Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations

By Charles Wilkinson (W.W. Norton, 541 pages, $26.95)

Viewed as one long Trail of Tears, the history of Native Americans had reached the end of the road by the 1950s and '60s, when Congress tried to terminate its treaty obligations by cutting federal services and dividing up reservations among surviving tribal members. Give every Indian title to his own piece of land, the argument went, and he would lift himself and his people out of poverty. Termination, however, proved catastrophic to tribal identity: Land owned by individual Indians rather than whole tribes could be taxed as well as resold to non-Indians, and foreclosure for one soon led to the other.

But something truly amazing happened next, as determined tribal leaders pressured Congress and the courts to restore tribal lands and recognize the sovereignty of Indian nations. Within 30 years, the "vanishing Indian" had reversed the political agenda from one of termination to self-determination. In 1950, for example, one tribal leader wept as the Secretary of the Interior signed a plan to flood 155,000 acres of Indian country with a dam on the Missouri River. By 1980, though, chiefs were all smiles when President Jimmy Carter used an eagle feather to sign an agreement that would restore 450 square miles of the state of Maine to tribal ownership. (And Maine probably got off light-Native Americans argued they were legally entitled to about one-third of the state.)

In Blood Struggle, Charles Wilkinson traces similar victories across the U.S., including the revitalization of Oregon's Warm Springs tribe as well as the restoration of tribal salmon-fishing rights along the Columbia River. As an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in the 1970s, Wilkinson often enjoyed a front-row seat to the courtroom struggles for Indian sovereignty. And this sympathy sometimes leads him to gloss over the many internecine conflicts and inevitable compromises that have weakened the tribes. But he never entirely ignores such problems, and his central observation remains a potent one: Other than federal restrictions on tribal casinos, Congress has enacted no major statute opposed by Indians since the end of the termination era in the early 1970s.

Wilkinson will read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, April 28. FREE