Native History: The Statue of Liberty Stands for a Legacy of Hypocrisy

Wikimedia Commons / The Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in New York City was dedicated on October 28, 1886.

Christina Rose

This Date in Native History:

On October 28, 1886 the Statue of Liberty first shined her light on the American harbors, promising freedom and liberty to all who entered. In fact, all that lay behind her was the destruction of liberty and a tradition of broken promises.

Where were the promises of freedom and justice in 1864 at the Sand Creek Massacre under U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington’s command, as his buffalo soldiers ruthlessly and brutally killed and mutilated 100 of Black Kettle’s innocent band, even as they waved a white flag and an American flag in surrender?

Would Lady Liberty have let President Abraham Lincoln hang 38 Dakota men?

By the time the statue was almost complete, near the end of the 19th century, the “California Scalp Industry” had paid $1 million, at $50 to $100 each, for the scalps of Natives. The scalps were said to be best accompanied by the ears lest the bounty hunters cheat and cut the scalp into many pieces. What would the Light of Safe Harbor have said about that? Or of the 12,000 children taken from their families, brought by train across the country to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, to be “detribalized.” Some never saw home again. The boarding school legacy still haunts the reservations as families try to mend the broken link in their family chain.

As more than 12 million immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, how many promises had been made to them? If her eyes had been clear, she would have seen that more than half of the immigrants a century before entered this country as servants and slaves.

The poem engraved at the base of the statue was written by the wealthy idealist Emma Lazarus and heralds those coming to the New World:

“A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.”

The 1800s meant nothing but exile for Natives in this country. Across the Plains, countless tribes were marched from their homelands—5,000 Cherokee died on the Trail of Tears, the removal of 15,000 Cherokee and other tribes from their homelands to Midwest reservations. The Mother of Exiles also missed the theft of 50 million acres of Sauk and Meskwaki land, and the broken treaty and diminished lands of the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills.

“From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

‘Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she

With silent lips.”

Immigrants were told there was land here for the taking. It was offered for free to whites who didn’t know or didn’t care that it was stolen from the Plains Tribes.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Were there ever more tired, poor, huddled masses than those killed at Wounded Knee, piled in a mass grave in the winter ice and snow of 1890, a mere four years after the lady opened her welcoming arms?

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Perhaps her light shined only for those who saw the glory of a golden door. For the indigenous of this country, the 1800s were a dark time. While the U.S. was welcoming others, it was imprisoning this country’s Indigenous Peoples on reservations.