Independence Day has come and gone. Native Americans can only watch from the sidelines, aware that they were considered “savages,” used by the British to harass the colonists. The Declaration of Independence charges that King George “has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Disdain for the First Nations is not now the focus of Fourth of July festivities – but it has shaped US history for some four centuries.
Let’s consider another American party, the Super Bowl. The Washington Redskins were absent from this year’s contest, reducing media interest in the team’s name and the campaign to change it. The courts have so far upheld the effort to remove trademark protection from the name, on the grounds that it is widely considered as disparaging; it is not yet known if the Redskins will take this issue to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Can any reader imagine a team named The Palefaces? The Darkies? The Slant Eyes? The question answers itself; but little has been done in mainstream media coverage to explain to the public why this is so important to Native Americans.
Other insults to the Native Americans get even less coverage. One of the most recent is the effort to give sacred Apache land to Rio Tinto, a foreign mining company with a terrible environmental record. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake inserted this in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, without of course explaining how this helped the Apache Nation defend itself.
“Merciless savages,” the Promised Land, and the Doctrine of Discovery
The roots for this action, and hundreds of other seizures of resources from Native Americans, lie in a decision by the pope in 1494!
The European settlers of the Americas were in a state of war with the native peoples from the beginning. While never announced as a war, the battles in North America lasted nearly three centuries, from the early 1600s to the late 1800s. (By contrast, our invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq are now just over thirteen and twelve years, respectively! Astonishing violence was used against these native peoples, including the destruction of their villages and fields, and the near extinction of the animals such as the bison that were central to their cultures – and diets.
The leaders of the new Republic, despite being founded on the principle that “all men are created equal,” used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify the seizure of land from the original inhabitants. The Doctrine came from the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, and the Pope’s ruling that Spain and Portugal could seize the lands they “discovered,” later clarifying that this applied only to “non-Christian lands.” Other European monarchies, even the decidedly non-Catholic British, were only too happy to claim this principle for themselves. While the American revolutionaries were not happy with the British monarch, they were not about to discard this useful tool.
Thomas Jefferson claimed as early as 1792 that the Doctrine of Discovery applied to the US. In 1823 Chief Justice Marshall confirmed it in Johnson v. McIntosh, stating that when the “great nations of Europe” discovered the Americas, “the character and religion of its inhabitants” made them “a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency.” Indigenous people could continue to live on the land, but title resided with the discovering power, the United States; native nations were “domestic, dependent nations.” This Doctrine has never been repudiated in the US; it is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned in most histories or legal texts. The Doctrine is firmly rooted in an Old Testament view of the US as the Chosen People, and America the Promised Land.
Resistance to the Doctrine, and to its celebration in the form of Columbus Day, began to develop in the Americas in the late 20th century, beginning with a conference sponsored by the United Nations. Spain proposed to celebrate the Quincentennial in 1992 as an “encounter between Europeans and native peoples, who received the gifts of Christianity and Western civilization,” but the new organizations of indigenous peoples refused to go along, as did the entire African membership of the General Assembly. Eventually a compromise was attained, and an International Day for the World’s Indigenous People was established – for August 9, not October 12 as the protesting groups had asked. Subsequently some cities in the US have decided to abandon the Columbus Day festivities, although few have followed their example.
Sadly, Pope Francis plans to canonize the Catholic priest who was one of the main forces in the destruction of native societies in the northern region of Mexico (today’s US California). In effect he is reiterating the Doctrine of Discovery, five centuries later, leaving untold the story of the religious, as well as political occupation of the Americas. The Vatican insists that while Serra did use harsh methods in his conversion efforts, it did not rise to genocide! By contrast, the
Pope has also acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church committed many sins in its treatment of Native Americans during the years of conquest. It remains to be seen if this recognition will lead to further reflection on the part of the Vatican, or by political leaders in the Americas.
The Land Is Yours Forever (Unless There Is Something Valuable There)
The land seized by the US as it expanded across the continent was rapidly turned into profitable plantations, and the enslavement of black Africans to operate those plantations expanded as well. By 1850 two-thirds of the cotton grown in the US was on land taken since the turn of the century. Ironically, the cotton cloth made from the American cotton was used by traders to buy more slaves. (Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton, 2014). While different in their operation, slavery and the attack on indigenous people were inextricably linked in their core belief that non-Europeans were inferior and could be used as needed.
Meantime, the US government carries on its own assault on what is left of Native American rights. Navajo sheepherders must get out of the way of mining companies. The Rio Tinto land grab sponsored by Senators McCain and Flake is just the latest, but assuredly not the last, such assault.
Native American groups are working now to commemorate what happened to their ancestors, in part to “journey back to their true selves, and in part to fight what is happening to their lands. Unfortunately, they are up against mega-events such as the Super Bowl, and receive little coverage, if any, in the mass media. An example is the recent re-enactment of the Long Walk, which took hundreds of Diné (Navajo) and some Apache on a forced march of 300 miles across New Mexico. How many of us read or heard anything about this?
Confronting the Past
Essays about the long history of violence and repression against Native Americans sometimes lead to criticisms such as, “Well, do you expect everyone else in the US to just leave?” That’s not the point. The point is that there is a huge injustice at the heart of our history, which affects all of us. Understanding and acknowledging our history is the first step. Countries like South Africa have led the way in the creation of Truth and Reconciliation bodies, which tell the “real story,” and ask forgiveness. White South Africans are not leaving the country, but they and the black South Africans move forward in a different path.
If we learn the true story of the societies that were here before the wave of European societies arrived, we may find that there are lessons that will help us in our contemporary problems.
One idea is that we can learn about and support programs to restore, for example, the wildlife that was so important for Native Americans, and which in turn can restore the damaged landscapes of much of the West. Native Americans on both sides of the border are working together on this. The US government and the states have not yet caught up, seeing these magnificent animals as “wildlife management” issues, or just threats to cattle, the bovine preferred by European settlers.
Whatever happens, we share a common destiny now. Chief Seattle put this beautifully long ago: Seattle was speaking spontaneously at the December 1853 arrival of the new Governor of the Washington Territory, who was intending, among other projects, to move the Indians away:
“It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many. The Indians’ night promises to be dark. Not a single star of hope hovers above his horizon.
But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless.
Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come. For even the white man, whose God talked with him as friend with friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny.
We may be brothers after all.”
Quoted in The Wisdom of the Native Americans (noted below)
—Marshall Carter Tripp
http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/ A website with news and essays about all aspects of Native American life, including Canada.
An American Betrayal – Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears. (Daniel Blake Smith. Henry Holt, 2013.) Recounting Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which resulted in a 900-mile forced march to Oklahoma after a bitter struggle within the Cherokee Nation over whether to fight, or leave and try to start anew. One of the more shameful episodes, as the Cherokee had done everything possible to assimilate into the white European society engulfing them.
The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek – A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America. (Richard Kluger. Knopf, 2011.) The story of the removal of the Native Americans in the western region of the then-Washington territory (see Chief Seattle’s remarks above).
The Earth Shall Weep – A History of Native America. (James Wilson. Grove/Atlantic, 2000.) More correctly, this is a history (from both sides) of the interactions between Europeans and Native Americans over four centuries, and the reduction of the indigenous population from some 7 to 10 million in 1492 to roughly 250,000 today.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Post powerful Indian Tribe in American History. (S.C. Gwynne, Scribner, 2010.) The four-decades-long war between the Comanches and the settlers for domination of the western U.S., focused on the remarkable figure of Chief Quanah.
Indian Country: Sacred Ground – Native Peoples. (The Countryman Press, 2007.) Presents journeys in the lands of the Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Papago and Seri peoples, through the photographs of John Annerino. Perhaps the most effective way to understand how these societies worked and what they have lost.
Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End. (Scott W. Berg, Pantheon, 2012.) The Dakota rising in 1862 led to their forced relocation, and the hanging of 38 fighters (the largest mass execution in the US), although it would have been far worse if Lincoln had not intervened to save 265 others.
The Wisdom of the Native Americans, compiled and edited by Kent Nerburn. (MJF Books, 1999.) Many centuries of wisdom in the words of Native Americans, only a few known to general readers. A good book to begin with and return to.
Looking north, a nightmare in Canada –
The Long Exile – A true story of deception and survival in the Canadian Arctic. (Melanie McGrath, Harper Perennial, 2006.) The story of the Canadian government’s “relocation” program for Inuit in the 1950s, which banished them into the uninhabited polar Arctic on a trail of false promises of a better life and left many to starve.
And the story in music –
Look Again To The Wind – A 2014 rework of Johnny Cash’s 1964 “Bitter Tears” recording, featuring “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” Peter La Farge’s song describing the breaking of treaties from Washington on, and Apache Tears. Johnny Cash hoped this recording would have a major impact in American society, but it was overwhelmed by the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, and general public indifference. Perhaps we might finally listen – and act.
This document was edited by Carol Feickert, CeeJay Publications, Denver, Colorado. Contact [email protected]