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200 years of American Indian persistence turned US into 'Indian Country'

October 22, 2012

Frederick Hoxie starts each of his courses asking students to list three American Indians, and their answers are almost always the same: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Geronimo.

All defeated warrior chiefs. All in the distant past.

And all in keeping with Americans' historic tendency to see Indians mostly as "brave, exotic and dead," says Hoxie, a Swanlund professor of history, law and American Indian studies at the University of Illinois.

There's a different list that Hoxie wants us to know about, filled with American Indian lawyers, lobbyists, writers, politicians and activists. Through their stories, Hoxie aims in a new book to tell how American Indians over two centuries persisted in claiming their rights in a country that once thought them irrelevant.

The history he tells in "This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made," is one where Indians are not just victims and in the past, but "fellow participants in the American story," up to the present.

Through their efforts, American Indians are now accepted as part of society in the U.S. and with rights to self-government and to their cultural traditions, Hoxie said. That's something the nation's founders never envisioned, and a contentious subject until later in the 20th century. It is also a distinct American Indian achievement, he said.

"There are so many stories of American Indians who were inventive, were creative, who didn't surrender, but who did something other than die on a battlefield," Hoxie said. Their fights instead were in legislatures and courtrooms, and in the court of public opinion.

Hoxie knew about them from his years of teaching and research, but didn't realize how fully they connected until doing research for "This Indian Country," being published later this month as part of the Penguin History of American Life Series.

He found "networks of connection" through which ideas, strategies and an insistence on American Indian rights were passed from generation to generation.

Among Hoxie's subjects is James McDonald, a Choctaw who was the first American Indian lawyer. When it became clear in the 1820s that the U.S. government was determined to remove the Choctaws and other tribes from the southeastern states, McDonald pointed out the contradiction between these actions and Americans' democratic ideals, Hoxie said.

McDonald was the first to make the case for American Indians' rights directly to political leaders and to seek recognition of those rights in a formal agreement, Hoxie said.

Another Hoxie subject is William Potter Ross, a Cherokee who, later in the century, worked to develop unity among the tribes and to hold the U.S. government to its treaty commitments. Ross sought recognition for American Indian governments within the American nation state, something that was not accomplished until the mid-20th century.

Into the 20th century, Thomas Sloan, another lawyer and an Omaha, made the case for tribes retaining their autonomy, while individual American Indians still retained their American citizenship. He was the first American Indian lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Late in the 20th century, Vine Deloria Jr., a writer and activist, would challenge long-standing notions about American Indians' backwardness, further the cause of their rights and mentor many others who pressed their case in a variety of modern venues.

Hoxie's history of activism, which includes other figures, is one of many setbacks and small victories. It culminates, however, in a moment at the end of the 20th century when American Indians have been accepted as "a permanent part of the American scene," Hoxie said, even if many problems remain.

Similar to the story of other rights movements, "this is an American story," he said.

"It's a story about people who had been dispossessed, but who used the American political system to protect and to promote their communities. It's about how people have overcome barriers of politics and race and a whole range of things to accomplish the goal of living as equals in the United States."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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