuming that Suri is not only aware of these counter-examples, but of far more than I am, I object, on this first day of November, to his decision to write U.S. political history without an attention to Native history. For this is a decision that affects far more than the disciplinary terrain of history itself. It’s a way of reading the world that affects our view of contemporary land, law, and language. Not to mention acts of art, diplomacy, violence, and reconciliation.
The challenge of Native Heritage Month, as Red Fox James might suggest to us, is to use history to see the present more clearly, and on that account, I think, Suri’s argument misses the mark.
In an essay published in 2002, Sherman Alexie imagines a day when “every U.S. citizen will get to be Sacagawea for fifteen minutes”:
For the low price of admission, every American, regardless of race, religion, gender, and age will climb through the portal into Sacagawea’s Shoshone Indian brain…you will be kidnapped as a child by the Hidatsa tribe and sold to Toussant Charbonneau…who will take you as one of his wives. Your first child…will be only a few months old as you carry him during your journey with Lewis and Clark…And at the end of your Sacagawea journey, you will be shown the exit and given a souvenir T-shift that reads, IF THE U.S. IS EDEN, THEN SACAGAWEA IS EVE.
Alexie’s fantasy—an inhabitation of Indigenous experience in, and interrupting, the imperial—challenges and repurposes the contemporary systematics of American empire: passive political spectatorship, the exploitation of labor, territorial appropriation and toxicification, the crypto-Christian exceptionalism of U.S nationalism, and cultural commodification. It is an act of fantasy whose power lies, not in the retreat from the complexities of US and Native relations but in a direct and unflinching confrontation of them: “In the end” Alexie writes:
I wonder if colonization might somehow be magical. After all…Hank Williams is the direct descendent of poor whites and poorer Indians. In 1876 Emily Dickinson was writing her poems in an Amherst attic while Crazy Horse was killing Custer on the banks of the Little Big Horn. I remained stunned by these contradictions, by the successive generations of social, political, and artistic mutations that can be so beautiful and painful.
This is an account of history, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s words, “not as a remnant of another time but as something constitutive of the present….” History that makes it possible for us “to learn to think the present—the ‘now’ that we inhabit as we speak—as irreducibly not-one.” What this could mean for November—a month of freezing over, a month of elections, a month during which thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous protestors stand together against the Keystone XL Pipeline and against Wall Street’s ongoing indiscretions–is a chance to practice history differently.
Here, I celebrate explorations of American domestic and foreign policy that use the complexity of Native history to see our world more clearly: Anne McClintock’s recent work on the links between the American “war on terror” and the idea of Indian Country (e.g. the code name “Geronimo”), Julia Good Fox’s thinking about political revolution, and the social/environmental work of NGO’s like Pachamama.
Here, I celebrate work that remains sensitive to the legacy of American empire, not only as a matter of historiographical debate, but as a cultural, political, and aesthetic practice—as Sherman Alexie reminds us: “I am an American/ Indian/ and have learned/ words are another kind of violence.” But also work that uses that sensitivity toward political gain in both Native and American political spheres.
Here at the College of Wooster, I’m teaching Simon Ortiz’s gorgeous and stunning from Sand Creek. And I find myself inspired, early in November, to read along with my students (a few of) its opening words:
has been a burden
of steel and mad
but, look now,
there are flowers
and new grass
and a spring wind
from Sand Creek.
[In honor of American Indian Heritage Month, Matt Hooley, who recently received his Ph.d. from UW-Madison's English Department, reflects on the practice of Native History. Matt is currently teaching at the College of Wooster.]