Thoughts on Indigenous People Day

“Powwow” (Photo by Laura Hamilton courtesy Pixabay)

According to USA Today, if you live in Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin – plus the District of Columbia and more than 130 cities, then you observe Indigenous Peoples Day instead of (or in addition to) Columbus Day. To the others, including the U.S. government, it’s still Columbus Day.

When I went to the post office in my small Texas town to mail some books on that day it was closed. I mentioned this to a friend, but referred to it as Indigenous People Day. His response was a crack about revisionists. That got me thinking.

There’s been a lot of ruckus this year about discrimination, racism, and the darker side of United States history. Destroying national monuments and tearing down statues because some group finds them offensive as part of a violent protest of the past reflected in the present displays generations of anger and righteous indignation.

But it doesn’t change a thing.

Most law-abiding white people see only violence, disrespect, and lawlessness.

They don’t get the concept of generations of visceral resentment.

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

It’s important to consider the context of those times. With 20:20 hindsight it’s easy to see how events and situations that were acceptable centuries ago are now recognized as barbaric and reeking of white supremacy.

More often than not, this is a factual statement.

By today’s standards they were wrong.

Please pause a moment to watch the following video of Marlon Brando saying it far more eloquently than I ever could.

When I was in school many decades ago history class provided biased information. Any journalist knows that a story must contain who, what, when, where, why, and how. Back then history textbooks left out a critical element:

WHY!

We were taught to regurgitate events and dates, perhaps the location, but that was it. BORING! Furthermore, we were not taught to think about what happened, much less why, but simply to accept it as fact.

Fact?

Let’s talk about facts.


History books failed to mention that Native People were here first, had no understanding of the principle of property ownership, often held higher moral and spiritual values than their conquerors, and were defending territory given to them centuries before by the Great Spirit.


We had one side, that of the victors. The Baby Boomer generation grew up thinking Native Americans were savages who were simply in the way. This was further reinforced by movies and westerns on TV to say nothing of backyard games of cowboys and Indians.

History books failed to mention that Native People were here first, had no understanding of the principle of property ownership, often held higher moral and spiritual values than their conquerors, and were defending territory given to them centuries before by the Great Spirit.

Can you begin to see how offensive a holiday celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” of American would be to First Americans after generations of oppression in the supposed “land of the free and the brave?”

At the time of westward expansion–Manifest Destiny, if you will–these atrocities reflected the prevailing attitudes of the western world. The deeds and behavior now recognized as evil were considered normal, even heroic. And sadly, still are, in some parts of the world.

Fort Robinson Massacre

In many cases, Native American cultures were more advanced back then than the United States is today. Granted some were barbaric by western standards, such as the Maya and Aztec, but it’s important to remember that we invaded their land. Most tribes in North America were far more peaceful.

Treaties with First Americans were (and still are) broken as a matter of course. Chiefs would sign a document in good faith, often having no idea what it said, only to have what they thought was agreed upon never occur because Congress refused to ratify it. As far as they were concerned they had agreed to its terms and couldn’t understand why the white men who signed the document didn’t have the proper authority to guarantee their side of the agreement.

And it’s obvious that when indigenous people refused to give away their country, then genocide became the logical alternative.

Did you know that the Pope granted explorers permission to kill or enslave indigenous people? To the Catholic Church’s credit, this opinion eventually switched to missionary and education efforts, except the intent initially was to annihilate their culture and Anglicize them by forcing Native Americans to cut their hair and punishing them for speaking their own language. Thankfully, that has changed. Today’s curriculum includes respect for their culture and history as well as retaining their native languages. The private schools today are doing penance for the past, which is more than can be said about anyone else.

Pike’s Peak Goldrush Map

Indigenous people in the United States were murdered and those that remained driven off their land, usually to reservations in locations no one else wanted. At least until gold or silver was discovered, in which case they were driven off again. Many today live in conditions comparable to those of a Third World country.

How is this okay?

Consider this: The USA helped Europe defeat the Nazis in World War II. Our troops decimated Germany in the process, but we helped them rebuild. Adolph Hitler was a vile threat and avowed enemy. We bombed the hell out of them.

Then stepped in after the war and helped them recover! And did the same thing for Japan, who attacked our fleet at Pearl Harbor!

Seriously?

Photo by David Mark (Courtesy Pixabay)

Yet, for First Nation people, from whom we literally stole this country, we do little to nothing. Rather, we continue to steal and desecrate their sacred sites, then hover somewhere between ignoring their situation and the typical narcissistic response of placing the blame on them.

“Sorry, guys. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

How would today’s Americans respond to Chinese hoards swarming their borders? How would you respond? Would you welcome them with open arms? Or defend your country by embracing your 2nd Amendment rights?

Columbus should be remembered. The sea voyage alone at that time was incredible. He led the way for Europeans to be free and escape oppression. Ironically, this came with a price that imposed far worse circumstances on the First Americans, when millions were slaughtered and brushed aside as vermin. Columbus belongs in the history books, but the effect his “discovery” had on the First Americans needs to be told and acknowledged (as well as some of his less than stellar personal deeds).

The USA has a long way to go before they quit being defensive and admit this behavior was antithetical to what was supposed to be a Christian nation espousing “liberty and justice for all.” We must balance the history books and acknowledge the darker side. It takes a big person (or country) to admit when they were wrong. It doesn’t change the past, but it could heal the present and certainly the future.

Meanwhile, the least we should do is eschew Columbus in favor of Indigenous People Day.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Recommended reading: “Great Speeches by Native Americans” edited by Bob Blaisdell. I suggest you buy it here, from the Southwest Indian Foundation.

Research Notes & Bibliography

“Village” by Albert Bierstadt c. 1920

The list of websites I accessed researching “The Curse of Dead Horse Canyon: Cheyenne Spirits” is far too long to list. It included such subjects as where to report water contamination issues in Colorado, seasonal wild flowers, fracking risks, and drilling for oil. But by far, the most extensive research related to Native American history.

Quite frankly, I hadn’t given it much thought before. My experience with Native Americans had been limited, but positive. I was aware that reservations harbored numerous issues, but hadn’t considered why. The indoctrination I’d received in public schools as a child had never addressed their side of the story. I didn’t think of it as right or wrong, simply historical fact.

I grew up in the glory days of westerns and tales of cowboys and Indians. I never thought of the latter as bad, only different. Of course in history class they were portrayed as uneducated savages. Medicine men were somewhere on par with witches and sorcerers.

Then a few years ago I read a book that sensitized me to the harsh realities associated with colonization. It at least made me think. Then, as I was writing this book, Charlie Littlewolf came on the scene. That’s how it works in my novels. I get an idea and start writing, then the characters show up. I immediately knew there was a lot to learn about who he was and where

Want to know what really happened? Read this first.

he came from, both genetically and geographically.

So I started reading. I ordered several books, most of which I read cover to cover. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter mostly come from “Great Speeches of Native Americans.” That book literally made me cry as the reality of how Indigenous Americans were treated began to register.

It was nothing short of shameful how many treaties were broken, largely because they weren’t ratified by Congress. The U.S. side of the agreement, which often promised food and other supplies, was never fulfilled, but what the Indigenous people brought to the table was long gone. One Native American noted how he couldn’t understand how there were so many “chiefs,” none of whom were authorized to sign such an agreement on behalf of the government.

A beautiful glimpse of Native American spirituality.

The first book I read on spirit medicine was “The Making of a Healer: Teachings of my Oneida Grandmother” by Russell FourEagles. It was one of the amazingly beautiful books I’ve ever read. For the first time I realized the spiritual nature of Native American beliefs. I knew they believed in a “Great Spirit” but had no idea how that related to how they honored the Earth. If you happened to see the movie “Avatar” a few years back, then you got a taste of their view of life as well as the brutality of colonization, whether on this planet or a distant one.

By the time I’d finished writing the first version of the book I wanted a Native American to read it and tell me if anything was incorrect or culturally insensitive. That goal ultimately led me to my co-author, Pete Risingsun, a Northern Cheyenne who’s well-versed in his culture. He pointed out the many things I had wrong and not only helped me correct it but brought it to life.

Which begs the question, was all my reading prior to finding Pete a waste of time?

Hardly.

Without that background I don’t think we could have communicated as well as we did.

The heartbreaking story of the Northern Cheyenne’s journey.

Knowing the history was essential to us being on the same page. The first thing Pete did was send me the book “Morning Star: Let Us Make a New Way” by Richard DeSirey, which told the story of the Northern Cheyenne. Northern Cheyenne traditions, rituals, and ceremonies are very specific and often differ from those associated with the Southern Cheyenne. His knowledge was worth his weight in gold.

Nonetheless, for anyone who wants to learn more about Native Americans, here are the books that I acquired and read to a greater or lesser degree before Pete came onboard.

Those with asterisks (*) are those I dub essential reads, plus the DVD course “Native Peoples of North America” from The Great Courses if you really want to know the part of American history you weren’t told in school.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bennett, Hal Zina: Zuni Fetishes: Using Native American Objects for Meditation, Reflection, and Insight. ISBN 0-06-250069-4

Blaisdell, Bob, Editor; Great Speeches by Native Americans; Dover Thrift Editions; 2000. ISBN 978-0-486-41122-4*

Brinkerhoff, Val W.; The Remnant Awakens; Digital Legend Press; 2016. ISBN 978-1-7295451-9-5

DeSirey, Richard D.; Morning Star: Let Us Make A New Way; 2017; ISBN 978-1-976355-4-7*

FourEagles, Russell: The Making of a Healer: Teachings of my Oneida Grandmother; Copyright 2014, Quest Books. ISBN 978-0-8356-0927-2*

Lake-Thom, Bobby; Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies. ISBN 0-452-27650-0

Maryboy, Nancy C. and Begay, David; Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy; Rio Nuevo Publishers, Tucson, Arizona; 2010. ISBN 978-1-933855-40-0

Mose, Don Jr.: The Legend of the Navajo Hero Twins: Illustrated by Charles Yanito: Copyright 2013, San Juan School District, Blanding, Utah. ISBN 1-931489-59-9

Parnwell, E.C.; Translated by Marvin Yellowhair; The New Oxford Picture Dictionary English/Navajo; Oxford University Press; 1989. ISBN 0-19-434362-6

Sun Bear and Wabun; The Medicine Wheel Earth Astrology; Simon & Schuster; 1980. ISBN 978-0-671-76420-3*

Sun Bear, Wabun Wind, and Crysalis Mulligan; Dancing with the Wheel; Simon & Schuster; 1991. ISBN 978-0-671-76732-7

Waldman, Carl; Atlas of The North American Indian 3rd Edition; Checkmark Books; 2009. ISBN 978-0-8160-6859-3

Waldman, Carl; Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes 3rd Edition; Checkmark Books; 2006. ISBN 0-8160-6274-9

Native Peoples of North America; The Great Courses No. 8131 (c) The Teaching Company; presented by Daniel M. Cobb.*

Websites

https://www.powwows.com/top-10-places-authentic-native-culture-lives/*