Friday, December 12, 2008

Wilcomb E. Washburn: Red Man's Land - White Man's Law

I bought Red Man’s Land – White Man’s Law by Wilcomb E. Washburn before going into the Army in 1971. It has languished on my bookshelves, or in a box, ever since. At the time, my intentions toward non-fiction were much greater than my actions. At the same time I bought (and read) Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I had thought Washburn’s book would be another look at American history from the Native American perspective.

It turns out that Red Man’s Land – White Man’s Law is more a “current affairs” sort of book. And I waited 37 years to read it. Oops! Think of waiting 37 years to read Friedman’s The World is Flat, or Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Big mistake.

Actually, the book does have a lot of historical background, although at a summary level. His “Theoretical Assumptions” chapter gives a pretty good view of the religious underpinnings of European attitudes toward Native Americans in the early years after discovery. As I read “From Discovery to Settlement” I found myself thinking how poorly the analysis stacked up to newer books like Charles C. Mann’s 1491, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, or David A Price’s Love and Hate in Jamestown. And his chapters on the Eighteen and Nineteenth centuries do not compare at all well with Allan W. Eckert’s contemporaneously written The Winning of America series. Of course Eckert used five 600 page books to tell the story of the Eighteenth and first third of the Nineteenth centuries.

Washburn goes to some effort to allay the “myth” that American’s unfairly stole land from Indian tribes. He points out that they were always meticulous in paying for land acquired through various treaties. I was stunned! As Eckert would point out, yes, they did always find someone to pay. But they did not always try hard to find someone with the authority to sell. From Washburn’s apparent perspective, you would be perfectly justified in buying my neighbor’s house from me, and be pleased with the bargain price I gave you.

Washburn does a good job describing the see-saw effect of vacillating federal policy toward the Native American tribes. Some years they were trying to destroy the tribes and assimilate the members. Others they were trying to bolster the tribal government. I had a pretty fair understanding of the creation of tribal rolls, allocation of individual plots, and sale of “surplus” lands that took place at the time of Oklahoma land-runs and statehood. I did not have as good a feel for the how the Indian lands were still held in trust by the federal government after allocation.

I was surprised to see the swings in policies taking place as recently as the Roosevelt (FDR), Kennedy, and Nixon administrations. Interestingly enough, Washburn showed a lot of optimism for the changes planned by Nixon. He showed a very strong (pre-Watergate) appreciation for Nixon. But this was where my mistake in waiting so long to read the book really came home hard. I’ve got a whole string of 37-year-old unresolved issues. I know they’ve been resolved, and probably reversed a time or two. But I don’t know how they really came out.

One area of Washburn’s book really struck me as hilarious. (Not that he meant it to be.) He makes a big point of a significant segment of White America adopting Indian values. He points to the growing movement of Hippie Communes sprouting in the Southwest, often in close proximity to Native American communities. Funny, I think of Hippie Communes as a silly anecdote in recent history, not a major social movement.

Much of my negative feeling toward Red Man’s Land – White Man’s Law is my own fault. I obviously waited way too long. But it also makes me question the value of saving other “current affairs” books for very long. I should probably try to find the 1995 Second Edition, both to see how Nixon’s policies worked out, and to give Washburn to same opportunity to apply hindsight that I used in reading his book.

1 comment:

Kit Bradley said...

Wow! I'm surprised you read such an old book on how we've dealt with Native Americans. I think it's been a very sad story with many unfortunate twists and turns, continuing today. I've supported the Native American Rights Fund for years. They are "the oldest and largest nonprofit law firm dedicated to asserting and defending the rights of Indian tribes, organizations and individuals nationwide."

"Megatrends" has been sitting in full view on my bookcase for years, and I've been thinking of reading it again to see if the ten trends have panned out as proposed. But at least I read it in 1984!