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3/31/14: How Historians Can Help Native Americans

Lecture Review: R. David Edmunds' "Something Useful for a Change: Historians and Modern Tribal Communities"

Wednesday, March 26 at The Ohio State University

by Cameron Shriver

R. David Edmunds’ central question is a good one:  how can academic historians engage with modern Native American communities in the United States?  He is a storyteller, and he delivered several worth hearing.

Edmunds, among the godfathers of Native history, is bullish on the vitality and contributions of his field.  For example, educated people no longer believe that American history begins in 1492, although this was the standard paradigm as late as the 1960s.  Most of American history is Native American history, he reminds us, and Native history has been among the most influential fields in the discipline for a generation.

However, Edmunds’ work as a historical consultant for tribes is a bit different, and he says, more “useful.”  Tribes value the analytical tools that historians bring to the table.  Unlike those academics spilling ink on the abstractions of theory or filling pages with jargon, Edmunds seems to suggest that historians can, and should, play a larger role by effecting history.  We are the experts, and we should weigh in.

Edmunds uses two examples to build his case and both aim to reverse past injustices.  Through a combination of history, riparian law, and federal Indian law, Edmunds helped a legal team to argue that small strips of land along the Arkansas River legally belonged to the Otoe-Missouria reservation.  The Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma won and gained revenues from oil-rich lands.

In a second case, Edmunds argues that the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, a nation aboriginal to the Wabash River valley in the southern Great Lakes, has a strong claim to a broad swath of eastern Illinois.  This is despite the forced removal of Miami communities to Kansas and Oklahoma.  By combing the treaties signed between 1795 and 1840, Edmunds shows that much of southeastern Illinois is still legally myaamionki—Miami Country.  Transfer of so much land from private title to the Miami Tribe is unlikely but the issue remains unresolved.  

The broadest context for Edmunds’ talk is the ongoing debate about historians and the public sphere.  More interesting to me, as a historian of early America collaborating with Native people, is the potential to affect modern law.  The conquest of North America rested on the creation of a legal system that first dispossessed inhabitants and then socially and culturally undermined them.  If any of my students are reading, there is the short version of my course!  Dr. Edmunds points out a path for “useful” history:  developing expertise and then using it to reform unjust legal precedents. 

Edmunds is not necessarily trying to change the views of modern tribal communities.  Indians know that U.S. law hasn’t worked for them.  So do historians.  Rather, for academics-turned-consultants, the target audience is lawyers and judges.  The real question is how can historians help tribes make their case in court?

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For more by Cameron Shriver, see his Origins article: "September 2013: Reflecting on Justice 200 Years after the Creek War."