Interview: C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa on Crooked Paths to Allotment

Crooked Paths to Allotment

[This article is crossposted from]

In Crooked Paths to Allotment, C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa complicates standard narratives of nineteenth century Native American history by uncovering the stories of individuals who contested federal Indian policy and proposed viable alternatives during a critical moment in its development. Genetin-Pilawa focuses on reformers and activists, including Tonawanda Seneca Ely S. Parker and Council Fire editor Thomas A. Bland, whose contributions to Indian policy debates have heretofore been underappreciated. Genetin-Pilawa’s interventions into the historical narrative as it has been traditionally construed have the potential to change how we see and study American Indian engagement with government processes in the nineteenth century and beyond. Here, Dr. Genetin-Pilawa discusses his research, some of the key insights he gained, and his latest work.


C. Joseph Genetin-PilawaHow did you arrive at this research project?

Originally, I imagined writing a book that focused solely on the National Indian Defense Association and its efforts in the 1880s to block the passage of forced allotment legislation. I became fascinated with Thomas and Cora Bland, the founders of the organization, and their campaign against the “Friends of the Indian,” a story that had been glossed over in the existing literature.

As these things go, however, the questions I was asking encouraged me to move backwards chronologically. Where did the Blands’ radicalism come from? Were there other individuals working within federal governance that actively questioned the trajectory, pace, and goals of the policies directed at Native communities, and offered viable alternatives? If so, what could we learn from their stories? This led me to ask similar questions of Ely Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca condoled chief and the first Indigenous commissioner of Indian Affairs, and his efforts to shape federal policy in the years surrounding the Civil War.

What inspired you to center your research on Ely Parker and Thomas Bland over other individuals?

There are several reasons why I find these individuals to be so compelling. I discussed the Blands above, but Parker’s life was so immensely interesting as well. He had many careers (interpreter for Seneca diplomats, condoled chief, engineer, military bureaucrat, policymaker, clerk). He lived and studied with other Haudenosaunee people in Ontario, worked on the Erie Canal, studied law in western New York, oversaw the building of customs houses and other federal buildings in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, and Virginia, fought in the Civil War, lived in Washington, D.C. at several different moments and then later in New York City, working for the NYPD and spending time with Jacob Riis.

Parker and Bland were also controversial figures—even their historical legacies are contested. They didn’t (and don’t) fit into our standard narratives of nineteenth-century policy reform, assimilation, dispossession, and assaults on sovereignty. But because they don’t fit, I think they force us to look at these narratives with fresh eyes and ask new questions. In much of the historical literature on the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Parker and Bland are constructed as outliers, individuals who made little impact. Yet if we look at the historical record, it’s clear that they built strong alliances and had significant support for their ideas. In both cases, their enemies clearly viewed them as threats and worked intensely to repress their reform agendas. Even though they lost more political battles than they won, studying their techniques, motivations, and struggles enriches and improves our interpretations.

How does the act of “peopling” history help disrupt the misconception that Federal Indian Policy developed in a linear trajectory?

It reminds us that policy did not develop in a vacuum and that individuals drove this process in real time, responding often to what they perceived as the most important needs either of Native communities or themselves (sometimes both). Early in the conceptualization of this project, I found myself coming back to a couple of general ideas that I had read over and over again in the secondary literature. The first was the belief that to be “pro-Indian” in the post-Civil War was to be “pro-assimilation” and “pro-allotment.” Second, that the eastern philanthropists who became known as the “Friends of the Indian” were “well-meaning, but perhaps ill-informed.”

However, in my research, I kept encountering individuals and actions that didn’t fit these models and those who did, did so in a more complicated way. For example, one could argue that at various moments Ely Parker supported assimilation and allotment, but his support for these ideas was limited to specific contexts and he ultimately argued against both. And while I think it makes sense to understand some of the “Friends” to have been well intentioned at least some of the time, there is lots of evidence to suggest that their intentions were by no means always altruistic.

The two individuals you focused on were men, but were there any Native women who were involved on the political scene—either at national or local levels?

There were absolutely Indigenous women working in Native policy reform, some of whom we might think of as prominent, as well as many more that worked behind-the-scenes, or who left fewer records for historians today. I think that Sarah Winnemucca would be a good example of a Native woman who was involved politically, both locally and more nationally in the time period I discuss (Siobhan Senier, as well as others have written convincingly of Winnemucca’s importance).

If we look at some of the earlier events I address, including the Ogden Land Company’s campaign to remove the Tonawanda Seneca from their homelands from 1838-1857, we must also take seriously the role that clan mothers played in influencing the decisions Tonawanda leaders made and the strategies they employed (recently Laurence Hauptman has issued calls to historians to pay more attention to the roles these women played).

There were other women working in Native policy reform as well, including well-known individuals like Helen Hunt Jackson and members of the Women’s National Indian Association (some of whom Cathleen Cahill references in Federal Fathers and Mothers). I tried to say as much as I could about Cora Bland, Thomas’ wife, partner, and co-editor, who played an important role in shaping both the National Indian Defense Association’s platform and the approach that Thomas Bland took in his reform campaigns. I wish I could find more about her thoughts and influence, but the historical record is scant.

You mention that both Parker and Bland introduced ideas that didn’t always have immediate success but that sometimes developed and had greater influence over time. Can you give us an example of that?

The biggest example that comes to mind is the opposition these men held toward dispossession and land allotment. Both men challenged these ideas but ultimately faced defeats in the face of a broader movement toward these policies during their lives and careers. However, based on the kinds of arguments they made in favor of supporting tribal sovereignty and maintaining tribal homelands and land bases, both of them would likely have supported John Collier and the Wheeler-Howard Act in 1934 that effectively ended the allotment era.

Another example would be Parker’s arguments in support of what today would be called a classical, liberal arts education for Native students (something he pursued as a youth in New York State) and Bland’s support of the same. In some ways, Parker’s ideas can be viewed within a larger framework of immediate post-Civil War Reconstruction politics that included important educational developments through the Freedman’s Bureau. Bland’s focus on a more well-rounded educational experience for Native students can be juxtaposed against the efforts of Herbert Welsh and the Indian Rights Association, who advocated a strictly vocational education.

Were there any signs of alliance building between figures like Parker and Bland with other individuals from marginalized groups?

This question brings to mind a few examples. Following the Civil War, Parker traveled around the South with General Grant and in doing so came into contact with communities of freed people. Although he did not work directly with them, he expressed concern about conditions in which they had been forced to live and took an interest in the development of Reconstruction policy as well. He wrote in 1866, for example, about the importance of keeping military troops in the South, for “the protection of the emancipated race.”

Thomas Bland identified with Midwestern farmers and populist agrarian activists, at one point writing a kind of “party biography” for the Peoples (Populist) Party. Among other issues, Bland advocated for banking and currency reform, as well as the break-up of monopolies. These ideas fit with his notions of a protective state, fears of uncontrolled capitalism, and support for democratic self-determination.

In your current research, you’re looking at Native American presence in nineteenth-century D.C.—could you talk a little about your preliminary findings?

I received a US Capitol Historical Society fellowship this summer to begin research in earnest on a project I’m tentatively calling “The Indians’ Capital City.” At first glance, the premise of the project seems simple: in the nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for Indigenous people to travel to and reside in Washington, D.C. Of course, these kinds of stories are rarely simple. In this book, I am examining the hidden tensions between the commemorative and lived landscape that developed as Washington City increasingly became a symbol of the United States. Or to put it another way, as the capital came to be the physical manifestation of a national imaginary in the nineteenth century, the disjuncture between the iconographic/symbolic program of the capital (artwork, architecture, drama, tourist guidebooks, and newspaper reportage) and the actual experiences of Native and non-Native people in the city grew in profound ways that reflected a similar process occurring on a broader scale across the country.

As a case study of place and commemoration in the nineteenth century, Washington, D.C. is an interesting choice. Place matters, a lot. D.C., though, was not a place where people came from, but where they ended up, often for short periods, sometimes longer. In the case of the commemorative landscape, the portrayals of Native violence, as well as the iconographic message of a conquest completed, came from the minds of European artists and the US policymakers who commissioned them. These portrayals were not only significant as a symbolic justification for actual federal policies but came to represent an emerging cultural mythology along the physical landscape of the national imaginary. Here, Euro-American men claimed ownership of the city (and the nation) and decorated it with images of conquest. Yet they were never successful in commanding the city (or the nation) in a way that precluded the claims of others. Commemorative expressions also hid a much more complex and interesting lived landscape in which Native people encountered and confronted non-Native individuals, urban spaces, and the symbols of settler society in Washington City.

Has anything you’ve found in that research shed light on or expanded your understanding of the development of Federal Indian policy or any of your other findings included in Crooked Paths to Allotment?

I’m still in a relatively early stage of the research, but a couple of ideas come to mind. First, and this strikes me as the more “standard” interpretation of the materials I’m studying currently, the iconographic displays—the reliefs, statues, paintings, as well as plays and guidebook language seemed to be used to justify and legitimize the kinds of policies that were being developed in the nineteenth century (I’m thinking, of course, about violent conquest, removal, dispossession, and coercive assimilation).

The more interesting story—and it is here that I think I can make an intervention into this literature—is that Native visitors and inhabitants marked the landscape in their owns ways in Washington, D.C. and, in doing so, challenged the narratives of settler colonialism and carved out their own place within this evolving imperial capital. While the subject matter differs in some major way, conceptually or methodologically I think there is a certain resonance from my first book to this project.

You participated in the First Peoples manuscript workshop, with Kevin Bruyneel as your mentor. Did you learn anything about the dissertation revision process or any general writing tips that might be of use to other scholars writing their first books?

The manuscript workshop was incredibly helpful. Kevin Bruyneel and Jean Dennison (my workshop co-participant), as well as Mark Simpson-Vos (my editor at UNC Press) offered great suggestions and feedback on parts of the book. In terms of general advice, we spent a lot of time talking about finding and asserting one’s own authorial voice. The dissertation genre is not really set up to do that—one must demonstrate (to a specific audience comprised of one’s own dissertation committee) an engagement with all the requisite literature and so there’s a lot of time spent positioning oneself in the historiography.

In the case of my own dissertation, all of the historiographic positioning had been foregrounded and the unique and interesting elements of my arguments didn’t come through as much as I would’ve liked. Kevin and Jean pushed me to bring out my own voice more strongly. In addition, Kevin offered a piece of advice in constructing a useful introduction (full disclosure: the advice comes from Pagan Kennedy, through Kevin, which he acknowledged). He said that, as an author, you can do anything in your book—and readers will want to come with you—but you have to be an attentive guide. He asked Jean and me to imagine standing behind the reader with our hands on their shoulders, gently escorting them through the argument. It’s an image that works for me and I’ve tried to share it with others as well.


C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa is assistant professor of history at Illinois College. His book, Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War is available for pre-order now and will be published on October 22.