Review by Mo Conlan* ofCongress Whispers, Reservation Nations Endure
*Mo Conlan is a Cincinnati-based artist and writer. For many years she was books editor at the Cincinnati Post, a Scripps Howard daily newspaper.
Before I read B. Lee Wilson’s new book, “Congress Whispers, Reservation Nations Endure ~ A Century of Public Acts of Aggression, Confusion, & Resolution,” I knew nothing about American Indians, I now realize. What little I knew came from movies of my girlhood, in which heroes such as John Wayne were forever saving the fort or the wagon train from marauding “bad” Indians.
I did not realize, until reading this book, that the wagon trains and forts and soldiers were likely trespassing on Indian lands. That these reservation lands given by Congress to the tribes were being whittled away. That the lands often were not arable and that many Indians were starving.
I didn’t learn any of this by watching old movies, or in my history classes at school. I had heard vaguely of “Trail of Tears” and “Wounded Knee,” but never did I imagine the degree of degradation inflicted upon these first-comers to our land. This is a scholarly work, researched to the nth degree, and it made me angry -- haven’t felt so mad after reading a book since I stayed up all night reading Leon Uris’ novel “Trinity” – and learned that my Irish ancestors had been starved, forbidden to speak their own language, to wear the color green, to attend school – under the penal laws imposed by England in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Meanwhile, here in America, under laws enacted by Congress, tribal people were force-marched from their own lands in the East to the West; many died en route. They were forbidden to speak their languages, practice their religions; their children were taken from them to be “educated” – at boarding schools wherein death rates were astronomical.
Reservations lands were given to these peoples by Congress, and in various ways, taken back.
Wilson’s book methodically reveals laws that governed American policy toward native peoples between 1885 and 1990. For 39 of the most crucial ones, she records actual laws, word for word, as well as gives cogent commentary on their consequences. Not all these laws, even the seriously misguided ones, were badly intentioned. But here is a crucial point – the early laws, especially, aimed to break apart the community lives and lands of these people, to make individual farmers of them. But these were peoples who lived in community. They were not capitalists, did not have individual ownership of land.
The Indian laws went back and forth in their intent and consequences, often contradictory – as times and ideas changed. However, it is apparent that big money would have its way --- railroads would be given rights-of-way through Indian lands; more desirable lands would be given to whites.
Here are some of the laws Wilson examines: In 1819, Congress passed the Civilization Act. The name pretty much says its intent. In 1830, Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act, which caused the tribal Diasporas, forced migration West, many deaths. 1887, the General Allotment Act. Tribes lost more lands to settlers. They often were given inferior lands. Prior to this, between 1874-76, contracted hunters destroyed the three bison herds that had roamed between Texas and Canada, and which had provided much food for tribal people.
Wilson quotes the writer Will Rogers in assessing what Wilson calls “the shell game” with Indian lands: “They say: ‘You can have this ground as long as the grass grows and the water flows’… Now they have moved the Indians and they settled the whole thing by putting them on land where the grass won’t grow and water won’t flow, so now they have it all set.”
Wilson examines 39 Indian laws, enacted over a century. Her deep research and understanding of them shows in her crisp, intelligent commentary. The book is enhanced by many photos.
This book is a gift to American history. It should be on the nightstand of every reader of American history. It should be in every library, every school, college and university in America.