Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War

Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War

Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War

Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War

Synopsis

Standard narratives of Native American history view the nineteenth century in terms of steadily declining Indigenous sovereignty, from removal of southeastern tribes to the 1887 General Allotment Act. In Crooked Paths to Allotment, C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa complicates these narratives, focusing on political moments when viable alternatives to federal assimilation policies arose. In these moments, Native American reformers and their white allies challenged coercive practices and offered visions for policies that might have allowed Indigenous nations to adapt at their own pace and on their own terms. Examining the contests over Indian policy from Reconstruction through the Gilded Age, Genetin-Pilawa reveals the contingent state of American settler colonialism.
Genetin-Pilawa focuses on reformers and activists, including Tonawanda Seneca Ely S. Parker and Council Fire editor Thomas A. Bland, whose contributions to Indian policy debates have heretofore been underappreciated. He reveals how these men and their allies opposed such policies as forced land allotment, the elimination of traditional cultural practices, mandatory boarding school education for Indian youth, and compulsory participation in the market economy. Although the mainstream supporters of assimilation successfully repressed these efforts, the ideas and policy frameworks they espoused established a tradition of dissent against disruptive colonial governance.

Excerpt

On April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant entered Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House and introduced his personal staff to Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Lee welcomed each man with a courteous, if condescending, handshake and greeting. That was until he saw Ely S. Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca man from New York State and Grant’s personal military secretary. Witnesses in McLean’s parlor reported that Lee became visibly angered at the presence of Parker, who he, at the sight of his darker complexion, mistook for African American. He thought Grant was insulting him by inviting such a person to the surrender negotiations. According to this oft-told tale, onlookers feared the negotiations were going to end immediately. Lee, realizing his mistake, composed himself and extended a hand, looked directly into Parker’s eyes, and said, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker grasped Lee’s hand and replied, “We are all Americans.” Or, so the story goes.

It’s impossible to know if this exchange actually occurred, but the story’s message is significant regardless. At the very birth of the Reconstruction era, Parker’s statement personified what many Americans believed would be the legacy of the Civil War—that in the end, the nation would overcome sectional differences and racial tensions. Even his presence—an Indian man—at this significant historical moment indicated the optimism that characterized the surrender. It also illustrates historian Hannah Rosen’s recent characterization of the early post–Civil War period as “the beginning of a brief era in the United States of an imperfect but nonetheless far more inclusive political community and nation.” Possibility was the politics of the moment.

When we look back from the twenty-first century, however, Parker’s response to Lee seems foreign, and perhaps a bit naive—his words and role at Appomattox fade into the recesses of an American collective memory that has come to emphasize a romanticized “lost cause” and political reunion over racial reconstruction. Clearly events in the mid- to late nineteenth century changed the ways Americans conceptualized notions of postwar reconciliation, reform, and the position of nonwhite thinkers and reformers within the processes of . . .

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