This is just going to be a personal meditation, and I apologize to anyone who would rather have more analytics and argumentation. When I was still a teenager, my best friend gave me a copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown. I read it hard and fast, cover to cover, and it changed my life. It’s basically a 20th century version of Helen Hunt Jackson’s classic “A Century of Dishonor.”
For me, it’s this simple really. Europeans began coming to the New World (“tis new to thee!”) in 1492. Almost the first thing Columbus wrote was (literally), “It would be easy to enslave them all.” It was clear from that moment, and indeed perhaps inevitable, that white Europeans were going to take the continent away from the several hundred nations and many millions of aboriginal owners of America. And they did. Even the expansionist Thomas Jefferson had the decency to admit, in his Second Inaugural Address, “The aboriginal inhabitants of these countries I have regarded with the commiseration their history inspires. Endowed with the faculties and the rights of men, breathing an ardent love of liberty and independence, and occupying a country which left them no desire but to be undisturbed….”
You cannot read even the least impassioned history of the Conquest of the Americas without feeling almost unbearably sad: smallpox, measles and influenza killed millions, probably tens of millions. When the steamboat St. Peter was venturing up the Missouri River in 1837, the boat’s officials discovered that there were personnel on board infected with smallpox. But instead of just turning back, they ventured on hoping they could somehow still trade with the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara without spreading the infection. This of course failed — because only a racist or a moron would believe that smallpox could be contained — and the population of the Mandan people collapsed from around 1,250 to something between 125-150.
But there’s more to the story. When Lewis & Clark appeared in October 1804, the population of the Mandan was 1,250, down from approximately 20,000 just a generation previously. The white man’s smallpox had reached the Mandan homeland around today’s Bismarck, N.D., well before the American emissaries, and it had shattered the heart of a once-mighty people.
Imagine for a moment a plague, whose origins you cannot fathom, sweeping 18 out of every 20 people off the face of the earth in a matter of a few months. Remember the national panic a few years ago when the Ebola virus arrived in America. And how many were killed: two. That’s one for every 115 million Americans.
How can anyone read these words without just wanting to sit down on the ground, hang your head and weep for humanity? It would be foolish to blame white Europeans for the macro problem of accidentally introducing diseases for which American Indians had little or no resistance. But how can anyone justify the commercial decision of the captain of the St. Peter in 1837? If you have never read the dying speech of the Mandan leader Four Bears, now would be the time.
Treaties fraudulently undertaken. Treaties whose fine print was never explained. Treaty provisions translated by incompetent or drunken or corrupt interpreters. Treaties that were cynically undertaken as temporary stopgaps before a more ruthless conquest could occur a few months or a few years later. Treaties broken. Treaties simply ignored. Treaties undertaken with a handful of tribal “leaders” who had been liquored up for the occasion. Treaties solemnly sworn but then implemented by way of corrupt agents, corrupt purveyors, cronies, hucksters, younger brothers of failed politicians, incompetents, all of whom, certainly almost all of whom were openly racist. That is, they cheerfully believed they were superior to the Native Peoples they were paid to supervise.
William Clark, the better of the two great explorers, a “friend to the Indian,” said late in his life that if he went to hell it would be for the Osage Treaty he negotiated in 1808, a treaty so appallingly unfair, a grotesque land grab for fractions of a penny per acre, that even a white expansionist quavered to think of its karmic implications.
Treaties as a sham, pretending to have constitutional validity and status, but treated as temporary cynical fictions by the white governments of the United States. And if you read old the Yankton, S.D., newspapers, or the Bismarck Tribune, or other frontier newspapers, the actual settlers of the frontier were virulently more racist than such national figures as William Sherman or Philip Sheridan or even George Armstrong Custer could ever be. Those newspapers called for actual extermination, and the terms they used to describe the Native Americans were more horrific than terms the Nazis used in the 1930s, worse than the terms U.S. soldiers sometimes used in Vietnam. If you don’t believe me, read “Thieves Road” by Terry Mort.
Ah, but there is so much more.
Laws prohibiting expressions of Native American religion, like the sun dance. Laws forcing Indians to jettison their concept of property overnight and adopt an alien one that, coincidentally, would “open up” millions of surplus Indian reservation acres to white landlusters. That was called the Dawes Act, 1887.
Executive orders that unilaterally reduced the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara homeland from approximately 12 million acres, solemnly guaranteed forever in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, to around a million. Those who wrote the executive order engaged in no consultation of any sort with those tribes. Decimation of a people’s homeland by way of an executive order signed by the president, a man who never visited the Indians of North Dakota.
And then in the late 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took 155,000 of the best acres of the little fragment that remained, the acreage on which the three tribes farmed in the bottomlands of the Missouri River, without consulting the peoples whose lives they shattered. Nine towns flooded out, nevermore to return.
And when an individual, Thomas Spotted Wolf, challenged Lewis Pick in the town of Independence, he flew into a rage and swept away from the reservation in his government car and vowed to punish the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara for the effrontery of standing up to protest the theft of their best lands, the desecration of their cemeteries and sacred sites, the flooding of their homesteads, the fracturing of their reservation and, of course, the violation not only of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, but even the executive orders that shrank the reservation in the decades that followed.
The overt racism of popular culture. The structural racism of the courts, law enforcement agencies, schools, prisons, businesses, malls, ball games and coffee klatches throughout America.
A young Lakota friend of mine was working as a clerk in a convenience store in Washburn, N.D. A man from Montana came in with his three children, saw my friend, and said to his children, “I didn’t know they let prairie n…..s work in these places.” And left.
I have seen unintended racism perpetuated by schoolteachers trying to teach Native American studies in our schools; and overt racism practiced (to perfection) by those who turn every moment of Indian assertiveness into a plebiscite on littering at pow wows or alcoholism in Indian communities. And, of course, willful refusal to shut the hell up and just listen for once.
You cannot read about checker-boarding on the reservations, or white government regulation of gambling on the sovereign ground of the reservations, or the ways in which security guards follow Native American people around the malls and grocery stores, or the insensitive cultural appropriation and racist stereotyping practiced by the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians. When people defend the Redskins, I always say, “Great, next time the governor of Wyoming addresses a group of Native Americans, I hope he will say, ‘Hey you Redskins, I’m so glad to speak to you today.’”
I have heard more racism from white people toward Native Americans in the past six weeks than in the past 16 years. Some of it is purposeful. Most of it is seemingly unintentional. We all need our consciousness raised.
You may wonder why the pipeline crisis — which is not without some very important perplexities and ambiguities, some of which undermine some elements of the Sioux protest — has grown into this national and international pan-Indian renaissance and solidarity movement.
The answer seems to me to be pretty simple. Non-Indians have kicked the living Jesus out of American Indians and other colonial people for centuries, often with glee, with a Eurocentric arrogance that is staggering in its dimensions.
Some think “the Indian Wars” ended at Wounded Knee on the last day of December 1890, but that is not so. There has merely been a Clauswitzean morphing from Gatling Guns to bureaucratic findings or bribes or corruption in the BIA or high pressure industrial emplacements, like the Dakota Access Pipeline.
When will it end?
My head finds ways to understand the tragic history of white-Indian relations in America, and I never think that all of the justice is on one side of virtually any crisis. But my heart just aches. I want to heal. But I know we cannot heal until we open our hearts and minds to the nightmare of the white conquest of the Americas.
That does not necessarily mean there will be no pipeline. It doesn’t even mean the pipeline must be moved. But it all does make me almost unbearably sad.
And I’m not directly involved in this, except that I am a citizen of the state of North Dakota and the United States. And I’m with those who say that America cannot be truly good for anyone unless and until it is good for everyone.