It’s unthinkable that kids in America would ever be allowed to play “slaves and masters,” writes Walter Echo-Hawk, but we don’t see anything wrong with Junior strapping on the trusty ol’ cap-shooters for a game of “cowboys and Indians.”

Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee tribal member and lawyer who has toiled for 35 years in federal Indian law, has written a provocative book that examines the tragic and continuing effects of colonial conquest and its resulting “settler” mindset. He does this without ever scolding his readers and succeeds in pointing a way toward eventual healing.

In the Light of Justice shines its light onto often-overlooked issues, explaining that what many whites think of as history—a bygone era of treaty-making, frontier warfare and taming the West—is, to most Indian people, actually current events.

S. James Anaya, a human-rights investigator for the United Nations, agrees. In his foreword to the book, Anaya writes that, during a tour of Indian Country in the wake of the U.S. endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (President Obama announced he would signed it in 2010 after opposition by the George W. Bush administration), he was struck “by … the deep, still open wounds” left by Manifest Destiny.

It’s disturbing, Echo-Hawk notes, that former colonists who rebelled for the sake of freedom treated, and continue to treat, indigenous people in the manner of 500 years of Western European colonialism. The doctrines of conquest and discovery have not only unjustly destroyed indigenous economies and societies; they have harmed the land as well, by treating it solely as a resource to be exploited. And yet those doctrines are still cited by federal courts today.

Echo-Hawk devotes a chapter to the need for what he calls an American land ethic, something, he writes, that Aldo Leopold suggested as early as 1948. Without a new way to engage with the landscape, “the American people cannot fully mature from a nation of immigrants and settlers recovering from a rapacious frontier history of Manifest Destiny and stride toward a more just culture … and resolve to become more ‘native’ to place.”

In 10 focused chapters, Echo-Hawk maps the way from the dark legacy of conquest to the light of justice. The “clothes of the conqueror,” he concludes, do not well fit the American ideals of liberty and justice.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

In The Light Of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

By Walter R. Echo-Hawk


352 pages, $19.95