FEATURED IMAGE: Lakota Chief Arvol Looking Horse at Standing Rock, from tumblr.com.
“It feels like 1875 because Natives are still fighting for our land.” ~American Indian writer, Sherman Alexie.
Most of us have been brainwashed by twisted accounts of the European colonization of America taught in school. Amidst the resistance mounted at Standing Rock this year, it’s important to recognize that what is happening there is not a new phenomenon for our American Indian friends. Just as our country was founded on the backs of enslaved Africans, it was also made possible by the mass extermination, displacement, and abuse of American Indians.
We must truly comprehend the pain these communities have experienced if we are to offer our sincerest support. Below is a brief list of abuses, most of which I was certainly never taught. It is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good starting point for getting informed.
Note: I used the term “American Indian” to refer broadly to the Native peoples of the United States when necessary, but I stick to specific tribes when possible. I explained why I use “American Indian” over other encompassing terms in a previous post.
- 1700s: Disease Allowed Europeans to Settle and Expand
The mainstream narrative of our westward expansion is that of brave settlers with great ambitions who stretched the frontier despite the resistance of “savage” natives and rough terrain. Not only is the myth about the untamed wilderness not true, nor is that of primitive natives true, but the idea that Europeans defeated American Indians and took their territories through superior force and tact is also a blatant lie. Not that we should be proud of colonization, either way, but let’s at least get the facts straight.
It is estimated that between 75% and 90% of the original American Indian population in the U.S. died because of the spread of European diseases from which they were not immune: measles, influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, smallpox, and the bubonic plague. Worse yet, though not always intentional, Europeans quite often purposefully introduced these diseases to wipe out American Indian populations.
This early example of biological warfare is the reality upon which our nation is founded. Pretty easy to take a people’s land when their whole community has succumbed to diseases you brought from your home country.
Many know the story of Sir Jeffery Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America in the 1760s, who, worried about limited resources and attack by certain tribes, wrote this to his comrades: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Yikes. The irony is that, if any race were execrable in this violent exchange, it was western Europeans.
In early 2016, Amherst College, a bastion of Liberalism set atop a large hill in the center of Amherst, MA, my own hometown, finally dropped “Lord Jeff” as its mascot. About time, wouldn’t you say?
- 1830s: Relocation and the Trail of Tears
On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which allowed the president to, through treaties, force tribes to leave their homelands in exchange for land on “reservations.” Tens of thousands of American Indians were relocated to “Indian Territory”, now part of Oklahoma.
Andrew Jackson’s heart was cold and vile as they come in a society obsessed with expansion at all costs. He is quoted as having said that American Indians had “neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire for improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”
We were a bunch of patronizing, racist barbarians just thrashing without remorse anyone who was different or stood in the way of our growth. (Oh wait, we still kind of do that today. Welp.)
One of the most well-known examples of relocation is the Trail of Tears. In 1838 and 1839, most of the Cherokee Nation was forcibly removed from parts of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama and had to migrate to “Indian Territory.” The migrants starved, succumbed to disease, and were encumbered by exhaustion. Over 4,000 of the 15,000 Cherokee migrants died along their arduous crossing.
- 1870s: Dawn of Boarding School Assimilation
In the 1870s, many American Indian children were sent away from their families to boarding schools where the teachers’ primary responsibility was not to educate students but to “civilize” them. They were beaten for speaking their native language, forced to cut their hair, forced to learn a new religion, and given new, Americanized names.
This went on well into the 1960s, tearing apart families and extinguishing tribal culture for decades. In 1892, Richard Pratt, who developed the program, said in a speech: “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” There are still people alive today who have memories of being stripped away from their mothers in the 1900s.
- 1887: The Dawes Act
The relocation by President Jackson of American Indians to reservations was largely a dismal failure. Communities disintegrated, economies failed, and many tribe members lived in poverty. Meanwhile, the federal government was subsidizing these, as they saw them, failed communities — and, of course, they weren’t having that.
As a result, Congress passed the Dawes Act of 1887 in the hopes that it would help end the dependency of tribes on the federal government and further assimilate American Indians into mainstream U.S. culture.
Under the law, every American Indian family was given 160 acres of tribal land to own and farm. But they were up against three main obstacles: 1) the idea of owning private land ran counter to common traditions of using land communally; 2) they often were given land unsuitable for agriculture; and 3) many lacked the knowledge of how to farm, which, in the West, takes quite a bit of expertise.
And it’s not as though they could exactly continue to thrive in their traditional ways of life. Having been confined to fixed plots of land, nomadic tribes lost entire means of subsistence.
- 1889: The Cherokee Outlet Opening
In 1835, by the Treaty of New Echota, which prompted the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee were forced to settle three areas covering parts of present-day Oklahoma and Kansas. They lost two of them, the Neutral Lands in southeastern Kansas and the original Cherokee Strip along Kansas’ southern border, in the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties.
The third and final area, the Cherokee Outlet, comprised about 7 million acres. Cherokees gained major income by leasing Outlet land to cattle ranchers taking advantage of railroads recently constructed across the land. The Cherokee Strip Livestock Association, a group of Kansas ranchers, offered to buy the Outlet at $3 an acre. The Cherokee refused, but their refusal was in vain. In 1889, the U.S. government forced them to sell it at $1.25 an acre, hardly a pittance, opening the Outlet to land claims — a process whereby anyone can register to buy unclaimed land.
In this vicious act of involuntary seizure at an unfair price, the U.S. government was spitting in the faces of the Cherokee people. It was a mockery, essentially conveying the message, “Oh, so you didn’t like our original offer, huh? Fine, we’ll offer you less and force you to accept anyway!” This type of treatment was status quo for our government.
This spurred the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. Around 135,000 people from all over stood in line to register land at the Cherokee Outlet Opening, and most of them never stood a chance; there just wasn’t enough land to go around.
Most Cherokees were unable to claim land that just days prior had been their home — a home that itself was adopted against their will per Andrew Jackson’s relocation policies. Even those Cherokees who were lucky enough to claim land faced difficulties managing and profiting from it given the difficulty acclimating to an unfamiliar lifestyle, and within a year many claims were abandoned.
- 1890s: Hopi Sent to Alcatraz
In the 1890s, our government mandated that all Hopi children be sent away to government-run schools. When the community refused, 19 Hopi tribal leaders were sentenced to Alcatraz. The Hopi people engaged in nonviolent protests, unwilling to resort to violence. The government, however, was willing to use the police and the military to force parents to separate from their children.
- 1906: The Burke Act and U.S. Citizenship
The U.S. has used a variety of shady tactics to lure American Indians into moving away from their homelands and assimilating into the prevailing Eurocentric American culture. One was the Dawes Act of 1887, mentioned above, which automatically granted citizenship and 160 acres of land to members of any tribe who voluntarily moved away.
The 1906 Burke Act, however, was even more manipulative. By moving away and accepting an allotment of land, a tribe member would be granted citizenship only after 25 years of embracing the “habits of civilized life”, the fulfillment of which was decided by the Secretary of Interior.
Further, an American Indian’s citizenship did not automatically extend to their children, so the Secretary was capable of deciding if descendants were unfit to run the land and, if it was deemed they weren’t, the land would be sold.
Sounds an awful lot like another ruse to disenfranchise American Indians and terminate their culture.
- 1909: Black Mesa, Again Cheated Out of Fair Compensation
In 1909, a lot of coal was discovered in Black Mesa, in northern Arizona, crossing both Hopi and Navajo reservations. A very poor nation, the Navajo made an agreement with the Interior Department that allowed the government to ramp up mining operations.
Coal was going for $4.40 per ton at the time, but the Navajo were only offered $0.17 per ton. They also weren’t reserved the power to renegotiate prices at any time. Even when coal was selling for $15 per ton in the 1970s, they were still receiving $0.17. To rub salt in the wound, they were granted no say in how mining was conducted, even when it completely destroyed ancient sites.
- 1953: The Termination Policy
In 1953, as a result of the poverty and depression that ensued from relocation to reservations, assimilation, stripping children away from families and sending them to boarding schools, and the Dawes and Burkes Act — in addition to, I’m sure, many other categories of abuse I have yet to learn about — the U.S. government, finding the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be at fault for this mismanagement, had the bright idea to — wait for it! — adopt a “Termination Policy” that would terminate American Indian tribes from federal recognition and more quickly assimilate them into mainstream American culture and institutions.
Wait, rewind. That just sounds like an intensified version of what they were already doing. So, they proposed essentially the same solution to fix a problem that was created by a similar solution? … But the U.S. Government didn’t really care about their culture to begin with so, hell, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, yeehaw!
As stated in House Concurrent Resolution 108, the goal was to terminate tribal affiliations “as rapidly as possible to make Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States.”
What’s perhaps the sickest aspect of Termination is that the U.S. Government actually saw it as benevolence! “Entitled to the same privileges” — they thought they were doing American Indians a favor!
In reality, it was just code language for “we fucked up with relocation and all, but we never cared about your culture anyway so now we’ve decided you have to join us, or else. It’s really in your best interest. Kthxbye.”
But it was about more than trying to patch up their failed experiment with relocation. World War II had just ended and the federal government no longer wanted to support tribes that were struggling and that, I’m sure, they saw as a huge, unjustifiable national burden alien to mainstream culture anyway.
And let’s not forget the fact that reservations were often sitting on a wealth of natural resources — like lumber and fossil fuels — and corporations wanted to open up the land for economic development.
The U.S. had also just been sucked into the Cold War, one of the most notable characteristics of which was American disdain for Communism. And here, in our own country, were tribal governments happily upholding norms of communal ownership and values, and, by God and Capitalism, we would finally be rid of this nonsense if it meant the death of us all!
As part of our “compensation,” we were oh so kind enough to consider awarding tribes money for their resources and stock in the companies that took over, but of course we required termination of their tribe before the money was distributed. Oh, and tribes had to pay the administrative costs of termination. Sorry, did we leave off that little detail?
From 1953 to 1964, 109 tribes were terminated. About 2.5 million acres of land lost protected status and 12,000 American Indians lost tribal affiliation. The lands lost were sold to non-American Indians.
One of the first tribes to go was the Menominee of Wisconsin. They were officially terminated in 1954 but were granted several extensions. In 1961, they were finally terminated for good after having occupied their land for over 10,000 years.
The impact was a rapid descent into poverty. With federal support rescinded — support that small towns all over the country relied on to survive — public good institutions like schools, hospitals, police departments, and utility services began to crumble. Menominee County was the poorest and least populated in Wisconsin, so local taxes weren’t sufficient to sustain these public institutions.
The Menominee went from being one of the wealthiest tribes in the country and entirely self-sufficient to nearly destitute. In 1973, just nine years later, Termination was repealed, but the damage had been done. The tribes assets were valued at $10 million before termination, and were drained to $300,000 just three years after termination. Any compensation money and stock in natural resource operations awarded to tribal members was all but spent.
- 1900s: Children Torn From Families, Placed in Care Of Others
From 1969 to 1974, we know that 25-34% of all American Indian children were removed from their homes and passed into federal schooling, foster care, or adoption — compare this to a non-Native removal rate of 5%. While we have specific numbers for those years, this process of extraction had been going on for much longer, a problem only brought into the spotlight in the 1970s.
A vast majority of removals occurred because removal laws didn’t take into account tribal culture in raising children. Typically, tribal culture was generally more communal in nature and relied on extended family and neighbors to help take care of children. In North Dakota, 99% of removals were the result of a misunderstanding, or perhaps purposeful exploitation, of this aspect of their culture, which was interpreted as “neglect.”
Finally, in 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which: 1) included tribal governments in removal rulings; 2) added considerations for tribal customs; and 3) if removal was necessary, placed a child with an American Indian family.
- 2009: Lawsuit for the Theft of Geronimo’s Skull
The theft of Geronimo’s skull is but one example of American Indian grave robbery committed by whites. Geronimo’s great-grandson sued Yale and Yale’s secretive Skull and Bones Society in 2009 for the return of Geronimo’s bones, including his skull, that were apparently robbed from his grave.
Evidence in the suit included a letter from 1918 written by Yale’s WWI vets and testimony from Skull and Bones members as to a glass case in their headquarters containing Geronimo’s bones. This type of theft seems to be in character, too, since members reportedly engage in “crooking,” an internal competition to steal important things for their society’s “tomb.”
In 1990, a law was passed to protect the graves and remains of American Indians, further granting families the right to preserve them. However, Geronimo’s family lost the suit in 2010 because, according to the verdict, the government will not force the return of stolen remains for any theft that occurred before 1990..
I’m at a loss for how that makes any sense at all.
- Literally Always: The Absurdity of Celebrating Columbus Day
The brevity of this explanation is painfully underwhelming, but let’s be really clear — Columbus didn’t discover anything and he was a dreadful person.
First of all, American Indians have been here for more than 10,000 years, so…
Secondly, there were other Europeans who settled North America far before Columbus arrived — the Vikings! How could we forget!
The Vikings colonized Greenland and settled there for 518 years (from 982 to 1500) — twice as long as the U.S. has existed. During that time, they journeyed south to what is now the American east coast, potentially as far as modern day North Carolina. They successfully settled… for two years. And then American Indians ran them out of the country.
Columbus didn’t come along until the downfall of the Viking colonization, and yet every schoolchild knows that “In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It’s a bunch of preposterous propaganda.
Columbus Day, equally as bad as the man, just celebrates the evil and arrogance of a man who was ravenous for gold and sold American Indians as slaves.
To barely scratch the surface of his exploits, we need look no further than his account of the first island he came upon. He landed in modern day Bahamas and was greeted by the Arawak tribe, a group similar to tribes on the mainland. The following is what he wrote in his diary. It speaks for itself, really:
They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. [Emphasis added].
Splendid. So then he went ahead and did just that:
As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.
But, hey, if he had one redeeming quality, it’s that he really walked the walk, right guys???
Okay, just one other thing — why in the WORLD do we call him Christopher Columbus? This is something I have never understood or heard anyone talk about. The guy was born in Italy! His Italian name was Cristoforo Colombo! It’s the weirdest thing. When you look him up on Wikipedia, he is listed as Christopher Columbus and then his page literally says “Italian: Cristoforo Colombo” — as if the name he was born with comes second.
He did move to his adopted country of Spain and apparently changed his last name to “Colón”, tied to the other name we sometimes hear, “Cristóbal Colón,” which is Spanish. But then we should be calling him Cristoforo Colón!
By “discovering” the Americas, I guess he then became an important figure to the English so, by extension, it might seem reasonable in retrospect that we Anglicized his name so we could celebrate him as a symbol of our horrid Manifest Destiny.
But, no, I’m sorry, that still doesn’t explain why we call him Christopher Columbus, because we don’t do that with other people’s names!
Not that I think we owe the guy any respect, but I do find it awfully strange that we actually changed his name. We really went out of our way to make sure this terrible person would have a place in our history books without confusing the little American children who only learn one language because most of us don’t know there’s this whole world of real people that exists outside the United States.