Interview with Claudio Saunt

Scholar of Native American history shortlisted for two major non-fiction prizes discusses why the US needs a ‘reckoning’ with indigenous dispossession

November 12, 2020
Claudio Saunt

Claudio Saunt is Richard B. Russell professor in American history, co-director of the Center for Virtual History and associate director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia. His latest book, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, has been named one of five non-fiction finalists for the National Book Award and has been shortlisted for the $75,000 (£57,967) Cundill History Prize, the most lucrative for non-fiction in English. The book looks at the “state-sponsored mass expulsion of indigenous people” from their homes in the eastern US to lands west of the Mississippi, following the 1830 Indian Removal Act signed into law by President Andrew Jackson.

Where were you born?
I was born and raised in San Francisco, California.

How has this shaped you?
Since I didn’t grow up on the east coast, where the British colonies were first established and where, in the conventional view, colonial American history unfolded, I’ve long been interested in Spanish colonisation and in the deeper history of indigenous peoples on the continent.

What drew you into the study of Native American history?
As a first-year graduate student, I spent a summer working in the General Archive of the Nation in Mexico City and quickly realised that the so-called Spanish borderlands [areas of what is now the US that were first colonised by Spanish speakers] were inhabited mostly by indigenous Americans. It seemed obvious that they, and not the few Spanish colonists in the region, ought to be central to the story.

Unworthy Republic has been described as offering ‘a much-needed corrective to the American canon’ of history. What do you see the book as correcting?
Scholars have for too long thought of the policy of Indian removal in the 1830s as inevitable. In fact, it was hotly contested, passing by a mere five votes in the House of Representatives. The policy is also commonly considered to be merely a continuation of a long-standing desire to rid the continent of its indigenous residents. Yet native peoples at the time argued that the policy was transformative – and I believe that they were right.

You write in the book that the US has never had a ‘reckoning’ with the dispossession of Native Americans. Why is it important to have such a reckoning?
Indigenous dispossession sits at the very foundation of the American republic, but oddly the subject receives only passing mention in most histories. Why should we care? For one, Americans cannot be informed and thoughtful citizens without understanding that the land under their feet belonged to other nations, in some cases only a few decades ago. For another, there are currently 574 federally recognised tribes in the United States who own approximately 56 million acres, amounting to a sum total the size of the state of Minnesota. There are moral and practical reasons for non-native Americans to work towards constructing just relationships with descendants of the continent’s first inhabitants.

What kind of readership were you seeking to reach?
I wrote this book for both general readers and historians. I enjoy the challenge of writing for a trade press and writing books that people will read because they want to and not, as is the case for historians, because it is part of their job. Of course, the two reasons for reading are not always exclusive.

Did your research take you to any unexpected places, literally or figuratively?
The sources are drawn from archives scattered around the country, from Washington DC, to Oakland, California, and everywhere in between, including Tulsa, Oklahoma; Fishers, Indiana; and Topeka, Kansas. When I’m not able to make the trip myself, I hire someone locally to photograph materials for me.

Is there a book that has changed the way you think about the world?
I don’t think there’s a single book, but I’m drawn to accounts of human history that explore our relationship with the natural environment. Right now, I’m reading The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollutions in the Industrial Age, by François Jarrige and Thomas Le Roux.

What are the big current issues or schools of thought in Native American studies as a discipline? And how big a role do scholars of indigenous heritage have in the field?
Scholars are working to integrate indigenous ways of knowing into their narratives. Some are, for example, drawing on oral traditions to understand how Native Americans valued the landscape. Others are studying indigenous languages not necessarily to read old documents – in most cases, these don’t exist – but to understand indigenous categories and concepts. Native scholars have played an essential role in this process and will continue to move the field forward and transform it in the next generation.

What do you do for fun?
Play Chopin and Beethoven on the piano (badly – I started taking lessons six years ago, along with my older son), and Kenny Dorham and Miles Davis on the trumpet (slightly better – I’ve played since I was a child). I get out on my bicycle when I have the time, and my Covid habit has been tinkering with handmade electronic instruments.


Shitij Kapur has been announced as the next president and principal of King’s College London. He is currently dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne. He will start in the role in June 2021, taking over from Sir Edward Byrne, who has led the university since 2014. Professor Kapur has also held the position of interim deputy vice-chancellor (international) at Melbourne and previously served as dean and head of school for the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience and assistant principal (academic performance) at King’s. Professor Kapur said it would be a privilege to lead King’s “as it prepares students for the complex post-Covid world and solves global challenges with its multidisciplinary strengths and excellence”.

King’s has also appointed former Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls as professor of political economy. Since he left parliament in 2015, Mr Balls has been a visiting professor at King’s and a senior fellow and research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Former Labour MP and culture secretary James Purnell has been appointed president and vice-chancellor of University of the Arts London. He will join the university in March 2021, succeeding Sir Nigel Carrington in the role. Mr Purnell has worked for seven years at the BBC, most recently as director, radio and education, and launched BBC Sounds. David Isaac, chair of UAL’s court of governors, said Mr Purnell’s “track record as a strategist and advocate will be vital as we diversify our student and staff body and create a heavyweight new digital capability”.

UAL has also appointed Aisha Richards, an associate lecturer at the university, as director of the Centre for Race and Practice Based Social Justice, previously Shades of Noir, which she founded.

The University of Leeds has made two new appointments: Hai-Sui Yu has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor, while Nick Plant has been permanently appointed its new deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation.

Roberto Gonzales has been named the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor. He is currently professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Immigration Initiative at Harvard University.

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