"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Review: The last of the Indian wars


Two subjects here. One is the long-time Washington Senator Henry Jackson, one of the most impactful the region has ever had, and his work with one of his staffers, Forrest Gerard – and we should note here that a lot of the work credited to members of Congress actually gets done by staffers, so that’s a worthy story on its own merits.

The other is the issue at hand: “Termination,” as applied to Indian reservations. As the glossary puts it, termination in the context of Indian reservations means “an end to the special relationship between tribes and the federal government. The idea was to settle claims with tribal governments and then terminate the federal government’s role on reservations. American Indians would then become subject to state laws.”

For someone who likes clear and clean lines of government, the federally-recognized tribes and their reservations are an inconvenience. They fit nowhere in the nation’s federal system, but they’re not – terms of language notwithstanding – realistically independent nations either. (Independent nations controlled by a bureau of the federal government?) A wide range of people have bought into the idea of termination over the years. Of course, if that approach had become law, Indian country would look a lot different now, and surely a lot less prosperous.

Once, Jackson was one of them. He changed his mind, and his work with Gerrard was one of the key levers in that change.

So the new book Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, written by former Seattle Post-Intelligencer Editorial Page Editor Mark Trahant (and, much further back, former Sho-Ban News editor), tells a story about how a policy – against termination – came to be put in place after an unsteady run through the years, and a story about how Washington works. It’s a solid slice of political storytelling.

It isn’t an entirely dispassionate look at the subject; Trahant is clearly anti-termination. His argument, and compelling, is that ending the federal relationship with the tribes would effectively end their governing structure, and over time – maybe not long time – that would effectively destroy the tribes and native culture. Now, he writes that tribal self-government “is no longer in question. Every tribe, state and federal leader now accepts that framework as a given.”

Wasn’t always that way. Trahant recounts how Congress formally adopted a termination resolution in 1958.

Jackson is one of the main personal reasons for that transition, along with Gerard. For those of us who don’t track Indian issues in Congress closely, it’s an obscure story. This book shows why it should not be.

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