I grew up in South Dakota. I learned early about Indians, and Indian reservations. Indians were drunks, lazy, not to be trusted, and unmotivated. In history, they were the enemy, the ones who butchered George Custer at the Little Big Horn, and who lived like savages as the civilized white people settled the country. The indians, I learned, were subhuman.
To be sure, it wasn’t put in so many words. That’s the thing about bigotry. Bigots find rationalizations for their beliefs, and will often try to distance themselves from the obvious implications by finding other causes. It’s the reservation system, weakness of local governance, or genetic inabilities to deal with alcohol, stress, and the like. Having driven through both the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota, I recall being shocked by the scenes of abject poverty and apparent isolation.
Pine Ridge is the “poorest county in America,” with some estimates that alcoholism and unemployment are both near 90%. The reservation has high suicide rates, particularly among teens, and when it made alcohol illegal on the reservation, many people took to buying lysol and mixing it with water. A cheap and very dangerous high. Others have compared conditions there with North Korea or other places of utter despair. But most people don’t even know the problem exists. This is America, we can afford to spend $1 trillion to fight to “liberate Iraq,” or to bail out the automobile industries. We can pay cash for clunkers. But we can’t help the Oglala Sioux, part of the Lakota Nation.
One commone excuse is the claim that we simply can’t interfer. There is a certain level of sovereignty maintained by the tribe thanks to treaties with the US government. These treaties are sacred trusts, and they define territory that falls under Sioux jurisdiction. To be sure, these sacred trusts were easily brushed aside a century ago to take the Black Hills back, once gold was discovered there. Yet neglect cannot be blamed solely on treaty obligations. Americans put a lot of time and effort in supporting the Sudanese or Tibetans, but neglect what are arguably human rights violations at home.
The United States has a dirty little secret. We have genocide in our past. The US perpetrated a racist holocaust on native peoples that is more profound and damaging to those peoples than anything done by the Nazis or the Hutu Interhamwe in Rwanda. While the evil of slavery has been openly acknowledged, the invasion, conquest and partial extermination of native Indian tribes has been swept under the rug. It is treated romantically, games of “cowboys and indians,” with the demise of the Indian tribes and nations seen as inevitable and ultimately proper result of the “civilization” of the North American continent.
We are not in the wrong because we are the descendants of those who either perpetrated this low tech holocaust, or in the case of my great grandparents, imigrated to the US after the deed was done to settle on conquered land. We are in the wrong when we ignore what happened, pretend like the abuses were “no big deal” and shrug our shoulders at the state of affairs on places like the Pine Ridge Reservation. In fact, the typical view of the modern American Indian is one of people able to get rich off casinos and the “white man’s vices.” That’s certainly not the case in South Dakota.
I remember the day all this coalesced in my mind, just how serious the issue was, and how blind we are to our culture woes: January 17, 1991. The night before I watched in a state of near shock as reports came in from Iraq that the US was bombing massive sites all over the country, killing thousands because of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. That morning I had to go buy a cord for a Sony Discman I had bought in Germany two years earlier. The guy behind the counter said “we’re really kicking Saddam’s ass aren’t we.” I looked at him blankly. “Yeah, I guess,” I said, with my mind noting that Saddam probably wasn’t suffering, but a lot of civilians were. It was all abstracted, Iraq, the US, Saddam…the reality of what was happening in human terms was abstracted away or neglected. To think about what would happen would call into question whether or not we were liberating. Were we, perhaps, commiting mass murder?
That day I went to see a movie, “Dances With Wolves” starring Kevin Costner. The film, shot in South Dakota with considerable invovlement from the Oglala Sioux, shows how the advance of the “civilized” whites looked from the Sioux perspective. The whites were the vile, dirty, disgraceful ones, out of touch with nature, willing to slaughter buffalo for their hides, and contemptuous of the value of life. The movie itself was fictional, and can be criticized for romanticizing the Indians. Yet I walked out of there with my eyes open for the first time of how fundamentally blind we are in the West to the misdeeds — some would say evil — done in our name.
We pollute the planet, consume resources, and exploit cheap labor for our comfort. We tell ourselves we’re civilized, when we immerse ourselves in a materialist lifestyle disconnected from nature and from the spiritual side of life. Even when the science is overwhelming about things like climate change, we develop cottage industries churning out counter arguments designed to prevent anything from being done. When one criticizes our excesses, it’s considered anti-American or some kind of socialism. We create discourses of denial around our misdeeds, pretending we’re the civilized ones, we’re the ones trying to “help” others. Our culture is based on hypocrisy, and a blindness to the consequences of our ignorance of the meaning of what we’re doing. We’re fighting a war on nature and on others to support an unsustainable lifestyle, yet we believe we are reflecting humanity’s highest ideals and a way of living and thinking that all aspire too. We are living the Grand Delusion.
Nowhere is that more evident than when one considers the plight of the Oglala Sioux and other Indian nations still mired in poverty and a loss of their culture. The blindness we show to the problems they suffer, and the loss they continue to endure is both incredible and unforgivable. It is symbolic of an ability to live in a state of denial and rationalization. It’s their fault. They could choose not to drink. They could leave the reservation. A few slogans, and we wash our hands of any responsibility to help those suffering still the impact of the destruction of their culture.
In 1971 the group “Paul Revere and the Raiders” hit the charts with the song “Indian Reservation,” supposedly a lament of a member of the Cherokee nation. Yet the song itself reinforces the biases. “They took away our way of life, the tomahawk and the bow and knife…and though I wear a suit and tie, I’m still a red man deep inside.” That is the problem, we romanticize the loss (‘the tomahawk and the bow and knife’) and pretend that it’s not materially evident today (‘though I wear a suit and tie’). We need to confront the genocide of our past and make the kinds of reparations to the descendents of the conquered people that the Germans willingly made to the Jews after WWII.
More importantly, we need to start looking at our excesses, actions, and beliefs with a critical eye, and overcome the cultural blindness that causes us to make excuses for our misdeeds, and pretend that somehow we are more virtuous and advanced than others. That’s a lie.