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Understanding the Sins of the Founding Fathers

Every country has founding myths. The most powerful of these stories suggest a people are particularly blessed by God. In the United States, we too have these stories, but building a common national identity is more difficult because we are a nation of immigrants. We have gotten around this challenge by having shared stories that mythologize the immigrant experience---whether crossing the Atlantic Ocean to overcome religious oppression or the pioneers crossing the prairie to settle the west.

Consider the story of the Puritans. In 1630 while on board the ship Arabella, Governor Winthrop gave a sermon that likened the colonists to the ancient Israelites, whom God delivered unto the Promised Land. Winthrop drew upon Matthew5:14 when he said they were new Israelites and that “we shall be as a City upon the Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

The “City upon the Hill” image has become an enduring part of American political discourse, although most people do not know that it has a Biblical basis; nor that it refers to Winthrop’s sermon. What has been left out, however, is that Winthrop also thanked the deity in his diary for the fact that the native inhabitants for a 300 mile radius around their settlement had been “swept away by the small pox so God hath hereby cleared our title to this place.”

This example should remind us all that not all Americans had the mythologized immigrant experience, whether due to having ancestors who survived the horrendous Middle Passage or because their indigenous ancestors managed not to succumb to small pox. While no one alive today is personally responsible for slavery, the wholesale destruction of Native populations or for that matter, the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide, but we inherit what our forefathers and foremothers wrought.

For example; Numbers 14:18, Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9 about God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”

As a child I found these verses troubling. I had enough of my own sins to worry about, and didn’t need my great-grandfathers’ sins added on.

Recently while traveling on reservations and surrounding communities in Montana and South Dakota, these verses came to mind. I think it was because those places feel like the Indian Wars occurred in the recent past, not more than 125 years ago. It seemed like Custer’s 1876 defeat is immortalized at every juncture.

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  1. South Dakota has Custer State Park, Custer County and Custer city.
  2. Montana has the Custer Battlefield Museum, the town of Custer and Custer County. There is a Little Bighorn National Monument, with a dedication: “To the officers and soldiers killed, or who died of wounds received in action in the territory of Montana while clearing the district of the Yellowstone of hostile Indians.”

In contrast, one has to search out places where most of those killed were Indians, such as Wounded Knee where the 7th Cavalry killed between 150-300 mostly unarmed Lakota men, women and children. The commander, James Forsyth, got a town named after him and 20 troopers were awarded the Medal of Honor.

All of this reminded me not only about the sins of the fathers passed unto us, but our ignorance about those sins.

  1. Few know that at the country’s founding, there were at least 600 different tribal nations stretching across the continent---and one of these, the Delaware, were promised their own state by the Continental Congress. This was only the first of many, many un-kept promises.
  2. Few know that by 1900 the Native population had dropped from around 7 million down to 250,000---thanks to small pox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid, influenza, chicken pox as well as battle field deaths.
  3. Or that in1763, a British general purposefully gave smallpox inflected blankets to Indians---and killed 500,000.
  4. While in Montana, a leader of the Gros Venture recounted such a story and said that at one point the numbers of his people had dropped down to 50 due to small pox.

But today there are 5.2 million people with Native American ancestry. That is roughly the equivalent to the number of Jews in the United States---a group that politicians regularly court. Yet few politicians worry about the Native vote and the reason is that nearly 40 percent of those eligible to vote are not even registered. And that leads into what I was doing in Montana and South Dakota. I had agreed to be an expert witness in the Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch voting rights case. While most of my traveling was related to that case, I learned quite a bit about things unrelated to voting rights, but that gave me a sense of what it means to be Native in some communities.

  1. One of the first things I learned is that Indians love basketball---everywhere I went I saw basketball hoops and people playing pick-up games. I also heard stories about discrimination related to basketball.
  2. A Crow woman told me that whenever they played a white team off-reservation the gymnasium would be packed with police and after the game, the road back to the reservation would have sobriety checkpoints, but that the whites traveling in the opposite direction were not stopped.
  3. A Northern Cheyenne told me about his experiences driving off reservation. His car has a sticker proclaiming that he is a “proud Native Marine veteran.” The police in this particular town had a reputation for stopping cars being driven by Indians, so he wanted to see if this was true.
  4. Sure enough, he was stopped. The officer told him that his tail light was not working so he was going to be ticketed. When the man pulled out identification showing that he was a retired police officer, he was let go.
  5. Just north of the Fort Belknap Reservation, I had lunch in a café. The waitress told me that if Indians would not drive their cars into the town because they would be impounded and sold off when the owners could not pay the impoundment fees.
  6. While I did not see impoundments, I did see a family---man, woman and small boy pulling a red wagon loaded with groceries. They had walked a mile off reservation to the grocery store and heading to their car parked on reservation.
  7. When I asked the waitress if this happened a lot, she said “all the time, this is what it means to be an Indian living in America.” My response---“Not in all parts of America,” just garnered a shrug from her.

This is where my thoughts again turn to the Biblical verses about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. While none of us committed those original sins, I do not want on my conscience having remained passive in the face of current injustices with roots in the actions of our forefathers and mothers. Nor do I want my sins of omission (i.e., not acting) being passed on to my children unto the third and fourth generation.

Jean Reith Schroedel is a political science professor at Claremont Graduate University in California. She has written three single authored academic books, including one that was given the Victoria Schuck Book Award by the American Political Science Association in 2001, as well as more than 40 scholarly articles and book chapters. In 2009 Schroedel co-edited two books on the impact of evangelical Christianity on democracy in America for the Russell Sage Foundation. She has spent much of the past several years studying voting rights issues and written a monograph entitled, “Vote Dilution and Suppression in Indian Country” that is being published later this year in Studies in American Political Development. Schroedel also served as an expert witness in the recently settled Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch voting rights case. On May 31, 2014 Schroedel gave the plenary address to the bi-annual Christians in Political Science conference. A condensed version of that talk, “Understanding the Sins of the Fathers,” is being published here.