Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The White Man's Shame

For me, growing up on cowboy and Indian movies really left the impression that the white American settlers and the "horse soldiers" who protected them were the good guys. How dare those uncivilized red savages stand in the way of the vanguard of our country's relentless move westward in the 1800's. Some would say the end justifies the means, but the more I learn about the noble races of Native Americans that we brutally subjugated in the name "Manifest Destiny", the more sorrowful I feel for what we did to them. It started simply enough when the Pilgrims first landed. The local tribes like the Wampanoags, who first greeted and befriended them in 1620, brought corn and turkey to help them through the difficult winter; this act of kindness started a Thanksgiving tradition that is still observed today.

Unfortunately, the relationship soon soured. As more British colonists arrived in Massachusetts, they began displacing the Wampanoags from their traditional lands, particularly by plying Wampanoag men with alcohol and obtaining their signatures on land sale documents while they were drunk. The Wampanoag leader Metacomet, known as "King Philip" to the English, tried to get this practice outlawed, and when the British refused, a war ensued. The British won decisively, sold many of the Wampanoag survivors into slavery, drove the rest into hiding, and forbade the use of the Massachusett language and Wampanoag tribal names. Only in 1928 were the Wampanoag people able to reclaim their tribal identity. This was just the beginning.

Between 1778 and 1871 – when it needed Indians as allies against European powers, land for settlers spreading west, and an end to wars with the Indians themselves, the U.S. government signed hundreds of treaties with tribes offering health services, schools, teachers, and money in exchange for Indian land, trade concessions, fishing and hunting rights, and the tribes’ jurisdiction over their remaining land. But the schools the treaties authorized did little more than spread Christianity and Western culture and provide training in farming to compensate for the loss of the Indians’ livelihood. The U.S. government was ill equipped to provide mainstream education, and they failed utterly to recognize Indian languages, culture, and history.

Indians wanted to remain on their ancestral land, which Whites wanted to occupy. The solution reached by the states and the U.S. government under President Andrew Jackson was to remove the Indians from the path of white settlement. Some tribes, such as the Sac and Fox in Illinois and the Seminoles in Florida, were subdued, but they resisted removal. The Creek, Winnebago, Cherokee, and other tribes were forcibly resettled in “Indian Territory,” separated from whites. The Cherokees tried to hold onto their land by becoming “American” in customs, language, and constitution and by educating all their people through Osceola’s "alphabet" of the Cherokee language. However, the state of Georgia arrogantly refused to recognize the Cherokee Nation and declared its laws null and void.

The “Indian Territory” to which tribes were removed faced more demands by Whites who continued to move westward, taking land, killing buffalo, and further weakening the economic viability of the tribes. Constant fighting ensued as Indians valiantly but unsuccessfully resisted white threats to their civilization. The last battle that could be called a victory for the Indians was the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. On June 25 and June 26, 1876, led by the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull, the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho people defeated the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army under George Armstrong Custer. It really turned out to be the Indians' last stand.

On the morning of December 29, 1890, the Sioux chief Big Foot and some 350 of his followers camped on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Surrounding their camp was a force of U.S. troops charged with the responsibility of arresting Big Foot and disarming his warriors. Suddenly the sound of a shot pierced the early morning gloom. Within seconds the charged atmosphere erupted as Indian braves scurried to retrieve their discarded rifles and troopers fired volley after volley into the Sioux camp. Clouds of gun smoke filled the air as men, women and children scrambled for their lives. Many ran for a ravine next to the camp only to be cut down in a withering cross fire. When the smoke cleared and the shooting stopped, approximately 300 Sioux were dead, Big Foot among them. Twenty-five soldiers lost their lives. The massacre at Wounded Knee effectively ended the Indian Wars.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but no matter the pressures for national expansion that may have prevailed at the time, what we did to Native-American Indians in the United States was shameful. The white man's "certainty" that his way was the right and inevitable way justified policies that eradicated centuries-old cultures in the blink of an eye. In the time these tribes flourished, the air and water were pure, the game plentiful, and the land easily supported the people whose sacred stewardship kept the earth the way they found it for future generations. The earth on the White man's watch has not fared as well. We have exterminated hundreds of species of birds, fish and animals, torn up the hills for the coal they held, and polluted the water and air, all in the name of progress.

I've heard people joke that with all the new casinos being built, the Indians are finally getting their own back. Sadly, that is not possible. I'm sorry that when I was a kid, for all those years and through all those B movies, I was cheering for the wrong team.

(*This information is taken partially from from "The Quest for Quality Education Report of the American Indian/Alaska Native Concerns Study Committee" June 2, 2000)


Children's Craniofacial Association


Laura said...

I agree, what we did was terrible. Those poor people just wanted to live on their land and we stole it from them, and cost many of them their lives. I hope the history books become more balanced and reflect both sides of the story.

Jim Pantaleno said...

I'm sure at the time we rationalized the eradication of these "savages" with no regard to the viability of their culture and how, in some ways, it was superior to ours. Can't unring that bell, but as you say, maybe we can at least tell their story.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Maybe we can ring a new bell, and tell the real story.

Is taking someone's land akin to stealing someone's land?

Seems to me we destroyed a culture, one that never got to grow, we lost a lot in our greed.

Jim Pantaleno said...

I guess Joe that's why now, when the government tells me anything, there's always doubt about how true it is. The way they presented our annihilation of Native American people and culture as our "destiny" instead of the outright theft it was makes me angry and sad. You nailed it...greed pure and simple.