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

Afghanistan

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.

Arizona

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.

Boston

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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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“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.

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“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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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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.

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

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

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“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

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“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

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“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, is an exhibition of white fragility, a face-saving attempt to say that the land has shifted under the AOS, and that in its beneficence the AOS 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 them moving from one ship to another, a ship whose passengers include people of color—a ship that has always been available and which many whites have been riding for hundreds of years. Welcome aboard.

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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.

Reaction

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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Marjorie Taylor Greene’s 14th District: Where the Trail of Tears began

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s 14th District in the northwest corner of Georgia lies in the center of the lands the Cherokee Nation was forced to vacate at gunpoint during the horrific ethnic cleansing known as the Trail of Tears.

My great-great-great grand uncle, Richard Fox Taylor, led one of the detachments on the Trail of Tears. He became a signer of the new Cherokee Constitution in 1839 in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and served as Assistant Chief in 1851. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Parks, drove one of the wagons as a teenager.

Greene is the infamous Q-Anon follower who now sits in the House of Representatives where she faces calls for her expulsion over her behavior, death threats, and endorsement of outlandish conspiracy theories. Greene has berated fellow legislators in the halls, called for the death of Nancy Pelosi, and stated that the Sandy Hook school shooting and aspects of the 9-11 terrorist attacks were staged. Fellow Republicans have called her “bat-shit crazy” and a “more aggressive” version of Trump, and decried her blatant racism.

Greene won the 14th District easily. The area, known for its “diehard Christian conservatives”, is disproportionately white, poor, and uneducated.  It wasn’t always that way.

It sits in the center of the final remaining piece of Cherokee lands before removal. By the 1830s, the Cherokees were building a functioning nation-state, complete with a constitution, a bicameral legislature, a newspaper, and a museum. They were more literate (90% literacy in their own language and syllabary) and had more wealth than the white pioneers who would displace them.

Between 1721 and 1819, the Cherokee made 35 land cessions in treaties with the British and the Americans. Their borders had shrunk to primarily northern Georgia (outlined in yellow) at the time of removal in 1838. Georgia’s 14th District (outlined in red) lies entirely within the last remaining Cherokee homeland.

Regardless of their degree of “civilization”, the State of Georgia was doing everything in its power to force the Cherokees out. Most notoriously, they passed a law preventing Cherokees from testifying in court. This left them vulnerable to all kinds of depredations by white pioneers, including theft, rape, and murder with impunity. There are accounts of grandmothers raped along roads in daylight.

Thanks to two white missionaries, Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler, the Supreme Court was forced to rule on the issue in 1832. (My great-great-great grandfather, James Allen Thompson, was one of seven other ministers arrested with these two.) In Worcester v Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled, “The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force…” This remains the basis for tribal sovereignty over states to this day.

In response, Georgia held a lottery and awarded Cherokee land, divided into 160-acre parcels, to its white settlers. In a policy that can only be described as socialism and affirmative action for whites, each new title-holder was required to pay only a nominal fee of $18.

But they all had to wait six years until Andrew Jackson became president, ignored the Supreme Court ruling, and ordered General Winfield Scott and the US Army to remove the Cherokee by force. Beginning in May, 1838, the Cherokee were rounded up at gunpoint and marched to stockades. In the chaos, children were separated from parents, spouses from each other. Often by nightfall Cherokee homes were looted of clothing, bedding, and furniture by white pioneers.

Cherokee removal, or ethnic cleansing, proceeded through the winter of 1838-9. They were divided into seventeen detachments of about a thousand people each. Four thousand died in the stockades, along the route or shortly after arrival in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where no services awaited them. I had dozens of relatives on several different detachments, as well as some who removed early and others who stayed behind (because they had a white spouse). The white Reverend Daniel Butrick recorded my ancestor Richard Fox Taylor’s detachment’s journey in a diary. Besides the rain, mud, cold, and difficulty finding suitable camp sites, among the most difficult challenges along the route was the lack of sleep due to the incessant noise made by drunk white settlers who would enter their camps in the night to harangue them.

The fact that Greene could get elected from this land is exhibit A (out of thousands of examples) of the straight line between white pioneers and white supremacy today. Trump’s greatest support came from the same locations where ethnic cleansing was most dramatic, where Natives were massacred, where Native land was immediately given to white settlers, and, in many instances, where descendants of those white settlers still live on the same parcels to this day. This is the legacy of settler colonialism. White supremacy is the justification, then and now; it will remain until white Americans reconcile with the people they displaced and enslaved.

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The rise and fall and rise of the buffalo

The story of the American buffalo (Bison bison; formally known as American bison) is steeped in legend, mythology, and controversy. Recent research has shed light on the full history, affirming portions of most stories.

The first rise: evolution with Native Americans

The species evolved with humans and spread thru human land management practices. Early Native Americans arrived in North America at least 20,000 years ago (a date that keeps being pushed back further), but didn’t move onto the Great Plains until about 13,000 years ago. Buffalo as we know them today did not yet exist. The Great Plains were still emerging from the Ice Age. The Dakotas were still covered with forest or even glacial ice.

Early Natives (generally associated with the Clovis and Folsom cultures) “especially targeted several species of mammoth and a species of giant, long-horned bison (Bison antiquus). Other now-extinct animals known to have been hunted, at least on occasion, by Paleo-Indians include varieties of caribou, musk ox, camels, horses, four-horned antelope, sloths, tapirs, dire wolves, peccary, and giant armadillos” (Cunfer and Waiser, eds, 2016. Bison and People of the North American Great Plains: A Deep Environmental History. Texas A&M University Press, p.4). This hunting was done with atlatls, a device that enabled a spear to be thrown at speeds up to 100 mph. Much of this hunting collapsed 3,000 years later as most of these species went extinct, almost certainly due to a combination of over-hunting and climatic shifts at the end of the Ice Age. This followed a similar pattern of large mammal extinction coincident with the arrival of humans in Europe, Asia, Australia, and even Madagascar.

Figure 3.6 in Cunfer and Waiser (2016). Paleovegetation maps of the Great Plains region. Buffalo are grassland specialists. Note: 6,000 BP = 4,000 BCE.

Deer, elk, moose, and caribou remained. And buffalo. Bison bison, a smaller, faster version of Bison antiquus, evolved from that species to quickly fill the void left by the extinct herbivorous megafauna on the Great Plains. There were fluctuations in both human and bison occupation of the Plains due to climatic shifts, but in general, they increased together. Early Natives, by burning young woodlands on the eastern half of the Plains, deliberately expanded buffalo habitat. They created tallgrass prairie; it would not have existed without Native land management. Long-term fire management opened up parklands suitable for buffalo and other big game across the East, ranging from small prairies to the Shenandoah Valley. Buffalo expanded. They crossed the Mississippi River around AD 1000 and spread to the US southeast by the 1500s and into New England by the 1600s. In short, like corn, buffalo were cultivated and expanded in harmony with Native nations. Consistent with most Native legends, there were a gift from the earth.

The fall

That harmony began to dissipate with the arrival of Europeans. In the East, cattle displaced buffalo. In the West, Natives quickly adopted and mastered use of the horse, which led to a major “technological” innovation in hunting. Up through the 1600s, buffalo were hunted by teams of people herding them off bluffs or down arroyos where they could be ambushed with spears. Horses allowed for small parties, even individuals, to hunt. By 1750, every tribe on the Great Plains was fully mounted.

While most buffalo were hunted for subsistence and some trade among Native nations, a small but growing market for buffalo products—first pemmican and later hides—emerged among white traders. In later years, buffalo products were often exchanged for European products such as guns or pots. The Comanche Empire built their wealth on the buffalo trade, practically turning Spanish New Mexico into a vassal state in the late 1700s.

As with deer and beaver in the East, this market hunting led to unsustainable take. By the late 1700s, the commercial take exceeded the subsistence take, the southern Plains bison were over-hunted by about 40,000 animals per year, and whites had scarcely started hunting them yet. That said, there were still so many millions of buffalo that the decline was within normal variation caused by droughts or harsh winters.

Figure 1.1 in Cunfer and Waiser (2016). The contracting range of American bison, adapted from Hornaday’s 1889 map.

Then things got worse. In the early 1800s, market hunting by Natives increased, fueled by Hudson’s Bay Company in the north and a market in New Orleans that exported 100,000 buffalo robes each year. In 1840, a peace treaty between the Comanche and Kiowa nations in the south and various northern tribes opened the door to more hunting. At the same time, large Native horse herds competed with buffalo for winter forage, leading to increased mortality. As early as the 1840s, Kiowa and Lakota winter robes reported fewer buffalo. By 1850, the total buffalo population fell below 20 million; they had declined a third, but were still plentiful.

Then things got much worse. After the Gold Rush in California, white pioneer trails destroyed forage in riparian corridors, critical for buffalo during winter. A massive drought from 1856 thru 1864 reduced the carrying capacity of the southern Plains about 50%. Buffalo populations, which had been falling at a rate of 40,000/year, now fell 400,000/year. By 1870, the total population fell below 10 million.

Then the “white hunt” began. Fueled by a commercial interest in buffalo leather and a military campaign to ethnically cleanse the Great Plains of Native Americans, white hunters began to take a million buffalo each year. In 1873, while “Home of the Range” was written, white hunters killed 1.5 million buffalo; Natives killed less than 10% of that number. Ten years later, the southern bison herd was extinct. In the north, only remnants remained. 

In 1878, when the Comanches were imprisoned in a concentration camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a small group was allowed off the reservation to conduct a traditional buffalo hunt. They returned stunned and dejected, finding only bones on the Plains.

In 1886, believing buffaloes were on the brink of extinction, the National Museum sent taxidermist William Hornaday to Montana to collect a few final specimens for their collection. On the evening of October 16, they shot a huge bull, but left it for the night, planning to return in the morning. When they arrived the next day, they reported, “To our great dismay the noble red men had visited the bull which we had killed the day before. All that remained was the head painted red on one side yellow on the other with a red & yellow rag tied to one horn, eleven notches cut in the other…. All around were moccasin tracks.” A ceremony had taken place.

The Crow chief Plenty-Coups, in telling his life story to a biographer, refused to speak about the years after the disappearance of the buffalo. “After this,” he said, “nothing happened.”

The second rise

In 1889, less than a thousand buffalo remained. White society then sought to protect them. Bison preserves were established at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and at the National Bison Range in Montana.

Today there are about half a million buffalo, nearly all confined to preserves. Less than 10% are free ranging, and even those have limits imposed by cattle ranching concerns. Most bison today are managed like cattle by private ranchers. The only semi-wild herds are managed by the federal government, non-profits, or Native tribes. The largest wild herd is at Yellowstone National Park, with 4,000 buffalo.

A buffalo cow and calf at the Cherokee Nation bison farm.

From Montana to Oklahoma and beyond, Native communities are playing a critical role in bison restoration and continue to push for buffalo restoration to open lands. Among the leaders are the Fort Peck Indian Reservation (Assiniboine, Nakota, Lakota, and Dakota) and the Blackfeet, who hosted the Buffalo Treaty among 13 Native nations across the US and Canada in 2014 to promote buffalo conservation and restoration. Both to restore the species and their own cultures, it is their dream to see wild buffalo across thousands of acres of the high plains.

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Cherokee Nation juggles tribal sovereignty with Trumpers in a red state

In light of its newly recognized reservation, Cherokee Nation, and all of Oklahoma’s 38 tribal nations, finds themselves in the crosshairs between tribal sovereignty and Trumpism, between protecting the environment and Big Oil.

In the July 2020 McGirt decision, the US Supreme Court affirmed that much of eastern Oklahoma was reservation land, under the jurisdiction of the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole. While many were thinking about jurisdiction over criminals on various parcels within reservation lands, the Washington Post noticed the elephant in the room:  Big Oil. Their headline said it all:  “Now that half of Oklahoma is officially Indian land, oil industry could face new costs and environmental hurdles: The landmark Supreme Court decision give the five tribes a say over oil and gas wells, refineries, and pipelines—including those running to the Cushing hub of the Keystone XL, legal experts say.”  Cushing, the “center of the oil universe” lies just outside the reservation area. At the very least, the oil industry would now need federal as well as state permits for new wells and pipelines.

The map above shows all tribal lands in Oklahoma, with the McGirt decision affirming the area outlined in bold black. The lower map shows injection wells (purple) and earthquakes caused by fracking (orange). In response to the McGirt decision, the Trump Administration recently stripped all Oklahoma tribes of jurisdiction over environmental issues.

Oklahoma, controlled by a large Republican majority with support from the oil industry, reacted quickly. There were (and still are) calls for the Senate to immediately terminate the treaty and abolish the reservations. The former mayor of Tulsa and prominent oil executive said “It’s going to be total chaos.”  He asked the tribes to give up their rights.

Chaos did ensue when the state quickly got several tribes to sign an Agreement-in-Principle that would shift most civil jurisdiction from the Tribes to the state, thereby freeing the oil industry from any tribal requirements. The Five Tribes faced immediate internal backlash and quickly backed away from the agreement.

In response, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt asked the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to grant Oklahoma jurisdiction over environmental regulations on reservations. He was relying on an old 2005 law, created when Senator James Inhofe (R) attached a midnight rider to an appropriations bill, that allows the EPA to grant Oklahoma control over environmental issues on the lands of all of Oklahoma’s 38 tribes.

In late September 2020, Attorney General William Barr paid a visit to Tahlequah, ostensibly to discuss criminal law enforcement. We don’t know what was discussed during the closed-door meeting with Cherokee leaders. We do know that, the next day, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. made a statement in support of tribal sovereignty. And we also know that, that same day, the EPA chief announced that the Inhofe rider was granted. The Trump Administration had stripped all 38 of Oklahoma’s tribes of their sovereignty over environmental issues and given it to the state of Oklahoma. Principal Chief Hoskin condemned the move.

So that’s where we are. The Biden Administration can reverse this. But even then, would the Cherokee or other tribal nations pick up the baton? 

Cushing, Oklahoma, west of Tulsa, is the center of the oil supply system in the central US. Several pipelines run through tribal lands.

Across much of Indian County, Native reservations and communities are blue islands amidst a red prairie. Not so in Oklahoma where, at most, Native areas are purple islands in a state that went 2/3 for Trump in the 2020 election. In the Cherokee Nation even the most Native counties, Cherokee and Adair, went 65% and 80% for Trump respectively. The majority of people in these counties are not tribal citizens; there is no data regarding how Cherokees within these counties voted.

The irony is that Cherokee Nation provides public services with the efficiency of a modern democratic-socialist European state. Its $608 million budget in 2019 allocated 56% to healthcare, 37% to education and other community services; only 7% went to administration. (Most of their revenues come from federal grants treaty obligations, but 35% are from taxes and fees.)

Principal Chief Hoskin, as well as the previous Principal Chief Bill John Baker, are officially non-partisan but generally associated with Democrats. This puts Hoskin in a tight spot. He seems to be defending Cherokee sovereignty on principle, but it’s not clear he would be able to do anything with it, constrained by his own constituents. He also faces challenges by Republican-dominated Oklahoma, which is increasingly attacking tribal sovereignty.

Even with a Biden reversal of the Inhofe Rider and re-establishment of tribal sovereignty, will the Cherokee work with the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal governments to forestall the Keystone XL pipeline and implement environmental regulations in a state that has almost none? Will they push for a conversion to alternative fuels, such as renewable diesel? Will they regulate well injection and fracking? The Supreme Court just affirmed the rights of tribes to regulate corporations doing business on tribal lands. Will they demand that industry clean up pollution from releases? Will they require compensatory restoration to make the environment whole?

The state of Oklahoma, in addition to lax regulation on industry, is also reticent to tax Big Oil in a meaningful way. Instead, they seek “revenue sharing” from tribal casinos, essentially taxing the tribes for the revenues that the state refuses to seek from the oil industry. The tribes are now in a position to challenge that, but will they?

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