Author Daniel Sharfstein Questions American Values and Urges Students To Have Their Voices Heard

An illustration of slaves carrying rich landowners on their backs emerges on screen as Daniel Sharfstein, author and Professor in Law and History at Vanderbilt University, explains the hierarchy and government system in the nineteenth century. Last Wednesday night, Sharfstein gave a presentation in the Cochran Chapel on his recent book, “Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War.”

His lecture touched upon topics ranging from issues of race and citizenship within the twentieth century to the significance of the Nez Perce War, a conflict between several branches of the Nez Perce Native American tribes and their allies.

“From 1865 to 1900, from emancipation to empire, [there] is a quick and stunning turn into our sense of America and the purpose of government. And the story of this turn goes to the west, where the final decades of the nineteenth century involved a massive exercise of government power to take land and wealth from one group and give it to another, and justify that redistribution with the logic of white supremacy,” said Sharfstein in his presentation.

“The Nez Perce war allows us to consider the broad pivet the United States was making in the years following reconstruction, and I wanted to show how real people saw and experienced this epical transformation,” he continued.

Audience member Sam Green ’19 said that Sharfstein’s presentation brought attention to issues that are often overlooked.

“When you talk about race, you talk about African Americans or other races, but Native Americans kind of [get overlooked]. So, introducing those topics brings awareness to something that wasn’t deemed an issue for a long time,” said Green in an interview with The Phillipian.

In his presentation, Sharfstein said that the U.S. government took land and property from the Native American Nez Perce tribe and forced them to relocate. The leader of this eviction was Oliver Otis Howard, a civil rights activist for slaves.

“[Sharfstein] talked about Howard, a guy who is very much against slavery, [who] was in the Freedmen’s Bureau. But then, Howard’s approach to how he deals with the situation of the Nez Perce is somewhat like the antithesis to what he previously believed. It was an interesting lesson on how that could be turned around,” said audience member James Lemuel ’19 in an interview with The Phillipian.

The Native American families fled to the Rocky mountains, while Chief Joseph, leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain band of Nez Perce, attempted to voice his situation to the government. Joseph, however, was not regarded as an American citizen and was initially dismissed.

“[I think] it’s really useful to think about the Nez Perce War when so many of us are wondering if anything we do could possibly have an impact on today’s world. Every day seems to be a new crisis, a new disaster, and a lot of people feel really powerless,” said Sharfstein in an interview with The Phillipian.

Sharfstein said that Chief Joseph never gave up looking for an audience that would listen to him, and this is where he found success.

“Once you get a toe hold — once you get one person, one part of government listening — you can leverage that into getting more people to listen… I think understanding that nothing is ever definitively settled is something that’s important,” said Sharfstein. “We can win these… victories — a big Supreme Court decision in our favor — but that’s never the end of anything. That’s just the beginning of a new chapter of struggle of the nature of those rights, the meaning of those rights, and how to protect those rights.”

Since his childhood, Sharfstein always had a keen interest in history.

“History to me, for one thing, I just thought it had the best stories… They’re really interesting to think about how people lived their lives at different times, how we can recognize so much of what they do in ourselves, and how differently people can see the world. I also think it’s a way of understanding what our values as Americans are, what they really mean, and if we’re thinking about the politics and the ideas that animate our actions,” said Sharfstein.

Sharfstein, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, is also the co-director of the George Barrett Social Justice Program, a program designed to train public interest lawyers. In 2011, Sharfstein released his first book “The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.” “Thunder in the Mountains” was released last April. Sharfstein’s writings have also been published in the “Yale Law Journal,” “The New York Times,” “The Economist,” “The Washington Post,” and many other publications.

In the future, Sharfstein plans to finish his book trilogy that focuses around themes of race and citizenship. His third book will focus on immigration and the experience of Eastern European immigrants in Jazz Age New York.

Sharfstein said, “I am still doing a little bit of work, particularly relating to Chief Joseph. I think he is someone who is hard to ignore once you get to know him… At the same time, with my first book and my second book, I think of it as a trilogy thinking about… what it means to be an American, what makes us American, what values define us as Americans. [My] first book was largely in the South, second book was largely in the West, so [the third one will be] in the Northeast.”