Teaching US Environmental History during Trump’s first 100 days

This semester I found myself teaching U.S. Environmental History in what I’ll just call a disturbing political climate (har) for those of us concerned with our environment. In the past four months, Scott Pruitt, a “climate change denialist” and the former Attorney General of Oklahoma with a history of suing the agency he’s now charged with leading, was confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency; the president’s transition team asked the Department of Energy to identify employees who have worked on Obama’s energy and climate policies; White House officials and the president have discussed withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords; the Dakota Access Pipeline was completed with Trump’s support despite protests, and within weeks sprung several of the leaks its critics charged were likely; the administration shared a federal budget proposal that would slash EPA funding and ax all support for the Chesapeake Bay Program‘s restoration efforts. That’s a sampling, but the clear trend is that none of these moves signals an administration particularly receptive to scientific or historical evidence, or committed to prioritizing environmental protections.

Atlantic Sturgeon, photo from Chesapeake Bay Program, http://www.chesapeakebay.net/blog/post/five_endangered_species_that_live_in_the_chesapeake_bay_region

Most of that was easy enough to anticipate as I planned my classes for the semester, and I wanted to make sure we addressed some of those developments as they occurred. But my goal was to try to use environmental history to encourage political consciousness, rather than insist on a political ideology. To that end, I asked students to watch the news for current events related to the environment, and consider how deeper understandings of environmental history might shape actions, policies, arguments/debates, news coverage, etc.

I am sometimes a bit wary of asking students to draw connections between the past and the present, though not because those connections don’t exist or are unimportant. Sure, part of the value of studying history can be to make just those comparisons, but because many students’ historical knowledge remains fairly limited (we’re working on it!) their conclusions often tend towards the teleological. It often seems like many just aren’t (yet!) able to fully explain that arc, or recognize the complexity lying between a then and a now, and so instead resort to cliche–essay conclusions that assert a historical event is important “because it’s how we got where we are today.” Not necessarily wrong, but not wholly productive, either. I’ve been trying to find a way around this, in part because many students seem inclined to look for parallels, and in part because I want others to acknowledge and explore what environmental historians have termed a “usable past.”

One strategy I’ve landed on is to use historical examples or historical thinking to shape inquiries. That is, rather than encouraging students to find and fully explain parallels and direct connections, I want them to take a more complete understanding of either their present or historical example, and use that to develop questions and methods of learning about the other piece of that comparison. This means we can use gaps in our knowledge in productive ways, and whichever approach students adopt, they’re developing historical thinking. If they explore a historical episode and then consider its significance for the present–what current social or political tensions it reminds them of, for instance, or what ongoing environmental concerns appear similar to a change from history–they’re beginning to construct a usable past. If they explore a more contemporary issue and then speculate about what knowledge and information they need to better understand it, and how they might pursue that, they’re thinking methodologically about how to do environmental history–about the types of inquiries that drive it, and the sources available for resolving those questions.

This does mean the written product always reflects an inchoate process, but my hope is that privileging inquiry over assertion/argument allows students greater latitude to explore a variety of environmental issues and to take some intellectual risks. I also hope that by approaching such issues through a set of queries students will more comfortably critique the version of events they’ve been presented with by whatever news source they’re drawing from, whether it be the Washington Post, Fox News, The Economist, or the Billings Gazette.

Construction on Dakota Access Pipeline, photo from Billings Gazette, http://billingsgazette.com/business/dakota-access-pipeline-now-complete-in-north-dakota/article_46d20365-c9da-5c65-98e2-0c4c8a8c2427.html

Initially I wanted this assignment to reflect a historiography in which scholars the scholars we read throughout the semester consistently reminded us that environmental history is not simply a story of declension in which people arrive and destroy pristine environments, and I did receive papers that addressed species recovery, environmental education programs, and green business practices. But the majority focused on actions taken by and in response to the Trump administration, a reminder that it’s perhaps difficult to see our current moment as a story other than declension.

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The Jamestown Colony, Donald Trump, and the Problem of Patriarchal Leadership

*Edward Maria Wingfield’s 1607-08 presidency of the Jamestown Colony might lend insight to PEOTUS Donald Trump’s refusal to divest from his business holdings

Last semester’s Colonial America class inevitably spent some time thinking about the Jamestown Colony, especially the struggles of its early years. While we addressed the Virginia Company’s plans, settler demographics, economic development, environmental factors, and Native relations, each of those areas ultimately tied back to the supply and leadership problems that generated two of the colony’s more notorious episodes–the (alleged?) cannibalism of the Starving Time, and the power struggle between John Smith and other councilors.

One of the articles my students found for us to read was Michael LaCombe’s “‘A continuall and dayly Table for Gentlemen of fashion’: Humanism, Food, and Authority at Jamestown, 1607-1609,” which considers the ways in which Jamestown leaders used food to symbolize their status and authority. Edward Maria Wingfield, George Percy, John Smith, and even Powhatan all used public displays of material wealth to legitimize their power because those occasions encouraged peers and subordinates to acknowledge leaders’ personal power, an acknowledgement that conferred authority.

(Left: Edward Maria Wingfield. Right: John Smith.)

In other words, English colonial leaders at Jamestown felt compelled to present “a self which confirmed the authority of their office” (672), even if Wingfield and Smith, in particular, based their claims to authority on different models of leadership. The challenge for elite English colonists was that many of the material reflections of status traditionally used to convey that authority were lacking in Jamestown; houses and clothes, in particular, were either rudimentary or in limited supply. Food, on the other hand, came from three sources: company-supplied rations distributed by the colony’s leaders, the private stores of wealthier colonists, and trade with Powhatan neighbors. Because the colony’s councilors were also generally its wealthiest settlers, the line between their private stores and company rations was at times unclear, sometimes deliberately so since leaders were expected to fairly distribute company rations while also using their private stores to support struggling individuals. John Smith’s criticisms of Wingfield and other elite councilors thus emphasized the degree to which they maintained their dietary habits–eating fine foods in highly visible meals–while the men around them went hungry. His concern was not those men’s private stores, but their monopolization of the choicest foods from the common store to eat as a marker of their status. According to Smith’s critique, then, men like Wingfield attempted to reprise a feudal model of “patriarchal leadership” in which their political authority rested on their social status, but failed to legitimize that authority through their regard for the welfare of ordinary people.

Reminiscent of Wingfield’s apparent inability to alter his consumption patterns, Donald Trump’s unique personal authority seems to be based on his distinctive wealth and its trappings. Despite ethics concerns, he cannot divest because that would undermine his ability to display markings of the social status underlying the authority on which he campaigned–that is, it’s his wealth that lends him the appearance of expertise on which he based his appeal to voters. Those public displays are apparent when he appears at his golf courses and resorts, chooses to fly in his own plane rather than Air Force One, prefers Trump Tower to the White House, and sits for photographs in his lavish penthouse. LaCombe explains that in Jamestown, “what ultimately mattered was a man’s ability to convince [the Virginia Company’s] members that he understood what had gone wrong and how to fix it, that his personal qualities and experiences had given him more general knowledge, a claim to what Eric Ash has called ‘the authority conferred by the perception of expertise’” (673). It’s Trump’s wealth that bolsters his claims to unique personal expertise–how many times have we heard the phrase “Believe me” lately?–and his claims that only he has the solutions to whatever (mostly, it seems, economic) problems voters face.

Moreover, relinquishing his business holdings would distance him from the things that cement his position in a social hierarchy based on wealth. Patriarchalism assumes that social inequality derives from a divine ordering of the cosmos, while patriarchal models of leadership assert that “society’s proper functioning depend[s] at bottom on leaders” while “the political role of ordinary settlers…[is] to witness and affirm the claims of their leaders” (679). In other words, Trump’s commitment to this form of authority argues that his wealth is a result of his natural superiority that qualifies him as a leader. Divesting would distance him from the businesses that generate that wealth and support his habits that display it, thus flattening a social hierarchy and making him relatable, which in turn would undermine his claims to authority.

Other models of leadership, however, rest their authority claims on sympathy and relatability. In critiquing Wingfield, Smith presented himself as adhering to an alternative form of authority. Embracing the image of a humanist leader, he based his claim to political authority on his willingness to share in the rations, living conditions, and labor of ordinary settlers, subordinating his own needs to the common good. The model of leadership Trump has embraced, though, rests on acknowledgement, functioning only if a community chooses to confer authority on the individual claiming it. Unlike Wingfield, who did defend himself by pointing to elements of leadership that fit a humanist model, there’s nothing about Trump that suggests a willingness to share in the hardships of ordinary Americans–and in fact his claims to authority rest entirely on his distance from those hardships. His need to continually confirm and even bolster those claims may explain his inability to stop campaigning, since he demonstrates none of the qualifications–a history of public service or ability to subordinate his own private ends to the common good–of a humanist leader.

For those seeking solace, it may be reassuring that Smith’s arguments won the day, at least in much of popular memory. In Virginia, Wingfield was ultimately charged with abusing his station–mostly by using common stores to maintain his own status claims–removed from office, and heavily fined.

Michael A. LaCombe, “‘A continuall and dayly Table for Gentlemen of fashion’: Humanism, Food, and Authority at Jamestown, 1607-1609,” The American Historical Review 115, no. 3 (June 2010): 669-87.

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About that “great, great wall”

Following the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump is officially the party’s nominee for president. Talk of a wall on the US-Mexico border has been less apparent in the headlines lately than plagiarism, Ted Cruz’s smirk, and various politicians and talk-radio hosts going off the deep end, but it’s still been on my mind as I research the 17th-century Hudson Valley, where fences and walls were a major point of contention. (Trump’s wall is still featured prominently on his website, but I’m not linking to that–sorry, you can find it yourself. And he talked about immigration plenty in his acceptance speech, sparking chants of “Build that wall!” from the crowd.)

Announcing he was running last October, Trump asserted, “I will build a great wall–and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me–and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

Turns out Trump isn’t the first white New Yorker to come up with the idea of trying to make people of color pay for a structure to physically divide a regional population based on race. On September 15, 1639 Willem Kieft, fifth director of the colony of New Netherland (renamed New York after the English assumed control of it in 1664), declared:

Whereas the Company has to bear heavy expenses both for the erection of fortification and the maintenance of soldiers and sailors, Therefore we have resolved to levy some contributions either in peltries, maize or wampum from the Indians residing hereabout, whom we have hitherto protected against their enemies and if there be any tribe, who will not willingly consent to contribute, we shall endeavor to induce them to do so by the most suitable means. [1]

So let’s break this down a little bit. The autocratic Kieft was appointed to run the colony because of his supposed business acumen (no governing experience), and one of his first acts was to demand payments from the indigenous population to maintain his invading population. He justified the levy by arguing the invading force was actually protecting the Natives who would pay the tax against attacks by other Indians. And he promised that if the Indians didn’t make the payments willingly, he would find a way to force them.

While there were undoubtedly some conflicts among Native communities, Kieft’s main concern seems to have been to try to supply a colonial population of only a few hundred people who were reliant on Indians to trade them provisions, since the colony was chronically undersupplied and farming had yet to really take off. More to the point, the fort was to protect the few colonists and whatever foodstuffs they managed to procure from Native neighbors who were more than capable of taking what they wanted from the beleaguered Dutch. Needless to say, the move didn’t endear him to the area’s Native inhabitants, and probably not surprisingly, continued friction led to a conflict named Kieft’s War by his political rivals–you can guess who they blamed. Cultural conflict is certainly a theme throughout the colonial era, but earlier years in New Netherland had been markedly friendly as Dutch merchants and a small number of colonists catered to Native trade partners, so this was a significant turning point in those relations.
Kieft did resign after an 8-year administration and departed for the Netherlands, but his ship wrecked in Wales, and the deposed director perished in 1647. He had managed to further develop New Netherland’s fortifications–albeit without significant direct contributions from the Natives. He’d also managed to make those defenses more necessary.

[1] Berthold Fernow, ed., Documents relating to the history and settlements of the towns along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers (with the exception of Albany) from 1630 to 1684 (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1881), 6.

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Muhammad Ali’s patriotism (and poetry)

I’ve had the somewhat odd experience the last two Junes of being on location when something historic happened. In 2015 I was at the Library of Congress, in a seminar room with windows looking out at the Supreme Court, when the Court handed down its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. In 2016, I was in Louisville’s Galt House, in an 8th-floor room with a view of the Muhammad Ali Center, which I visited May 31 for the first time, and which four days later–in spite of the rain (read that as a metaphor, perhaps)–became a memorial for The Greatest, who passed away at the age of 74. (Note: I’m not trying to equate the two, or their significance–just noting that in both cases, I’ve been in an interesting setting to reflect on history.)

From the 8th floor at the Galt House.

From the 8th floor at the Galt House.

Already by the time I walked over to the memorial on Saturday morning, national and international media were on-site, most of them hunkered down under pop-up tents and with cameras trained on either the memorial, or the stairs up which visitors were making their way.


Visitors in the rain, Saturday morning (before 8am).

The eulogies quickly appeared in print, on the web, and on TV, but the comments on social media were equally interesting. A number of my friends and acquaintances posted quotes, commented on Ali’s significance–and in some cases criticized both Ali and those mourning his passing. A few were dismissive of his status as “just a sports star,” while others resented his refusal to “serve his country.” And it’s those criticisms I want to focus on, because I think they miss the point of Ali: that his rejection of the draft and refusal to fight in Vietnam, and his unapologetically confrontational comments on race in the U.S., served his country in a way that made him more than a sports star. (If you’re unfamiliar with all this, check out “The Importance of Muhammad Ali,” a brief essay from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.)


Tuesday afternoon outside the Ali Center.

We aren’t always accustomed to cultural icons making political statements. Remember the controversy about the Oscars earlier this year, and the speeches in which several actors called for greater environmental consciousness, action on climate change, and attention to race and diversity? Entertainers and celebrities risk their earning power when they use their fame as a platform to express political ideals. When the Dixie Chicks, a country band, blasted George W. Bush and the Iraq war in 2003, their sales plummeted and they lost endorsement deals, among other consequences. With marketing teams and agents managing the public images and careers of athletes, musicians, and actors, it’s more notable when those figures are outspoken and opinionated than when they’re not. Michael Jordan may be the archetype, in some ways–a brand unto himself, but bland (“inoffensive,” if you’d prefer) to an extreme.

Ali’s boxing, and then his decisions involving the draft and his statements on civil rights, made him a cultural icon and a political figure, one of the United States’s most visible black citizens. His fame as an athlete provided him the platform–the audience, the media access, and the economic resources to remain independent and maintain his stance when he was unable to box–to not only express his opinion, but demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice a great deal of good will and money. This was citizen action not through the act of voting to express an individual political position, but through advocacy and persuasion and modeling.

In my class on American Wilderness last semester, we naturally read Thoreau and Emerson (bear with me a moment here). One piece of our discussion of their work was their effort to construct a national literature to help define a distinct American identity, rooting both American letters and nationalism in the United States’ unique relationship with the natural world. They embraced their Americanness, and Americans claim them.

But Thoreau also famously refused to pay taxes to a state government that was complicit in racial slavery and the Mexican-American War, spent time in jail as a consequence, and wrote Civil Disobedience to explain his rationale. In that essay, he pointed to a tension between individual conscience and legislation and argued that men can “serve the state with their consciences also.” That contribution was no less a contribution to his project of encoding American identity in American letters than his celebration of nature.

And I think it’s also a key to understanding Ali. Both sought to articulate what it means to be an American. Both engaged in a similar project, and at times in similar ways. Where Thoreau sought economic independence by simplifying his needs during his experiment at Walden Pond, Ali could lean on his existing wealth for economic support as he endangered his earning power with political action. Where Thoreau sought to contribute to a national canon that would perpetuate American ideals, Ali used his existing fame to highlight the uneven application of those professed American ideals. Both identified racism and imperialism as American practices at odds with the nation’s professed ideals, and both worked to hold it accountable to those ideals. In short, neither rejected his nation. Instead, each seized on the more admirable characteristics of his country–the ability to act and speak in accord with one’s conscience–to combat its least admirable practices, acting alike to serve a nation not as it was, but as they believed it should be.

I will admit one major difference.

Ali was the better poet.


“I’ve wrestled with alligators,/I’ve tussled with a whale./I done handcuffed lightning/And throw thunder in jail./You know I’m bad./Just last week, I murdered a rock,/Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick./I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”–Muhammad Ali

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On authority and objectivity

I’m continually struck by how many students seemingly prize the ideal of “objectivity” and neutrality, but more than that, how many of them are convinced those ideals are actually–or should be–manifested in scholarship and the media. I suppose we could argue they just haven’t (yet) become cynical, and that that is a good thing, but I’m more concerned they sometimes don’t realize they need to be critical–and what that might mean in realms beyond our classrooms–which is where this musing is ultimately headed.

This attitude particularly struck me in my introductory US survey, where students consistently mentioned newspapers as sources they believed to be objective, as opposed to “biased” sources such as personal journals. They seemed confused that 19th-century newspapers attacked politicians, editorialized on the morality of slavery and Indian Removal, and faced suppression by several different presidential administrations between 1790 and 1865. Very few seemed able to reconcile this belief that newspapers are neutral/objective/independent with the content and history of those newspapers that would suggest otherwise. They remained convinced that somewhere they would be able to find “historical fact.”

This attitude carried over to my historiography course, where students were admittedly more skeptical of primary source materials–including legal documents and newspapers–but initially very confused by the notion that historical scholarship is contested rather than authoritative. Our common topic in that course was the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War, and we started by reading excerpts from Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe, followed by excerpts of Francis Jennings’s Empire of Fortune. One nice thing about this combination is Jennings calls Parkman “a liar,” so there’s little doubt we’re seeing a historiographical debate–well, probably an argument in this case. But again, many students were taken aback by the disagreements, and one summarized that confusion by asking, “Parkman says one thing, and Jennings says exactly the opposite, so who’s right?”

Most of these students have had upper-level courses in the major by this point, so they have seen scholars working with primary sources, and are willing and able to approach primaries critically. But many have a harder time with the idea that scholars disagree, and I wonder if that’s partly because in our courses we are generally assigning scholarship we think is exemplary–we perhaps don’t critique the weaker elements of a book or essay, and students rarely see examples of poor scholarship and learn to critique it. As instructors, we also perhaps don’t feature enough the major debates in our fields (probably because we tend to align with one side or the other) that would effectively illustrate the contested nature of historical interpretation.

By neglecting to do so, we perhaps feed the notion that historical scholarship is about consensus-building and finding out “what really happened,” a central theme in Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect (which we also read in this methods class). Hoffer covers the development of the historical profession, and points out that one of its early objectives was to settle historical fact/truth; once established, that piece of history was no longer contested. Hoffer points out that this fed American scholarship’s construction of consensus history, which celebrated American exceptionalism and coalesced around familiar metanarratives.

That, of course, got blown up across the 1960s and 1970s, a fragmentation/growing complexity that continues today, but which introduces its own problems. One of the aspects of this new history is its honesty about the limits of its methods and understandings, the introspection about our motives as authors and scholars. But that’s something that again troubles many of the students in this class, who sometimes then perceive the honesty among practitioners as a lack of objectivity and therefore bias, leading them to worry that what they are reading is either bad history, or that any historical scholarship is equally valid because it’s informed by personal perspective.

Encountering these attitudes in both classes at the same time prompts me to wonder why it is that students so value that ideal of objectivity and neutrality, and want so much to believe it exists. Part of the answer, I think, goes back to the professionalization of both fields (journalism and historical scholarship), which involved both a credentialing program and the establishment of professional standards that would allow the professions–and the ideas and information they generated and/or conveyed–to serve a civic purpose. They could establish certainty in shared truths, rather than simply reproducing the diverse and possibly irreconcilable opinions/perspectives/arguments of a large number of self-interested people. (One manifestation of this in our students, I think, is their resistance to using the first person. I know that’s partly been trained into them by teachers hoping to help them distinguish between opinion and argument, but the result to such strictures is that many just contort themselves to avoid first-person pronouns without actually recognizing what those rules are trying to accomplish.)

Now of course, part of the point here is that these are students–they are learning to be skeptical, critical receivers and producers of information and ideas, and those in the historiography class had clearly advanced beyond those students in the intro class. But in teaching them (hopefully, anyway) to approach scholarship skeptically, are we effectively conveying the message that other areas of expertise should be equally open to critique, or does that message remain insular? Does the inability or refusal to self-examine–or the lack of visibility of such introspection–in other institutions and professions lend them a greater degree of perceived authority because they don’t question themselves?

Here I’m thinking in particular about news again, which seems to retain that kind of authority even through scandals involving funding, corporatization, the narrow lens of American media, the confirmation bias built into different outlets, etc. Again, if so many of my students feel like it doesn’t matter where one obtains news because it’s the duty of the media to be objective and informative, not to shape public opinion and manipulate citizens, and then they contrast the bombastic certainty expressed in the information outlets like Fox News and MSNBC convey with the qualified and cautious arguments propagated by scholars/academics, is it any wonder so many people accept dubious claims about climate change, immigration, Islam, free markets, health care, guns, and other politically fraught issues? Clear positions seem to derive from a certainty that scholarship has often actively distanced itself from, and claim an authority that scholarship is cautious to assert.

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Paleoclimatology and the environmental history of New Netherland/New York

Although I’ve been teaching US Environmental History at UMW the last few years (and a seminar on American Wilderness), and although I write about perceptions of landscapes in my research, I haven’t really done much scholarship I’d consider environmental history as such (cultural history involving environments and landscapes, sure). But I do obviously have some background, and that’s prompted me to think more explicitly about how to tie my interest in historical ideas about landscapes/environments with material environmental conditions and change.

Way, way back in grad school I took a class with Mike Davis that was centered around his book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third WorldMy research paper for the class took a totally different direction, looking at climactic disruptions in the Great Lakes region during the French and Indian War, and how that exacerbated the wartime social and economic conditions in New France and the communities of its Native American allies. I drew some on the usual sources you’d expect–journals and letters and reports from military officers and soldiers and colonists and captives, treaty records, etc.–as well as some that might not have been so expected, namely tree-ring data indicating regional weather patterns in the 1750s and 1760s. Ultimately I was making an argument about the dramatic changes to Native subsistence patterns during the war itself, and during the period that followed as the British government instituted new policies that further pressured Native subsistence. It was fun, but undoubtedly only a preliminary foray into that type of work, and I set it aside for years afterward. When I tried to return to it about a year ago, the website from which I had drawn that data was gone, and so I turned to other work instead.

But when I recently committed to writing an essay on how the introduction of Dutch/English agriculture to the Hudson River corridor in the 17th century upset Native subsistence patterns, I went hunting again, this time with the promise of a more immediate payoff. I eventually landed on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) page of Paleoclimatology Data, where lo and behold, it looks as though the data I used earlier has been expanded, refined, and set alongside a ton of other types of scientific evidence useful for thinking about environmental history. This is at once (1) incredibly exciting; (2) potentially illuminating; (3) absolutely daunting. Here’s hoping I’m somewhat successful locating useful data and putting it to work in conjunction with the written historical accounts with which I’m far more comfortable working.

And for any interested parties, I have at least one on-campus presentation in Spring 2016 to discuss my ongoing progress.

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The trial of “an Indyan called Nangenutch or Will”

Although I haven’t posted about it here, I have been working on an essay that I think is about ready for some additional readers (one is already checking it out, another two are lined up and will see it probably early next week). A brief description of the specific event at the essay’s center:

On 19 March 1667/8, in the town of East Hampton on the southeastern tip of Long Island, Mary Miller escorted Nangenutch, a Montauk Indian[1] also known to the English as Will, to her home. Sent by her husband to open the door so the bound native laborer could deposit a bag of corn for later grinding, she apparently instead was assaulted and raped. Fleeing her home, she encountered a neighbor to whom she related the assault, and by the following day local magistrates had indicted Nangenutch and deposed Mary and two other witnesses. They referred the case to a higher court, which examined the Indian on 28 March, and proceeded to trial the following month. Despite concluding unanimously that the defendant had not committed the capital crime of rape, the court found him guilty of attempted rape, ordering him publicly whipped and sold into slavery in the Leeward Islands “that all Indyans may bee deterred to attempt the like.”[2]

[2] Peter R. Christoph, ed., Administrative Papers of Governors Richard Nicolls and Francis Lovelace, 1664-1673 (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980), 71.

I actually ran across this case–the legal documents include an indictment, several depositions, minutes of the court’s examinations, and a verdict–while researching for the article that came out earlier this summer, and so I made copies and set it aside for later. It was interesting enough to use a bit for my Colonial America class, and during the fall semester I also submitted a conference proposal for it. When that was accepted, I realized I had a great opportunity to pursue a research project in parallel with students in my History 298: History Practicum section, since they were doing primary-source based papers–I wrote about this briefly a few months ago. Working with the documents from this case was really helpful for me in terms of figuring out what I wanted those students to achieve in the various stages of their projects, from conception to proposal to historiography to a final research paper, and to build those assignment requirements accordingly. I also wrote the same assignments they did, which compelled me to think more deeply about what I had as well as writing pieces well in advance of my conference.

If you’re interested, the pre-work and source materials, and some thoughts about the whole process, are available on my 298 course blog, and students looking ahead to 298 can check out the assignments on that website’s Resources page, though they’ll have to track me down if they want to read the conference paper.

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Positive reinforcement

Just the other day, FedEx dropped off a lovely envelope from Early American Studies, and inside were copies to EAS 13.3, where my first full-length article appears. I last wrote about this project when submitting the piece–I held off updates when it was accepted and going through the editorial process because I didn’t want to jinx anything. But it’s done, it’s out, and it feels pretty good. And probably just as importantly, it’s positive reinforcement as I work on two other writing projects this summer.

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Feds recognize Pamunkey Indians of Virginia

I spent the last couple of weeks in Washington, D.C., and they turned out to be fairly momentous. There were landmark Supreme Court decisions on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, but there was also a much quieter announcement more directly related to what I study and more specifically related to where I live. The Bureau of Indian Affairs officially approved the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia’s application for federal recognition, decades after the tribe initiated the process to become Virginia’s first federally recognized Indian tribe. (It’s worth noting that the Duwamish, of Washington state, were not approved, and were notified on the same day.)

I was actually at the Library of Congress for a NEH seminar on Native American history, and it involved a ton of discussion about reservations, tribal government and rights, political sovereignty, cultural identities, and self-determination. In other words, I was hanging out with a bunch of people who saw the headline in the Washington Post and immediately thought it was remarkable and exciting. We were already talking about the challenges of recognition, and the lack of visibility of Native people and communities, so this gave us lots to discuss.

One of the challenges that had faced the Pamunkey was their lack of a treaty with the federal government, the basis for many tribes’ federal recognition and treaty rights. Instead, the Pamunkey maintain a treaty-based relationship with the governor of Virginia, based on a colonial-era treaty; they still commemorate it annually, including giving a gift to the governor (formerly a bundle of arrows, now a pair of deer). But that state-level treaty hadn’t previously proved enough to obtain recognition, despite a persistent cultural identity and a reservation (land base) almost unique among Virginia’s tribes. That isn’t quite to say that no one acknowledges their existence, but rather that the BIA adheres to a strict set of requirements legislated by Congress, and it took the Pamunkey years of work and research to persuade the BIA that, in the official notice’s language, “the Pamunkey Indian Tribe exists as an Indian tribe within the meaning of Federal law.”

The Pamunkey were already one of eleven tribes recognized by the state, as are the six tribes currently seeking federal recognition through an act of Congress. These tribes haven’t met with success in their petitions to the BIA, again largely because of the strict requirements for federal recognition, but have pooled resources to make the case that they have and continue to exist as independent communities deserving of federal status. Several others have commented that they aren’t actively seeking federal status because state recognition provides access to resources and programs they’re interested in, and they don’t necessarily see a need to pursue federal status at the moment. The Pamunkey also maintained that position for a time–in fact, a tribal spokesman explicitly said as much in preparing the tribe’s exhibit at D.C.’s National Museum of the American Indian.

There were objections to according the Pamunkey federal status, and they weren’t all based on the strict requirements for BIA recognition. One major group of opponents cited their concern that federal recognition would allow the Pamunkey to open a casino on their reservation, since federally recognized tribes are exempt from some state regulations (Virginia typically does not allow gaming, though there is currently a casino under construction–shockingly, the company operating that casino has opposed Pamunkey recognition). A second group of opponents cited tribal regulations that prohibited marriage between Pamunkeys and individuals of African descent, arguing that a racist past should disqualify the tribe (though nobody has argued that my state, home of Loving v. Virginia, should be denied statehood based on that history). I don’t know a ton about Pamunkey history, but I’d suspect that stance was partly a response to the state’s 1924 Racial Integrity ACt, which banned interracial marriage and dictated that state records record births as “White” or “Colored,” or if the attitude existed earlier, was an effort to distance themselves from a black population enslaved in the colonial and 19th-century South. Given the choice between identifying as white at a time when there were few protections afforded to Indian tribes, and with legal segregation and socially acceptable racism in full force, American Indians undoubtedly chose the more palatable option.

That created problems later when tribes like the Pamunkey began seeking federal recognition, since their tribal identities and affiliations had been legislated out of existence for decades, if not generations. In other words, proving a continuous existence was difficult when there were long gaps due to the fact that no one was officially identified as “American Indian,” much less Pamunkey. Opponents of recognition could argue that tribal members were not “real” Indians, but merely claiming that identity to access “special privileges” like treaty rights and federal funds.

Nonetheless, in the few years I’ve spent in Virginia, it’s become abundantly clear that the state’s Native communities maintain a vibrant cultural tradition–including oral histories, language reconstruction programs and classes, traditional naming conventions and material culture (Patawomeck eel baskets, for instance)–and constitute well-defined, tight-knit communities. The federal government has acknowledged this in the case of the Pamunkey, and we’ll see if that matters for other Virginia tribes.

But for now, it seems it’s time to update the Pamunkey exhibition at the NMAI.

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Wild and Scenic Film Fest

2015 WSFF Poster Regular 8.5x11

Wild & Scenic Film Fest expands to two locations

4th annual event features films that inspire environmental activism

For immediate release

Contact: Woodie Walker

E-mail: woodie.walker @riverfriends.org

Phone: (540) 373-3448 x. 117

FREDERICKSBURG – There aren’t many empty seats at Friends of the Rappahannock’s (FOR) annual environmental film festival, so this year the Fredericksburg-based environmental non-profit has expanded to two dates and two locations.

The group’s 4th Annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival kicks off Saturday, March 21, at Paragon Village 12 Theaters off Route 3 in Fredericksburg. According to FOR Development Director Katie Abel, the festival’s theme is, “A Wild Life,” and features nearly 20 inspirational films with titles like “Monarchs and Milkweed” and “High Altitude Fish Hunters.” Most are about 10 minutes in length, and intended to raise environmental awareness and serve as a call to action.

On Sunday, April 12, the festival will move to the Daniel Technology Center on the Germanna Community College campus in Culpeper. “Our Fredericksburg festival draws more than 300 attendees each year,” said FOR Executive Director Kathleen Harrigan. “We recognized that people really enjoy this event, so we partnered with Piedmont Environmental Council, Trout Unlimited, and Germanna Community College to make it more accessible for folks in the upper portion of the river, as well.”

Doors open for the Fredericksburg festival at 8 a.m., with movies starting at 8:50 and running until about noon. The Culpeper showing begins at 1 p.m. and will end about 4 p.m. Vendors will be on hand at both events to promote local businesses and other nonprofit partners in the region. There will also be drawings for door prizes.


Tickets for both events are $8 in advance and $10 at the door, and can be purchased online at www.riverfriends.org. Look for the event calendar in the lower, right-hand side of the website. Keep a sharp eye on our facebook page for the chance to win free tickets!

At the conclusion of each film festival, FOR will present a special showing of its award-winning documentary, “Rappahannock,” produced and directed by Oscar-nominee Bayley Silleck of Fredericksburg. This 40-minute film highlights the history of the Rappahannock River and the challenges it faces in the 21st century.

For more information, call (540) 373-3448 or e-mail info@riverfriends.org



#Wildandscenic #RappRiverFilmFest



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