ASU scholar focuses on Native leadership, advocacy in the US South

By

Maureen Roen

For Arizona State University professor and historian Denise E. Bates, primary sources such as original archival documents and oral interviews form the bedrock for her scholarship in indigenous leadership.

So for Bates, the news that she was one of 30 scholars chosen to receive a 2017–18 Princeton University Library Research Grant — supporting travel and living expenses for up to a month’s work in the archives — felt something like winning a historian’s version of the lotto.

“I plan to spend much of April immersed in the Mudd Manuscript Library’s public policy papers and records of the Association on American Indian Affairs,” said Bates, assistant professor of leadership and interdisciplinary studies in ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.

“The not-for-profit association is one of the oldest Native American legal advocacy groups in the U.S., but the role that the organization’s collaborations played in the development of the Southern Indian Rights Movement remains largely an untold story,” she said.

“I’ll be looking at the relationship-building and reciprocal learning that happened between the AAIA and Southern Indian communities from 1953 and 1980,” Bates said, “a time of intense activism and political strategizing and maneuvering by Native leaders, and a time when the AAIA was regularly approached to help meet diverse tribal needs on a national-level.”

How did Southern tribal communities communicate and strategize with the AAIA as they pursued their goals toward further developing their tribal nations? How did the organization decide which communities to work with, given they couldn’t serve all that contacted them for support?

These are a few of the questions she will focus on as she studies the collection, which contains all of the AAIA’s administrative records, meeting minutes and internal correspondence between staff members and their legal consultants. Recently, the papers of the late William Byler, who served as executive director of the AAIA from 1963 to 1981, were turned over to the Mudd collection, which further expands the resources Bates will have available in her pursuit.  

Working with some of the collection from afar through photocopy requests, Bates has already glimpsed some of the challenges the organization’s staff and legal partners faced.

“For example, the AIAA non-Indian lawyers, who were based in New York City and had worked primarily with tribes in the West, were well versed in federal Indian law but knew nothing about tribal politics in the South,” she said. “As they started to dip their toe in the Southeast region they were in a persistent state of discovery and learning from tribes they worked with, to better understand the nuances of the region’s politics, how each Southern state handled Indian affairs, and the unique characteristics of each community.”  

The intellectual adrenaline Bates finds in archival work is enormous. 

“There’s nothing like having access to archival documents, like meeting transcripts, that provide a largely unfiltered narrative,” she said, “letting the words bring out the story, finding where the voices are, witnessing an unfolding of people’s assumptions, perceptions and revelations and understanding what shaped them.” 

Building collaborations, launch-points for public history

An advocate and practitioner of community-based history, Bates has focused her scholarship on opening up greater conversation and understanding of the complex history of Native communities in the U.S. South by bringing Native voices, experiences and influences to the forefront.

Interested in a career in history since she was a child, Bates earned a master’s degree in American Indian studies and a doctorate in history at the University of Arizona before joining ASU’s faculty of Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies in 2007, first as a lecturer and, since 2015, as the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts’ first tenure-track professor of leadership and interdisciplinary studies.

She is part of a small but growing community of scholars focused on the Native U.S. South, and looks forward to seeing the sub-field grow even more at professional academic conferences in the coming years.

“In the 20th century, leaders of Native communities of the South were forced to navigate political and social barriers constructed primarily along lines of race and class — all while confronting inconsistent and politicized federal Indian policies and practices,” Bates said.

“With nearly 100 tribal communities located in the region — 10 federally recognized, 45 state recognized, and dozens of others with no formal political status — there is a rich array of organizational structures and leadership approaches that warrant exploration for insights into scholarly and applied arenas,” she said.

In doing extensive archival and oral history work over more than a decade, she has built a network of collaborators among tribal communities across the South, and each project has led organically into the next.

Her collaborations with the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana have grown into an especially strong partnership, foundational to her first two books: “The Other Movement: Indian Rights and Civil Rights in the Deep South” and “We Will Always Be Here: Native Peoples on Living and Thriving in the South.”

The first book highlighted Southern Native activist work toward tribal sovereignty and nation-building during the civil rights era, and the second shared more than 40 personal narratives and essays that Bates compiled working closely with Native leaders throughout the region, she said, “to document their historic and contemporary successes and struggles in areas that range from cultural preservation to economic development.”  

The work for those books led to a third, “Basket Diplomacy,” which is a study of a century of Coushatta tribal leadership and is now under contract with the University of Nebraska Press.  

“It grew out of two years of intensive research and 300 hours of interviews on Coushatta agency between 1884 and 1985. It is a history of tribal political and business leaders making really savvy decisions and alliances, with the intent to establish cultural and economic stability for future generations,” Bates said. “I’m especially interested in taking a longitudinal approach, identifying areas of continuity across multiple generations and capturing a cultural and historical understanding of leadership.”

On Feb. 8, Coushatta tribal leader and activist Ernest Sickey, who served as tribal chairman from 1973 to 1985, is presenting a public lecture at ASU titled “Tribal Nation-Building in the U.S. South.” His visit, which Bates coordinated with sponsorship from a number of ASU units, also includes a luncheon discussion hosted by the Indian Legal Program of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. 

“Mr. Sickey is a superstar in the evolution of Indian affairs and the movement promoting Indigenous rights in the Southeast,” Bates said. “Under his strategic leadership the community was the first to be recognized by the state of Louisiana and the tribe was reinstated to a federally acknowledged status after being terminated in 1953. The state’s Inter-tribal Council and Office of Indian Affairs are a direct result of his work. And today the Coushatta Tribe is one of Louisiana’s top private employers.”

She is collaborating with Sickey and other tribal leaders on a number of projects to transform the academic scholarship, governing documents and oral histories into instructional and public history materials that can be readily accessed and used.   

“With the Coushatta Tribe, for example, we’re developing a digital learning platform to encourage civic engagement and leadership among tribal youth,” Bates said.

“I feel very strongly that history belongs to the community,” she reflected. “It’s important that this knowledge not just go in scholarly journals and books. Young people are hungry for access to their own history.

“It’s a joy to help pull it together and make it accessible for all to connect with,” she added, “but I’m just a facilitator.”