Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Native Americans: where does their story fit in the American narrative?

I think it is fitting, considering that Thanksgiving is right around the corner, that I write a post concerning Native Americans. I am sure we are all acquainted with the somber truth of past genocide and conquest. We are well aware of how this Nation, in particular its vast rural terrain, was fashioned through broken promises, massacres, and plunder. But, many Americans often forget that the few Native Americans that remain face tremendous social and economic difficulties.

Among the inestimable sufferings endured by Native Americans is that of sex crime. The Justice Department reports that one in three Native American women is raped over her lifetime. Often these women are too frightened to report rape. Moreover, even if a Native American woman were to report rape, she would have little to no recourse in tribal and federal courts. This is because non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution in tribal courts, commit 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations. And, federal prosecutors choose not to prosecute around 70 percent of sexual abuse cases.

Because of this legal vacuum, according to the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, non-Indian habitual sexual predators have flocked to tribal areas.

Many often presume that the darkest period in Native American history extended only up to the late nineteenth century. However, governmental persecution of Native Americans remained throughout the twentieth century although it took on a different form.

The federal government established Native American boarding schools in the late nineteenth century in order to “kill the Indian in the person, and save the person.” In effect, the schools were set up to completely destroy what was left of Native American culture. In its stead, the schools sought to cultivate a culture of subservience and docility.

The children were forcefully taken from their parents, made to cut their hair, given new English names, and violently compelled to speak only English. They were not taught math or grammar, but rather they were taught trades: boys learned carpentry and girls learned housekeeping.

This sort of pedagogy remained up until the 1970s. A 1960s congressional report on Native American boarding schools documented that teachers viewed their role as “civilizing” Native American children, not educating them.

It truly is stupefying, when you clear your mind and think: this nation was built upon the graves of massacred Native Americans. Millions of people, children and the elderly, were murdered by our ostensibly sacrosanct armed forces so that American industry could have a foothold in the vast expanses of untamed wilderness that was once this nation. It is extremely important to note that much of this extermination occurred at the hands of the U.S. military although Hollywood has often portrayed Native American massacre as the result of skirmishes between cowboys and Indians.

Of course, mercenaries and vigilante frontiersmen participated enthusiastically in Native American execution. However, we do a disservice to truth, if we do not realize that the U.S. government was in fact the engineer and the principle actor behind this genocide. Mercenaries and vigilante frontiersman were secondary agents incorporated within a broader schema.

The government, acting as an organ of industry, of Wall Street, as it always does, cleared the way so that railroads could be constructed, mines could be built, and vast farms could be formed. What is more, thousands of miles of picturesque plains and forest were degenerated for the sake of big business.

Adding insult to injury, all this that was truly done for the sake of profit was advertised as an expansion of democracy. And now, most Americans view this atrocity as simply a deviation in American history, as a stain upon the proverbial fabric, when in actuality this atrocity makes up the very fabric of this nation’s history and economic “success.”

The smooth, nonchalant logic and calculation of this nation’s profiteers is astounding. Ask a simple question. Why were Native Americans not simply incorporated into the economic system of this nation? Why were they not enslaved, like the Native Americans south of the border? Because it is next to impossible to enslave an egalitarian people who are entirely unacquainted with systems of hierarchy and subservience. Native Americans south of the border, particularly the Aztecs and the Incas, had already reached the historical epoch defined by class and a state. Thus, the Spanish easily incorporated and manipulated the hierarchical divisions within Aztec and Inca society. They enslaved the peasants and bought off the aristocrats.

Native Americans in this country were recalcitrant and literally physically in the way of expansion. So, not being able to exploit them, American industrialists found a simple solution: kill them. Drive them into smaller and smaller pockets of land, starve them, and massacre them. In their place, they imported masses of stolen Africans. That is why African slavery was almost nonexistent in Mexico, but ubiquitous in the U.S. West Africans, much like the Aztecs and Incas, were easy to enslave because they were part of a complex class society. That is why we hear stories of West African slave traders.

This was a centuries long process, a process that has extended, as I discussed above, to today although we may not like to see it. The few Native Americans that are still alive are compelled to endure staggering poverty and the tribulations inextricably attached to it. To argue that this is simply an ethical digression in American history would be an offense to anyone with even just a modicum of intelligence.


David Gomez said...

The Native American story is surely a tragedy in our nation's history. I agree their history and place is often overlooked and forgotten. I had never heard of these American Indian boarding schools before this post. It is really horrifying.

On a positive note, some tribes run native schools for their young members in order to preserve their history and culture. My wife's cousins live in Kotzebue, Alaska. It is a remote village inside of the Arctic Circle that can only be reached by airplane. Her cousins all attended the native school before enrolling at the public school. At the native school they studied their native language and culture.

Ahva said...

I agree with both Damon and David that the Native American genocide is unfortunately too often overlooked. I find it also so interesting how Americans are quick to criticize other countries for essentially erasing a piece of their history by refusing to teach it in schools or speak about it. For example, I've heard people criticize Turkey for wiping the Armenian genocide clean from their school history books. However, I can't say much more for how American public schools educate their children about Native American history. Perhaps things have changed since I was in grade school, but my Social Studies and History books glossed over our country's genocide of Native Americans. My generation learned about Native Americans in a very limited context that encompassed Native Americans' resourcefulness, hunting and gathering, and Thanksgiving. Of course, I learned that the pilgrims eventually came to power, so to speak, but I don't remember any in-depth discussion about the inhumane tactics used.

Even Wednesday Addams could have done a better job of recounting what actually happened: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXh4qS2qlpc
(It gets good around 1:20.)

Tiffanie said...

Your post brought up in an interesting question: Why were Native Americans not simply incorporated into the economic system of this nation? When I read this, I thought of how few Native Americans I see working in corporate jobs. Additionally, the number of Native Americans in educational institutions – especially higher education - is dismal. Diversity in both education and the workplace are big areas of interest to me, and I am always astonished by the very small number of Native Americans in both of these areas. I think this is very unfortunate, and it is just another way that Native Americans are excluded from the American narrative.

Kate said...

Good post, Damon. I think that the United States' didn't incorporate Native Americans into the economic system more than they did as their "product" or value added was essentially nothing to early America. This is especially true with prevalent racism and stigma that might have been associated with employing or working with a Native American person. How sad. The struggle of Native American women and rape is very real, and I appreciate the post. It is truly a failing of the law.

Kate Hanley said...

Your question is interesting, Tiffanie, but I'm not entirely sure I understand what you're asking. As I understand your question, my response is as follows. (And please keep in mind that I may be oversimplifying ideas to the point of being misleading. I encourage additions and corrections, and I sincerely apologize if I have gotten something wrong or am misrepresenting something.)

Historically. I believe there was an initial U.S. push to do two things (among others): make constituents happy by making Native American land available for purchase and development, and bring Native Americans into "American culture" in a rather sterile, narrow sense of the term.

Thus, the way I'm reading your question, well... there was a historic push to incorporate Native Americans into the economic system. It's just that that push exploited Native American holdings and discouraged culture and diversity. Eventually, there were policy decisions made that were supposed to provide things like better job opportunities, but they had (and have) some serious costs (one of which may be that there aren't any decent employment opportunities after all).

So ultimately, I think there have been policy attempts to "incorporate Native Americans into the economic system of the nation" for a long time. It's just that the policy goals of years past have been very detrimental, and current policy has its own drawbacks and issues (if it has at all listened to what Native America desires, which I understand is not the norm).

I feel it would useful to pair your question with a question about what Native America wants from the U.S. economic system, and how it can be made available in a respectful way.

Kate Hanley said...

There is a small ray of light in your post, Damon. The 2013 Violence Against Women Act gives Tribal courts authority over some domestic violence prosecutions, expanding their jurisdiction. It's not total authority over domestic violence on Tribal lands, but the Act is striking as it is the first time Congress has decided to expand Tribal court authority since SCOTUS limited Tribal court authority in 1978. Perhaps we will see a greater authorization in the future so that Indian Country can, at least, handle sex crimes with as much authority as my local government may.


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