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Deadliest Enemies: Law and Race Relations on and off Rosebud Reservation Paperback – May 9, 2007
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So the audiences of interest here are multiple: law students, anthropologists, and readers interested in critical race theory, as well as anyone with an interest in Native American studies. It is written with a clarity that makes it an excellent text for adoption in either upper division undergraduate courses, or graduate seminars.
Each chapter develops a case study focused on a specific legal struggle between the tribal government on Rosebud reservation, local cities, and various interests in the state of South Dakota. These local struggles, Biolsi argues, are fought out within, and gain their momentum from, the shifting field of federal Indian law. The chapters steadily build his central thesis: federal Indian law is founded on contradictory impulses, and these contradictions mean that whatever decisions a particular case produces, the result will never be definitive. Though I doubt Biolsi's central thesis holds up, he does an excellent job presenting it.
In the courts where Indian law is contested, all parties to the dispute have something to lose, whether Indian or white. The cases roll forward, driven by new challenges, and reversals, continually sharpening the local divisions and hostilities. It is Biolsi's proposal that federal Indian law, intended to protect Native communities from local whites - the "deadliest enemies" of the title - in fact act as an accelerant for local conflicts.
The core of the indecision in Indian law, Biolsi holds, springs from two contradictory policies that have been followed alternately over the course of American political history. One political movement has sought to annihilate Native people as a distinctive entity, to eliminate tribes as polities, to assimilate Indians as individuals. The alternate political movement has been to recognize and preserve Native peoples as sovereign polities. Current legal struggles reflect the long oscillation between these movements over the course, particularly, of the twentieth century. As the century opened, the Dawes Act, and the allotting of reservations and privatization of tribal lands it set in motion, represented a determined push to erase the political existence of Native peoples. The Indian New Deal of John Collier reversed that movement, and sought to restore tribal lands and embed tribal governments within the American fabric. This was followed by the push for Termination, which later gave way to the last half century, dominated by a vision of sovereignty.
That federal Indian law is contradictory, and American history equally, cannot be argued. That federal Indian law provides incentives to those wishing to press for either outcome is equally reasonable. But I doubt, fundamentally, that Indian law explains local conflicts between Indians and whites in South Dakota. The fact is, that the designation of local whites as "deadliest enemies" accurately reflects much of the local history of Indian people across North America. Biolsi's argument too easily lays the blame on the federal government, and absolves the state of South Dakota and its citizenry. As insightful as his analysis often is, Biolsi fails to consider that local contradictions, and local motives, might be driving the persistent recourse to the federal courts. Like many Americans, Biolsi blames the federal government for problems that were generated by private citizens and local initiative.
The federal government has proven itself remarkably expressive of and responsive to the desires of American citizens. It was private citizens who drove the westward expansion of the American system. No one forced their emigration. It was private citizens who pressed for the erasure of local Native lands. It was local whites who everywhere sought the extinction of local Natives, so their lands would be liberated for their use.
Try this thought experiment: If the federal government had not taken shape and formed itself in the course of westward expansion, if instead new territories had been given full sovereignty without federal interference, what would have been the fate of the Native peoples within those new republics? The Texas Republic, and the California Republic, shortlived though they were, often a lesson. Of the former, too little has been rewritten. But on the latter, see Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846-1873. It is precisely where federal interference was least, that the erasure of Native people has been greatest.
This is a re-issue of this book. It was originally published by the University of California PressDeadliest Enemies: Law and the Making of Race Relations on and off Rosebud Reservation in hardcover in 2001. This new paperback edition includes a new introduction.