No excuses should be made for Rick Santorum. His latest outrageous remarks were yet one more attempt to displace Native Americans: "We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn't much Native American culture in American culture."
I hear these comments by Santorum – a politically conservative, White man and former U.S. senator – to mean that Native Americans have been effectively erased from American culture. I’m not surprised he would make this statement, I’m sure he believes it 100 percent. That’s what the founders of this country wanted.
Through treaties, laws, the dictates of the Interior Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we have been systematically attacked for over two centuries. Whether it was the forced relocation to reservations, or the ripping away of our children to attend missionary boarding schools designed to “Kill the Indian. Save the man.” – our Indigenous languages and customs were almost erased, almost.
As an Osage tribal member from the red state of Oklahoma, I have had to deal with the Rick Santorums of my community my entire life. I know about the attempted erasure of Native American culture, it all boils down to the erasure of our Indigenous mindset, our tribal memory. A friend of mine always says to me, “Decolonize your mind!”
Our values, our character, what we hold sacred and dear, is all tied to our culture of our Indigenous languages, our ceremonial dances, our fellowship, how we raise our children, how we pass this knowledge on. This attempt at cultural erasure happened to my people, like so many others. I also know that we’ve fought to keep it, and it is alive and well.
Despite Santorum’s ignorance, Native American culture is deeply embedded in American culture. As National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp put it this week, Native Americans have been instrumental throughout U.S. history, particularly in art, agriculture and, most importantly, the environmental movement.
Beyond that, she said, “How do you quantify the impact of Will Rogers in film and popular culture? Maria Tallchief, the country’s first major prima ballerina? How do you ignore Olympic gold medalists like Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills, who changed sports forever?”
I live on the Osage Nation reservation, which is contiguous with Osage County in Oklahoma. Like many tribes, we were forced to move from our homelands of the Missouri River Valley at the behest of the U.S. government. This taking of valuable tribal lands was nothing new.
Imagine the irony, then, when oil – lots of it – was discovered on the Osage reservation in 1897.
David Grann, in his bestselling 2017 book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” relays how Osage tribal members became the wealthiest group of people in the United States in the 1920s thanks to oil, and how Whites systematically murdered Osages for it.
Gunshots to the head, a house blown up, poisonings, Osages were dying in front of their children, generations were wiped out. A sophisticated ring of criminals worked to inherit our wealth. Or steal it. The banks did a great job of that, as did their lawyers and “guardians,” who were the White people appointed by the BIA to watch over Osages’ estates because the federal government didn’t think Osages were smart enough to handle their own money.
Do you think we learned about this dark period in our Oklahoma history classes in high school? No, we did not. And that’s how a society erases its evil deeds. The government, the schools, the politicians tell a different history; they sugarcoat the story and leave out the truth.
A hundred years later our story, like many others, is finally being told. Martin Scorsese is filming “Killers of the Flower Moon” in Osage County, and an Indigenous actress named Lily Gladstone, who is of Blackfeet descent, is one of the stars. One of the film’s crew recently said in passing, “this film will have the most Native American actors in it – ever.” Within the past year, the number of tourists here has doubled, as people stream in to see where the “Osage murders” took place. Placing us into America’s consciousness.
Soon, the world will know our story and the Rick Santorums of America will be forced to acknowledge our existence. Well, we can hope they do.
Native American culture is American culture, our many experiences and history helped to make what America is today. We are the blood and bone this country was built upon, and we will never forget it.