Legislating Indian Country:
Significant Milestones in Transforming Tribalism
By Laurence Armand French
New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2007
From the brief biography printed on the back cover, Laurence Armand French has a wide and varied academic background and has dedicated much of his life to learning. He is to be commended for those endeavours, as well as for tackling such a complex and intricate topic - in this slim volume, he has attempted to explore the major developments throughout the entire history of federal Indian policy.
Unfortunately, he has undertaken too large a project within the confines of the available space. In less than 175 pages, French explores more than 200 years of history, more than a dozen federal statutes, and approximately a dozen court decisions, as well as aspects of the belief systems of several tribes. As a result, his explanations are necessarily superficial and incomplete throughout the entire book. One illustration of this problem occurs on page 143, where French asserts with no support that “traditional spiritualism is the foundation of Indian culture”. That statement would come as a surprise to the large number of Indians who adhere to different religious traditions, including Christianity.
At several points throughout the book, French’s explanations cross from incomplete into misleading and even occasionally inaccurate. A minor example can be found in Chapter Three, which is largely devoted to an exploration of late 19th century events and yet spends its last two pages discussing the Cobell litigation regarding Individual Indian Money accounts, which was filed in 1996, more than a century later. It is not entirely clear why French included this discussion out of its chronological context. More seriously, French’s explanation of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act is rife with errors. For example, on page103, French asserts that those tribes who “selected this Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) option had their tribal status transformed into that of a business corporation, where enrolled members constituted shareholders”. This explanation conflates sections 16 and 17 of the IRA, as well as the IRA and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the result being a thoroughly incorrect rendering of both statutes. It is also unclear why French includes a discussion of the Navajo and Cherokee tribes along with the IRA (pp. 98-99), as neither tribe is organized under that statute.
These problems are compounded by French’s tendency to include the entire text of statutes, as well as other primary sources, as extended block quotations. Such large blocks interrupt the flow of the discussion and make it difficult to follow. Chapter Two, for example, consists of 26.5 pages exploring the Early Republic Era. Of those 26.5 pages, more than 15 pages are block quotations. French’s discussion of the Johnson-O’Malley Act (pp. 91-92) consists of just over four lines of historical context followed by the text of the statute, with no further explanation or analysis. Chapters Three and Four conclude with block quotations, again with no further explanation or analysis.
Finally, two recurring themes are threaded throughout the book - the role of the Mormons and issues of blood quantum. Comments on these topics are scattered throughout the text with little explanation, examples, or other supporting material. The purpose and significance of these themes is not clear, and more explication is required for the reader to fully understand the point French is attempting to make.
In conclusion, French is to be applauded for tackling such a large and complex topic, but he would have better served his readers by selecting a smaller slice of history and exploring it more thoroughly. As it stands, Legislating Indian Country does not add anything to the existing literature and its errors make it unreliable as a summary overview.
|MELISSA L. TATUM
University of Arizona