Confederate Monuments and the ‘Invisible Indians’
Indian Country Today
I am certain that the sight of Confederate monuments in New Orleans being removed by a crane from their undeserving pedestals is both beautiful and historic. I am certain that the sound of the statues scraping those foundations as they are uprooted and carried off sends chills of strange comfort through the veins of onlookers. But in all their dutiful and noble glory, the removal ceremonies have missed a valuable opportunity—to include Natives in the conversation. That’s because injustice against American Indians is still sanctioned by the government and either accepted or ignored by the public.
When I saw social media posts about the transcript of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech, I was excited to read and hear his words on such a long-awaited occasion. My entire life I have seen rebel flags flying and heard the praises of confederate generals sung—and I grew up in Indiana. So I can only imagine what it must have been like for my Black brothers and sisters of the South to have to encounter day after day, year after year, these colossal reminders that the region’s proudest moments are rooted in their dehumanization and suffering.
I felt myself smiling at the thought of racists across the nation throwing tantrums over their “heroes” falling from grace. But two sentences in, a bittersweet notion was already sinking into my stomach.
“The soul of our beloved City is deeply rooted in a history that has evolved over thousands of years; rooted in a diverse people who have been here together every step of the way — for both good and for ill. It is a history that holds in its heart the stories of Native Americans — the Choctaw, Houma Nation, the Chitimacha. Of Hernando De Soto, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle…” (Landrieu via New York Times).
One piece of a sentence regarding Native Americans: A mere mention of three tribes is immediately followed by the name Hernando de Soto, an assassin bearing the title of conquistador, whose expedition left in its wake the deaths of thousands of American Indians. That’s our acknowledgment in all of this—a few words next to the name of one of our deadliest oppressors.
Now I am aware that this occasion was not about Native American history, but a move forward in the reconciliation process for Black and white citizens of New Orleans, and by extension the United States, wherein the former are given the opportunity to heal and the latter to reflect. And I am absolutely here for that. I’m elated! To be honest, it might have taken me longer to consider the exclusion of we Natives had it not been for that careless introduction to the speech. But because of those sentences being structured the way they were, all I could think while reading the remainder of the transcript was “where is our reconciliation and healing?”
In 2008, Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper issued an apology to First Nation peoples on behalf of the Canadian government in response to the cruelty of Indian Residential Schools. Whether sincere or not, it was a step that survivors of residential schools needed to hear. It’s a step the United States has to date refused to take. But going deeper, no country of the Americas has issued an apology for the invasion and colonization of our lands, the rape and enslavement of our people, the brutal torture or the genocide we’ve endured for more than 500 years. And with the Trump regime’s proposal to severely cut funding for Indian country, there is no sign of an apology coming any time soon.
In addressing those who are against the monument removals, those who continue to defend the “historic value” of the Confederacy, Mayor Landrieu spoke about “a lie by omission.” I’d love to expand on that, because our entire existence and legacy as the first people of this continent have been tainted due to lies by omission. To the American public, we are history not contemporary beings of the present. That’s what is so hypocritical about the Mayor’s words. He condemns the false remembrance of the Confederacy while ignoring the lies about American exceptionalism and colonization. While there are calls for the removal or destruction of Confederate monuments and flags scattered across the South, our memories of terror are carved into our own sacred lands and revered as an iconic tourist attraction, symbolizing our perpetual erasure. There is no call to remove this monument, the statues of priests and conquistadors, United States flags, nor the cherished Lincoln Memorial. To issue such a demand would be blasphemous to the carefully constructed legacy of the republic.
The mayor proclaimed “Indivisibility is our essence.” But so is invisibility of Natives. “This is not just about statues, this is about our attitudes and behavior as well.” We can’t even get the country to stop using Indian mascots let alone acknowledge that their history is built upon our dead bodies. “We all are part of one nation, all pledging allegiance to one flag, the flag of the United States of America.” No sir, we are not. That flag remains a symbol of more than five centuries of oppression and genocide, not just for American Indians but for the Black community as well. The Union, while condemning the Confederacy, has yet to come to terms with their complacency in systemic racism before and after the Civil War. The United States has a dark history much greater than simply a “four-year brief historical aberration.”
But ultimately, the burden of reconciliation does not rest upon the shoulders of one well-intentioned mayor. The hypocrisy of our government is far-reaching. While tax dollars pour into the state of Israel to protect the established settlement of displaced European Jews, Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations are the poorest locations in the United States. While there is a repeated demand for the world to declare the deaths of Christians by Muslims a “genocide,” the United States will not dare speak the word for the slaughter of 100 million indigenous people by Christians in the Americas. While officials here condemn the human rights abuses in Cuba, Brown and Black people are dying in our streets for merely knowing our rights. While Chelsea Manning was freed after seven years for committing what the government deemed as treason, Leonard Peltier will most likely die in prison for a crime that nobody has been able to prove he committed. And while Abraham Lincoln is regarded as “our greatest president,” the ghosts of 38 Dakota Indians, victims of the largest mass hanging in our history, would say otherwise about Honest Abe.
Natives are not considered in the reconciliation process because to do so would mean that the promise of freedom and prosperity is a hustle. We will not be able to reflect upon the past because for the United States we remain fixtures of the past—because it is easier to say Indians WERE noble savages than it is to say Indians ARE modern human beings. New Orleans is asking the country to embrace the truth of history while Natives are still expected to just “get over it.” Can we use this significant step forward to set a precedent for future healing ceremonies? Can we next tackle Mount Rushmore and bring justice to the Native people of this land? I’ll be more than willing to chip away the first stone.