Bruce Duthu ’80 on Promoting Social Justice

By Joni B. Cole

(Photo by Rob Strong ’04)

 

This Focus on Faculty Q&A is one in a ongoing series of interviews exploring what keeps Dartmouth professors busy inside—and outside—the classroom.

As a teenager from a Houma family in Dulac, La., Bruce Duthu ’80 had never heard of Dartmouth College. Then an alumnus came to town and pushed him to apply. Duthu made excuses—his native Cajun French was only supplemented by “Bugs Bunny” English, he was more inclined to the priesthood, and the reality: “We didn’t have the money for the application fee.” So the alum (Jim Bopp ’66) sent him a check. Today, the Samson Occom Professor and chair of Native American studies makes no excuses for his views on government schizophrenia, the challenges of parenting, and his take on a certain Washington football team’s name.

You majored in religion at Dartmouth and wanted to be a priest. What happened?

My second year here, a young seminarian at Saint Denis Parish really pressed me on why did I want to become a priest. I spoke about the legacy of discrimination in my community and my desire to change that. He summarized it in two words: “Social justice. You really want to promote, through the priesthood, social justice.”

But then he illuminated how challenging that would be, with all the institutional baggage, constraints, and pretty sordid history of the Church’s involvement with the colonial project of eviscerating rights of Native peoples. Ironically, I teach about that now.

You got your law degree at Loyola, and were on the faculty of Vermont Law School for 17 years. Is law your true vocation?

I still consider myself deeply religious, but law was a good backup plan in terms of pursuing social justice through a more earthly set of institutions. I liked being a trial lawyer, but the two things I really enjoyed were research and teaching my clients about their legal rights.

What’s the biggest takeaway from your course “Federal Indian Law”?

Indian tribes in the U.S. are distinct cultures and races, but they also, from the legal perspective, have status as political bodies. I always keep my little Constitution literally close by. It says, (he points to Article I, section 8, clause 3) “Congress has the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states and with the Indian tribes.” Most Americans don't know that.

Your latest book, Shadow Nations, contends that America has moved away from its early commitments to a legally plural society. What’s the gist of your argument?

I talk a lot about the schizophrenic approach the U.S. has toward Indian affairs. On one hand, there’s the constitutional commitment. But everyone seemed to be on the same page that tribes were not going to live long enough for it to really matter. Well, tribes survived, and the government responded to that for the better part of American history with federal acts and policies designed to obliterate them, at least as political competitors to the nation state.

Has there been any reversal in this practice?

I always love to tell students that the president who is credited with slamming the door on this history of the political annihilation of tribes as political bodies was Richard Nixon. He ushered in the policy that we now call “self-determination” that looks for some form of bilateralism.

As an Indian kid in the bayou, you experienced blatant racism. How has that informed your perspective?

It showed me that groups with power can pretty much accomplish anything they want against a minority or powerless population. In the church where I grew up, little railings were nailed to the back pews to demarcate the Indian section. That persisted until the ’60s. There was this priest, newly assigned to our area, who took the bars off, loaded them in his station wagon, and drove them to the archbishop’s residence in New Orleans. If any of his parishioners asked, “Where are the bars?” he told the bishop, “I'm going to send them to you, so you can explain why you allow this in God’s house.”

You’ve spoken with admiration about your grandfather, a single father of 10 who also helped raise you and your brother. As a father of three, how do you measure up?

There were a lot of times, particularly with our older daughter, that I saw myself as an abject failure. When my kids misbehaved, or if they didn't automatically adhere to what I said, I tried to force it. “It’s my way or the highway.” I wasn’t acting in a posture of humility. In moments of hopelessness I’d think, how could my grandfather do this? He never seemed resentful, or let us see that side of him.

To make ends meet, your “Pepere” kept reinventing himself—trapper, carpenter, boat builder, barber. What if you weren’t an educator and author?

I love food. I love cooking. My fantasy job would be to take over Guy Fieri’s job with that show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

The well being of Native Americans remains in flux. The land beneath your own tribe’s feet is literally disappearing due to coastal erosion. Your scholarship immerses you in the dangers of majoritarian rule. Where do you draw hope?

When I came to Dartmouth, a guy named Robert Kilmarx, whose name is on my diploma, was on the Native American Visiting Committee that I served on years later. Think a young Gregory Peck. I sat next to him at a dinner. I didn’t even know what silverware to use. I was like, so, um, what do you do? And he goes, “I'm a lawyer.” Silence. I asked, where’d you go to law school? “Harvard.” Those were my two questions. I was tapped out. Then he started asking me questions: “Where did you grow up?” “What was that like?” Later, I learned he chaired the committee that produced the report that said the Indian symbol at Dartmouth is antithetical to our commitment to community, to inclusion, to respect. That stance cost him. He took a lot of flak. But here was a guy, just like that priest I talked about earlier, who stuck his neck out. To me, that’s enough of an example of good people, from surprising backgrounds, to say there’s a chance. There are people like that who give me hope.

Speaking of Indian symbols, what would you say to the owner of the Washington Redskins?

I hope Dan Snyder sees the light and sees how atrociously wrong it is to perpetuate using a term that has such loaded historical baggage.