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Native Reconstruction

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Alexandra Stern's work focuses on Native American experiences of Civil War and Reconstruction.

More than a simple North-South story, Reconstruction was a truly national era of post-war federal reform that, as historian Alexandra Stern argues, has deep and lasting implications for Native Americans.
 

Alexandra Stern is a doctoral candidate in American History at Stanford University and a Geballe Dissertation Prize Fellow at the Humanities Center for the 2018–19 academic year.


How are you challenging the Hollywood version of Reconstruction?

I’d actually say that I'm challenging the Hollywood version of the West because I don't think Hollywood likes to show Reconstruction. There aren’t a lot of happy endings. The most obvious heroes—millions of newly free African Americans—are fighting tooth and nail for rights, land, and even their lives. But it’s the racist vision of white southern Redeemers, who are anything but heroes, that wins the day.

My work seeks to make an intervention both in scholarship and in popular conception—to reunite two narratives of nineteenth-century America that have so long been siloed.

The first is the narrative of the Civil War as the defining event in American history, which I'm totally on board with. The Civil War acts as the hinge of U.S. history, and it’s usually taught this way: the antebellum early republic and the modern American nation-state, slavery, and emancipation.


The decade that followed the Civil War paved the way for more than a century of racial injustice. (Image credit: Library of Congress)
 

The second is a much longer narrative which takes place over the course of the nineteenth century, what we colloquially call “the winning of the West.”

The Civil War is traditionally told as a North-South story but is actually central to the winning of the West because the Republicans—when southern Democrats leave Congress to join the Confederate states in a new rebel nation—are able to pass a ton of legislation. This is why you get the Transcontinental Railroad, the Homestead Act, and all kinds of federal money for western projects. And similarly, the addition of new western territories throughout the antebellum period plays a major role in intensifying the debate over slavery and the road to war by 1861.

So these two central nineteenth-century events—the Civil War and the winning of the West—are often told separately. And I'm saying that these stories are actually deeply related once we look at Native Americans and the massive growth of federal power after the Civil War.
 

How did you become interested in the overlooked Civil War story?

Well, not to be cliché, I’ve always been interested in the so-called losers of history. And what I mean by that is I like to intellectually take them seriously.

I chose to attend the University of Pennsylvania knowing I wanted to major in history, but also planning to go to medical school. Then I happened to take a really exciting course called, I think, the History of the Old South taught by Professor Stephanie McCurry, who ended up becoming my adviser.

I think what really made that course so compelling was that she started every class with a central question or historical contradiction. I became interested in how we could think about the Civil War in a different way. What if we stood outside the traditional boundaries and looked in? What would we see differently?

Professor McCurry pointed out there was a place I could try to do that—Minnesota, 1862. An important so-called “Indian War” happens there: the Dakota War or Uprising of 1862. But what I really found, and ended up writing a thesis on, was that this was actually a Civil War event. This is not simply a western Indian War.

Native peoples understood the Civil War strategically for their own interests and waged their own wars of rebellion to shore up their nations’ sovereignty.
 

How were the Indian Territories reconstructed during Reconstruction? Or deconstructed?

My dissertation argues that Reconstruction is a truly national rather than regional project. Reconstruction builds a unified American nation-state under the federal government that is committed to free labor, private property ownership, and a homogeneous citizenry.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, you see a fundamental shift away from recognizing Native nations’ sovereignty toward a view of Native peoples as wards of the state. Reconstruction is all about foreclosing on the idea of alternative polities—like the Confederacy—in the United States. The federal government seeks to do this in Indian Country by dismantling tribal governments and communal landholding practices, while forcing cultural assimilation.


Pleasant Porter, the last elected Principal Chief of the Creek Nation before the Curtis Act's 1906 deadline for the dissolution of tribal government in Indian Territory. (Image credit: Oklahoma Historical Society).


Before the Civil War, whether secession is legal or not is hotly debated. The Civil War helps end that discussion. States cannot secede—and that's the reality we live in now—but Native nations’ place within federalism is still being decided after 1865. 
 

You focus on present-day Oklahoma. Was that representative of the Native American experience in the West?

Well, Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma in 1907, is often the exception. Indian Territory is the only unorganized western territory in the continental United States in the late nineteenth century so it occupies a different position.

Additionally, the five tribes of Oklahoma—the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole—own their land outright as a result of their treaty negotiations during the Removal era. They are able to outlast the federal government much longer than most native nations, which are mostly fighting wars with federal troops and being militarily forced onto reservations.

That’s also the story we know from Hollywood, right? But despite this difference in timeframe, it’s the same process. Allotment, increased federal jurisdiction in Indian Country, boarding schools—these are all part of Reconstruction.


 

And this chapter of Reconstruction is much more successful, but also more coercive, than the celebratory narrative of emancipation and Reconstruction in the South. It’s relatively easy to force land concessions and put Native people on reservations—to reconstruct them. It's much harder to do that when you're dealing with white Confederates. Race really matters when it comes to what and how forcefully the federal government is willing to reform.
 

Recently, there have been a number of events marking the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. How did Native Americans view the railroad construction?

The Transcontinentals were largely devastating to the Native peoples of the Plains. But the possibility that the railroad brought with it—greater mobility, connection to the market economy—as historians like Alessandra Link point out, is accessed and put to use by Native peoples too. I don’t want to call it an upside—Stanford professor Richard White wrote a fantastic book called Railroaded, which shows how extractive these things were—but it’s important to also recognize the ways Native people are enormously creative and resilient.

I mean, it’s so great to celebrate the anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad here because it's such a disruptive technology. Which is so funny because we're here in Silicon Valley, right? Today’s start-up culture thinks of itself as creating firsts: the first technology of its kind that will change the world.

But I'd argue that major technological innovation throughout history has often been disruptive, and the Transcontinental Railroad helps us see the ways that has upsides and real downsides.
 

Why is it important to understand the Civil War and Reconstruction from the “outsider’s” perspective? What lessons can be learned?

Well, first that many people historians might consider “outsiders”—like the people of Indian Territory—felt their lives directly shaped by the Civil War and Reconstruction. So it's really about getting back to sort of a more accurate understanding of the nineteenth century where Native people are active players.

I think, as Americans, it's hard for us to accept our dark histories. And part of the reason it's so hard, especially with the West, is that a lot of Americans believe that Native peoples don't really exist that much anymore. But having a history and knowing it is essential to knowing who you are—whether you’re Native or a more recent arrival.

This Native Reconstruction concept also helps explain current issues in Indian Country. There’s an important Supreme Court case that’s about to be decided called “Carpenter v. Murphy.” The fundamental question is whether the boundaries of the Creek Nation set by its 1866 treaty were ever formally abrogated, in other words annulled, by Congress. Murphy is on death row in Oklahoma and he's filed a habeas petition on the basis that the state of Oklahoma has no right to try him as a member of the Creek Nation who killed another Native person, also a member of the Creek Nation, on Creek land per the 1866 boundaries.


Mother Jones illustration. (Image credit: Oklahoma Department of Corrections/AP)


Potentially, if the Supreme Court finds that the Creek Nation’s boundaries, and by extension the four other tribes of Indian Territory’s 1866 boundaries, were not formally disestablished, half of present-day Oklahoma would return to Indian Country.

I worked as a consultant for the Creek Nation’s legal team but I don't know how the Supreme Court will decide. I think they'll take a multi-pronged, careful approach. But these questions are really exciting and show the messiness and the ongoing impact of Reconstruction.