We Americans like our heroes, and we often resist or reject truth-telling, especially when it contradicts the sanitized version of history we learned in twentieth-century classrooms (mine in the 1950s or my mother’s in the 1930s). Paul VanDevelder understands the tension created when we are asked to reexamine the causes and consequences of government policies that resulted in the near-annihilation of the first peoples of North America. With the title Savages and Scoundrels, readers are forewarned that he is going to kick ass and take names.
Paul VanDevelder is no scold, however. He is a careful researcher, brilliant writer, and a scholar who cares deeply about the future of the environment and people who inhabit it. It is this commitment to the humanities, the ties that make us human, that runs through this book, as it did in his earlier book, Coyote Warrior, which concentrated on the story of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara peoples displaced by the building of the Garrison Dam in North Dakota.
The narrative begins with the unforgettable figure of Louise Holding Eagle, returning home from a shopping trip in May 1951 to find her family gone, her home, outbuildings, even the chicken coop, gone. How she and many others, including both Native Americans and their white neighbors, lost their land to the decision (declared by Felix Cohen as “not legally possible”) of the U.S. Congress and President Harry Truman to adopt the Pick-Sloan Plan, and forcibly take the privately owned and the trust lands in the heart of North Dakota’s agricultural breadbasket. More than ever, we need to understand where the roots of this betrayal of the treaty made at Fort Laramie in 1851 began. It is shocking how deep and widespread that root system was, from Thomas Jefferson’s removal policies for Indians after the Louisiana Purchase to Andrew Jackson’s disregard for Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion protecting the Cherokee’s right to land in Georgia to the ultimate betrayal of Public Law 437 signed by Truman in 1947.
This narrative has its share of heroes, among them, John Marshall, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, David Mitchell, Father Pierre DeSmet, and Felix Cohen. VanDevelder’s description of the “Great Smoke,” paints an evocative, compelling, heart-wrenching picture of the honest efforts of Mitchell, DeSmet, and Fitzpatrick to create a lasting peace with more than fifteen thousand Indians who traveled to Horse Creek in 1851 and signed the treaty there. Exactly one hundred years later, Louise Holding Eagle’s home and land were gone, soon to be inundated by the waters of the dammed Missouri to form Lake Sakakawea.
Savages and Scoundrels offers a readable, invaluable history of the government’s dealings with Native Americans and the very human and ideological prices that have been paid as a result. The timing of VanDevelder’s book is perfect. Not a month ago (2009), President Obama spoke to representatives of 564 federally recognized tribes at a White House Tribal Nations Conference. He promised, “You will not be forgotten as long as I’m in this White House.” At the same time, he recalled the federal government’s pattern of violating treaties, breaking promises, taking land, robbing Indian culture and language, and described the willingness of Indian leaders to attend the conference as “an extraordinary leap of faith.” This may be a signal of better things to come, but only if the U.S. Congress and those who elect them are also willing to learn the hard facts of this history, which VanDevelder treats so richly.
The second chance we have in this twenty-first century is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ assignment from Congress to review for the first time the authorized purposes of the 1944 Flood Control Act that created the system of dams and reservoirs on the Missouri River, including Garrison Dam. The goal is “to determine if changes in these purposes and the existing federal water resource infrastructure managed by the Corps and Bureau of Reclamation may be warranted.” In the years that this multimillion dollar study takes place, the engineers and policymakers will have plenty of time to read Savages and Scoundrels and absorb its lessons. We cannot change our country’s history, but we are not condemned to repeat it. Paul VanDevelder has given us, in this remarkable book, the story we need to make a difference.