Reading Between the Lines of Trahant’s Last Great Battle

Mark Trahant’s slim volume, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, is a fascinating read—so much so that Indian Country Today Media Network’s Rob Capriccioso gave the author a chance to expand upon some of the subjects that were particularly interesting. The review follows.

The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars talks about the beginning of federal understanding of Indian self-determination. Did you come to any new understandings while writing it?

Absolutely. Writing is a great discovery process. I liked seeing firsthand how some tribes and organizations have taken the concept of self-determination and found practical applications. If you look back, at the beginning of this era the largest employer in Indian country was the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was the essential government service. That’s no longer true. You look at the infrastructure of tribal governments today, and it’s stunning how much growth there has been.

Indians, of course, understood self-determination long before the federal government was ever involved. Was it frustrating for Indians of the not-too-long-ago era you write about to have to explain, over and again, a basic foundation of their identities in a way that finally helped the federal government begin to understand?

Sort of. When I wrote the book, I thought the idea of self-determination was incorporated into our national (and tribal) DNA. I think that’s still mostly true. But there are a group of leaders at the national level, and more often at the local level, who cling to the past and the idea of termination. This wouldn’t be an issue except that as the nation’s fiscal issues heat up, I suspect a new form of termination will again be on the agenda.

Should Indians like Henry Jackson?

Well, I certainly came to admire Jackson in a new way. He was a remarkable politician and a product of his time, when the Senate was a collegiate body. He didn’t need to shift policy. He could have either stuck with termination or ignored termination. But something happened that changed his mind. I asked many people who were close to him whether that was an epiphany of some kind, or more of an evolution. Almost to a person, they said an evolution in thinking. If you look at the record, he was on the other side and led the opposition on the legislation to return Blue Lake. Then in the blink of an eye he hired Forrest Gerard and championed self-determination.

How did Jackson’s turnaround from being a champion of termination to becoming the grandfather of self-­determination really happen?

Jackson understood that termination as a policy was not working. He didn’t get into the details of what next—he trusted Forrest Gerard to come up with a plan for a smarter, better policy. Self-determination was a policy that made sense (and still does) because at its best it’s about problem solving and building capacity at the local tribal government level.

Why was Jackson such a champion of termination in the first place? What was so attractive about that policy for those who liked it?

I think Jackson was a champion of termination because of his upbringing. His Norwegian family had the ethics of immigration; they came to this country to assimilate. His family encouraged English, fitting into mainstream society and being what they thought of as American. Early in his career it never occurred to him that Native Americans didn’t share that notion. As to the politics, and why it was so attractive, Rick Lavis, who worked for Republican Sen. Paul Fannin, said it well. “Indian self-determination came at the right time,” Lavis said. “It gave people choices. It spoke to those Republicans who wanted to reform those programs. It spoke to Democrats who wanted better delivery of services. It spoke to those who said, ‘Let the tribes do it.’?”

Did Jackson truly understand the implications of the policy that his Indian staffer, Forrest Gerard, was supporting when Gerard first began down that route?

Probably not. I think he was proud of what he unleashed. But he was looking for a better way, a more efficient government.

Do you see any evidence that today’s Washington politicos are capable of turning around on ideologies that they may hold that are harmful toward Indians?

History is clear about one thing. There are always people who will work diligently and earnestly to do the right thing…and at the same time there are also those who cling to hateful methods. Termination was one of those hateful ideas. There were some people who supported it [like Jackson] because they heard only the lofty ideals (freeing the Indians) but just below that message was a message of contempt for Indians, and for that matter, for government.

Does the average D.C. politician understand U.S. Indian policy?

I think so. But it’s also complicated. Washington politicians have, largely, embraced at least the language of self-determination. But they have not repealed the legal basis of termination. That produces all sorts of conflict, especially for tribes at the local level who must navigate a set of laws that make no sense. One law says tribes have the legal authority, while the very next law gives that same power to a state or local unit.

Are there any Forrest Gerards working in today’s Washington?

It’s really amazing when you think of how few Indians were on the Hill at the beginning of this era. Gerard, Franklin Ducheneaux and Helen Schierbeck were pretty much it. Now there are many talented, smart American Indians and Alaska Natives working in offices both for members and committees.

What does Gerard think of today’s Washington—would it be easier or harder for him to work the system to gain successes for American Indians now?

I don’t want to speak for Forrest. But as to the times: I think the hard edge of politics shows how different things are today. Gerard worked closely with his Republican counterpart, Rick Lavis. They did it without press conferences blaming the other side, it was an ideal collaboration.

Does the concept of self-determination evolve with the advent of UNDRIP?

It’s too early to know that. It really depends on where UNDRIP finds a way into the legal, political mainstream. There isn’t a lot of evidence of that. Yet.

You’ve spent the past year writing about Indian health care in the context of today’s federal system. Do lessons from the beginning of the self-determination era apply?

Absolutely. In the book I write about the Southcentral Foundation and the Alaska Native Medical Center. I see this as a practical application of self-determination. This is taking a policy and putting it into an operation that actually improves the lives and health of the people.

You were recently in Bethel, Alaska, exploring the Tribal Health Therapist program. Is that program related to self-determination?

Another great example. Oral health is a huge problem in Alaska. People living in small villages have rare access to a dentist, so the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium came up with a new path, one they specifically designed to solve a problem. They train and hire people from the village as mid-level practitioners or dental health therapists. When the program began the American Dental Association sued; one of the successful counterarguments was that this program was an application of self-determination.

Did writing this book give you ideas for new paths to explore in future books? Care to share a sneak peek?

There are several books I have planned. My next book will be based on my year-plus work on health care from my Kaiser Family Foundation fellowship. I think we need to change the metaphor about Indian health, setting excellence as the standard for care and innovation. Another book I hope to complete in the next few years is about American Indian and Alaska Native leadership. The 20th century produced incredible leadership, the same type of stature and wisdom as the great chiefs of the 19th century.

What is next for you?

I am again fortunate to have been given a fellowship, this time from the Rocke­feller Foundation. I’ll be at the Bellagio Center on Lake Como for a month of solid writing time. I understand, from friends who have gone, that the time is fabulous because it’s so far removed from your daily routine. Then a bonus is that you meet and learn from people all over the world who are doing similar things. It’s very exciting.


In the short, sweet The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars (The Cedars Group, 2010), journalist Mark Trahant tells the tale of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and his assistant, Forrest Gerard, and how Gerard got Jackson to support federal recognition of American Indian self-determination after a lifetime of supporting the termination of Indian tribes.

That Trahant, a citizen of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes, works so much detail into just 157 pages is remarkable. His writing style flows, and he certainly knows his subject. As usual, his determination to share ideas that have affected his family, ancestors, tribe and self is on fine display.

The book serves as an important reference for anyone who cares about tribal-federal relations, as well as for those researching a rarely told bit of history. With interviews, a review of policy documents and in-depth research, Trahant gets the ball rolling in documenting the fertile ground of tribal-federal ­relations—ground that has been ripe for storytelling almost since contact but has rarely been explored by writers of his caliber.

The subject is so rich, in fact, that one wishes that there was more to it in these pages. It is, perhaps, proof of Trahant’s skill that he very much leaves the avid Indian policy reader wanting more. A good example is his treatment of President Richard Nixon’s ultimate decision to support self-determination. Why did this conservative stalwart launch the most progressive-minded Indian policy in the history of the U.S.? Trahant offers some information, but too quickly, and one does not get a strong sense of what was really going on in the halls of Nixon’s White House when it came to his unlikely support for Americans Indians.

Trahant is just fine in explaining the who, what, where, when and how of his story. If only he had provided more why. In The Daily Yonder, for instance, Mary Annette Pember picks up on Trahant’s suggestion that Jackson had a “come to Jesus moment” that inspired him to switch his allegiances from pro termination to pro self-determination. “Unfortunately he doesn’t really provide us with an actual example,” writes Pember. Given that the two ideals are diametrically opposed, more of an explanation is indeed warranted—especially since, as has been suggested, Jackson was making a bid for the Oval Office and may simply have found it expedient to burnish his Indian stance.


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Reading Between the Lines of Trahant’s Last Great Battle