SIU commemorates Native American Heritage Month

By Amelia Blakely , Campus Desk

Associate professor of SIU’s history department Gray Whaley will present his lecture entitled “20th Century American Indian Tribes and the Contradictions between Colonial Administration and U.S. Claims Law” for Native American Heritage Month.

Whaley’s lecture will take place from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m. on Nov. 7 at the Lesar Law Building, room 108.

Whaley said the focus of his lecture is American Indian tribes in the early 20th century using the U.S. Claims Court to redress the country’s illegal actions and taking of land in the 19th century.


In the 19th century, tribes were barred from using the court systems until the 1830’s when American courts had to figure out how to govern the tribes Whaley said.

“The United States treated Indians tribes as foreign nations,” Whaley said.

Whaley said an example of that relationship is treaties that were made between tribes and settlers. He said originally the U.S. constitution didn’t apply to American Indians.

As the United States grew, they eventually decided to enforce their laws on Indian tribes — ignoring the fact tribes already had their own form of government.

“One thing they ran into was this separate body of laws governing Indian tribes,” Whaley said.

The clashing of tribal laws and certain state laws that reservations were in happened when the U.S. government tried to govern the Indian tribes, Whaley said.

The contradictions between the laws had to be ironed out.


Once Indian tribes found their loophole, the U.S. Claims Court — which allows the country’s citizens to sue the government for property or financial theft — tribes had to restructure and reinvent themselves.

An example Whaley gave of this transformation was when the Cherokee Indians adopted a formal written constitution and “fundamentally altered their culture.”

Whaley’s specific focus are tribes that were almost drummed out of existence by the U.S. government and how they reconstructed themselves through the Claims Courts. Whaley specifically researches the Pacific Northwest tribes.

“In a way, it’s an unfinished story,” said Whaley. “It [still] has a cultural and political effect on the tribes.”

Whaley said the formation of modern tribes are from the legal fights that led to some of their lasting structures. They had to adapt to the Claims Court.

“They actually still maintain this colonial structure to the relationship,” Whaley said.

Whaley said there is a separate category of laws for American Indians and they are the only segment of the U.S. population that has distinct laws governing that relationship.

Whaley, who has been the organizer of Native American Heritage month since 2006, said he hopes listeners leave his lecture with a better understanding of contemporary Indian culture and modern tribes.

“We try to keep a focus on Native America as very much alive, dynamic and changing,” Whaley said.

Staff writer Amelia Blakely can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @AmeilaBlakely.

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