A Conversation with C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa

BlogWest is starting a new series of conversations with western historians on their recent work, their view of western history, and their ideas about where the region can go from here. First up is C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa. Author of the recently published Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight Over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War, and an assistant professor of history at Illinois College, Genetin-Pilawa ruminates over his book, the art of writing history, and the Western History Association.

On Crooked Paths to Allotment

BlogWest: Why is it important to highlight the contestation over dispossession and assimilationist policy in the second half of the nineteenth century?

C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa: I think that historians of the pre-Civil War have done an admirable job of making the argument that Indigenous histories are at the heart of the broader narratives of North American and United States history.  Historians of the postwar period, it seems, have struggled to do the same.  Highlighting the contestation over dispossession and assimilation policies and especially focusing on the ways in which ideas about the role of the state and its relationship to its citizens and “wards” puts Indian issues at the center of that story.  It demonstrates how the Bureau of Indian Affairs became a meeting ground for ideas about social policy reform and the ways that Native leaders and activists influenced it.

BW: Can you elaborate more upon the link between land dispossession and race in this post-Civil War period?

GP: This is an issue that is at the foundation of the book’s argument, and yet I’m still trying to articulate it clearly.  After the Civil War, broader developments, like the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment play a big role in shifting the discourse of Indian policy reform from one based on sovereignty (in the removal and reservation debates, for example), to one based on racial inclusion within a national polity.  I think this part of why historians have struggled to make sense of the Peace Policy era immediately following the Civil War.  As that discourse shifts, and as indigeneity becomes a racial designation, the significance of sovereignty in these debates drops away.  It’s not a coincidence that the appropriation bill rider that unilaterally ends treaty-making happens in 1871, three years after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

BW: Allotment is a very controversial topic and has received considerable attention from many historians over the years—how does your work expand upon this vibrant historiography?

Crooked PathsGP: This question is absolutely right on, there has been some great work devoted to studying allotment over the years.  I hope that my intervention in this literature is in the suggestion suggests that the development of this policy, or the lead up to the policy, was more contested and contingent than previously described.  By connecting the reform debates both forward (to Collier) and backward (to Parker), as well as by taking Thomas Bland and the National Indian Defense Association seriously, I hope my work moves us away from a linear narrative of policy development across the nineteenth century, and shifts the focus away from the Indian Rights Association and the “Friends of the Indian,” a little bit.

BW: Reconstruction reformers played a pivotal role in shaping Federal Indian Policy and play a leading role in your scholarship. In your work the OIA, Ely Parker, Thomas Bland, National Indian Defense Association, and Indian Rights Association are primary characters. Did you also find further evidence that highlights the rise of Native Nationalism to overturn Allotment in this period?

GP: Part of what I found so interesting, and tried to convey this in the book, was the way Native leaders and activists played key roles in the National Indian Defense Association in the early-1880s.  Thomas and Cora Bland made a concerted effort to recruit Native leaders into their organization, to provide Native activists opportunities to speak at the events they held, and offered pages of their reform newspaper, The Council Fire, to Native writers.  Compared to the Indian Rights Association (the reform organization that tends to be the focus of most policy reform studies of this era), the NIDA acted much less paternalistically.

Ely Parker, the Tonawanda Seneca leader and first Native Commissioner of the Office of Indian Affairs (and the focus of a large part of my book), had an interesting and evolving relationship with allotment proposals and the Dawes Act itself.  In the late-1860s and early-1870s, he supported allotment proposals, even writing to his soon-to-be nemesis, William Welsh, that it seemed like a foregone conclusion in 1869 that Congress would pass allotment legislation.  By 1885, he had changed his mind and in a letter to his friend, Harriet Maxwell Converse, wrote that while “Our wise legislators at Washington…are all advocating with a red hot zeal, the allotment and civilization schemes…The Indians, as a body, are deadly opposed to the scheme, for they see in it too plainly the certain and speedy dissolution of their tribal and national organizations.”

BW: The final section of Crooked Paths to Allotment explores the role of John Collier and the Indian New Deal in overturning Allotment. What do you argue caused this historic shift in policy from allotment to the Indian New Deal? Is it false to categorize the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) as a smoke and mirror extension of previous assimilation policy?  Did the IRA strive for a different form of dispossession under the guise of home rule—do you consider the IRA the lesser of two evils (Dawes and IRA) in regards to Federal Indian Policy.

GP: I struggle with John Collier’s career, his actions, and his legacies.  I’ve often said that you can write five pages about Collier or 500, but nothing in between.  It’s clear that Collier had an overly romanticized and simplistic view of Native histories and cultures.  He gave lip service to notions of sovereignty and self-government for tribal communities, but often struggled to live up to his own anti-coercive ideal.  He was difficult to work with, he was domineering, and he manipulated Native leaders and tribal councils.  On the other hand, the policies he advocated ended the allotment system.  It provided a mechanism by which the Secretary of the Interior could provide additional (and sorely needed) funds for Native healthcare, education, agriculture, and social welfare.  It also increased federal support for tribal governments (as long as they followed the boilerplate model BIA officials created).  In some real ways, he broke some contemporary trends and trajectories in federal policy and built from a tradition of dissent that I trace backwards in the book to Thomas Bland and the National Indian Defense Association in the 1880s and Ely Parker and his allies in the 1870s.

BW: Can you highlight or pinpoint a couple of research or writing moments that reshaped how you framed your overall argument?

GP: There were two developments (I’m not sure that either was an exact “moment”) that reshaped the framework of my book.  First, I made some pretty dramatic changes as I revised my dissertation into the book manuscript.  This process involved additional research and drastically overhauling the chapter structure.  I think the extra time spent in the archives (I believe I’ve read close to everything that Ely Parker ever wrote, or at least everything that’s held in any archive I could find) really helped to crystallize the overall arguments I make.

Second, I benefited greatly from having several very insightful readers and peer reviewers.  My dissertation committee helped immensely and my editor at UNC Press, Mark Simpson-Vos, offered great feedback and gentle guidance. Jacki Rand, Jim Buss, Jeffery Ostler, Kevin Bruyneel, Jean Dennison, Kristalyn Shefveland and Cathleen Cahill all read multiple drafts of chapters or the entire manuscript and offered helpful suggestions and advice that strengthened and clarified my arguments. It’s a much better finished piece because of their fine-grained attention and willingness to take what I had to say seriously.

BW: What advice do you have for other scholars pursuing their first publication? Is there anything you might have done differently?

In terms of working with publishers, I think it’s a good idea to start developing relationships early (though not too early).  In the year or so leading up to defending one’s dissertation, it’s important to make a concerted effort to present at several conferences (if possible) and connect with different acquisitions editors.  By this time the author should be able to describe the project and its potential audience clearly and effectively.

In terms of turning the dissertation into a book, the best advice I received pertained to finding my own authorial voice.  The dissertation genre is not really set up to do that—one must demonstrate (to a very specific audience comprised of one’s own dissertation committee) an engagement with all the requisite literature and so there’s a lot of time spent positioning oneself in the historiography.

In the case of my own dissertation, all of the historiographic positioning had been foregrounded and the unique and interesting elements of my arguments didn’t come through as much as I would’ve liked.  I was able to participate in a manuscript workshop with Kevin Bruyneel and Jean Dennison and they pushed me to bring out my own voice more strongly. In addition, Kevin offered a piece of advice in constructing a useful introduction (full disclosure: the advice comes from Pagan Kennedy, through Kevin). He said that, as an author, you can do anything in your book—and readers will want to come with you—but you have to be an attentive guide. He asked me to imagine standing behind the reader with my hands on their shoulders, escorting them through the argument. It’s an image that works for me and I’ve tried to share it with others as well.

On Western History

BW: Where and when did you attend your first Western History Association Conference? What does attending the WHA offer for up-and-coming Western historians?

GP: I attended WHA for the first time in 2007 in Oklahoma City, where I was on a great panel with Jim Buss, Eric Morser, Cathleen Cahill, and Phil Deloria.  I think WHA, because it’s a large meeting, offers lots of opportunities for young scholars to listen to smart papers, engage in dialogue with people doing really cutting edge research.  There are also wonderful networking opportunities, including luncheons, coffee breaks, and receptions sponsored by different presses and scholarly organizations.  It’s also great to see more panels devoted to pedagogy (I got the chance to present as part of one of these in Denver last year)!  Brian Collier, the WHA Committee on Teaching and Public Education, and the Library of Congress—Teaching with Primary Sources, are really doing great work!

BW: Throughout your academic career whose scholarship and/or books had the most impact upon your own development as a Western historian?

GP: This could be a really long list, but I’ll try to limit myself.  I think that Elliot West’s and Heather Cox Richardson’s work has had the significant direct effect on my scholarship (Richardson’s West from Appomattox came out as I was beginning to conceptualize my dissertation and I found it hugely insightful).  In terms of thinking about and critiquing Indian policy development, Vine Deloria’s work had been fundamental for me (more recent work by David Wilkins, Tsianina Lomawaima, Kevin Bruyneel, Andrew Denson, Charles Wilkinson, and Frank Pommersheim has also been very influential in my work).  Finally, though not as directly in my scholarship, Patricia Limerick and Richard White’s work really shaped how I think about Western history as a scholar and teacher.

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