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The Justice Book

The book is about justice, and it is justice. It has a long title: In Order that Justice May Be Done: The Legal Struggle of the Turtle Mountain Band of Pembina Chippewa, 1795-1905. The editorial team who worked on it at North Dakota State University Press, among themselves, called it “the justice book.” For the author, John M. Shaw, in the conclusion, observes that “justice amounts to telling stories that reveal overlooked or long-buried truths.” The book is about justice, and it is justice. Which word is quoted from the plea of the Chippewa solicitor, John B. Bottineau, protesting the notorious ten-cent treaty of 1892.

So the book is by a white guy, Shaw. It originated as his dissertation at the University of Arizona. He teaches at Portland Community College. Prior to publication by NDSU Press, his work was vetted and recommended by scholars and elders at Turtle Mountain. They say, he got the long-buried truth right, and I agree. The justice book is a model for serious tribal history.

What is the point of rehashing the tawdry history of the failure of the United States government to live up to legal agreements and moral commitments? In one respect, someone of a legalistic bent might say, the Indian Claims Commission in 1981 delivered justice to Turtle Mountain in the form of a $52,277, 337.97 settlement for lands taken under duress, for a pittance.

Yes, but there is that other part of justice, the story-telling. Put it into a book, a thick book, with lots of footnotes, and the imprint of a university press. Any questions? There it is.

In addition to which, we have the matter of what I call flipping the agency in the story. Here the Turtle Mountain Chippewa are repeatedly wronged, they suffer starvation and dispossession, but they are never victims. They have persistent, inter-generational leadership: Little Shell x three. They have articulate advocates, like Bottineau.

And they have good faith. They accept an unwelcome relationship imposed by the US government, wardship, and they work with it, keep on despite what Shaw summarizes as the “bad faith and disruptive tactics” of federal officials and the avaricious aggression of white intruders and their politicians, like Congressman William Pettigrew.

In white-guy terms, the Chippewa held the land by “Indian title,” which did not protect it from appropriation. Realistic native diplomats knew this would happen and sought realistic and reasonable settlements. They wanted a reservation, a tract sufficient to secure a future for their posterity; and they wanted just compensation for relinquishing their title to the balance of lands they held.

They seemed to lose on both counts, for the ten-cent treaty did offer only a pittance, and it stipulated a reservation of only two townships. At every stage, though, Shaw documents, analyzes, and yes, judges. His work on the Old Crossing Treaty of 1863 is just breathtaking. I have never read such deep and perceptive commentary on treaty proceedings in the West.

Shaw’s work is a homily for historians. He tells us, give up your preoccupation with the periods and rationales of federal policy. They are all willful and mercurial. Focus on the native side, in the manner of a chronicle, tell the story.

The work is an exhortation, too, for a rising generation of indigenous leaders. Persistence, realism, and character, for the longue durée, can produce palpable results and preserve a people’s dignity. Miigwech, Dr. Shaw.

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