Ignorance, Denial, and the Eradication of a Culture

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It is not often that I blog about something that happens in my college classes, but the following event is something so astounding that I could not resist. I am currently taking a course titled Rethinking Teaching, and as part of the requirements, each one of us has to teach a lesson by the end of the semester. Yesterday, I conducted mine on the conflict between Benjamin and William Franklin. Shortly after, a friend of mine did hers on Manifest Destiny, in the form of a class debate, where we were the students. It was during this time when a fellow classmate of mine said something so asinine that I could not help but get angry and speak my mind—funny thing is, he was actually on my debate team. Anyway, after the class unanimously agreed that Manifest Destiny was a disaster when looking at it from the American Indian perspective (although inevitable and necessary from the white man’s view), this individual in the class spoke out, saying, “You know, I’m tired of us being seen as the Great White Satan. I think it’s racist.” After erupting and begging him for more so I could put him in his place, he continued, “It’s racist against white people. I’m sure when we came over here, we did some horrible things. Yeah we killed a lot of Indians, but the Indians started killing us first.” I could not hold back any longer, and I said, “If I came onto your property with a gun, are you going to just invite me in and let me have your house? Or are you going to fight me?” His response was, “Neither. I would call the police.” I do not need to tell you that my retort to him bordered on incredulous, on how there was no “police” back then and how to even bring that up as an answer was ridiculous. In any event, this was a great experience, because it showed how ignorant people are of our attempted genocide of the Indian peoples. This was also a man who tried to argue earlier in the semester that, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore because the United States government got rid of all the racist laws in the 1960’s.”

I think all will agree that the mistreatment of the American Indians in this land is so far out of view that it generally never gets recognized properly. History textbooks sing some sad songs about it, but never with enough facts to satisfy how horribly underrepresented it is. While the textbooks our children read will allow for bad treatment, there is still an overwhelming bias, calling Indian battle victories “massacres” while whenever the US Army wins, it is a “battle”. I have long referred to Indian removal and mistreatment, stemming from the arrival of Columbus but accelerating during the presidency of Andrew Jackson with the Indian Removal Act and ensuing Trail of Tears, as an American Holocaust. While one was on a more grand scale, both were forms of ethnic cleansing. As we moved to a more “modern” time, like the early 1800’s, it started out as simply moving the Indians from their lands in the east to reservations out west. While Jewish people (and other targeted groups) were placed on trains and sent to their eventual extermination, the Indians fared far worse, being forced to march more than a thousand miles. Many died along the way, their bodies being left to rot.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his journey to America in the 1800’s, had a chance to witness part of the Trail of Tears. He wrote the following observation, “In the whole scene, there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable goodbye; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but somber and taciturn. There was one who could speak English, and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. ‘To be free’, he answered, could never get any other reason from him. We watch the expulsion of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.” Scenes like this were all too common, but were paid little mind by the always-starving-for-land white settlers and government, who forced the Indians to take part in this earliest form of cleansing the land of their ethnicity. A soldier who was part of the escort of these people remarked many years later, “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest and most unbelievable work I ever knew.”

Chief Sitting Bull, always ready for a wise observation, upon seeing the beginning of the end of his people, would go on to say, “If America had been twice the size it is, there still would not have been enough; the Indian would have still been dispossessed…their love of possession is a disease with them; they take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule. They claim this mother earth of ours for their own, and fence their neighbors away.” Manifest Destiny and the Americans’ move to the west was inevitable. Perhaps, so was this treatment. The overall beliefs about land were bound to clash, for the white man had to own something, and see it mapped out, while the Indians could not grasp that concept, since Mother Earth was not theirs’ to claim, but simply to borrow and live off of. That still does not justify such mistreatment, especially since there were white people back then who immediately recognized that it was wrong, a man like John G. Burnett. He wrote about schoolchildren not knowing the truth about how the United States came to be, how “murder is murder, and somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country. Somebody must explain the four thousand silent graves that mark the Trail of Tears.”

Countering him would have been former Civil War general William T. Sherman, who along with counterpart and cavalryman Phil Sheridan, did the most to stab at the heart of the Indian people: first eliminate the buffalo, then go for the people themselves. Sherman wrote, “The more Indians we can kill this year, the fewer we have to kill the next, because the more I see of the Indians the more convinced I become that they must all be killed or be maintained as a species of pauper.” Of course, Sheridan has a very infamous quip himself, the well known, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”

But this is not all ancient history, there is plenty of recent mistreatment towards the American Indians. Take one look at helpless and poverty-stricken life on reservations today, at how these once-proud people live in squalor at the hands of our government, quietly waiting out the eventual eradication of their culture. How many are left that know the histories and traditions of their tribes? How long is it until their history is gone all together? Of course, as late as the 1970’s, the American government was trying to help the extermination along, with orders to the Indian Health Service to sterilize any Indian woman who visited seeking medical treatment, no matter what ailment they had. These women, lured in with the promises of advanced medical care, were unknowingly sterilized. Need I say more on why this should be seen as the American Holocaust?

According to Project Muse, a description of one of these forced sterilizations goes as follows: “A young Indian woman entered Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri’s Los Angeles office on a November day in 1972. The twenty-six-year-old woman asked Dr. Pinkerton-Uri for a “womb transplant” because she and her husband wished to start a family. An Indian Health Service (IHS) physician had given the woman a complete hysterectomy when she was having problems with alcoholism six years earlier. Dr. Pinkerton-Uri had to tell the young woman that there was no such thing as a “womb transplant” despite the IHS physician having told her that the surgery was reversible. The woman left Dr. Pinkerton-Uri’s office in tears. Two young women entered an IHS hospital in Montana to undergo appendectomies and received tubal ligations, a form of sterilization, as an added benefit. Bertha Medicine Bull, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, related how the “two girls had been sterilized at age fifteen before they had any children. Both were having appendectomies when the doctors sterilized them without their knowledge or consent.” Their parents were not informed either. Two fifteen-year-old girls would never be able to have children of their own. What happened to these three females was a common occurrence during the 1960s and 1970s. Native Americans accused the Indian Health Service of sterilizing at least 25 percent of Native American women who were between the ages of fifteen and forty-four during the 1970s. The allegations included: failure to provide women with necessary information regarding sterilization; use of coercion to get signatures on the consent forms; improper consent forms; and lack of an appropriate waiting period (at least seventy-two hours) between the signing of a consent form and the surgical procedure. This paper investigates the historical relationship between the IHS and Indian tribes; the right of the United States government to sterilize women; the government regulations pertaining to sterilization; the efforts of the IHS to sterilize American Indian women; physicians’ reasons for sterilizing American Indian women; and the consequences the sterilizations had on the lives of a few of those women and their families.”

How can anyone say this is right? How does something like this not make it into mainstream education? How is it that something like this can be ignored? The fact is, the mistreatment of the Indians did not end in the early 1900’s, but is ongoing, and will most likely continue until they are all gone. The American government knows what they have done, and rather than admit to the horror of it, they would rather silently wait and exterminate whoever is left, while those who do not wish to live on reservations gradually assimilate into American culture and lose their identity. The definition of an ethnic cleansing is “the mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in a society”. That is what has been done to the Indians and for anyone to try to pin the blame on them because they fought back after being invaded is absolutely ridiculous. The Holocaust and slavery needs to be taught in our schools, but Indian removal needs to be up there as well, and on the same level. This was not a thousand years ago and in a far-away land; in the eyes of history, it could have been yesterday, and in our own backyard. How it has been ignored and by what ignorance people speak when thinking of it is mind-boggling. If this article helps to educate just one person, and getting them to think critically and speak out, then I have done my job. If not, then it will just continue with the greatest denial in the history of the American people.

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One thought on “Ignorance, Denial, and the Eradication of a Culture

  1. Chris Evans

    This is ironic that you should post this as I have recently been reading quite a bit on the Indian Wars lately.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Like the title of Helen Jackson’s book on the Government and the Indians from the 1890s, A Century of Dishonor ‘.

    I think it is a terribly troubling part of our history. I know the Indians were not Boy Scouts but their must have been a better way. There was so much horror in conquering the West from the Indians.

    Slavery and Racism our two of our original sins that we can never undo. Also, the idiotic idea of not giving women the right to vote nationally until the 20th century.

    “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” – Red Cloud

    Chris

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