Native but Foreign; a conversation with historian Brenden Rensink

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Unknown, “Last Sundance – East of Havre, Chippewa/Cree,” March 8, 1909, photo from collection at MSU-Northern. 

This week, Erstwhile editor Kerri Clement caught up with Dr. Brenden Rensink, the Assistant Director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies and an Assistant Professor of History at Brigham Young University, to discuss his new book, Native but Foreign (Texas A&M Press, 2018) Rensink’s text takes a comparative look at Indigenous people crossing the U.S.-Canada and the U.S.-Mexico border during the 19th and 20 centuries and subsequent fights for recognition. This post has been lightly edited from a digital conversation. 

Q: For readers who have not read your book, could you summarize it very briefly?

  • Native but Foreign compares the histories of Native peoples who crossed the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders as immigrants and refugees, their experiences being Native to these regions but categorized as “foreign” Indians by the United States, and eventual fights to secure federal tribal recognition as “American” Indians. The case studies are of Crees and Chippewas who settled in Montana and Yaquis who settled in Arizona; both begin in the mid- to late-1800s. The Montana stories stretch into the 1910s and the Arizona story all the way to the 1970s. I explore these histories to ask a number of questions. How are the two borderlands different? How did Americans view Indigenous peoples differently across northern vs. southern borders? Why did those in Montana receive tribal recognition after 30-odd years whereas it took nearly a century for those in Arizona? How do these histories complicate accepted narratives in North American West and Native American histories? Obviously, there is a lot going on here, but that is the brief thumbnail sketch.

Q: Could you expand on the origin of the book? How did you come to examine two geographically separate stories?

  • As a graduate student at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln in the 2000s, I was interested in the West, Native peoples, and Borderlands, and I had experience with comparative methodologies. As I looked at various topics that intersected Native and Borderlands histories, Prof. Victoria Smith pointed me to these two case studies. The hook was how counterintuitive they were. Many well-known examples of Native border-crossing were of peoples fleeing the United States to Canada or Mexico, but in these examples there were Native peoples entering into the United States. That unique wrinkle was enough to hook me. Originally, I was also going to include two additional case studies of Native communities straddling borders—Tohono O’Odhams between Arizona and Sonora on the US-Mexico border, and Akwesasne Mohawks between New York, Ontario, and Quebec on the US-Canada border. My dissertation committee wisely suggested that would be too much to handle, and they were right. As it was, the dissertation topped out at over 500 pages and essentially consisted of me writing two dissertations—one on each case study.

2018 WHA Book Display

Q: Where do you see your work fitting in with contemporary events on both sides of the border?

  • When I started this project a decade ago I knew that immigration and border issues would likely continue to be hot button topics. I always hoped that a historical examination of border crossing would somehow shed light on or give context to current events—both Native and non-Native. I did not anticipate the recent international refugee crises and that my work would resonate there. I recently published a short piece on Public Radio International’s The World and Global Nation that hints at these connections. In these histories we see the real-life consequences and human costs of inconsistent (or nonexistent) federal policies for vulnerable peoples who arrive at our nation’s door, or already live within our borders. Much of the histories examined in the book are of desperate Native peoples looking to the United States for aid and often being ignored or mistreated. They provide sad examples of times when simple solutions did exist but were not pursued. While many of the specifics of my work will not be relevant to contemporary events, I hope that the process of reading this history will equip us with the perspective and desire to pause, think critically about modern problems, and act boldly for solutions. Philosophically this is what the best histories do—they do not provide all of the answers we need, but they help us learn what kinds of questions we should be asking about our present world.

Q: What were the most unexpected joyful or fun moments you experienced while researching or writing the book? What were the most difficult moments?

  • Learning a single historiography is challenging. Doing a comparative project like this meant mastering multiple national historiographies as well as Native, state, and local historiographies. Attendant to each were new sets of archives and collections. In short, it made for a long and expensive research process. This is also what made it so fun.
  • A key challenge was locating records. For the years I was interested in, the Crees, Chippewas, and Yaquis were not recognized by the United States as “American” Indians. They were not a part of the federal systems and bureaucracies of the Office of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and so forth. This means that federal archives did not include them in various record groups. If you want to study Kiowa history, you can quickly locate the Kiowa records as organized by the National Archives. Not so for the groups I was looking for. So, I had to find them on the margins of other tribal communities’ records, in newspapers, in various non-Native archival collections, etc.
  • One of the best moments was when I started seeing footnote references in some 1970s publications to the “Rocky Boy School Archive.” From the references, it appeared to be a gold mine of information. However, when I contacted the tribe and the school, no one knew what I was referring to. Dead end! Then, an administrator said that on second thought, there were some file cabinets buried in the basement closet of the kindergarten room that might be what I was looking for. On a hope and a prayer, I drove from Nebraska to Montana, showed up, had a janitor let me in, and I literally dug out the cabinets from behind mountains of kindergarten school supplies, and . . . there it was. The Rocky Boy School Archives that a research team in the tribe had collected back in the 1970s. It was rich with sources. I spent a few days there working and then added an extra day to type out a full inventory/catalog of the archive’s contents, which I gave to the tribe and Stone Child College. It was a thrill to see the sources in the archive and an even bigger thrill to be able to provide the community with a guide to this forgotten resource.

Unknown, “Little Bear with Cree, Rocky Boy Reservation, Montana,” March 30, 1909, photo from MSU-Northern collections

Q: You frame your book in comparative chapters. How did you decide to structure your book that way and why?

  • This speaks to the above question of “difficult moments.” When I finished the dissertation I was left with a 500+ page manuscript, with the two case studies completely separated and followed by a brief comparative conclusion. I was advised soon thereafter by David Weber at a conference to blend the two case studies together in thematic chapters. This would require an extensive rewrite and reconceptualizing of the entire project. As I labored through an abysmal job market and found jobs (for which I was so grateful) that provided much needed employment but left little time for manuscript revisions, the weight of the large revision plan stymied any progress. It was not until I started my current position as the Assistant Director of the Charles Redd Center and an Assistant Professor of History at Brigham Young University that I made much progress revising. My current position still doesn’t leave much time, but I made it happen.
  • What resulted was a hybrid approach. I organized the material into four “Parts.” Each has a “Part Introduction” that lays out some of the comparative framework, topics, and questions. Then the individual chapters within each part largely take on either the Montana or Arizona story separately—since some of the comparative heavy lifting was done in the introduction. The chapters thus bounce back and forth within the comparative themes set by each part. Part 1 is the exception where both chapters include all of the groups for broad introductions.
  • I settled on this organization because I was saddened by the loss of narrative flow and connection to individual human stories when I tried to follow Weber’s advice in blending the stories together along thematic lines. That approach was great for comparative analysis, but I lost sight of people and stories. However, I felt there was real power in the comparative analysis and did not want to lose that. The resulting organization struck a middle-ground that I’m happy with.


James, George Wharton [Public domain], “A family of escaped Yaqui Indians in Arizona,” ca.1910, via Wikimedia Commons

Q: Did you find any connections between the northern and southern stories?

  • There was not any collaboration or communication between Crees and Chippewas in Montana and Yaquis in Arizona—that I could locate. However, there was at least one documentary moment of connection. In 1963, Yaquis in Arizona gained the confidence and support of Senator Morris K. Udall. He began researching what possible solutions there were to their difficulties and situation of being unrecognized as “American” Indians. One of his legislative assistants wrote him a memo citing the 1916 creation of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy’s Reservation as precedent for the U.S. federal government providing lands to “foreign” Indians (along with the 1887 creation of a reservation for Tsimshians from Canada at Metlakatla, Alaska). The eventual 1964 bill that conveyed land to the non-profit Pascua Yaqui Association, HR 6233, and its attendant House and Senate Reports all cited the Rocky Boy example. That was, however, the only official documentary link I could find. It would be fascinating to discover other connections. Or perhaps collaboration today. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe recently hosted a Tribal Border Summit with other Indigenous nations who deal with transnational issues of border-crossing, transnational communities and family relationships, etc. Many Yaqui families in Arizona and Chippewa-Cree (and other) families in Montana maintain relationships across international borders. In that, they continue to have shared interests and a space for fruitful dialog and collaboration.

Q: Your work speaks to many different historiographic literatures—how did you orient your work in so many literatures? In other words, did you arrive at your topic after reading all the literature or did you read the literature after arriving at your topic?

  • As I explained earlier, I arrived at the topic first. I knew I wanted to write something in the West, in the Borderlands, and likely with Native peoples. However, in many ways, the histories that I uncovered ran counter to all of those broader fields. The communities were Native, but not recognized as “American” Indians, not integrated into the federal treaty system, and thus not party to many of the generalized experiences and narratives we know from Native American historiographies. They complicated borderlands literature by crossing the “wrong” way. In so doing, their archival footprints fell out of Mexican and Canadian literatures but failed to be integrated into American national literatures. Their unfolding in the West provided moments where remote Western locales dictated national federal policy, an inverse dynamic to what often appears in Western historiographies. It also touches on literatures in immigration and labor history. I have always feared that by intersecting so many bodies of scholarship, it fails to sufficiently engage with any of them! We’ll see how they all respond when various fields’ journals post reviews. Fingers crossed!

Q: Why do you think this comparison has never been done before?

  • Maybe because no one has been foolhardy enough to try it. I don’t know. There is very little comparative scholarship that deals with both borders. As I noted above, it requires mastering so many historiographies and can require expensive and extensive travel to archives. Specific to Crees, Chippewas, Yaquis (and other still unrecognized Native peoples) their exclusion from national archives leads to their not being noticed by researchers. I hope this book rectifies that somewhat. More broadly, I hope it inspires researchers to look beyond obvious topics, familiar frameworks, accepted narratives, or nationally-driven narratives (look beyond borders!) for new questions to ask of supposedly settled topics and stories that have not been fully explored.
2018 Rensink Portrait

Dr. Brenden Rensink, photo by Heather Clark Photography. 

Q: What’s your next project?

  • Most of my time is committed to helping to run the Redd Center. We are a Western American Studies research center, and I help manage our programming, events, seminars and publications, etc. I also manage and edit the Intermountain Histories digital public history project and recently launched the Writing Westward Podcast for the Redd Center. This all keeps me quite busy. In addition, I am doing some research and consulting with the Native American Rights Fund. In terms of future books, I have a co-editing anthology coming out this year with the University of Utah Press entitled Essays on American Indian and Mormon History, I am starting a new edited collection of essays on the 21st Century North American West, and I am slowly chipping away at a cultural and environmental history of experiences with Western wilderness, drawing from pre-contact Indigenous traditions up to present outdoor recreation movements. It’s something of a departure, but a fun way for me to marry my personal outdoor hobby obsessions with wild places and my academic training as an historian. The Redd Center keeps me busy, so we’ll see how quickly or slowly that progresses.

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