Jacobs stands in front of the base of a statue, with engraved writing behind her. She has long wavy gray hair and is wearing glasses.
Margaret Jacobs, Chancellor's Professor of History; Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies, with the statue of Chief Standing Bear. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. March 12, 2021. (Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication.)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Margaret Jacobs is the Charles Mach Professor of History and the Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A long time scholar of settler and indigenous history, her newest book, After One Hundred Winters: In Search of Reconciliation on America’s Stolen Lands, has two goals: to confront the violent history of American settler Colonialism head-on, and to explore possibilities for reconciliation in the Western U.S.

Enjoy our conversation about reconciliation as a way of life, and why Americans should pay more attention to Canadian and Australian scholarship, below.

Olivia Weeks, the Deesmealz: What is your relationship to the American West? When did you first become fascinated with its history, and how do you think a deep understanding of settler colonialism came to enter your work?

Margaret Jacobs: I grew up in Colorado and lived for many years in California and Oregon. Then I taught history at New Mexico State University for seven years before landing in Nebraska in 2004, where I have been ever since. So, my relationship to the American West is that of a long-time settler.

I did not become fascinated with the history of the American West until I was in graduate school at UC Davis in the 1990s. The first class I took there was “The New Western History” with Professor Vicki Ruiz. That class had a huge impact on me, as did Professor Ruiz and the other women in my cohort. I had never considered the history of the place I had spent all my life as particularly interesting or worthy of study. There was, and still is, so much mythology around it. I had not been interested in this kind of “boots and spurs” or “wagon wheels and sunbonnets” type of history. Professor Ruiz’s class taught me that there was so much important work being done in this field. And there was more to do.

I have been researching and writing about settler colonialism since the 1990s. I first came across the concept through the work of the Canadian feminist scholars Daiva Stasiulis and Nira Yuval-Davis, when I was taking a class on comparative colonialism. Then I came across more scholarship on the topic by Australians, particularly Patrick Wolfe. Immediately I recognized how relevant the concept was to the history of the American West. Few other U.S. historians were using settler colonial theory at the time, and I think that’s primarily because most of us don’t read Canadian and Australian scholars. I learned so much from them (and still do).

For those readers who are not familiar with the concept of settler colonialism, it describes a particular kind of invasion and intervention in which colonizers, in this case Europeans, come to a distant country not just to extract resources and harness the labor of local people, but to displace the Indigenous population and replace them with an overwhelming number of European settlers. It is premised on taking over land and eliminating Indigenous peoples and their claims to the land.

DY: Your book is about confronting “the harsh truth that the United States was founded on the violent dispossession of Indigenous people,” but it also asks “what’s next?” In a national context of inaction, what is next? Who are the ordinary people seeking reconciliation in the absence of larger federal action?

MJ: I think “what’s next” is for settlers to ask the question, “What would bring healing and justice to Indigenous people overall?” and “What would bring healing and justice to the Indigenous people who live near me or who used to occupy the land where I live?” And then it is incumbent upon settlers to listen to Indigenous people’s responses.

Action to make recompense for the injustices that Indigenous people have experienced has to happen on multiple levels – from the national to the state to the local, grassroots, and the institutional. If we have a national process alone, most settlers can bypass the process and reconciliation will be superficial. It will not be transformative or go very deep.  If we have local and grassroots action alone, without a national apology, reparations, and other federal and state resources, reconciliation may be unsatisfying and incomplete. 

The cover of Jacobs' book features symbolic illustrations in black, yellow and red.
Jacobs' latest book, After One Hundred Winters: In Search of Reconciliation on America’s Stolen Lands. (Image courtesy of Jacobs.)

There are some promising signs on all these fronts. Our first Native American Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, her own ancestors removed from their family at Laguna Pueblo, has called for an investigation into the Indian boarding schools, particularly deaths and burials of children. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representatives Sharice David (D-KS) and Tom Cole (R-OK) have introduced a bipartisan bill for a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian boarding schools, following years of advocacy by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

At the state level, there is movement, too. Most recently, Governor Tony Evers of Wisconsin apologized on Indigenous People’s Day in 2021 to the eleven federally recognized Native nations of Wisconsin “for the tragedies inflicted upon Native American communities through the former federal Indian boarding school policies.”

And there is an enormous amount going on at the local level, some of which I describe in my book, After One Hundred Winters, and some of which is documented by the Reconciliation Rising project, which I cofounded with Rosebud Lakota journalist Kevin Abourezk.

DY: You write that many settlers “fear that we will be forced to give up something—land, money, or at the least a view of ourselves as the heroes of history.” And, in fact, many of the stories you tell involve material sacrifice on the part of white landowners; why don’t the settlers you follow see the reconciliation process as incurring inevitable loss?

MJ: Kevin and I interviewed many settlers for Reconciliation Rising who decided to return their property, or at least a portion of it, to the Native nations that once occupied it. I highlight two of these land returns in Nebraska in After One Hundred Winters, one from Roger and Linda Welsch to the Pawnee nation and one from Art and Helen Tanderup to the Ponca nations of both Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The Welschs and the Tanderups describe their return of land as a gift, but not from them to the Pawnees and Poncas, but as one that they received from the Pawnees and Poncas. They speak of forming deep and meaningful relationships with Pawnee and Ponca people. And this cut both ways. The Pawnees and Poncas we interviewed also express how much they value these relationships. As Pawnee Business Council member Dawna Riding In Hare put it, “It’s not just the [return of] land; it’s also the relationships” that have formed. 

Recently I met a white settler who was working to return some land in Colorado to the northern Arapaho people. He told us that returning the land wasn’t enough; there had to be an ongoing sustained relationship to really achieve reconciliation. I think there is a lot of truth to this, if the goal of reconciliation is to transform our nation into a democratic, just, and pluralistic society where everyone can thrive.

DY: What is The Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, and what does reconciliation look like in that specific context?

I co-founded the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project in 2017 with Liz Lorang, a librarian and digital humanities specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), Judi gaiashkibos (Ponca), director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, Dr. James Riding In (Pawnee), a historian who just retired from Arizona State University, and a team of Community Advisors from Nebraska’s four headquartered tribes.

The project seeks to contribute to historical recovery, reconciliation, and healing through “bringing history home,” digitally repatriating the records of the Genoa U.S. Indian boarding school, which was open from 1884-1934 in central Nebraska. The project also aims to raise public awareness of Genoa and the boarding school system by providing resources to K-12 teachers and researchers who study the boarding schools. During their heyday from around 1880 to 1940, these boarding schools removed about 80% of Indigenous children from their families to attend these distant schools. The aim was to undermine the children’s identities and cultures and sever their ties with their families and lands.

We launched the Genoa Project website in Fall 2020. So far it has government records from the National Archives in Kansas City and Denver and the Oklahoma Historical Society. We will be putting up the student newspaper soon and hope to get to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to retrieve more records when they open again. Users can search by the names of their relatives who attended the school as well as by many different topics. We are coordinating with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which is seeking to compile all the boarding school records in one central database. The Coalition aims to gather all this information in order to get a fuller picture of the Indian boarding school experience and its long-term legacy for American Indian people.

DY: Do you have a personal, “ongoing practice” of reconciliation?

MJ: I do! I have come to see reconciliation not as a one-time effort that our nation will achieve and then move on. I see it, indeed, as a practice, as a way of life, in which all of us can engage. This practice is based on considering how the past has shaped us today and how we can work to promote healing and respectful relationships. I’m a big believer that settlers, like myself, should start where we are and use whatever strengths, skills, and resources we possess to practice reconciliation within our own communities and institutions. This must be done in close collaboration and partnership with Indigenous colleagues.

In my case, my skills are those of a scholar. I do in-depth archival research and conduct oral histories; I write articles and give presentations to help bring greater awareness. I have also testified at legislative hearings and provided amicus briefs on the Indian Child Welfare Act. As a professor at a university, I have access to resources. I can use my position and raise funds to bring attention to the need for reconciliation. For example, the Center for Great Plains Studies at UNL, which I direct, is hosting a summit next year on Reckoning and Reconciliation on the Great Plains.

I am working with Native scholars at my institution to encourage UNL, a land-grant university, to acknowledge how it has made money from Indigenous people’s dispossession and then to make redress to Indigenous people in Nebraska and nearby states for that injustice. Through Reconciliation Rising, Kevin Abourezk and I are working to showcase individuals in Nebraska and nearby who are engaged in grassroots reconciliation. We have produced a podcast series, an 11-minute film, and are now working on an hour-long documentary called “The Land Returns.”

I have to say that my practice of reconciliation has been deeply satisfying and empowering. I have learned a lot, formed strong friendships, and grown as a person.

So if there are other settlers out there who want to practice reconciliation, I would encourage you to become deeply familiar with the place where you live and to learn its history of Indigenous dispossession. I would then encourage you to use your own strengths, skills, and resources to establish meaningful relationships with the Indigenous peoples from your region, and to learn from them how to make amends for our painful past.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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