I decided to briefly respond to Naomi Schaefer Riley’s The New Trail of Tears (2016). I had thought about doing a (scathing) book review on it, but the guru of all things Indian law, Matthew Fletcher, did a six part take down of the book on The Turtle Talk Blog that says much of what I would say. As Fletcher writes, “DO NOT READ THIS BOOK if you are a supporter of tribal interests and the future of Indian people, unless you’re interested in learning about a game plan to send 21st century Indian people on a new trail of tears.” He goes on:
The trap for readers is that TNToT seems like a reform minded book with deep sympathy for Indian people, with the federal government as the bad guy. It’s not. At best, TNToT is paternalism, termination era- and allotment era-style liberalism. NSR characterizes the Indians that live in Indian country as poor, alcoholic, suicidal rapists. Or really, really sad people who are always slowly shaking their heads (classic Vanishing Indian stuff).
At worst, this is paid propaganda for conservative organizations that tend to support the view that the federal government is a terrible thing. For NSR, Indians are either victims or perpetrators, and need to be saved or punished. Finally, and in my view most importantly, TNToT throughout ignores tribal and Indian property rights, which is ironic given that NSR will frequently refer to property rights as a justification for her conclusions.
It is an incredibly bad book. It is racist, it’s level of analysis is quite shallow, and it is something that I am surprised got published. There are scholars who share some of the author’s views regarding the causes of the problems on Indian reservations but their work tends to be less problematic and better reasoned. I couldn’t help but think as I read the book that if Donald Trump becomes President, the author is someone he might call to set Indian policy. And for people of this mindset, setting Indian policy means embracing once again allotment and termination. In other words, the book is filled with recommendations that involve stepping away from self-determination in favor of some of the worst moments in a history filled with bad moments in the relationship between Washington and Indian nations. Naomi Schaefer Riley’s ultimate goal seems to be similar to that of Andrew Jackson’s, to have Indians go away or melt into the larger American society. As I said, it is not a good book.