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October 25th, 2018

October 29th, 2018

  • Oct
    , 2018
    Victoria Szabo Contested Histories, Cultural Heritage And The Digital Archive
    Philip And Muriel Berman Museum Of Art
    Victoria Szabo is an associate research professor of digital media studies and director of the Wired! Lab for Visualizing the Past and the Digital Humanities Initiative at Duke University. She will discuss her work archiving popular culture and regional and urban history.

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From the History News Network 

  • A rendering of the Space Launch System Block 1 (NASA)

    NASA’s congressionally-mandated Space Launch System (SLS) was envisioned to take the United States to the Moon and beyond. Thus far, however, it has failed to launch and many are calling for the program to be terminated because of high costs and delays.

    SLS replaced Constellation, which was NASA’s manned spaceflight program. It had similar lofty goals but ran into funding problems and was cancelled when President Barack Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. But, despite the adoption of the SLS, little has happened since and the delays keep piling on. Now SLS’s first launch may not happen until the second half of 2020. 

    SLS’s main selling point is that it is a super heavy lift spacecraft. It will be capable of carrying payloads of 130 metric tons with diameters up to 9.1 meters into orbit. The flip side of this is that development and launch costs are expensive – opponents of SLS say prohibitively expensive. 

    The probable near-term availability of commercial heavy-lift spacecraft like SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket has not done much for the program either, the argument being: why build SLS if Elon Musk can build a similar system for cheaper? According to SpaceX estimates, the Big Falcon Rocket will cost less than the $90 million it now costs to launch its already available and reusable Falcon Heavy. Compare that to the $1 billion per launch the SLS will cost and you can understand why many people are wondering why SLS is needed.

    By some peoples’ reckoning, former Space Shuttle Manager Wayne Hale among them, four or five SpaceX Falcon Heavy rockets could be purchased and used instead of one SLS. While true, Falcon Heavy can only lift 64 tons.

    So, why is it that SLS is still in the running? One reason might be the crew capsule, which requires much more engineering than a cargo rocket. The loss of a cargo ship is one thing, the loss of a manned mission is a whole different kettle of fish. While SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin have demonstrated they can build cheaper rockets, the verdict is still out on how much money they will need to ensure the safety of their human passengers and crew. It should be noted that SpaceX has not yet tested the Big Falcon Rocket and, in any event, it would not be capable of carrying NASA’s manned Orion exploration capsule. Its promise is just that, a promise.

    A second reason is that SLS has been designed to carry wider and heavier payloads into deep space in one launch, a unique capability NASA believes is critical to future programs. They want to launch complete systems not components that will require several launches and assembly in space. In fact, NASA may even be able to launch the Orion capsule to the moon with SLS earlier than the current 2023 schedule if it configures the SLS (Block 1B) with a more powerful second stage. 

    A further unstated concern, is with Elon Musk himself. NASA has always been worried about placing too much reliance on private companies and Musk’s current troubles with the SEC have done nothing to assuage that worry.

    NASA believes there will always be a role for SpaceX, as well as Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance. (ULA is the builder of the Delta IV heavy lift rocket.) NASA says those companies can play a role “bringing cargo and doing routine servicing.” As it is, SpaceX’s launches are critical to the military and to companies like Iridium which is upgrading its GPS satellite fleet. Conversely, SpaceX relies on government contracts to remain solvent.

    One final reason brings back images of Sputnik: both China and Russia are developing comparable rockets. No American politician wants to see the US fall behind in space again. 

    It is clear, at least at this stage, that NASA needs a super heavy lift rocket like SLS. It will require the capability not only to put Orion into deep space, but for other projects like the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a small moon-port that is needed to support deep space exploration. 

    NASA’s SLS is currently the only program that can foreseeably meet those needs. Perhaps commercial rockets will replace the government versions in the future but only when they have demonstrated their capabilities and regularity. For the moment NASA still needs SLS.

    © James Stejskal, 2018

  • Four centuries ago, somebody starving in the drought afflicted Elbe region in what is today the Czech Republic, anonymously chiseled onto the stone of the receding river bank a warning. Here, along the river where one day American and Soviet troops would meet on their duel approach to Berlin, a graffito made by unknown hand marks 1616 as the oldest year recorded on one particular “Hunger Stone”, and on that surface there is a memento mori which reads “Wenn du mich sicht, dann weine.” This summer, among the hottest recorded, and the Elbe once again receded to the point where observers could read that ominous missive: “If you see me, weep.”

    Something to tattoo on the brain with the Monday release of the United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change. Authored by 91 scientists, representing 40 countries and based on over 6,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies, the conclusions of the commission are horrifying. According to Coral Davenport at the New York Times the climatologists discovered that if “greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit” by 2040, radically earlier than had been thought, meaning that most readers of this article will bear witness to “inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty.” 

    A child born today will have just turned the drinking age in a world where close to all of the coral reefs will be extinct and where massive storms like Hurricane Florence or Hurricane Maria, which has nearly destroyed a Puerto Rico abandoned by the government of the United States, will be common. Where the social, cultural, and economic affects of climate change will be recorded not on revealed hunger stones, but in pandemics, wars, famines, and genocides exacerbated by the effects of higher temperatures. Brandon Miller and Jay Croft at CNN write that we’ll see in starker detail the horrific results of industrial man-made global warming earlier than in two decades, with the report concluding that humanity has “only till 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change.”

    Alterations to human behavior which might hasten the worst effects of climate change are technically possible, though the study’s authors doubt such change is politically feasible, as it would require direct action on the part of the industrial economies of the world, something with “no documented historic precedent.” Myles Allen of Oxford University explained that “we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime” if we’re to stave off an ecological apocalypse which we now understand isn’t centuries in the future, but rather mere decades, if not years.

    We already see the effects in the increasing ferocity of storms, the droughts that mark not just the developing world, but increasingly North America and Europe, and in the wildfires, which have burnt their way across the west. As the world’s temperature rises we see an equivalent political slow burn, nations increasingly moving toward the delusional reactionary nationalisms as a means of punishing refugee populations often affected either directly by climate change or by the civil strife made possible by it, for as Mark Fishcetti describes the Syrian civil war in Scientific American, “Human-induced drying in many societies can push tensions over a threshold that provokes violent conflict” – a reality that if the Trump administration pretends to deny, has long been acknowledged by the Pentagon. 

    Climate change has resulted in civilizational catastrophe before. Historian John Kelly notes in The Great Mortality, his book on the Black Death of fourteenth-century Europe, that pestilence was furthered by “climactic and ecological instability,” the bubonic plague encouraged by weakened immune systems brought on by drought and famine. Polymathic anthropologist Jared Diamond has considered how climate change brought collapse in cultures as varied as the Anasazi and Maya or the medieval Norse settlements of Greenland, writing that the “collapse of industrial civilization… could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of diseases or else of wars, triggered ultimately by scarcity of environmental resources.” Arguably the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley were felled by climate change, and one wonders if the peasants of Sumer were as despondent as that German speaker on the Elbe who asked future generations to weep, or if they were rather as myopic as we are, saying of such changes that “This too shall pass” while what expires is civilization itself? 

    Humans are unable to imagine the actual passing of their way of life. A sense that history changes has been novel for most cultures, even apocalyptic minded ones, as medieval paintings which depict Christ as a Flemish peasant or ancient Judeans as Florentine nobleman can attest. The idea that the past was radically different from the present and that tomorrow will be distant from today is an innovation of Renaissance humanism and then modernity. Rather, it’s always been easier to imagine that your world will literally pass into oblivion than that the values your civilization holds dear might disappear (or need to disappear). During those lean times on the Indus River, on the Euphrates, or the Elbe, women and men may have dreamt of the end of days, but they couldn’t have quite dreamt of us. The myths that structured their world precluded it. 

    Lest we be too arrogant, ours is not so different a perspective, for as the literary theorist Frederic Jameson famously noted, it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Similar for the hungry penitent in the temple to all the gods of Sumer, or to the starving medieval pilgrim who could envision the return of Christ, but not that he might look different from those who populated his world. Limited perspective is the wage of any totalizing ideology, and all eras are structured by such paradigms. As a priest in Moloch’s temple or a monk in a medieval monastery had their religions, so have we ours, but the cracked gods of our world differ in one important respect – only capitalism’s Mammon has the capability of bringing about the apocalypse. 

    Only capitalism was able to inaugurate a new geological epoch in the Anthropocene; unique is our dominant ideology’s status in being able to obliterate all of humanity. IPCC Co-Chair Debra Roberts said that the report is a “line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” but what should disturb us most is the authors’ accurate alarm at the lack of political will to avert catastrophe. In the United States the coal, oil, and gas industries’ obfuscate, high percentages of Americans believe the lie that climate change is a hoax (while record heat affects the Midwest this October), and the Trump administration trashes the Paris Accords.

    Noam Chomsky has said that the Republican “party is dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life. There is no historical precedent for such a stand,” with modern fascism directly correlated to the increasing chaos of climate change itself. Roy Scranton in We’re Doomed. Now What? writes that as the “gap between the future we’re entering and the future we once imagined grows ever wider, nihilism takes root in the shadow of our fear…. [Y]ou can see it in the pull to nationalism, sectarianism, war, and racial hatred. We see it in the election of Donald Trump.”

    What must be reckoned with is how this situation was directly engendered by industrial capitalism, and in particular by the partisans of its most extreme ideological manifestations of libertarianism and neoliberalism who have provided cover for policies that have enflamed the crisis. Past centuries were circumscribed by their worldviews, be it medieval Catholicism, or classical Roman Augustan paganism, or the varied gods of Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia. Even the most visionary of individual perspectives must be limited by a culture’s dominant way of thinking, but while our adherence to the market is as all-encompassing as a Babylonian’s loyalty to Marduk, it is only our dark religion which actually threatens Armageddon.

    Unfettered, unregulated, capricious, vampiric capitalism has brought us to the brink, and the mass inability to comprehend this fact evidences how ingrained said ideology is. Our blinders are such that human tragedy that is attributable directly to our economic system is often naturalized as simply being “The way that things are,” thus precluding even the possibility of different ways of arranging our world. Deathdue to differing ideologies is always interpreted as conscious and preventable, but capitalist tragedy is simply understood as how life operates. 

    Consideration of those who have died because of capitalism (and those who will, which may yet include us all) doesn’t require a cover-up. So inured are we to seeing capitalism as its own imposed ideology that we fail to understand its death toll. Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorovwrote that “remembrance of our own woes prevents us from seeing the suffering of others,” and while true, the converse is also accurate. While admitting that capitalism provided for unprecedented class mobility and technological innovation, an honest consideration of its death toll in any hypothetical Black Book of Capitalism would have to include not just the obvious fatalities of those who died in industrial accidents or whose lives were shortened by their labor, but indeed the victims of colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and of fascismo corporativo, which is simply capitalism driven to its horrifying end 

    Invisibility of such atrocities through normalization is a species of what the philosopher Louis Althusser termed “interpellation,” that is to say that we’re all molded subjects of the ideology that governs our world so that we mostly hold uncritical assumptions about capitalism’s normativity. Writer William T. Vollmann addresses future generations in his new tome on climate change Carbon Ideologies, explaining that “We all lived for money, and that is what we died for.” As 2040 approaches our ignorance is a form of collective suicide. 

    The Editorial Board of theWashington Post writes that future “Historians will look in absolute astonishment” that not only did our governments and corporate elite fail to halt climate change, but that our policy makers “actually pushed in the wrong direction.” That’s assuming that there will even be any historians left after the climate change horseman of pestilence, famine, war, and death gallop across the scorched and burning world, their riders named “Deregulation,” “Bottom Line,” “Market,” and “Profit.”

    An August environmental impact statement prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concedes that far from being a “Chinese hoax” as Trump has alleged, the average temperature will rise seven degrees by century’s end. Quite a wide gulf between what the Trump administration knows to be true and what his deluded believers will swallow. Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis, and Chris Mooney at the Washington Post write that the Trump “administration did not offer this dire forecast … as part of an effort to combat climate change,” for their “analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed.” Why prevent collapse when Trump concludes that there is still so much money to be made in not averting disaster? 

    This is the nightmare logic of scarcity capitalism, the macabre calculus which is content to let millions of people starve in the third world and that will ultimately exterminate refugees who dare to escape a parched landscape, all so that the economic status quo can be maintained before the process kills us all. The puritanism of corporate eco-individualism which configures environmental protection as simply a matter of driving a Prius or taking short showers is moral contrition or personal branding rather than policy, a quasi-theological sacrifice before the altar of the dying Earth. What’s actually required is a massive, international, eco-socialist mobilization of governments and industries that are responsible for this calamity. Because right now capitalism’s final solution is nothing less than complete ecological collapse. In his 1888 autobiographical Ecce Homo, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche eerily predicted that the 20th century would witness “wars as have never happened on earth.” With chaos brought about by the scarcity resulting from climate change, we may reevaluate how prescient Nietzsche was about the last century, realizing that he was perhaps actually off by a hundred years.

  • Why would the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the primary umbrella organization for the field of Middle East studies, oppose the New York Times partnering with George Washington University (GWU)’s Program On Extremism to produce a public archive of the thousands of Islamic State (ISIS) documents the newspaper retrieved from northern Iraq? Analysis based on solid evidence, after all, is far superior to speculation and guesswork that may be proven erroneous. While there are many media articles about ISIS and propaganda material from the group itself, there is a deficiency of internal documents in the open-source realm for researchers to use in order to understand the inner workings of ISIS’s state project during the peak of its power. I have a personal stake in this debate: as a researcher of Iraqi origin, I have aimed to help scholars and others with my own archive of over 1,000 ISIS documents. My work inspired Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, who obtained the collection for the newspaper, and I helped her verify many of the documents in question.Yet MESA has launched self-righteous fulminations against the Times and Callimachi. Initially, it sent a letter to the paper criticizing it for referring to the documents in its articles, declaring that creating a public database of them is “unacceptable,” and insisting the documents be returned immediately to “the appropriate Iraqi authorities.” After the Times and GWU’s Program on Extremism announced their partnership, MESA sent a letter to GWU dubbing the project “problematic” and repeating its opposition to an open access database.While MESA’s letters raised a legitimate point about the need to redact names of civilians from the documents, its main critique revealed deep-seated anti-Western biases. The Western identity of the reporter, newspaper, and institution working on the documents were unacceptable. MESA went so far as to characterize Callimachi’s obtaining the documents as a pillaging of cultural heritage in violation of international law, because “only legally designated representatives of the Iraqi state” should “control the disposition of any documents.” Similarly, MESA objected to the paper’s plans to create a public database of the documents partly because there are “no clear plans to return them to a repository that will be accessible to all Iraqis.”MESA’s narrative is simplistic and short-sighted and unjustly implies that the Times engaged in criminal activity. There have been no “legally designated representatives” of state entities in the field to authorize or reject the collection of ISIS documents by journalists. In Northern Iraq, the de facto authority was the Iraqi security forces with whom the Times’s reporter was embedded. On occasion those forces granted permission to take papers simply because they did not deem them vital for intelligence efforts. Documents listing names of ISIS personnel, for instance, are of far more interest to security forces than those outlining the structure of a dismantled ISIS bureaucracy in a liberated area. Furthermore, some documents would have been destroyed had there been no third-party interest in collecting them. In other instances, documents were recovered from locales and buildings that had otherwise been overlooked. Were it not for the New York Times’s efforts, those documents would likely have been lost forever.In my case, I collected as many ISIS documents as possible from the group’s former zone of control in the North Aleppo countryside in Northern Syria. That area is now controlled by local Syrian rebels under a Turkish occupation force. Should I give my collection to the Syrian government in Damascus, or perhaps the Turkish government in Ankara?It is unclear how MESA thinks a repository accessible to all Iraqis will be created if there is no publicly accessible online database. Owing to the outcry from MESA and others, the paper is giving the original documents to the Iraqi government, at the latter’s request. Yet we are not dealing with a government known for bureaucratic efficiency. Beset with problems such as reconstruction in liberated areas and protests in the south against poor public services, the Iraqi government is very unlikely to create a repository of ISIS documents accessible to all Iraqis. An open-access online database addresses this problem, yet MESA decries this obvious solution. Why should the study of these documents online be restricted? Considering the enormous media attention their fate has garnered, why should the general public be denied the right to examine the materials to determine for themselves how sound the original reporting and analyses were? MESA should drop its affectation of moral superiority and carefully examine the documents for itself so as to pose legitimate research questions. Did the Times, for instance, select certain documents to support favored conclusions? Was the paper taking the documents too much at face value? These and other important questions can be addressed only by a transparent and open debate. But MESA would rather restrict access to a privileged elite of researchers, as was the case with the Ba’ath Party documents taken from Iraq after 2003.It is unlikely MESA would have protested had a regional Middle Eastern news outlet taken the ISIS documents from Iraq and reported on them. (Their failure to protest my own work also illustrates this selective outrage.) MESA’s real objection is that a Western outlet tracked down the documents and published the reports—an intellectually vacuous form of identity politics reflecting MESA’s biases that have gained far too much currency in academia. However MESA spins it, the Times and Callimachi have greatly contributed to our ability to research the history of ISIS. The planned public archive of documents will only strengthen that contribution.

  • Click inside the image below and scroll down to see tweets.
  • On the second Monday of October various cities and states celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Some locales do so along with Columbus Day, others instead of honoring a man who began the conquest of America’s Indians. Thus, it seems an appropriate occasion to ask whether in ranking our forty-five presidents we are mindful enough of their policies toward Native Americans. 

    Although George Washington has consistently been ranked the second or third best of our presidents by both historians and the general public, we read in Colin Calloway’s new book The Indian World of George Washington: “Washington … developed and articulated policies designed to divest Indians of their cultures as well as their lands and that would shape US-Indian relations for more than a century… . He found little to admire in Indian life… . . When he looked at Indian people, he saw either actual or potential enemies or allies.”

    Even though Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography of Washington contextualizes our first president’s view of Native Americans, it still states that “by March 1779 Washington had steeled himself to act ruthlessly against the Six [Iroquois] Nations and resort to cold-blooded warfare against civilians as well as warriors.” Chernow also recognizes that as president, “his most flagrant failings remained those of the country as a whole—the inability to deal forthrightly with the injustice of slavery or to figure out an equitable solution in the ongoing clashes with Native Americans.”

    What Chernow says about Washington’s failures regarding Native Americans could also be said of our number-one ranked president, Abraham Lincoln. As an article in the Washington Monthly, “Lincoln: No Hero to Native Americans,” put it in 2013: “Abraham Lincoln is not seen as much of a hero at all among many American Indian tribes and Native peoples of the United States, as the majority of his policies proved to be detrimental to them.”

    In his essay “The Indian Policy of Abraham Lincoln,” historian W. Dale Mason wrote, “President Lincoln … continued the policy of all previous presidents of viewing Indian as wards of the government… . He made no revolutionary change in Indian-white relations.” More recently, historian Douglas Brinkley has observed that Lincoln “exhibited much the same insensitivity” toward Native Americans as did other government officials of his day.

    Brinkley has also written long books dealing with the conservation policies of two other presidents who are consistently ranked in our top five—Theodore Roosevelt (TR) and his distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). In these works, Brinkley often touches on the two presidents evolving views and policies regarding Native Americans.

    Although the historian does not quote TR’s infamous 1886 words—“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth”—he does indicate that TR’s views evolved in a more positive direction. Nevertheless, TR still spoke favorably of the 1887 Dawes General Allotment, which divided some communal lands among individual Indians and opened other acreage to white settlers. By 1900, the Indians had lost more than half of their previous lands.

    In his first Annual Message as president in December 1901, TR praised the act, stating that “the General Allotment Act is a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass… . We should now break up the tribal funds, doing for them what allotment does for the tribal lands; that is, they should be divided into individual holdings.”

    In Brinkley’s words, the problem was that TR “consistently saw the Indians’ future in North America in stark Darwinian terms.” He quotes a TR pre-presidential statement: “We must turn them loose, hardening our hearts to the fact that many will sink, exactly as many will swim.”

    In American Indians/American Presidents: A History, a valuable 2007 book, Clifford Trafzer, the editor, indicates that TR and his successors up until Herbert Hoover not only favored the Dawes Act but also assimilation.

    As compared to TR’s Indian approach, Brinkley presents FDR’s as being more enlightened and creating an “Indian New Deal.” The1934 Indian Reorganization Act restored some economic and cultural autonomy back to Native Americans and also “helped to modernize reservations and return some disputed [Indian] land.” In addition, the Act established the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which “employed seventy-seven thousand Native Americans during its first six years of existence, bringing to reservations “additional homes, schoolhouses, sewage treatment facilities, telephone lines, reservoirs, firebreaks, and truck trails.” 

    To improve Native American conditions, FDR relied especially on two men who had earlier demonstrated their Indian sympathies, John Collier (who became Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs) and Harold Ickes (named Secretary of Interior). Collier had previously founded and headed the Indian Defense Association, and Ickes and his wife, Anna, had been “longtime crusaders for Native American rights.”

    Despite remarking upon some Native American opposition to FDR’s Indian policies, Brinkley indicates that they were generally well received, and, “No other president had ever helped Native Americans prosper with the heartfelt conviction of FDR. The New Deal encouraged Indian self-rule, the restoration of tribal government, and the resuscitation of native culture and religion. But this wasn’t government paternalism or welfare.” Native Americans helped pull “themselves up by the bootstraps.”

    Despite some caveats, most other historians have also praised FDR’s Indian policies. For example, my 2008 copy of The American Journey, authored by seven historians, notes that “Native Americans also benefitted from the New Deal.” And it provides an excerpt from a 1938 report of Collier’s which stated, “For nearly 300 years white Americans, in our zeal to carve out a nation made to order, have dealt with the Indians on the erroneous, yet tragic, assumption that the Indians were a dying race—to be liquidated. We took away their best lands; broke treaties, promises; tossed them the most nearly worthless scraps of a continent that had once been wholly theirs.”

    No other highly ranked president has a better record toward Native Americans than FDR. Thomas Jefferson, usually ranked as our fifth to seventh best president, is often criticized for the “awful precedent” he set regarding “federal policy on Indian removal” (see also Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans).

    Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, both usually ranked in the top ten, also receive lower estimations for their policies toward Native Americans. Trafzer, for example, writes that the two presidents, although favoring full citizenship for Indians, “pursueda policy of termination, which aimed at destroying the tribes’ legal relationship with the United States and divesting Indians of their lands.” According to two other scholars, “Termination was a failure and was abandoned in the early 1970s. Native Americans refused to give up their culture, land, or sovereignty.”

    How about our other presidents? Do any of them have commendable records in regard to Native Americans? Two who are usually ranked somewhere between tenth and fifteenth (Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama) and one who is ranked considerably lower (Richard Nixon) are often mentioned. American Indians/American Presidents, for example, states that Johnson and Nixon “developed some of the most comprehensive and innovative Indian policy statements” in U.S. history. 

    In March 1968, Johnson sent an important message to Congress in which he drew attention to the Indian woes of the time, including high unemployment and death rates. He then stated, “No enlightened Nation, no responsible government, no progressive people can sit idly by and permit this shocking situation to continue.” He proposed ending the termination policy and stressed Indian self-determination. The main way his policies helped Native Americans was through his “Great Society” reforms. As a main web site sympathetic to Indian concerns, Indian Country Today, states, “as economically disadvantaged people, Indians benefited” from his reforms.

    This same web site, in addition to featuring essays on each of our first 44 presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, posted a 2012 piece by a Native American entitled “Barack Obama and Richard Nixon Among Best Presidents for Indian Country.” It credited Nixon with “changing course on many of the policies that had driven so many Indians into bleak poverty”; with ending some assimilationist policies; and with encouraging the growth of tribal governments. Although the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act came after Nixon’s resignation, it owed much to his earlier efforts on behalf of Native Americans.

    In regard to Obama, the site noted that during his first term he improved Indian health care, “institutionalized an annual White House Tribal Nations summit,” and hired “several Indians to posts throughout his administration.” Four years later in 2016, a New York Times editorial declared that “Candidate Obama Kept His Promise to Native Americans.”  It stated that tribal leaders credited him with helping to settle Indian claims against the government worth billions of dollars, “creating a White House council to maintain lines of communication with them; establishing a buyback program to help tribes regain scattered lands; expanding the jurisdiction of tribal courts; and including tribal women under the protection of the Violence Against Women law in 2013.”

    The Indian efforts of twentieth–century presidents such as FDR, Johnson, Nixon, and Obama owed debts to outside influences, especially Native American activism. According to one Indian source, the Brookings Institute 1928 Meriam Report, for example, “set the stage for a new era in Indian policy.” As such, it paved the way for FDR’s 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The civil rights activities of the 1960s, the 1970 publication of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, and the 1973 Indian occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota were just a few of the happenings that helped change U.S. Native American policies. 

    Such outside influences and an era’s mentality are certainly relevant when evaluating the Indian policies of presidents. Because of that we should not expect a Washington or Lincoln to champion measures that reflect today’s thinking. But if those actions had been wiser we would think even more highly of the two presidents. 

    This essay is also not suggesting that because a president like Nixon pushed for Indian policies that were more enlightened than say those of Theodore Roosevelt that the former should be ranked higher. No, there are too many other Nixon negatives.

    But Indian policies should at least influence our rankings. Take the case of President Andrew Jackson, where a greater recent awareness of such policies seems to have had an effect. In a 2016 interview, Douglas Brinkley noted that Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s Age of Jackson (1946) all but ignored Jackson’s policy of forcing Indians to migrate to reservations west of the Mississippi River. When many years later Brinkley asked Schlesinger why he overlooked such an important matter, he replied that he was embarrassed about it but when he was growing up he and many others “didn’t think of Native Americans as people-people.”

    Like Schlesinger Jr., his father was a historian, and both men conducted presidential ranking polls. The father in 1948 and in 1962, when he surveyed 75 historians; the son in 1996, when a smaller number of scholars were polled. In those three polls, Jackson was ranked 5th or 6th. But a 2017 poll, conducted by C-Span of 91 presidential historians, ranked Jackson only 18th. Despite President Trump’s great admiration for Jackson, the downgrade seems warranted. 

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

James Baldwin
The Price of the Ticket