Making Indian Law: The Hualapai Land Case and the Birth of Ethnohistory (The Lamar Series in Western History)

By in Indigenous Peoples on May 25, 2013

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In 1941, after decades of struggling to hold on to the remainder of their aboriginal home, the Hualapai Indians finally took their case to the Supreme Court—and won. The Hualapai case was the culminating event in a legal and intellectual revolution that transformed Indian law and ushered in a new way of writing Indian history that provided legal grounds for native land claims. But Making Indian Law is about more than a legal decision.  It’s the story of Hualapai activists, and eventually sympathetic lawyers, who challenged both the Santa Fe Railroad and the U.S. government to a courtroom showdown over the meaning of Indian property rights—and the Indian past.
At the heart of the Hualapai campaign to save the reservation was documenting the history of Hualapai land use. Making Indian Law showcases the central role that the Hualapai and their lawyers played in formulating new understandings of native people, their property, and their past. To this day, the impact of the Hualapai decision is felt wherever and whenever indigenous land claims are litigated throughout the world.

2 thoughts on “Making Indian Law: The Hualapai Land Case and the Birth of Ethnohistory (The Lamar Series in Western History)

  1. Boll Weevil
    2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    Solid narrative, unaccomplished argument., October 5, 2009
    Boll Weevil (Paragould, AR) –

    This review is from: Making Indian Law: The Hualapai Land Case and the Birth of Ethnohistory (The Lamar Series in Western History) (Paperback)

    This is a well written study of the landmark /United States v. Santa Fe Pacific Railroad/ case in which the Hualapai nation successfully defended its claims to its lands. It marks the dawning of a new age in which American Indians would come to master the use of historical arguments to defend their communities and natural resources in front of federal courts and the Indian Claims Commission. If you are looking for a clear narrative that tells this important story well, this is your book.

    But if you are drawn to the book by its subtitle, you very well might be disappointed. The emergence of “ethnohistory,” either as a methodological perspective or academic organization, really is not that significant to the argument or narrative within the book, despite the subtitle. Second, I’m not sure McMillen’s definition of “ethnohistory” is one that would be embraced widely today. MacMillen overlooks work by anthropologists such as Oscar Lewis, William Fenton, Edward Spicer, John Ewers, that was clearly ethnohistorical in its approach (all influenced by Boasian historicism) but predated or was contemporaneous with the Hualapai case but had very little to do with litigation, at least initially. MacMillen’s definition of ethnohistory, essentially history used instrumentally in courts to the benefit of American Indian litigants, is problematic today when American Indian plaintiffs sue American Indian defendants and both parties bring out their hired gun “ethnohistorians.” The American Society of Ethnohistorians was founded directly out of the experience of historians and anthropologists in courts, but the organization did not originate the principles of ethnohistorical inquiry. Rather its founding was a signal that they were coming into maturity, in large part b/c the courts and the Indian Claims Commission gave it such an important public role. At times MacMillen’s argument appears to suggest that ethnohistory should be unconcerned with the experiences of historic Indian peoples if they are unimportant to or contradict the legal interests of contemporary American Indians. This is an important issue that should be addressed forthrightly, not in a footnote.

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  2. 2
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Solid detailed review of a critical issue, April 9, 2013

    This remarkable book is a must-read for any student of Southwest history (in which the Hualapai too seldom receive recognition for their accomplishment) or Indian law (which is still grappling with many of the same questions as it did in the landmark Hualapai case). What are indigenous property rights? Can we respect centuries-old systems of land tenure if they conflict with Western law? What is owed to a nation whose land was blatantly stolen out from under them, and how do you determine the legitimacy of either claim? McMillen gives a detailed account of both the issue and its context in American case law, with attention also paid to concurrent developments in the rest of the English-speaking world. While some of his claims about anthropology and ethnohistory are a tad incomplete, this is to be expected in a work that is and needs to be a work of advocacy as well as history. The work begun by Fred Mahone and his Washington allies is by no means finished, and as many eyes turn to a Hualapai Nation once again situating itself on the losing end of a significant public legal case, the history that McMillen airs here, more than just an ethnohistory, has become critical once again. I recommend this title to any interested party.

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