Dr. David E. Wilkins

November 18, 2019
A Q&A with the new E. Claiborne Robins Distinguished Professor in Leadership Studies

Dr. David E. Wilkins joined the Jepson School of Leadership Studies in August as the E. Claiborne Robins Distinguished Professor in Leadership Studies. A citizen of the Lumbee Nation of North Carolina, his scholarship focuses on Native politics and governance. The American Political Science Association awarded him the Daniel Elazar Distinguished Federalism Scholar Award this year.

1. How did your Lumbee identity and your interest in Native politics and governance develop?

I was born in Fort Bragg, N.C., to Lumbee parents. My dad was in the army, so we moved to Kentucky and then Alaska before settling in Pembroke, N.C., when he retired. The high school I attended in Pembroke was 99 percent Lumbee, which was a serious adjustment for me after living in Army communities with people of all ethnic backgrounds.

After high school, I enrolled at University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Originally established in 1887 as the Croatan Normal School, it was the first tribal college in the nation. The college desegregated in 1954 following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Today it enrolls about 6,000 students, including about a 1,000 Native students. While in college, I began reading the works of Native activist and author Vine Deloria Jr. and became very interested in Native identity and politics.

After graduating in 1976 at the height of Native activism, I moved to Upstate New York to work for the Mohawk newspaper Akwesasne Notes. I met many Native people who were demonstrating and lobbying in D.C. and learned a lot about treaties and the importance of law. In August 1980, I started studying under Vine Deloria Jr. at the University of Arizona, where he had established the first master’s degree program for American Indian studies.

After completing my master’s, I worked in D.C. researching the genealogy of Virginia tribes and their relationship with the commonwealth. I moved back to Arizona in 1983 to teach Navajo history at the Navajo Community College. At the urging of Vine Deloria, who said we needed more Native political scientists, I enrolled in the political science doctoral program at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated in 1990. 

2. What can be done to add the Native perspective to race conversations in the United States? 

In 1860, the U.S. Census Bureau introduced “Indian” as a racial category and applied it only to Native peoples who had renounced their tribal rule and were taxed. Prior to that, the Census counted Native peoples as black or mulatto when it counted them at all.

Vine Deloria, however, pointed to important differences in the experiences of peoples identified by the Census as black and mulatto and those identified as Indian. He said African Americans were treated like draft animals and Native peoples like wild animals.

Today, stereotypes of Native peoples persist—wild animals, wards of the state, environmental activists, drunken Indians, rich casino owners. New stereotypes keep piling on. Some states are making progress in combatting these stereotypes.

Washington state is at the forefront of working to improve relationships between the state government and Native peoples. Its sovereignty accord established a more amicable framework to find common ground and address issues.

3. How has the relationship between the U.S. government and Native peoples evolved over time?

Historically, the relationship between the United States and Native peoples was based on treaties, beginning in 1608 and running through the 1910s.

In the early 1800s, the U.S. government adopted the notion that Christian duty dictated the protection of Native peoples. This evolved into a trustee-beneficiary relationship whereby the federal government holds Native lands in trust for Indian peoples.

In the 1860s, the federal government decided it was too expensive to wage war with Native peoples and focused instead on assimilation. In the 1880s, the courts gave Congress plenary power to do whatever it deemed necessary to promote assimilation—break treaties, kidnap children, imprison medicine men.

These three approaches—treaties, the trustee-beneficiary relationship, and plenary power—form the trifecta of how the federal government interacts with Native peoples.

Federal policy is schizophrenic: If a decent person is president, we can have a decent relationship with the U.S. government. If there’s an Andrew Jackson or Donald Trump as president, plenary power prevails.

President George H.W. Bush declared November National Native American Heritage Month in 1990. Just last month, President Trump declared November National American History and Founders Month. Founders is an interesting word. How can you found a nation when a nation or nations already exist?  

4. What is the focus of your current research?

My current book project takes a comprehensive look at Native governance from pre-Colonial times to the present. Native peoples didn’t have written laws in pre-Colonial times; rather, they followed customs and traditions. Over the years, whether coercively or voluntarily, Native peoples have developed written laws.

Of the 573 recognized Native peoples in the United States, more than 500 now have written constitutions. I intend to interview the tribes that don’t have written laws to learn how they govern.