Unworthy Republic author gives RFK Human Rights staff, supporters a look into research on award-winning book

Surprisingly, it was a box of letters he inherited from his Hungarian grandfather that inspired Claudio Saunt to write about Native American dispossession. Saunt, who won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Book Award for Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, said reading the letters, which provided a firsthand account of the experience of Jews in Hungary during World War II, made him want to explore the issue of deportation more broadly and led him, quite literally, to the Trail of Tears. The professor of American history at the University of Georgia recently joined RFK staff, board members, and supporters for a book club discussion moderated by Michael Schreiber, chief operating officer.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation, part of an ongoing series looking at the RFK Book and Journalism Awards Winners work behind the scenes.

Q. As you were thinking about what to work on, how did you land on this particular topic?

A. Native American removal is probably the most familiar topic in Native American history, and I think for that reason I had stayed away from it as a subject of research for decades. It seemed so familiar and yet, I was always dissatisfied with the existing literature on the subject.

Several years ago, I inherited a cache of letters from my grandfather, who turned out to be a voluminous correspondent and diligent archivist. He had fled from Hungary in the summer of 1937 and continued to correspond with his family overseas. Reading the letters from 1943 and beyond, it was this amazing experience of these Jews in Hungary during this tumultuous period, and later with survivors

I then started reading more broadly about the history of deportations, not just during World War II. And that really brought home to me how dissatisfying the literature about Native American removal was. We don’t even use the same language (for what was done to them). We put it in a different category.

That’s what got me into the subject, looking at what kinds of words are used to describe this event. Is it Native American removal or mass deportation, and what happens when we think about it as mass deportation? It was, in fact, one of the first state sponsored mass deportations in the modern world.

Q. There are multiple parallels and intersections of slavery as a whole that don’t seem to be in the current discussion when we talk about historic failures and the way to find racial interconnectivity as we move forward as a country and as states. Can you talk about how you explored this complicated pair of issues and the intersectionality of those issues. What does that tell you about the racial challenges the country faces today?

A. There are these deep rooted connections and you’re also right that the conversations today rarely involve native peoples. …Certainly it’s largely disappeared from public conversations. Clearly one of the reasons it’s not front and center is the political state of native people, there are roughly 3 million tribal citizens in the U.S. …there’s not that same sort of political capital that can be levied to put these issues forward. But in terms of intersectionality on the issue of slavery, only some 30 years before the heartbreak of the Civil War the heart of the deep south was Native American country. Alabama, Mississippi—we typically think of these as places with slave plantations, and that’s not inaccurate—but this was also Native American country, and there was an astonishing rapid and complete transformation of this space in the span of three decades.

Native American removal is really the crux of this transformation. This is when these planter politicians start lobbying the federal governments to expel native peoples to purchase or steal these lands, to break up slave families from the East Coast, and ship them and put them to work on these plantations

The significance of this is still unfolding in the 1860s, but the seeds were sown in the 1830.

Q. Another piece you highlighted later in the book was the involvement of Wall Street in the dispossession and treatment of Native Americans and the way things unfold. Is this something generally not chronicled in the recounting and history? Did anything come to you as an eye-opener?

A. It wasn’t really in any of the literature. It was one of the things I stumbled across, and then started pulling on the thread. It led me straight to Wall Street. I followed this capital trail across the Atlantic to London. It really surprised me as well when I found this.

We have thought of this as largely a southern story, a military and political story. But finance is central to the way this unfolds, to the way native people were dispossessed.

It’s true that every leading financier in Wall Street was involved. They recognized this was a once in a millennium opportunity to profit, because these were some of the most valuable agricultural lands in the entire world.

Q. You highlighted human rights defenders who spoke out or added some contribution toward the debate. Was there anybody in particular that struck you…a particular individual or group in the research that stood out as a powerful example of what one person could do to address or drive the dialogue?

A. First and foremost it’s native politicians and activists who were cultivating the opposition in the north. There’s also a wide range of native people, some of them surveying the situation in 1830 decide to cut their losses and basically agree to move west across the Mississippi river. They don’t do this because they think it’s just, they think it’s the best of two bad options.

By the time the (Indian Removal Act) comes before Congress, there is really fervent opposition in the North. It’s really based in Northern churches. These parishioners are people of their time, they’re not multiculturalists in the way many of us are today. they’re ethnocentric and dedicated to converting native people to Christians, but that said, they are progressives for the era….and they flood congress with hundreds of hundreds of petitions signed by thousands and thousands of people. These petitions said explicitly this period marks a turning point in the history of the United States. It can either live up to its ideals as stated in the Declaration, or it can become like the other despotic regimes in Europe.

They (warned) said that if the U.S. forces people off their homeland, it will never recover. It will be a stain on its reputation that will never be erased.

Read more about Saunt here, and more about Unworthy Republic here.