OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Alexandra Harmon

Portrait of Alexandra Harmon

Alexandra Harmon began her career advising and representing American Indian tribes in the state of Washington for sixteen years as an on-reservation attorney for the Skokomish and Suquamish tribes and as a coordinator of the Evergreen Legal Services Native American Project. Wishing to explore and write about questions that arose in her legal work, she entered the graduate history program at the University of Washington; she has taught as part of the American Indian studies program there since 1995. Harmon is the author of Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound (1998) and Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History (2010). She also edited The Power of Promises: Rethinking Indian Treaties in the Pacific Northwest (2008). A principal premise of her work is that Indians' history, while distinctive in significant ways, is integral to more aspects of American history than scholars have generally acknowledged. Her current research concerns the conditions and developments that prompted tribal governments in the 1970s to assert jurisdiction over all persons within their reservations, including non-Indians, thus raising the stakes in Indians' bid to renegotiate the terms of their relationship with the United States.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

At various times and places in American history, from the first European colonial projects to the present, some Indians have possessed substantial wealth, and their unexpected affluence has provoked telling controversies. Those controversies are significant episodes in Americans' long struggle with the consequences of the nation's settler-colonial origins. In effect, they have been debates about whether Indian and non-Indian economic aims were compatible or reconcilable. Indians as well as non-Indians have addressed questions about economic morality and its relationship to Indian or non-Indian identity.
In the early 1970s, many American Indians came to believe that their tribal governments could and should govern everyone within their reservations. When the tribes did assert jurisdiction over non-Indians, they significantly raised the stakes in the long-running negotiation of Indians' relationship to the United States. The Indians' belief in their broad governing powers and their determination to act accordingly arose from specific local histories of threats to their reserved resources, but the fate of their bids for jurisdiction depended on lawyers' and judges' interpretation of a very different history.
Indian treaties with the United States are legacies from the past that are very much with us, affecting millions of non-Indian Americans as well as Indians in significant ways. Few subjects illustrate the ironies that are common in history better than Indian treaties. They show us how time often plays tricks on the people who made history -- how the descendants of people who had little choice but to accept a disadvantageous treaty can hold that treaty sacred, for example. They show us how a past that is in many ways very foreign to us can do important work in the present.