Reexamine history in the service of justice

Understanding our shared histories can help us think critically about accountability in the West.


Original illustration by Spirit Lake Dakota/ Navajo artist Avis Charley in the traditional ledger paper style.
Avis Charley for High Country News

On reading Nick Estes’ trenchant history of the Carlisle boarding school this issue, you could be forgiven for seeing only the cruelty of U.S. policy in regards to the kidnapping and forced assimilation of Indigenous children. Estes’ story, on its surface, is a familiar one; you’ve likely seen some of the photos from the infamous school — boys and girls in uniforms, cut hair, expressionless faces. For many readers, those faces are relatives — real people, real relatives, who either survived the experience or never returned home. But Estes does more than just revisit those stories and update the narratives; he reframes our understanding of those events. He takes a story you think you know and digs even deeper.

Estes’ reporting reveals a hidden truth: that Indian boarding schools were a horrific tool intentionally used to dispossess Indigenous people of their lands, territories and resources. While the program’s experience and goals have been known to Indigenous communities for decades, the way it was used to essentially hold children hostage in order to pressure tribes into ceding their land is not common knowledge. But the story isn’t just about revealing previously unknown facts; it’s about seeking accountability, and perhaps even the possibility of positive change. Rethinking national origins allows us to envision a future in which justice is braided into our collective stories, not merely an elusive, unattainable concept.

That justice, of course, involves how we think of land, who owns it, and who benefits from its theft.

Tristan Ahtone, associate editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News
In another story, we examine one of the unforeseen consequences of land theft. Reporter Deb Krol follows a band of Indigenous “guerrilla gatherers” in what is currently California, where a total of 18 treaties were made between settlers and Indigenous communities in the late 1800s, ceding hundreds of thousands of acres. Those treaties were backed by the federal government but never ratified by Congress, leaving tribes landless, without agreed-upon services, often without any form of recognition, and subject to the laws of the state. The consequences of this historic and legal crime are especially clear along the coasts, where environmental laws and state authorities prevent Indigenous communities from harvesting fish, shells, mollusks, seaweed and other foods and medicines. As Krol shows, Indigenous guerrilla gatherers are forced to break settler law to practice their traditions. Indigenous people are fighting for — and winning — subsistence hunting rights, but California still has a ways to go.

From the Carlisle Indian School to the guerrilla gatherers, Indigenous communities continue to challenge American values, forcing Americans to rethink basic ideas of justice and rapprochement. I hope that this issue will encourage you, too, to think critically about the West you love, and the future you desire for it.

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