Book Review: Say We Are Nations: Documents of Politics and Protest in Indigenous America Since 1887

Daniel M. Cobb Say We Are Nations: Documents of Politics and Protest in Indigenous America since 1887  Pp 300 The University of North Carolina Press, 2015. $29.95

sayweareDaniel M. Cobb’s latest offering, Say We Are Nations, attempts to explore the nature of indigenous political activism between the late nineteenth century and the present day. The story of the book is told through a plethora of sources meticulously brought together and expertly integrated to offer a revised interpretation of indigenous activism in a country that is no stranger to political activism.

Before the book begins in earnest Cobb is at pains to point out that this collection will, to a certain extent, go against the grain in terms of what one would expect. Taking a glance through the list of sources confirms that his objective has been achieved with many serving to pique the reader’s interest considerably. There is, however, a familiar enough look to the sources with well-known figures like Clyde Warrior, Vine Deloria Jr. and John Trudell all included. The collection builds on his previous publications like Beyond Red Power (2007) and Native Activism in Cold War America (2008) and continues in his attempts to broaden our understanding of the complexities of American Indian political activism with a new approach.

Arranged in chronological order, each chapter begins with an outline of the sources to come. The fifty-five sources are divided up into five chapters; Contesting Citizenship, 1887-1924, Reclaiming a Future, 1934-1954, Demanding Civil Rights of a Different Order, 1954-1968, Declaring Continuing Independence 1969-1994 and Testing the Limits, 1994-2015. This structure tells us that Cobb has stuck to a traditional timeframe for Indian activism, separating that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century from groups inspired by their opposition of termination. Perhaps just as importantly as the book moves towards the era of Red Power one chapter ends in 1968 before the next resumes with a statement issued by the Indians of All Tribes, the organisation responsible for the event that many credit with having launched the era of Red Power in late 1969.

A further key feature in the book is the use of contextualising paragraphs are the beginning of each source. On numerous occasions this is used as an opportunity to encourage the reader to consider a number of key factors as each document is negotiated. These rationales are short and sharp, making points only deemed necessary, clearly showing Cobb’s intention that the sources shall, for the most part, speak for themselves. “Consider how the authors deployed the language of citizenship, morality, sacrifice, and patriotism to protect Lakota values and ways of being and belonging.” [36] The effect is that the reader is more engaged with each source than would be the case in many other document collections. As Say We Are Nations is a compilation of such a diverse range of documents this is a particularly welcome addition and strengthens the overall impact of the book considerably and it is to Cobb’s credit that such an approach has been adopted.

There is, however, a price to pay for this approach, which is that such explanatory segments do not appear at the conclusion of the source. This is an opportunity missed to further establish the value of some of the more obscure sources in the collection. While it is clear that Cobb has intended for this to encourage the reader to be left to their own devices, having closing remarks would neatly curtail one source before moving on to the next. For many readers this will be a collection that they repeatedly refer back to as opposed to reading in its entirety and so the criticism is a relatively minor one.

 Queen Lili’uokalani’s opposition to the annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii is the oldest document featured, dating back to 1899. Image Source: http://www.politicoscope.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Hawaii-Headline-Story-Queen-Liliuokalani.jpg


Queen Lili’uokalani’s opposition to the annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii is the oldest document featured, dating back to 1899.
Image Source: http://www.politicoscope.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Hawaii-Headline-Story-Queen-Liliuokalani.jpg

The success of the book ultimately rests upon the quality of the selection process and is arguably the greatest strength of Cobb’s work. It is clearly one that has been given due consideration, spanning a number of core themes, choosing documents “that provide geographic, topical, temporal, and interpretive breadth” before noting that many of the sources “have never been published or focus on individuals, communities, time periods, and ideas that are not discussed in depth in textbooks and other document volumes” [5]. The type of sources used varies just as greatly, ranging from Trudell’s ‘We Have the Power’ rallying cry to the opposition to annexation from Queen Lili’uokalani of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The themes explored and the breadth of subjects covered in the resulting documents show that while Cobb may appear reluctant to challenge the current narrative, he feels strongly that existing work in the field has up until now neglected to explore indigenous activism to its fullest potential.

The late John Trudell’s ‘We Have the Power’ is one of the most hard-hitting of the collection. Image Credit: Ilka Hartmann  http://frontierpartisans.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/John_Trudell_speaking.jpg

The late John Trudell’s ‘We Have the Power’ is one of the most hard-hitting of the collection.
Image Credit: Ilka Hartmann
http://frontierpartisans.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/John_Trudell_speaking.jpg

Say We Are Nations is a welcome addition to the research field on indigenous political activism in the United States and is a resource that scholars and students alike will find useful. The diverse range of documents spanning almost 120 years guarantee that there is a ‘something for everyone’ feel to it. By telling many virtually unheard stories Cobb breathes new life into the field and encourages others to follow his lead in the future. In fact, bringing the collection to a close he divulges how he hopes that the collection is “a beginning again, rather than an end, to an intellectual journey”. [250] That then is how we should assess SWAN, a collection that makes a telling and valuable contribution but one that can be the launch for a new intellectual journey in our understanding of indigenous activism.

Deborah Parker spoke out against appalling figures of violence against Native women with a rallying cry for political change in 2012. Image Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Deborah Parker spoke out against appalling figures of violence against Native women with a rallying cry for political change in 2012.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

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About Benjamin Harvey Sporle

Ben is a third year PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church University. In July of 2013 he was awarded an academic scholarship from the History faculty and undertook his first research trip to Washington D.C. in September 2014. He holds a particular interest in Native American history and politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His thesis focuses on the Red Power movement, suggesting that the roots and legacy of the period of Indian activism can be traced further than the traditional narrative suggests.
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