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Interview with Claudio Saunt

Written by: John Morgan
Published on: 17 Nov 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.