In Germany, students in grades K-12 receive mandatory instruction about the Holocaust. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission bore witness to the injustices of Apartheid. These countries took such public steps because they understand that casting light on the dark chapters of history is the only way to move beyond guilt and anger to real healing.
It is time for America to shine a light on its relationship with Indians.
For too long, only bits and pieces of the story have been told. Columbus sailing the ocean blue. The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. Spaghetti westerns and noble savages. The truth, as truth always turns out to be, is much more complicated.
When Europeans began their influx into this continent, there were tens of millions of native people here with distinct cultures, communities and forms of governance. Europeans, and later Americans, who wanted the indigenous peoples’ lands and resources reacted in a variety of ways that included deception, outright lies and genocide.
I am not saying this to make anyone feel bad. I am saying it because it is the truth – our truth as Americans – and until we acknowledge it and find a way to deal with it, we cannot move forward as a stronger, more united country. If we want it to be in the past, then we have to get past it.
Here is a timely example of the kind of education that would help. The Vikings football game against the Washington Redskins is this weekend. For years, groups have worked hard to get sports teams to change names and mascots that are based on Indians. Opponents of name change have frequently said that calling teams things like Braves and Redskins is a compliment, a tribute to the warrior tradition of so many Indian cultures.
In fact, redskin was a term used to encourage bounty hunters to kill Indian people. An 1863 clipping from The Daily Republican in Winona announced, “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.” Some bounty hunters were paid different rates for Indian men, women and children – sort of a sliding scale based on body parts. Nathan Lamson, who shot and killed the Dakota leader Little Crow during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, was awarded a special payment of $500 in 1864 by the Minnesota Legislature for “rendering great service to the State.”
This kind of thinking continued into the twentieth century, up to and including the highest levels of government: President Teddy Roosevelt once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Again, I don’t say these things to create bad feelings. The point is that bad feelings already exist in both the Indian and non-Indian communities – hurt, anger, guilt, confusion – and that if we are to move past them, we have to squarely face our history. Only then can we look to our future.
Kevin Leecy is Chairman of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe in northeastern Minnesota and the Chair of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.