Blogs > HNN > Wesley Hogan: Review of Paul VanDevelder's Savages & Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory (Yale, 2009)

Sep 6, 2009 5:44 pm

Wesley Hogan: Review of Paul VanDevelder's Savages & Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory (Yale, 2009)

[Wesley Hogan is Professor of History & Philosophy and Co-Director, Institute for the Study of Race Relations, Virginia State University.]

Some books bathe you in beauty like the beach in moonlight. Others slam you against the wall so viciously it is days before you can pick up and wander through them again. Savages and Scoundrels, an important book by journalist Paul VanDevelder, is a taut, elegantly written book that does both. Interpreting a research base of scholarly monographs and obscure legal opinions into accessible language, VanDevelder knows how sharp the knife’s edge is: if he is too oblique, he gambles that the reader may not understand what happened. If he tells exactly what occurred, he risks the reader’s despair.

VanDevelder sets out to reorder our understanding of Native American-white relations. He wants to “recontextualize and realign some of the major themes in America’s story that have been mythologized” in popular culture, in American classrooms, and in American historical literature. “Long-standing distortions of this magnitude,” he notes early on, “have cascading effects.” His job, he states, is to clarify that the 19th an 20th century “lawlessness of white men in Congress and on the frontier, and the officially sanctioned genocide of Indians that ensued, raise troubling questions about the widely accepted and sanitized theories of America’s westward expansion.” The numbers are hard to manipulate: treaty-protected homelands went from 12 million acres in 1890 to less than one million by the end of World War II. “Where millions of ‘savages and infidels’ had prospered and flourished three centuries before,” VanDevelder writes, “fewer than 240,000 had survived their encounters with the Europeans.”

Scholars and journalists have tried to tell these stories for years. Their message has rarely penetrated the miasma of popular culture’s hold: children still play ‘cowboys and Indians,’ Americans living far from reservations think Native peoples are slowly disappearing if not entirely gone, and such ever-present but poisonous ideologies are reinforced when sports teams, suburban developers and commercial products misappropriate Native names for their mascots, street names, and Crazy Horse Malt Liquor or Cherokee jeans. When children and young adults walk into classrooms, most US history courses teach a little about Native Americans in the first years of contact, then again in the “Indian Wars” of the 1870s and 1880s. But that is all most Americans know about Native-white relations.

At least since 1940, when Angie Debo first published And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes, and the following year, The Road to Disappearance: a History of the Creek Indians, scholars have tried to correct this Wild West mythology. Regardless of whether they present their material in dry-as-dust, academically acceptable language or as rollicking, narrative-driven epic, their hard work has often been solid, at times groundbreaking, but never sufficient. It has not penetrated to the average American. VanDevelder aims to break through.

He starts with the Founding Fathers, and shows how whites in the federal government continually “rejiggered their thinking” to expand the American frontier. “In its first hours,” VanDevelder relates, “the republic’s many fathers had demonstrated that they would gladly abandon the very principles of personal autonomy that twenty years before had lit the fuse to the War of Independence” They ditched Enlightenment concepts of natural law (the theory of Indian land ownership) in favor of Pope Innocent’s “doctrine of discovery.” The pope had claimed in the 13th century that those he designated “savage” could be denied rights and status equal to those in the civilized nations of Europe. By choosing the “doctrine of discovery” as the basis of federal Indian law, American lawmakers in the 19th century “ensured that all future acts of genocide would proceed on a rationalized, legal basis.”

Tough stuff. And so back to the critical importance of how VanDevelder tells the story. At first, he uses first-person narrative to explain to the reader how US Indian policy looks from the point of view of Louise Holding Eagle, a 21-year-old married mother of two who comes home one evening in 1951 to find the federal government has moved her home miles away to make room for a hydroelectric dam. Just like Holding Eagle, we want to know why, and how, this could happen. Her personal story draws us in. In explaining Holding Eagle’s story, VanDevelder’s story reorganizes our chronology. The truly important moments in Native-White power struggles took place in the 1830s and 1840s he shows, culminating in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Everything after this was just dénouement. By the end of the book, all VanDevelder has to do is lay out the facts of US government and military behavior between 1851 and Little Big Horn. As they unfold from page 219 to the book’s end on 243, “the facts” fill each page with a gloom so overpowering that each page is a story too hard to tell. The prose is unadorned, but precise. He has readjusted our lens enough at this point that he can take a “just the facts, ma’am” approach, and the reader is forced to either deny the facts, or adopt a new understanding: the US government committed genocide.

The story’s power lies in guiding the reader without flinching toward this truth. I have a few complaints, mostly those you would expect from a university-trained historian reviewing the work of a top-notch journalist. He is too dependent on secondary sources; without reading the endnotes, one has trouble understanding how this work fits into the scholarly or popular historiography. But some complaints are stylistic: The ending lacks the punch of almost everything that precedes it; I want to hear more about individuals who lived this history like Louise Holding Eagle, Martin Cross, and Four Bears. This said, VanDevelder’s work should be required reading for anyone with the power – large or small scale -- to dispel these myths: from Dan Snyder, current owner of the Washington Redskins, to every US history teacher and Hollywood director who is in a position to perpetuate the idea behind “Manifest Destiny.”

It’s not just the ideology of the republic at stake. This still matters in very measurable, material ways today: modern conflicts over mineral rights, fishing, and casino regulation have their roots in the story VanDevelder tells. At the end of July 2009, a federal appeals court ruled that the Interior Department must fully account for more than a century’s worth of land royalties owed to Native Americans, who claim the government owes them $47 billion for use of their lands since 1887. In 1998-99, when the states of Washington and Minnesota tried to deny Indians access to ancestral fish harvests, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor invoked the “unimpeachable trust relationship” between the US government and tribes secured in perpetuity by the 1832 Worcester decision, authored by Justice John Marshall. Boundaries agreed to in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie entitled any tribe to pass through, or hunt, in the country of another nation. This treaty obligation was “still frustrating state governments and confounding state and federal courts in the twenty-first century,” reports VanDevelder.

Whether Americans today find the ideas or the material reality more important, both appeared to propel Senator Albert Beveridge in a January 1900 speech following the Spanish American War and during the US invasion of the Philippines that has reflected much of Western policy, past and present. God, Beveridge proposed, had made Americans “master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns.” Americans served as God’s “chosen people” who would “finally lead in the regeneration of the world.” Such was the “divine mission of America.” It was, VanDevelder writes, “a speech that might have been written by a pope in the Middle Ages, or by a crusading American president in the twenty-first century.” In other words, watch out: traveling this path the US has committed genocide once before. Let us not, he warns, head there again.

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Randll Reese Besch - 9/13/2009

Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Columbia, Mexico, Iran, Poland, and so many others. Over 878 bases and on more land and countries than the past empires combined, minus the Mongols, for empire expansion. They aren't finished yet outside empire and reorganize the interior republic into something more suitable for and empire.

The 10th Crusade is on and it is just as evangelical as the 13th century Pope or Manifest Destiny only for the world this time.