A tribal renaissance

by Emma Brown

If, when you think of Indian country, you think first of its particular heartaches — alcoholism, violence, poverty, and hopelessness — then read Blood Struggle, Charles Wilkinson’s inspiring account of Indians’ political and legal victories during the last fifty years.

A catalog of Indian achievements rather than problems is rare, welcome, and a little unexpected, given the social and economic ills that still pervade reservation life. Wilkinson, however, is careful not to whitewash the truth: He acknowledges that progress has been uneven among the tribes, that Indian families’ income is only one-half the national average, that, in short, there is a long way to go yet in the "gargantuan task of piecing societies back together."

But focusing only on what’s still wrong misses the point, which is that Native Americans, in just two generations, have made an astonishing and improbable journey from near-extinguishment to self-government. The "deep change" they’ve wrought, Wilkinson says, is the result of a "blood commitment" to hang on to their land and identity.

Countless unsung heroes made far-reaching contributions in the struggle for Indian rights. Wilkinson describes how, in federal courtrooms and the halls of Congress, they beat back the threat of termination, the dissolution of sovereign tribes, and found a way out from under the paternalistic thumb of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And now, after decades of forced assimilation, tribes have turned their energies towards their own reservations and the revival of their cultural and linguistic traditions.

Wilkinson, a law professor and former staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund who has worked with tribes for over three decades, is uniquely qualified to guide readers through even the most complex nuances of history and law. And thank goodness: In order to understand the West, we have to understand its indigenous people. Knowing generally that Indians have been through hell is no substitute for knowing exactly the political, legal and institutional challenges they have overcome.

Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations
Charles Wilkinson
541 pages, softcover: $15.95. Norton, 2005.

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