By Andrew Sharp
Two books have greatly shaped my thinking about the history of the United States, and they vary wildly in style. One speaks in barely suppressed rage, and the other calmly analyzes.
The calm one is “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” by Charles C. Mann. He examines new scholarship that contradicts the story about how the “New World” was lightly populated by roving “savages.” Instead, Mann reports, it was full of established agricultural communities, permanent settlements, and highly advanced cultures.
The enraged book was “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” a horrifying (if sensational) account of how the last few of the North American native cultures were exterminated in the West. It’s full of stories of greed, lies, betrayal, and cold-blooded murder that often amounted to genocide.
If the Americas were not wilderness, then “settlement” is the wrong word. In the interest of accuracy, we need to use the word “conquest.” And then we need to confront the way in which that conquest was done, and ask if some justice is overdue.
While “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” certainly has a sensationalist slant, painting the white advance with as black a brush as possible, it contains a great deal of uncomfortable truth, along with an invaluable telling of events through the eyes of the conquered, not the conquerors.
You could argue that the U.S. war on American Indians was bad, but it might not have been quite as bad as the book says. If saying that theft and murder were exaggerated helps you sleep better at night, by all means dismiss this book. But that doesn’t work for me.
A simpler way to examine the issue is to ask yourself, “Would I switch places with these people? If my ancestors were the original inhabitants, would I be pleased that things turned out as they did?” You can nit-pick over some of the generalizations made by historians sympathetic to Indians, but to argue that whites had a right to all the land they ended up with is not sober historical analysis. If you’ve never read the Cherokee appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to avoid deportation from their lands, I recommend you take the time.
The United States has held itself up as a “city on a hill,” an example for the world to see. It’s no wonder, then, that we have had to gloss over our history.
Henry Whipple, chairman of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the wars with the Sioux, summed it up well.
“I know of no other instance in history where a great nation has so shamefully violated its oath. Our country must forever bear the disgrace and suffer the retribution of its wrongdoing. Our children’s children will tell the sad story in hushed tones, and wonder how their fathers dared so to trample on justice and trifle with God.”*
The scope of the injustice perpetrated calls for more than regret and apology. It calls for practical steps to make restitution as much as possible. Although cultures cannot be unmurdered, things that have been stolen may be returned. Why do we return art and jewelry stolen by Nazis but not return Indian land? World War II occurred only decades after the Indian Wars.
Far from being comfortably buried in the remote past, the defeat of the American Indian occurred in the late 1800s, decades after slavery had been abolished. Apache warrior Geronimo died in 1909 (a year after Ford began manufacturing Model Ts). Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota) died the same year. Scattered armed uprisings continued until 1924. To put this in perspective, my grandparents (most still living) were born in the 1920s. There are still people alive — albeit very few —who were born while Geronimo was still living. My father remembers visiting an elderly woman who had gone out to the West on a stagecoach around the time of the Western Indian wars.
Many American Indians today live marginalized on small reservations, a sort of glorified cattle corral, where they have no real chance to rebuild a nation (or sovereign tribe) in any dignified sense of the word. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that it’s their fault if they aren’t making meaningful lives for themselves (many of these arguments are encores of “drunk worthless savages”). But would you be happy if your people had the leftovers?
Any honest attempt at genuine restitution is likely to be very painful, as is only natural when attempting to redress great pain. It will also be complex and difficult to sort out.
But it’s past time to start.