White backlash: The Rittenhouse debacle from a Native perspective

During the George Floyd protests, twenty-five people were killed. Most of them were Black Lives Matter protesters. They were not killed by the police, but by white supremacists who traveled to the protests from out of town for the sole purpose of hunting Blacks and their allies. Self-styled vigilantes enforcing America’s caste system, Kyle Rittenhouse fits squarely in this group.

Judge Bruce Schroeder, bending over backwards to humanize the plaintiff and de-humanize the victims, provided the aura of a show trial, as if a lawful slave patrol was on trial on the front porch of a plantation house. Rittenhouse’s defense was funded millions of dollars by white churches and far right political groups. They stood like neighboring plantation owners in the yard, knowing full well it’s the Black protesters, the victims, who were really on trial. The message the verdict sends to the lower castes is clear: next time you will be hunted.

It wasn’t the neoprene gloves that protected him; it was his skin.


White backlash, rage against Black uppity-ness and other revolts and protests by people of color, goes back nearly four hundred years. It typically involves tenfold, or even one hundredfold or one thousandfold, retribution.

One of the first examples was the Mystic massacre of 1637, when the Pilgrims sought retribution in a tit-for-tat conflict with the Pequot. They surrounded the Pequot town in the night, set fire to it, and killed everyone who ran out. As hundreds were slaughtered, mostly women and children, the Natives allied to the Pilgrims shouted “Mach it, mach it (Stop it, Stop it)… it is too furious, and slays too many.” The Pilgrims didn’t stop. Afterward, they sent the survivors into slavery, banned even the word “Pequot”, and attached the word “Thanksgiving” to their harvest meal.

In 1779, George Washington, in the course of fighting the Revolutionary War, torched forty Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) towns and villages, along with their crops, in exchange for the killing of thirty white American colonists by British and Oneida troops. He called it “chastisement”. Today he is known as Town Destroyer.

This word, chastisement, was used for the next hundred years. Sometimes the impetus of a bloody massacre began with the theft of a horse, a cow, or a pig. In 1643 near today’s Jersey City, two missing Dutch pigs led to two murders, one by a Dutchman, one by a Lenape (Delaware). In return, Dutch colonists massacred eighty Lenape women and children, hacking them to pieces and throwing them alive into the river or fire with missing limbs.

Nearly the same thing happened in Eureka, California, in 1860, this time over cattle. The self-styled white militia, the “Eureka Volunteers”, made up of leading men and law enforcement, rowed silently out to Indian Island while the men were away preparing for their annual Ceremony of World Renewal. To avoid the sounds of gunshots, they used hatchets. The official death toll, counted by Major G.J. Raines of the US Army, was one hundred eighty-eight, almost entirely women and children. Everyone knew who did it, but no charges were ever filed. The perpetrators argued they needed to “exterminate” the Indians to protect their “property”, and needed to do it themselves because the state and federal government were not doing it for them.

Eleven years later Norman Kingsley shot thirty of the last remaining Yahi Yana at point blank range while they were trapped in a cave above Mill Creek, California. He had compassion on the children, switching to his 38-calibre Smith and Wesson revolver because his 56-calibre rifle “tore them up so bad.” The starving band, primarily women and children, had stolen a steer.

I could add the assassination of Narbona, a leader elder and chief of the Dine (Navajo) in 1849, in a squabble over a horse. I could fill a book with examples.

Narbona wanted peace more than many of his colleagues. Often, chastisement fell not on the guilty, but on the innocent. From Cache Valley (1863), Sand Creek (1864) and Washita (1868) to a church in Charleston (2015), from Montana (1870), Tucson (1871) and Wounded Knee (1890) to a synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018), white rage has targeted the vulnerable, the soft targets, those committed to peace. Because white terrorists seek not to preserve peace, but to preserve caste. 

Black historians can add Tulsa (1921) and hundreds of other examples.

Modern White Backlash

The election of Donald Trump is often characterized as white backlash. In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Trump was nominated and elected to prove that the most detestable and unqualified white man can do the same job as the most intelligent and qualified Black man. Today, the entire Republican Party is openly seeking to destroy US democracy to preserve upper caste privilege.

White backlash has been a menace to civilized society, especially to people of color, for four hundred years. The word chastisement, of course, recalls the punishments for runaway slaves, whose brutal tortures were intended as an example for others. This is the heart of disproportionate backlash. If you stick your neck out, they will come after you and your families and your friends. They will get in a car with their AR-15s and drive from out of state. If they have to, they’ll use child soldiers and have their mothers drive them from out of state. That is the message of Rittenhouse and the thousands of white Christians and Republicans who donated to his cause.

The only people that died in Kenosha were killed by this boy.
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The Right Wing attack on ICWA and Tribal Sovereignty

In Season 2 of her podcast, This Land, Rebecca Nagle does some serious investigative journalism, uncovering a small network of powerful ultra-conservative power-brokers, foundations, law firms, attorneys, and judges working together to tear down the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Their ultimate goal, however, is not just to take Native children from their tribes and families– it is to tear down the legal framework of Native sovereignty altogether, to open Native lands for oil development, pipelines, and any other corporate enterprise. They want to use a tool of genocide, the removal of children, to destroy Native governing authority.

I highly recommend listening to all eight episodes of Season 2 of This Land. (Season 1, about the history of the Cherokee Nation, the Trail of Tears, and the McGirt decision is also excellent.)

To guide your listening – and to help me follow the story – I’ve created this diagram. You can also see the actual text of the podcast at the link above by clicking on the individual episode pages.


Nagle paints a sordid picture: cringe-worthy evangelical church members seeking to adopt “beautiful” Native children; adoption agencies minimizing ICWA; lawyers openly ignoring ICWA; judges in league with a conservative agenda also openly against ICWA; an illegal indigenous baby pipeline between Arizona and New Hampshire; powerful lawyers working pro bono to take down ICWA; right wing think takes trying to take down all Native sovereignty; biased and prejudiced judges with little knowledge of Native sovereignty under the US Constitution; and, coming soon, a Supreme Court with many of the same biases and lack of knowledge. In the face of this tsunami of naivete and prejudice, harnessed by those with ill intent, tribal governing authority now seems to hang by a thread. It feels very much like the 1800s.

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Double standards: How white bureaucracy ramps up when Native Americans are involved

It’s often been said that the most powerful people in government are not the leaders, but the low-level bureaucrats that actually run government programs and implement the law.

In a settler colonial society dominated by implicit white supremacy – the idea that this country was created by and is primarily for white people –, unconscious bias and outright prejudice are inevitable. Tribes seeking to work within the US government framework encounter it. I’ve seen it too many times– regulations I’ve never heard of, that are never applied to white people, suddenly appear when a tribe is involved.

I used to work for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. We respond to oil spills, we make sure oil companies can respond to oil spills, and we work a lot with our federal, state, and local partners to respond together. That includes tribes. California is a progressive state by US standards. Under state law, we are obligated to consult with all 110 federally-recognized tribes in California, as well as with over fifty non-federally-recognized tribes.

Nevertheless, when the rubber meets the road at the bureaucratic level, obstacles appear. Here are four stories from my recent work experience.

Example #1: Unconscious bias and erasure in a grant program

One of our programs is the granting of oil spill response equipment to local governments. This usually means a trailer filled with cleanup equipment that is parked near a harbor or river in case of a spill. We give these to cities, counties, harbor districts, — and tribes. We train their first responders how to use the equipment and build a relationship with them. The state has granted over fifty such trailers, and they’ve been used over fifty times to quickly respond to oil spills.

Yurok and California first responders train in the use of oil spill response equipment. Tribes were blocked from participating in this program because a person in the state contracting office did not think they were “governments”.

We’d given about four such grants to tribes when a fifth was held up by our department’s contracting office. A tribe, they said, does not meet our definition of “local government”. They’d probably never processed a grant for a tribe and knew nothing about treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, or the fact that, under the US legal framework, tribal governments are on par with the federal government, superseding state and local governments. Not knowing all this, and perhaps with some stereotyped image of a unqualified group trying to claim a government benefit, they rejected the contract.

In their defense, our state law for this grant program failed to mention tribes – just forgot about them – which created ambiguity. But that’s not a complete defense. At the same time, the contracting office was approving grants to local harbor districts, which also did not meet our definition of local government. But those contracts were never questioned.

Being generous here with the contracting office, this was probably an example of unconscious bias, ignorance, and erasure, the last because legislators forgot to list tribal governments as a local government under this law.

Note: We went ahead with the grant and have since clarified the law. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is also conducting a review of all their grant programs that seemingly exclude tribes because they forgot to include them. They are finding lots of examples. 

Example #2: Systematic exclusion at an emergency response

In the days after the Refugio Beach oil spill in 2015, the responding government agencies activated the Incident Command System (ICS) and created a Unified Command (UC), which consisted of a federal on-scene coordinator (FOSC), a state on-scene coordinator (SOSC), and a representative from the responsible party (in this case, a pipeline company). They established an entire bureaucratic structure to handle such things as planning, logistics, operations, finances, legal issues, and public relations. The various positions under the UC were staffed by members of various federal, state, and local agencies.

If you can’t tell by the acronyms, all of this is standard procedure in a large-scale emergency response. Tribal governments, to the extent they have local knowledge, are legally natural resource trustees, and have trained first responders, may serve a number of roles.

Cleanup after the Refugio Beach oil spill. At first, the US Coast Guard dismissed tribal concerns about historic gravesites.

In this case, there were six tribes in the area, all bands of the Chumash. For historic reasons, only one is federally-recognized and its small postage stamp reservation is miles inland away from the coast. Of the other five bands, three were listed by the state (a form of state recognition) and two were neither state-listed nor federally-recognized. Ironically, it was one of the latter who had a trained fireman familiar with ICS. Also ironically, it was the five non-federally-recognized bands that had a keen interest in monitoring clean-up operations.

Some of the bluffs above the beaches contain historic Native gravesites. Over time, due to erosion, these fall down the cliffs into the rocks and seaweed below. This created a very real possibility that oil spill clean-up crews would scoop up gravesite artifacts, or even human remains, during their operations, and perhaps inadvertently throw them away. The tribes asked for each clean-up crew to be accompanied by a “cultural monitor”, which would be provided by the tribes.

The US Coast Guard, serving as the FOSC and thus ultimately the voice of final authority, balked. Initially refusing to recognize California’s laws, they refused to allow non-federally recognized tribes into the Command Center.

At the same time, they had no problem admitting representatives from the National Park Service, though there was no evidence that oil from the spill was impacting the Channel Islands National Park. And they had no problem admitting representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, whose connection lay with their oversite of the California Coastal National Monument—all the offshore rocks. Yet I could not find a single offshore rock in the spill zone. These were the “white privilege” trustees, welcomed to the table without question.

The tribes, on the other hand, were subject to withering scrutiny. Finally, after several days of arguments, cultural monitors from the various non-federally-recognized tribes were allowed to participate in the spill response. There were essentially hired as contractors to perform a duty that the Coast Guard finally admitted was a responsible and necessary component of the cleanup operations. In a sense, the concerns of the tribes were finally accepted as a legitimate public interest.

One can imagine the immediate response if the gravesites had been historic white pioneers or US military. When the USS Arizona, the battleship sunk at Pearl Harbor and now a memorial to the lives still entombed onboard, was leaking oil, respect for the dead was paramount and all cleanup operations were subject to scrutiny.

In this case, the tribes were treated as lesser members of the public and lesser trustees.

Example #3: Outright prejudice and bureaucracy as a weapon

Continuing with emergency oil spill response, I know of one official with the US EPA who regularly serves as the FOSC. He has a lot of power. He’s also a Trumper and doesn’t particularly like working with Indians. It irks him that tribes can send an 18-year-old cultural monitor, without a university degree, to put a sudden stop to oil spill cleanup operations if so much as a single bead is found. (In truth, there is a collaborative process of consultation if a difficult decision must be made. When an oil spill threatens a salmon stream, tribes are especially cognizant of the need for rapid oil spill cleanup.)

The use of cultural monitors is now accepted in California, but hurdles remain in getting tribal representatives the necessary safety training.

At an oil spill cleanup, everyone onsite must be certified as trained in dealing with hazardous waste. It’s a federal safety requirement. So this EPA FOSC combed thru those rules and found some ambiguity that gave him, as FOSC, some leverage over who is considered certified to be in the hot zone. To quote a colleague that worked for California State Parks, “If I want to stop something, it’s easy to find a regulation to do that.”

This EPA guy wanted to create a year-long process to “help” tribal cultural monitors become certified. In addition to regular hazardous waste training, his process involved multiple extra trainings, which would require travel and overnight stays at locations far from reservations, for members of all of California’s 110 federally-recognized tribes (and nothing for the non-recognized tribes). In short, he was creating a high hurdle that would continually be an obstacle and source of contention with tribes. In fact, there are ways to have experts without safety certification near a hot zone in a safe and legal manner.

Thankfully, after several months, and ironically using the Refugio response as a positive model, higher-ups at the EPA squashed his proposal. Various inter-tribal and state agencies provide regular hazardous waste training for tribes.

Example #4: Paternalism

This final example I’ve already written about. I’ll summarize it here. This had to do with the economic method used to quantify damages and make a claim for compensation from an oil company. In short, how do you count your losses and sue an oil company? A federal economist casted doubt on the method the tribes were using, though it was pretty much the same as what the feds and states were using.

At a meeting with tribes, he announced that he had commissioned a study to explore tribal claims and produce a guidance document to provide instruction for future claims. Several hands immediately went up. Did you consult any tribes in doing this?  No, he said. Furthermore, the scope of work was already finalized and out for bid to contractors. 

At the end of the day, despite good intentions and “listening sessions”, the federal government fell back to a paternalistic approach, rooted in centuries of racism, and embarked on a project to tell the Indians what to do. Suddenly the tribes were wards of the government again. 


These are all examples from a progressive state in the context of oil spill response, when feds, states, and tribes are trying to work together. One can imagine how much worse it could be in a contentious setting. See this recent interview of Abigail Echo-Hawk on how prejudice affects the official search for missing Indigenous women.

This is part of what structural racism looks like. To overcome these problems at the bureaucratic level, federal and state employees should be trained in tribal relations, legal rights, and unconscious bias.

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Texas deputizes citizens and awards bounties, as was done for burning witches, catching slaves, and killing Native Americans

Texas just outlawed all abortions after six weeks after a woman’s last menstruation. They knew this violated the US Constitution under Roe v Wade. To avoid a federal judge blocking the law, Texas will not enforce it. Instead, the law deputizes all citizens – even those of us from outside Texas—to enforce the law—to rat out anyone who performs an abortion or who provides assistance. You don’t have to know the people involved or have any personal connection to them. If you win the case, you get $10,000. If you lose, the defendants are not allowed to recoup their legal costs. The radicalization of the public to attack its own members is perhaps more sinister than the abortion ban itself.

Texas wrote the law this way to circumnavigate constitutional review– because no one can sue them. In the US, you cannot sue to block an unconstitutional law, you can only sue those enforcing it to stop them from enforcing it. Texas is seeking to avoid that by delegating enforcement to the masses, each of whom would have to be sued one at a time. Imagining this law as a model for future policy is like recalling Black Mirror episodes. Could California offer cash rewards to citizens who report unvaccinated people or people with assault rifles?

The intent of Texas’ law is to drive abortion providers out of business. Basically, any person in the country can start suing abortion providers whether or not they’ve provided an abortion and start running up their legal costs. With the ink barely dry on the bill, a questionable lawsuit has already happened, though a district judge has blocked it.

Absent the will to challenge the courts directly, Texas has unleashed its citizens against a marginalized group: women. This is a time-honored tradition of white male hegemony in the United States and in the English colonies that preceded it. Citizen militias, operating with the cover of law, burned witches, formed slave patrols, and massacred Native Americans. One can add the deputized law officers that work for Union Pacific and other railroads that have a history of beating the shit out of people with impunity. Or the union thugs hired by Nixon to beat Vietnam protestors.

I’ll speak with regard to Native Americans. White citizens were regularly paid to do the real dirty work of genocide. The first scalp bounties were offered in New England in 1697, modeled after cash rewards for wolf hides. Many of the most infamous massacres during the ethnic cleansing of “Manifest Destiny” were not done by the US military, but by vigilante groups of white settlers operating under a thin veneer of legal authority. True cowards, they usually targeted peaceful encampments. These include the Sand Creek Massacre of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahoe in 1864, the Camp Grant Massacre of peaceful Apaches by the Tucson Committee for Public Safety in 1871, and numerous horrific massacres during the genocide of California Natives in the 1850s, in which state coffers reimbursed white 49’ers. The legal cover given to TigerSwan at Standing Rock is another example of state-sanctioned thuggery.

But this is a thug nation, where white men make the rules and the letter of the law can be twisted to avoid the spirit of justice. Abortion bounty hunters can now turn Texas into a legal shit show. Rapists can now sue their victims and win ten grand. Neighbors are incentivized to spy on each other, checking the garbage for tampons. They’ve already set up online tip-lines. Women may need to photo-document their miscarriages, which will be suspicious and require documentation.

The US Supreme Court could have easily seen through the legal charade of Texas’s law and blocked it, but instead they allowed it to take effect. SCOTUS should be recognized for its history, past and present, as one of the most oppressive, racist, and misogynist courts in the history of the world. European courts are not as dependent on political appointees. From Johnson v M’Intosh in 1823 to approving Trump’s Muslim ban, SCOTUS is a joke, filled with extremists who repeatedly accept the most twisted legal contrivances as legitimate… when it comes to white males.

For white allies (e.g. moderate Democrats), it’s time to play dirty or stop whining. Technically, millions of us can sue the governor of Texas, all the Republican senators, and all the church pastors who supported this, accusing them of supporting abortions. These suits will be dismissed, but they’ll incur legal costs in the meantime. Add my name; I’ll file a suit. Technically, the US Congress can add more seats to the US Supreme Court and pack it with functional adults. Such actions would turn the Texas law and US politics into a giant game. Game on.  

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From Afghan interpreters to Apache scouts and beyond: White America’s non-white allies are enemies until proven otherwise


The US has evacuated about the same number of potential SIV refugees in a few days as it has processed in 15 years, demonstrating that it is simply a matter of will.

This week the world was horrified to see images of 640 men, women, and children crowded into the hold of a US military cargo plane on the tarmac in Kabul, while hundreds ran alongside the plane as it took off, two fell to their deaths from the wheels, and another was found dead in a wheel well after the plane landed in Qatar.

Earlier this year a report was posted by Brown University entitled, The Costs of Working with the Americans in Afghanistan: The United States’ Broken Special Immigrant Visa Process. It was about those translators, drivers, engineers, and others who worked for the US military in Afghanistan and then found themselves, and their families, at risk of being killed for their service. The report found the program mired in inefficiencies. As of spring 2021, while 18,000 Afghan applicants (along with 45,000 family members) had received Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), another 18,800 applicants were stuck in review. The average processing time was 658 days.

When Trump called for a “a complete and total ban on all Muslims”, the SIV program nearly ground to a halt. According to the report, “As of 2019, the State Department only had one analyst conducting security checks for the backlog of over 18,000 applications and the position of senior coordinator, overseeing the entire process was unfilled for three years between 2017 and 2020.”

Among Afghans, the program had a reputation as corrupt, unpredictable, and unworkable. In short, this program, for years, spanning Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden, was not something the US government really cared about. In the meantime, it is estimated that several thousand Afghan contractors were assassinated while waiting for their visas. It’s hard to know for sure because the US military kept no database of their contractors.

World War II

Most Americans are aware of this history of treating brown allies as potential enemies – and white enemies as potential allies – from World War II. Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, most losing their farms and businesses in the process. German Americans faced no such trials. Nazi scientists were cultivated for the US nuclear program.


In 1886, Geronimo and a band of a few dozen followers famously went “off the reservation”, leaving their concentration camp at San Carlos and heading south toward their Chiricahua homeland.

Brigadier General George Crook led five thousand men deep into Mexico in pursuit. Crook’s troops included 65 Apache scouts, of whom he said, “I cannot too strongly assert that there has never been any success in operations against these Indians unless Indian Scouts were used. [They] were of more value in hunting down and compelling the surrender of the renegades than all other troops… combined.”

Eventually, they captured Geronimo and his band and sentenced them all to exile and prison in Florida, including the 65 scouts because, according to General Nelson Miles, “the boys of today will become the Geronimos of a few years hence.”

Geronimo and his Apache band were sent as prisoners of war to Florida. The 65 Apache scouts who had helped capture them were imprisoned there as well.

The irony doesn’t end there. Apache helicopters were used by the US military to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011. His US military code name: Geronimo.


This history of treating allies of color as guilty until proven innocent, or just plain guilty, began as early as 1675. During King Phillip’s War, a general uprising of Natives against the English colonists, the so-called “Praying Indians” volunteered to help their white brethren of Boston. But the colonists would not have it. First, they restricted these converted Native Christians to their towns on the perimeter of Boston, then they rounded them up and banished them to Deer Island, a small island on the outer edge of Boston Harbor.

Daniel Gookin, their minister, noted “how submissively and Christianly and affectionately those poor souls carried it, seeking encouragement, and encouraging and exhorting one another with prayers and tears at the time of the embarkment, being, as they told some, in fear that they should never return more to their habitations, but be transported out of the country.” They were right. On the far side of the harbor, they were met by little more than windswept beaches. There was little food or shelter. It was late October. Of the thousand sent there, only 167 survived.

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Voices from the boarding schools: Direct quotes from superintendents, teachers, students, the Supreme Court, and special reports to the Secretary of the Interior

Historical records about “Indian boarding schools” are abundant. Superintendents had to write reports to superiors every year, and these were passed on to the Secretary of the Interior.

Today, Secretary Deb Haaland’s call for a thorough investigation and a new report, to be completed by early 2022, is met with both praise and questions from Indian Country. How can a thorough report be completed in such a short period of time? Will it call for truth and reconciliation? For restitution? For retribution? The schools were funded by the US government, but most were implemented by various Christian denominations. Will their records be accessed?

Here’s a very small sampling of the historical record. The first is from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy pre-USA, which provides a foreshadowing of the conflicts to come. The remaining are from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Native children were removed by force and coercion and sent to re-education and labor camps. The “schools” persisted thru the 1970s. Thousands died without ever seeing their families again.

Carson Indian Training School in Nevada, 1890, a few years after Sarah Winnemucca’s school was shut down by the government.

“Brother, do you think we are altogether ignorant of your methods of instruction? Brother, you must learn of the French ministers if you would understand, & know how to treat Indians. They don’t speak roughly, nor do they for every little mistake take up the club & flog them.” 

– Onondaga parent speaking to Minister Eleazar Wheelock, boarding school superintendent, Connecticut, 1772


“Kill the Indian, save the man…. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.”

– Captain Richard Pratt, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, 1879


“When I reached young manhood the warpath for the Lakota was a thing of the past. The hunter had disappeared with the buffalo, the war scout had lost his calling, and the warrior had taken his shield to the mountain-top and given it back to the elements. The victory songs were song only in the memory of the braves. So I could not prove that I was a brave and would fight to protect my home and land. I could only meet the challenge as life’s events came to me. When I went East to Carlisle School, I thought I was going there to die;… I could think of white people wanting little Lakota children for no other reason than to kill them, but I thought here is my chance to prove that I can die bravely. So I went East to show my father and my people that I was brave and willing to die for them.” 

– Luther Standing Bear, 1879


“The kind of education they are in need of is one that will habituate them to the customs and advantages of a civilized life, … and at the same time cause them to look with feelings of repugnance on their native state.”

– Atlantic Monthly, November 1882


“Steady, continuous labor is necessary. Idleness begets restlessness, and results in some breach of discipline. It is the devil’s workshop in an Indian school. A string of text-books piled up in the storehouses high enough to surround a reservation if laid side by side will never educate a being with centuries of laziness instilled in his race. The sound of the “buck saw” or the “noise of the axe” is sweeter to the ear…  [The school’s 78 children] farmed 72 acres, cut and hauled 300 posts and fenced 20 acres of pasture, mined and hauled 150 tons of lignite coal, cut 230 cords of wood, stored 150 tons of ice, and cared for 44 cattle, hogs, and horses. Saturdays are dedicated to cleaning and scrubbing the buildings. There is also blacksmithing, shoemaking, carpentry, and sewing. The girls produced 64 dresses, 141 aprons, 25 shirts, 15 pairs of pants, 26 bonnets, 153 towels, 33 chemises, 11 suits, 216 pillow cases, 57 sheets, 46 window curtains, and 94 pairs of mittens.

– George W. Scott, superintendent of the Fort Stevenson Industrial School, Dakota, 1886.


“We hope to obtain some story books and pictorial papers for our boys and girls to read. They enjoy them thoroughly, and I am sure that it will broaden their views of life and give them a greater desire to live and be ‘like a white man.'”

– Bessie M. Johnston, Principal Teacher, Indian Industrial School, Genoa, Nebraska, 1886


“The health of the scholars was generally as good as could be expected during the year… only 6 died… This school has averaged a fraction over 200 pupils the past year, representing 29 different tribes, scattered along the western coast from California to Alaska.”

John Lee, Superintendent, Indian Industrial School, Salem, Oregon, 1886


“Of the 11 deaths among our [436] students during the year, 8 died from phthsis [tuberculosis], 1 from tubercular epilepsy, 1 from dropsy, as a result of chronic malaria, and 1 suicide.”

– Captain Richard Pratt, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, 1886


“The health of the school [120 students] has been exceptionally good during the year. Four girls and one boy, the latter an infant, have died here. Christian civilization is the best therapeutic for the Indian.”

– M.M. Waldron, school physician, Hampton Agricultural and Industrial School, Hampton, Virginia, 1886


“School wasn’t for me when I was a kid. I tried three of them and they were all bad. The first time was when I was about 8 years old. The soldiers came and rounded up as many of the Blackfeet children as they could. The government had decided we were to get White Man’s education by force.

It was very cold that day when we were loaded into the wagons. None of us wanted to go and our parents didn’t want to let us go. Oh, we cried for this was the first time we were to be separated from our parents. I remember looking back at Na-tah-ki and she was crying too. Nobody waved as the wagons, escorted by the soldiers, took us toward the school at Fort Shaw. Once there our belongings were taken from us, even the little medicine bags our mothers had given us to protect us from harm. Everything was placed in a heap and set afire.

Next was the long hair, the pride of all the Indians. The boys, one by one, would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor. All of the buckskin clothes had to go and we had to put on the clothes of the White Man.

If we thought that the days were bad, the nights were much worse. This was the time when real loneliness set in, for it was then that we were all alone. Many boys ran away from the school because the treatment was so bad but most of them were caught and brought back by the police. We were told never to talk Indian and if we were caught, we got a strapping with a leather belt.

I remember one evening when we were all lined up in a room and one of the boys said something in Indian to another boy. The man in charge of us pounced on the boy, caught him by the shirt, and threw him across the room. Later we found out that his collar-bone was broken. The boy’s father, an old warrior, came to the school. He told the instructor that among his people, children were never punished by striking them. That was no way to teach children; kind words and good examples were much better. Then he added, ‘Had I been there when that fellow hit my son, I would have killed him.’ Before the instructor could stop the old warrior he took his boy and left. The family then beat it to Canada and never came back.”

– Lone Wolf, Fort Shaw, Montana, 1894


“Practically all of them seem to be tainted with scrofula and consumption—to be liable to break down from seeming good health into utter general debility or quick consumption, almost without premonitory symptoms or apparent cause other than heredity. …

When a pupil begins to have hemorrhages from the lungs her or she knows, and all the rest know, just what they mean, in spite of everything cheerful that can be said or done. And such incidents keep occurring, at intervals, throughout every year. Not many pupils die in school. They prefer not to do so; and the last wishes of themselves and their parents are not disregarded. But they go home and die, and the effect in the school is much the same. Four have done so this year. As many more have gone out who undoubtedly will never be able to return; and others, in still larger numbers, have had hemorrhages from the lungs, or the terrible scrofulous swellings which we know, and they know, practically certify to their fate. Keeping them in school at all sometimes becomes a rather painful task.”

– Frank Avery, Superintendent, Industrial Boarding School, Stephan, South Dakota, 1897


“These people cling with an almost deathless tenacity to the traditions and superstitions and legendry of their forefathers…. Their opposition to education and the modes of civilized life being based upon a religious foundation makes it all the more difficult to successfully combat or eradicate from their minds. [Over a quarter of the Sac and Fox refuse to accept their annuity, reducing them to a state of abject poverty] because they believe if they accepted of their annuity the acceptance thereof would give the Government the right to take their children by force and place them in school.”

– US Indian Agent William Malin, Sac and Fox Reservation, Toledo, Iowa, 1899


Congressional appropriations for Indian boarding schools and school enrollment:

1877                     $20,000                                         3,598

1900               $2,936,080                                      21,568

Much of the funding came from diverted treaty annuities and the sale of Native lands.


“Indians are wards of the nation in a condition of pupilage or dependency.”

– United States Supreme Court, United States v. Ricketts, 1903


“The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, is authorized and directed to select and designate some one of the schools or other institution herein specifically provided for as an “Indian Reform School”, and to make all needful rules and regulations for its conduct, and the placing of Indian youth therein.   … the consent of parents, guardians, or next of kin shall not be required to place Indian youth in said school.”

– 25 U.S.C., Title 25, Chapter 7, §302


“They wouldn’t even allow us to be dead in our own way. We had to be buried in the Christian fashion. It was if they wanted to take my mother to a white boarding school way up there… I told the priest, ‘When my time comes, I want to go where my ancestors have gone.’ The priest said, ‘That may be hell.’ I told him that I’d rather be frying with a Sioux grandmother or uncle than sit on a cloud playing harp with a pale-faced stranger. I told him, ‘That Christian name, John, don’t call me that when I’m gone. Call me Tahca Ushte—Lame Deer.’”

– John Fire Lame Deer, Pine Ridge, 1920


“The survey staff finds itself obligated to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate. The outstanding deficiency is in the diet furnished the Indian children, many of whom are below normal health. The diet is deficient in quantity, quality, and variety. The prevalence of tuberculosis in the boarding schools is alarming.

Nearly every boarding school visited furnished disquieting illustrations of failure to understand the underlying principles of human behavior. Punishments of the most harmful sort are bestowed in sheer ignorance, often in a sincere attempt to be of help. Routinization is the one method used for everything; though all that we know indicates its weakness as a method in education. If there were any real knowledge of how human beings are developed through their behavior we should not have in the Indian boarding schools the mass movements from dormitory to dining room, from dining room to classroom, from classroom back again, all completely controlled by external authority; we should hardly have children from the smallest to the largest of both sexes lined up in military formation; and we would certainly find a better way of handling boys and girls than to lock the door to the fire-escape of the girls’ dormitory.

The teaching as a whole is not up to the standards set by reasonably progressive white communities.”

Meriam Report to the Secretary of the Interior, 1928

The procession for the repatriation of nine Sicangu Lakota children passing over the Standing Bear Bridge.
July 16, 2021.
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Reflections of a Native birder: The one Indian killer bird name I really have trouble with

As a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a birder for nearly fifty years, I offer these thoughts on the burgeoning discussion to re-name birds that are named after people.

When people say they are used to the current bird names that honor people of the past, that they like their historic or nostalgic value, or that the names don’t mean anything to them other than the bird, I get that. On a typical morning walk from my home in the Pacific Northwest, I tally Steller’s Jay, Hutton’s Vireo, and Bewick’s Wren on my smart phone eBird app without much thought. If you were to say to me “Lewis’s Woodpecker”, only that glorious glossy green and rose woodpecker with the handsome gray collar pops into my mind.

But there is one bird’s name that hits me in the gut, takes my breath away, because it’s personal: Scott’s Oriole.

For better or worse, I don’t see them very often. A beautiful black and yellow oriole with an even sweeter song, they live in the higher deserts of the Southwest, mostly in areas with yucca or scattered pine-oak woodland. From the perspective of modern Euro-centric science, they were first “discovered” by a Frenchman, Charles Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), somewhere in Mexico in 1837. He collected (shot) some and had the specimens sent back to Europe, paid for by the Paris brothers, two businessmen that supported Bonaparte’s ornithology. In gratitude Bonaparte named the species Icterus parisorum when he officially described them for science. According to international protocol regarding species Latin names, they remain Icterus parisorum to this day. At the time there were no official English bird names.

If I was birding with you, as a friend, as a field trip leader, as a guide, and we came across this beautiful oriole, I’d have trouble saying its name. At some point, maybe right then, maybe later in the day walking back to the car, I’d go off. If you want to exercise your privilege as a reader and skip that part, you can skip a few paragraphs. Because now I’m going to go off.

At the same time that Bonaparte was naming this oriole after the Paris brothers, in northern Georgia my grandma’s grandma’s grand-uncle Judge John Calvin Martin, Jr, Chief Justice of the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court and member of the Cherokee Constitutional Convention ten years earlier, was fighting to help the Cherokee Nation build its political institutions and protect its treaty rights to stay in our homeland. In addition to having a constitution and territorial boundaries (confirmed by the US Supreme Court), the Cherokee Nation had a capitol, a bi-cameral legislature, a museum, a printing press, a newspaper (the Cherokee Phoenix, still in press today), our own alphabet (called a syllabary), and a literacy rate (90%) that was higher than that of the white settler population in Georgia. Many in our leadership had been educated in New England and were fluent in both Cherokee and English. The Cherokee people had houses, farms, schools, churches, roads, horse-drawn wagons, livestock, barns, and orchards. Some ordered clothes from Atlanta using catalogs. A few had plantations and Black slaves. White people called us “civilized”.

But the people of Georgia wanted our land. In 1830, Andrew Jackson became president and signed the Indian Removal Act, one of the most contentious pieces of legislation ever debated by the US Congress. My great-great-great-great grandfather George Wilson was one of the many Cherokees who had fought with Jackson and saved his life at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend two decades earlier.

When Georgia passed a law forbidding “Indians” from bearing witness in court, the Cherokee were subjected to all manner of depredations by white pioneers trying to drive them out. My family’s homes were robbed and looted. Men were beaten on the roads. Livestock were stolen. Mothers were raped while their children watched from the bushes. In 1832, Georgia divided Cherokee lands into parcels and held a lottery, awarding them to white settlers. This allowed the pioneers to specifically target our “properties”.

As a result of these hardships, some of the Cherokees “removed” early to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). These included many on my grandfather’s side—the Thomases, Copelands, and Wilsons.

The choice between fight or flight, stay or go, was never easy for any Native American, and for most, no matter which choice they made, it was the wrong one. Between 1721 and 1819, Cherokee Nation had already agreed to 35 cessions of land (see map). Most of those on my grandmother’s side – the Parkses, Taylors, Thompsons, and Walkers – decided to stay and hope the Jackson Administration would end, the tide of anti-Native sentiment would pass, and the Cherokee Nation would continue to thrive on its homeland.

They outlasted Jackson, but President Van Buren called in General Winfield Scott to “remove” the Cherokee. On May 26, 1838, his soldiers starting going door to door, house to house, farm to farm, rounding up the Cherokees and putting us in stockades. In the chaos, families were separated. White pioneers raided our homes within hours, stealing clothes, furniture, and livestock.

Stuck in the stockades in the hot Georgia summer, people began to die. Crammed onto barges on the river, they died even more. Eventually, General Scott agreed to let the Cherokees manage our own ethnic cleansing.

My grandma’s grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Parks, and his brother Richard Taylor Parks, ages 17 and 15 at the time, drove wagons on the Trail of Tears. Their mother, Jennie A-da-we Walker, had removed four years earlier, but died upon arrival in Indian Territory. Their uncle, Richard Fox Taylor, was the leader of the 11th Detachment thru that tearful winter of 1838-39. Of 1,029 people, only 55 died along the way, a fairly good result compared to other detachments. Richard’s sister, Susannah, was able to stay in Tennessee because she married a white man. And so the family was all split up. Both their Uncle Richard and his brother Thomas had fought with Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend. Their great grandmother was Nanye’hi (Nancy Ward), Beloved Woman of the Cherokee. Susannah’s great grand-daughter was my grandma, Fannie Carr.

My great grandma, Susan Parks Carr. Her father drove a wagon on the Trail of Tears. Her mother was a passenger.

All told, I have dozens of ancestors who “removed early” to Indian Territory, dozens more who were forced onto the Trail of Tears, and others who were able to stay behind because they were married to a white person. These are my people.

In dire poverty in Indian Territory, the Cherokee Nation reconstituted itself, literally. My great uncle Richard Fox Taylor, the one who led the 11th Detachment, was a signer of the new Cherokee Constitution of 1839 and became Assistant Chief in 1851.

Three years later, somewhere in the desert Southwest, Darius Couch of the US Army “rediscovered” Bonaparte’s oriole and named it in honor of General Scott, probably because the oriole’s range closely matched the land the US had just taken from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Couch was a career US Army officer at the time and a naturalist on the side, so he named the bird after his boss. In the late 1830s, when Bonaparte first described the oriole, Couch was in Florida trying to ethnically cleanse it of Seminoles.

In 1886, the American Ornithological Union codified “vernacular” names, and “Scott’s Oriole” appeared in their first checklist. It remains there today, a bird that unwittingly honors conquest and colonization.

There are other Indian killer bird names, such as Abert’s Towhee, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Couch’s Kingbird, or Indian skull collector names like Townsend’s Warbler and Townsend’s Solitaire. It’s hard to be a Native birder in the West and not run into these. But nothing irks me like Scott.

I imagine Black birders have similar personal reactions to Bachman or Audubon or others. Or like the reaction of my friend of Japanese descent, when she heard about the Richland High School Bombers, a mascot that honors the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, complete with a mushroom cloud logo and “Nuke ’em” t-shirts. She was speechless.  

It’s a privilege of being white to be able to ignore these things, to hear these names with the same clean joy as so many evocative and descriptive names like Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, or Summer Tanager, to be able to focus on the ornithological legacies of Baird, Wilson, and others, even though they were the ones who decided to honor Couch, Abert, Clark, and others.

The whole honorific name game that spread thru the American West in the mid-1800s is a hot mess, entangled with the white supremacy of the age, and somehow deaf to progressive white voices at the time, as well as to Native and Black voices. At the American Ornithological Society Congress on English Bird Names earlier in 2021, David Sibley said “changing these bird names would allow people of all backgrounds to have simple and uncomplicated conversations about the pleasure of watching birds.” People like me, for instance, won’t be going off.

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Erasure, white fragility, and the verbal monuments of bird names: Should we hold people in the past accountable to present-day mores?

When addressing historic wrongs, and especially memorials that honor people that perpetrated historic wrongs, a common challenge is: Should we be holding these people accountable according to modern values and mores?

There are two big problems with this question.

  1. Almost always the wrong, let’s say slavery of Blacks and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, was actually hotly debated and contested at the time.
  2. (and this is the key) Blacks and Native Americans have always been opposed to slavery and ethnic cleansing.

The question of “social mores” and society’s standards refers, implicitly, only to white society’s standards. By raising the question of whether or not (white) morals have changed, people of color are removed from the equation, shunted to the back of the room, and put in a position of debating the issue in a white-centric framework. It’s a fine introspective question for white society, but it erases people of color, both from the past and in the present.

Case study: Bird names for birds

By way of example, let’s look at the recent movement in the birding and ornithological community to rename birds that have been named after people. These honorific bird names are described as “verbal statues”, usually to white men in the mid-1800s. Some were slaveholders, others were Indian killers, and most were either associated with these men or comfortable naming birds – or rivers, mountains, forests, and towns – after them.

One example is a striking black and yellow oriole of the southwest deserts, known for singing its melodious song from the tallest yucca around. In 1837 in Mexico, ornithologist Charles Bonaparte first described the species for Euro-American scientists, giving it the Latin scientific name Icterus parisorum. The name honors the Paris brothers, businessmen who paid to transport specimens from Mexico to France. In 1854, Couch “re-discovered” it and named it after Winfield Scott, Commanding General of the US Army. Today it is known as Scott’s Oriole.

Scott, not a naturalist in any way, was honored precisely for his role in the US-Mexican War, which allowed the US to take over much of the oriole’s range. His resume also included his prosecution of the Black Hawk War and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the Midwest, and overseeing the arrest, detainment, and expulsion of the Cherokee during the Trail of Tears.

There are many more examples of honorific bird names memorializing those with checkered pasts. We can also examine the dismissive treatment of women in the few birds named after them, or the two species with Native names, albeit misplaced and over-written. More on that can be found here.

…and the American Ornithological Society

In 2020, in the racial reckoning in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, the AOS’S North American Classification Committee (NACC), which is responsible for official bird names, modified their naming guidelines to be “responsive… to changing societal mores” (Winker). Under Part D, Special Considerations, they added, “The NACC recognizes that some eponyms refer to individuals or cultures who held beliefs or engaged in actions that would be considered offensive or unethical by present-day standards. These situations create a need for criteria to evaluate whether a long-established eponym is sufficiently harmful by association to warrant its change…. The NACC recognizes that many individuals for whom birds are named were products of their times and cultures, and that this creates a gradient of disconnection between their actions and beliefs and our present-day mores.” [italics added by me]

Thus, last year, they were willing to change McCown’s Longspur to Thick-billed Longspur. McCown had been a Confederate soldier. Others that participated in massacres or ethnic cleansing of Native Americans remain unaddressed at present. Like Scott’s Oriole, Abert’s Towhee, Clark’s Nutcracker, and others.

The entire argument, that social mores have changed, frames the issue from a Eurocentric position. To coin a phrase from Isabel Wilkerson in her book “Caste”, focusing on social mores, and by implication white social mores, is an example of white “expectation of centrality”, where the white historical perspective is the only one on the table. The AOS’s reasoning is also an exhibition of white fragility, a face-saving attempt to say that the land has shifted under them, and that in its beneficence they will consider new names. It was not that the AOS itself was in need of reform.

Society hasn’t changed

To be clear, not that much has changed. Then, as now, Blacks and Native Americans have always opposed slavery and ethnic cleansing. Within white society, both slavery and ethnic cleansing were hotly contested at the time. A war was fought over the former. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the resulting ethnic cleansings remain one of the most contentious and debated pieces of legislature in the history of the US Congress—and the Supreme Court. The removal of the Cherokee passed by a single vote after US Representative Davy Crockett (National Republican-TN) was voted out of office for defending Native rights. The streets of Washington DC were filled with polemical pamphlets, the social media of the day. Had the naming of Scott’s Oriole been fully vetted, it would surely have met white opposition.

The biggest change that has occurred is probably within the AOS’s membership, which now includes many more women and people of color than in the past. Their change in policy is welcome, and long overdue, but it is not due to tectonic social shifts underneath them; it is due to their membership becoming more diverse. The white story, and white history and white social mores, are no longer central.

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The backstory on Hannah Duston’s scalps

To scalp someone is to remove the skin from the top of the skull and the hair with it. The end product is a flap of skin with a hair piece attached. The size of the scalp taken can vary from a square inch to the entire scalp. Scalping can be done in a variety of ways, but is usually done from behind the victim, pulling the head up, and slicing along the hairline of the forehead. Scalping may be done to a living person or a dead person. When done to a living person, scalping does not necessarily result in death.

A Hannah Duston statue augmented by fake blood in 2020.

Much like religion, written language, and agriculture, scalping seems to have arisen independently among different human populations on different continents. The first recorded mention of scalping in history comes from ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Natives along the East Coast claim they learned it from the English. Between Natives and whites, it’s not clear who took more scalps from who, but both scored in the thousands.

For Natives, scalps were a trophy. For Europeans, with a long history of employing mercenaries, they served as proof for payment.

Today, ten scalps, including those of women and children, can be seen in the hands of the statue of Hannah Duston. She was a frontier mother who was kidnapped by the Abenaki. One night in 1697, she and two fellow captives killed their presumed captors, two men, two women, and six children. About to escape, she was cognizant of the bounty: “fifty pounds per head for every Indian man, and twenty five pound [four to eight months of a soldier’s salary] per head for any Indian woman or Child… the Scalps… to be produced and delivered to the Commissioner.”

In New England, the colonists began with bounties for wolves, evidenced by producing a head or scalp. In the 1630s, they offered cloth in exchange for Pequot body parts. They killed that which they could not domesticate, and they paid someone to do it.

The bounty had actually expired by the time Duston returned with her scalps, but she petitioned, successfully, for the reward. It was a key moment in the history of European colonial scalp bounties. In the words of Ball (2013), “In a single generation, accelerated by the colonial wars, bounties had moved from a tool born of exigency to a demand by the populace.”

By 1700, most New England colonies were offering scalp bounties.

Like Pocahontas, her story was forgotten but revived in the 1800s. It was repeated by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. She appeared in history books and children’s books. They left out the part about the women and children, or the possibility that the people she killed were not her original captors, but were bringing her back to her settlement to ransom her.

In the words of Ball, “Demand for territory in this ’empire of land’ was ‘inherently eliminatory,’ presuming the removal of indigenous peoples in favor of English settlers. Colonial rewards for Indian scalps fused the ‘logic of elimination’ with targeted violence. Scalp bounties simultaneously constructed racialized enemies and produced whiteness as the unifying principle for people of the British (and later American) empire.”

Between 1861 and 1910, six monuments were dedicated to her. It was a story the white people wanted to memorialize at that time. Her granite likeness, the one that stands today holding the scalps, was the first statue funded by the state of New Hampshire. In her other hand is a hatchet.

Today, there are calls to de-memorialize these monuments to white colonization, white supremacy, and ethnic cleansing.

Citation: Ball, M.H.R.S. 2013. Grim commerce: Scalps, bounties, and the transformation of trophy-taking in the early American Northeast, 1450-1770. Ph.D. thesis, University of Colorado.

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Decolonizing bird names: Effort reveals fault lines among birders

The American Ornithological Society, National Audubon Society, and American Birding Association are leading the process for change. Townsend, with three species named in his honor, collected Native skulls for his friend Samuel Morton, author of Crania Americana. He delighted in the 1838 smallpox epidemic of the northern Plains (in which President Andrew Jackson withheld the vaccine), as it gave him greater opportunity to rob graves.

A revolution is about to sweep the world of birders and ornithologists. After decades of intransigence, the most prominent organizations and authors – including prominent field guide authors David Sibley and Kenn Kaufmann – are endorsing “bird names for birds”, a widespread effort to rename eponymous or honorific species names with more descriptive names, focusing on their physical or ecological attributes. For example, Bachman’s Sparrow could revert to Pinewoods Sparrow, Townsend’s Solitaire might become Juniper Solitaire, and Kittlitz’s Murrelet would probably be re-named Glacier Murrelet.

Over a hundred, or about 10%, of bird species in North America are named after people, almost always European colonizers, many with checkered pasts.

We are used to this.

We live in a world dominated by memorials and honorifics to white supremacy. The US capitol is the District of Columbia. It’s nearly impossible to avoid seeing Andrew Jackson’s face every day on a $20 bill. My own town (Port Townsend) was named by Vancouver after a friend in Europe. My county is Jefferson, who owned a slave plantation and plotted to get Natives in debt to steal their land. My state is Washington, who considered Natives “merciless Indian savages”. Our streets are Sheridan, Kearney, Jackson, etc. The whole place is a celebration of white conquest. I cannot walk 100 yards and NOT see something – a street, a plant, a mountain – named to honor a white supremacist. And yes, even the birds.

Decolonizing names, especially names for nature, is a way to reclaim sovereignty.

The effort has grown out of the national reckoning on racial equality in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Movements to change names are underway with regard to parks, mountains, streets, other wildlife, and even rock-climbing routes. Current names generally go back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during white American expansion across North America and recall an era of conquest, when species and landforms were “discovered” – and some named after the individual who documented them, or after their friends and colleagues.

Bird Names for Birds, a small group of interested birders, was instrumental in reaching out to the larger organizations to participate in the congress. In their words, “Eponyms (a person after whom a discovery, invention, place, etc., is named or thought to be named) and honorific common bird names (a name given to something in honor of a person) are problematic because they perpetuate colonialism and the racism associated with it. The names that these birds currently have—for example, Bachman’s Sparrow—represent and remember people (mainly white men) who often have objectively horrible pasts and do not uphold the morals and standards the bird community should memorialize.” They describe such names as “verbal statues” that should be removed. The Bird Names for Birds website includes bios of various people memorialized with bird names.

Some of the names are obviously problematic. Bachman was a pro-slavery white supremacist and used his scientific background to argue that position. Audubon was similar, and deliberately made up bird species to sell his books. Townsend robbed Native graves– and his diaries show he knew it was wrong. But it’s the entire practice that is being challenged. Naming species and landforms after people was largely an act of conquest, possession, bravado, and control.

The ornithological world remains dominated by white men. Name changes over social justice concerns began only last year when McCown’s Longpsur was changed to Thick-billed Longspur, after widespread outcry because McCown was a Confederate general and involved in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans (though the former reason was mentioned far more often than the latter). A proposal in 2018 for that name change was rejected by a 7 to 1 vote. 

The last time a bird name was changed for similar reasons was in 2000, when Oldsquaw was changed to Long-tailed Duck, the name it already had in Europe. At that time, the American Ornithologists’ Union, the precursor to the AOS, asserted that the name change was not for reasons of “political correctness” but merely to conform with usage in Europe.

MacGillivray’s Warbler was named by John James Audubon after his friend, William MacGillivray, a Scottish ornithologist who never came to America. Audubon also coined its Latin specific, tolmiei, to honor William Fraser Tolmie, a Scottish employee of Hudson’s Bay Company based at Fort Nisqually during the period of Native removal. Scientific, or Latin names, are subject to international rules and processes are not the focus of this process

In deference to white fragility, proponents of the changes are emphasizing the positive aspects of new names—that they would be more meaningful and descriptive of the bird—rather than focusing on past racial injustices.

Many suggested using Native names for species, though most stated this could be challenging because 1) names from Native languages may have been lost, or 2) most bird species’ ranges span multiple historic aboriginal territories and languages, creating a conundrum over which indigenous word to use. (The exception to this is Hawaii, where indigenous names are already in widespread use.) I’m not convinced this is a problem. Many species are named after California—California Quail, California Condor, California Gull—none of these are restricted in range to just California. Noteworthy, consultation with tribes was never mentioned; it was basically dismissed as too difficult. Among mammals, moose, raccoon, and skunk are all derived from Algonquian languages.

For now, the effort will be limited to primary eponymous English bird names. The effort will not include secondary names (e.g., American Crow, named after the continent, which was named after Amerigo Vespucci). Other problematic names, such as Flesh-footed Shearwater for a bird with pink feet, will not necessarily be addressed.


Responses, as well as the entire rollout, have broken down – sharply – along demographic lines.

The Congress for English Bird Names was held on April 16, 2021. The AOS committee that hosted the webinar was primarily people of color, which is fairly striking because the organization is disproportionately white. The speakers at the webinar – the authors and representatives of the various organizations – were entirely white and mostly men. Some endorsed the name changes whole-heartedly, even though they’d only come to that position recently. Others, especially the database managers, were more begrudging in their support.

The video was posted a week later. I posted a blog on it, for birding audiences, on April 24, linking the video and summarizing the discussion. It was shared widely across dozens of Facebook birding groups and clubs and other social media dedicated to birders.

The online response among birders, who are primarily white liberal environmentalists, has been mixed and sometimes heated. Support for the name changes has been tepid. On my personal Facebook page, which includes dozens of left-wing politically active birders, my blog post received only four likes.

The opposition has been almost entirely white males. Their comments are generally along the lines of “oh for fuck’s sake”, “what a colossal waste of time”, “dishonorable and embarrassing”, “the mindless insanity of the cancel culture”, “virtue signaling on steroids” and “No racial reckoning is needed. We have done nothing wrong.” Comments at the Oklahoma Ornithological Society Facebook page were nearly ninety percent negative. Some used an argument of “unity” and “compassion” to justify keeping the names as they are.

White women, when in opposition, mostly took a softer approach, noting that “a few bad apples spoil the whole thing.”

Strong statements of support were primarily limited to people of color and people under 30 years old.

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