H-Diplo Article Review 961 on Humalajoki, “Tearing Down the ‘Buckskin Curtain’: Domestic Policy-Making and Indigenous Intellectuals in the Cold War United States and Canada.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 961

30 June 2020

Reetta Humalajoki, “Tearing Down the ‘Buckskin Curtain’: Domestic Policy-Making and Indigenous Intellectuals in the Cold War United States and Canada.”  Cold War History 20:2 (2019): 223-242.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2019.1673738.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by György Tóth, University of Stirling

Recent issues of the Cold War History journal featured several articles about Native American affairs in the Cold War, the most focused of which is Reetta Humalajoki’s “Tearing Down the ‘Buckskin Curtain’: Domestic Policy-Making and Indigenous Intellectuals in the Cold War United States and Canada.” Humalajoki advances several fields of scholarship by helping fill the gap on the making of Indian policy in both the United States and Canada, and the ensuing responses by Native intellectuals whose activism pushed Indian status back from the brink of legal and cultural extinguishment in the direction of what we understand as the sovereignty rights of today.  Humalajoki’s sharp focus enhances scholarly understanding of the interplay between these two North American governments’ Cold War foreign affairs and their domestic policies.

The author’s intervention aims to expose the embeddedness of the two countries’ Indian policy-making and the reactions of their indigenous peoples in the ideational context of the Cold War. She does this by comparing the U.S. House Concurrent Resolution 108, passed in 1953, and the Canadian government’s White Paper, issued in 1969.  Humalajoki argues that these documents were the products of the early Cold War context and ideas of equality and uniformity, which framed a policy of “complete legal assimilation” of Native peoples into majority society (2, 19).

Humalajoki’s challenge here is to account for both the similarities and the differences between the U.S. doctrine of termination and Canada’s Indian policy, which were formulated in the quite different contexts of America’s heated Cold War anti-Communism of the early 1950s, and the late 1960s liberalism and anti-Vietnam war sentiment of the Canada of 1969. She argues that while in the course of the Cold War the two neighbours diverged in their foreign policy positions, their respective Indian policies were “strikingly similar” because they were rooted in a post-war push for the social realization of their shared values of democracy and equality on an individual level, as opposed to collective rights (2, 5, 19).

If they had some sixteen years to learn the lessons of U.S. termination, why did the Canadian government propose a policy so close to that of its southern neighbor in 1969?  Humalajoki argues that the blind side of the White Paper consisted of its uncritical assumption of a Canadian ability to avoid the pitfalls and prevent the mistakes of U.S. termination policy – something she blames on the Canadian self-image of being “better than the Americans” (8-9).  According to the author, the Canadian government’s rationale for introducing termination, a policy which was already failing in the U.S., in their own country rested mostly on their own sense of exceptionalism, not on any policy decisions taken after learning the lessons of the U.S. experience (11-12).

Yet some questions remain in Humalajoki’s historical policy study.  She explains that “whereas [U.S.] termination was carried out on a case-by-case basis, [Canada’s] White Paper proposed the blanket removal of any legal recognition of Indigenous peoples and their lands” (7).  Was this a deliberate move on the part of Canada’s Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien, a ‘lesson’ learned from the struggles over termination south of the border?  Did Canadian policy planners believe that their “blanket” solution would avoid the backlash from indigenous peoples and the protracted political struggle that they had seen in the United States?  Finally, to what extent was the Canadian government’s blind spot in Indian policy a side-effect of its focus on a multicultural framework for French Canada?  First Nations author Harold Cardinal acknowledged some of this when he complained that “we listen when Canadian political leaders talk endlessly about strength in diversity for Canada, but we understand they are talking primarily about the French Canadian fact in Canada.”[1]

After analysing the two major policy documents, Humalajoki moves on to examining two texts of indigenous responses to them.  Her comparison of Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins and Harold Cardinal’s The Unjust Society, both published in 1969, yields insights into how these two Native thinkers “drew parallels between federal governments and Cold War adversaries, and positioned themselves within the discourse of decolonisation” (4).  Here Humalajoki is to be commended on her methodology of surgically selecting and interpreting her sources: as she shows, both of these Native manifestos were instrumental in influencing not only public opinion but actual policy making, contributing to the respective national governments’ shifts in their Indian policy (12).

Humalajoki recovers Deloria’s interpretation of the U.S. government’s use of its military against Native Americans in the context of its imperialism in the Spanish American War of 1898 and the ongoing U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  She places this argumentation side by side with Cardinal’s quip that Canadians were more concerned with the plight of African Americans than their own indigenous communities.  Humalajoki rightly interprets such bold rhetoric as aiming to appeal to young and liberal mainstream readers (14).  She also highlights that Deloria went out of his way to distinguish Native needs and rights from civil rights.  Part of his challenge was to prevent sympathetic liberal readers from lumping Native Americans together with the Civil Rights Movement (15).  This would suggest that the two Native intellectuals’ argumentation rejected what had been by then the ‘old school’ patriotic anti-Communism of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Yet the real question here is whether Humalajoki rightly interprets the two authors’ discourse as ideological and habitual, evidencing a specific Native political sensibility, or if she should read it as a calculated rhetorical strategy, flexibly tailored to its target audience and aims. Humalajoki seems to operate with hard categories: she argues that Deloria and Cardinal’s “warnings against militant tactics both illustrated the strength of Native people’s grievances and demonstrated a conservative approach” (16, emphasis added).  She also claims that “by creating such parallels [between Cold War foreign policy and domestic Indian policy], organisations like the National Congress for American Indians (NCAI) adopted the language of post-colonialism” (3, emphasis added).  Of help here could be scholarship by Paul Rosier, who identified and traced among especially American Indian military veterans the sensibility of “hybrid patriotism,” which rhetorically articulated their belonging both to the United States and to their Native nations.[2]

Building on Daniel Cobb’s scholarship, Humalajoki herself notes that Cardinal’s 1970 Red Paper “bore more than a passing resemblance to the “American Indian Point Four Program’ bills unsuccessfully backed by the NCAI in 1954 and 1957, which called for economic development programmes akin to the aid the United States provided to newly independent nations overseas.” This document “compared Canadian federal control over Indian affairs unfavourably with a global trend towards decolonisation” (17).  This suggests that while the substance of Native activism showed continuity and cross-influences between the U.S. and Canada from the early Cold War to the late Sixties, its rhetoric evolved in order to tap into the social, political, and foreign policy contexts of the two periods. In other words, Native intellectuals worked strategically rather than in distinct categories of moderate or radical, conservative or militant.  The scholar who best captured this rhetoric is Cobb, who explained that a Native “inside-outside” strategy flexibly positioned the speaker in an alliance with or opposition to the specific entity they wanted to enlist or target[3] - whether those were specific segments of the general public, a wing of the movement, or a government agency.

Due to its streamlined nature, it is possible, if not always fair, to find some faults with Humalajoki’s article.  Her only factual error is the misdating of several major Red Power protest events, which is clearly an oversight (15).  Some other issues noted below concern context.  In such a focused study, providing enough context is more an art than a science.

At times, Humalajoki’s study could have provided a little more context on the original drivers of policy.  She brilliantly recovers the Second Red Scare’s attacks on the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs for their alleged harbouring of Communists and fellow travellers as well as their ‘communistic’ practices in Native America (6, 9). Yet this does not fully explain how, after years of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Indian New Deal,” termination could be rammed through the U.S. government.  Rosier has established that in the post-World War II period, U.S. public discourse had both likened Indian reservations to Nazi concentration camps and labelled them places of quasi Communism, the emerging ideological adversary of the United States during the early Cold War.  He also identified the assumption that Native Americans had served in the U.S. armed forces in order to finally move off their reservations and be fully immersed in mainstream American society. Finally and crucially, he interpreted termination as a part of a larger “anti-New Deal movement” among policy makers.[4] Combined with the Second Red Scare, it was these powerful impulses that drove termination through into policy.

Humalajoki’s otherwise excellent focus on federal policy making and changes at times overlooks the full scope of the Native activism that fought to influence those government diktats.  Her discussion of how “[t]he US government gradually shifted away from termination in the late 1960s” credits Red Power’s spectacular protests (7), but does not recognize the less flashy but tenacious coalition building and lobbying done by people like Ada Deer and her fellow Menominee activists to drive this policy shift. While Deer’s memoir Making a Difference[5] was published too late to inform Humalajoki’s article, Deer’s voice has been canonized in the teaching of Native American history for the last two decades.[6] Such activism is an important dimension for an article examining the sausage factory that is federal policy making.

Humalajoki takes the reader to the edge of conceptual revelations, but does not always follow through with them. Using Patrick Wolfe’s framework[7], the author shows that both the U.S. and the Canadian governments advanced their settler colonial projects through the inauguration of closely similar Indian policies aimed at fully homogenizing their society through assimilation (4, 12).  She explains that “placing Cold War North America within the context of settler colonialism offers a unique tool with which to question the parameters of the era,” and that “considering the position of Indigenous nations demonstrates the necessity of viewing the Cold War era in conjunction with enduring processes of settler colonialism” (3).  Was this then a new stage in North American empire building—from the hemispheric to a global scale, through alliances, markets, and military bases—or a homogenization of their societies by the full assimilation of their remaining indigenous populations?  Or both, as interconnected, or even interdependent, processes?  By pushing her analysis one step further, Humalajoki could have produced a more robust thesis regarding the uniqueness of such Cold War processes to settler societies – or of their impact on them.

Yet the merits of Humalajoki’s study are evident.  She shows how Canada’s new Indian policy of full assimilation, proposed in 1969, was aligned with the values Cold War liberalism: equality, individualism, and freedom.  Her comparison of the White Paper with U.S. termination, which was inaugurated sixteen years earlier, proves that these policies were the products of a larger overarching Cold War impulse in North America for enacting equality (11, 19).  Cold War anxieties prompted the U.S. government to “narrow […] the scope of acceptable forms of citizenship,” attempting to strip Native nations of their federal status and rights (6).

Humalajoki’s article is at its best in its discussions of policy.  In the author’s judgment, both government directives made a mockery out of ‘advise and consent’ by Native peoples; regardless of whether they gave any assurances, neither U.S. termination nor Canada’s White Paper had measures to safeguard or strengthen Native cultures; and their rhetoric of ‘protecting’ Native land notwithstanding, both policies facilitated land loss through their mechanism by subjecting land transfer to the laws of capitalism (10, 11-12).

Humalajoki’s study further illuminates some of the fraught feedback loop between government policy and Native activism.  Rosier has mapped out the struggle over termination between the old Indian New Dealers, Native organizations, and the champions of the new policy.[8] Humalajoki does some of this for Canada’s Indian policy.  She masterfully proves with evidence that Deloria’s 1969 book Custer Died for Your Sins actually informed the shift in Canada’s Indian policy away from the White Paper (16-17).

Building on previous scholarship, Humalajoki’s study delivers a focused contribution to knowledge.  During the last decade, scholars such as Daniel Cobb have probed the relationship between U.S. “domestic” and foreign politics, much of their work focusing on the ways in which Native American activism responded to and aimed to influence Indian policy by using the rhetoric of U.S. Cold War foreign policy. Our understanding of such processes is also indebted to Cobb for expanding the scope of Native activism under scrutiny from the publicly visible and radical protest performances to a greater array of forms of suasion and pressure, including publishing, lobbying, and coalition building.[9]  Humalajoki’s strength in policy studies illuminates the actual influence of such Native activism on the two settler colonial governments’ positions and directions. She advances scholarship on decolonial thought and decolonization within the heart of the U.S.-led West, which serves as a crucial complement to studies covering the more well-known geographies of decolonization in the Cold War.  Focusing on “the ways in which the domestic and the international interacted” in Indigenous Cold War North America, Humalajoki’s article is a valuable contribution to scholarship in fields such as North American Studies, Canadian Studies, Cold War Studies and history, as well as Native American and Indigenous Studies.


György Tóth holds degrees in English Language and Literature and American Studies from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary (M.A.) and The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA (Ph.D.).  In his academic specializations, György combines U.S. cultural and social history with Transnational American Studies, Performance Studies, and Memory Studies to yield interdisciplinary insights into the politics of U.S. social and cultural movements in post-1945 Europe.  Since 2014 György has been serving as Lecturer in post-1945 U.S. History and Transatlantic Relations at the Division of History, Heritage and Politics of the University of Stirling, Scotland, UK.  His book titled From Wounded Knee to Checkpoint Charlie: The Alliance for Sovereignty between American Indians and Central Europeans in the Late Cold War was published by SUNY Press in 2016, and he is co-author of Memory in Transatlantic Relations from the Cold War to the Global War on Terror, published by Routledge in 2019.



[1] Harold Cardinal, The Unjust Society (Vancouver: Douglas McIntyre, 1969), 10.

[2] Paul C. Rosier, Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century.  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 9, 10-11.

[3] Daniel Cobb, Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008), 126.

[4] Paul C. Rosier, Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 112, 113, 151.

[5] See Ada Deer with Theda Perdue, Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

[6] “Ada Deer (Menominee) Explains How Her People Overturned Termination, 1974” in Albert L. Hurtado and Peter Iverson, eds., Major Problems in American Indian History (Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2015), 495-498.  The same text is featured in the book’s second edition in 2000, and has been included in all editions ever since.

[7] Humalajoki cites Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (London: Verso, 2016), 37.

[8] See Paul C. Rosier, Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 149-160.

[9] See Daniel Cobb, Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008).