Indian Reservation

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.

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on September 29, 2009 - 16:53

    “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.”

    My view of Custer was that he was a pretentious idiot and undeserving of his post. Some might refer to him as a certain anatomical section of our hind end, but I’ll keep the language clean here on your blog. He essentially sent an entire cadre of good men on a suicide mission at Little Big Horn, and any scalping he received was more than well deserved.

    I’ve always been interested in the Indian culture, but being inherently lazy these days, I find it hard to get a real good study of it, outside the sanitized books that pretty much tell it from the white man’s point of view.

  2. #2 by Jillian on September 29, 2009 - 17:49

    I loved this post, the voice and the view. Thanks for sharing!

  3. #3 by ptola on September 29, 2009 - 18:48

    Maybe part of the problem is that “freedom” in our country has somehow come to include freedom from certain responsibilities. Those responsibilities – which can include anything from the responsibility of individuals to help other people to the responsibility of business to refrain from harming and exploiting the unprotected – may not be recognized by some as basic… but the world today is quite far from basic, and I don’t think we have the capacity to really understand how it works.

    In other words; technology and the mechanisms of the world have advanced much faster than the moral sensibilities of human beings, and the deplorable state of affairs that you’ve articulated seem to be the devastating consequence of that. We’re going to need a strong leadership, whether from government or some other source, to make all the changes we need to make, or else nature will take care of itself as it always does: our decadent society will decline, and (hopefully) from its ashes will arise a more suitable and morally advanced one.

  4. #4 by Josh on September 29, 2009 - 21:41

    It seems to me that we should help the folks on the reservations in a way that is fair to everyone. How?
    Not sure. The conservative in me pushes for individual responsibility. Those who may be engaged in a troublesome lifestyle should make better decisions, and citizens should willingly help those in need. I know many individuals, families, churches, etc. who do this. But, perhaps there should be more.

    On the other hand, I don’t know the situation on many of the Indian reservations. Perhaps the government should do something substantial about it. I don’t know, but I want the right thing to be done.

    I do agree that, as a society, we need to be examining ourselves. If we are in the wrong, we should correct. But this doesn’t happen very much in America or in any other country for that matter.

  5. #5 by renaissanceguy on October 3, 2009 - 15:24

    Okay, so you outline the reasons that bigots give for the social problems on the reservation, but you do not say what you think the actual reasons are. Would you?

    You wrote: “But we can’t help the Oglala Sioux, part of the Lakota Nation.”

    Who is the we in that sentence? If you include yourself in the “we,” then I want to ask you what you have done to help them. I also want to ask you what you mean by help.

    Would giving them cash help? How much? How would doing that help them? I have never seen an alcoholic helped by just giving him or her money. In fact, it is often the worst thing to do for an alcoholic. Should somebody start an AA program or open a rehabilitation center? Who is authorized to do so on the sovereign territory of the tribe? Is it something that the U. S. government should force on them? Is it something that they want?

    Should the reservation be enlarged? Should somebody build each family a house and buy groceries for them every month and pay all their utility bills? I submit that doing so would definitely be treating them as subhuman, since it would treat them as pets to be kept and cared for rather than noble people who have the inherent abilities needed to take care of themselves. It would also be treating them like dependents on our country rather than respected members of another country.

    Should somebody create imaginary jobs and pay them for those jobs? Should somebody force nearby employers to hire them and give those employers subsidies to cover their salaries?

    My questions are designed to suggest the kind of thinking that you should do on the matter, if you really want to help these folks, or if you want some other we to help them.

    I think one question that needs to be settled is whether the members of the tribe are U. S. citizens or not. If they are, then they are entitled to all the assistance that all other citizens are. If not, then they should be treated as a foreign nation and should be allowed to apply for foreign aid.

    It is morally obvious that Native Americans are entitled to reparations. I am totally in favor of it, although I am not sure how best to do it. I mean that sincerely.

    How do you determine a fair amount of money? Is it paid to each person or to the various nations or and tribes? Is it paid in a lump sum or over time? How many generations should receive the money, or should we just pay every Native American who is ever born in perpetuity? What about people of mixed blood? Should every person who has one Native ancestor, five generations back, get money? (Since most of their ancestors were the aggressors, it seems that they should not.) Should there be a difference between financially well-off Native Americans and desperately poor ones? Should there be a difference between the tribes that suffered the most harm and the ones who suffered a little less?

    You also wrote: “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.”

    I don’t even know how a person could accurately assess such a thing. By what formula did you calculate it? Are the lives of Native Americans somehow more valuable than the lives of Jews and others killed by the Nazis or more valuable than the Tutsis in Rwanda? Even if you are going by the number of people killed, is it actually worse to kill one million people than to kill one hundred people? Each person’s death matters as much as any other person’s.

    I feel the same way about your discussion of the first Iraq War. Apparently the terrible Iraqi casualties matter more than the people killed by the Iraqis in Kuwait. How do you rationalize feeling horrified at Iraqi deaths but not at Kuwaiti deaths? Or how about Kurdish deaths? Is it worse for some Iraqis to be killed during the U. S. invasion than for Kurds to be killed by Saddam Hussein’s military?

    I say that all deaths are sad. All war is sad and horrific. It is just as bad for Saddam Hussein’s sons to assassinate political enemies in cold blood as it is for American soldiers to inadvertently kill Iraqi civilians in the quest to stop him. In fact, since he pushed the U. S. and our coalition to invade his country, it is proper to blame Saddam Hussein for the casualties of the invasion.

    You wrote: “The blindness we show to the problems they suffer, and the loss they continue to endure is both incredible and unforgivable.”

    Again I ask who we is. Many white people care very much about it. You apparently do. I have to admit that it is not something I think about often or have much to do with. Perhaps that is wrong of me, but I am trying to alleviate other kinds of problems for other people groups. A person can only do so much, after all. If you want to help the Sioux people, then please do so with my blessing. I hope that others join the cause, and I hope that you succeed.

    “. . .and pretend that somehow we are more virtuous and advanced than others. That’s a lie.”

    Okay, but unless you have some objective measurement for virtue and advancement, it is also a “lie” to say that others are more virtuous and advanced than we. By the way, who is the we in that sentence?

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on October 3, 2009 - 16:50

    We means those who benefit from the conquest, which is almost every successful person in the US. We owe it to the children of those who were defeated. This not something to be broken down to the individual level — no individual can do much alone to solve this, it’ll take a collective effort. Therefore, only government is the institution capable of acting on behalf of the people.

    No life is worth more or less, I’m not sure why you would think I would say that. I think the genocide of American Indian tribes can be measured not just by the numbers killed, but the “success” in wiping out entire peoples and cultures. Jewish culture, and the Tutsi tribe survived; many native cultures did not. Some tribes were wiped out, others live without the capacity to rebuild their culture. It’s not about statistics or numbers killed. It’s about culture and society — the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.

  7. #7 by Scott Erb on October 4, 2009 - 00:42

    OK, I have a bit more time for a fuller reply: Giving cash alone won’t help, nor will small level outside efforts. That’s been tried — I worked for a Senator from South Dakota on Indian Affairs for awhile, and a lot of small scale private stuff is done, but it doesn’t work. Giving money alone turns to dependency. There is also a strong sense of native “nationalism” that gets in the way of efforts at true assimilation. Moreover, many people have had generations of fetal alcohol syndrome, so there are psychological/physiological and other cultural scars preventing the situation from improving.

    I think the only way to really improve things is to renegotiate the treaties, perhaps expand reservation land, create new kinds of opportunities and invest in infrastructure and development with a kind of quid pro quo — we give more, they accept some conditions and oversight. We make this a national priority. Since Indians are the “invisible” minority, behind even gays in the effort for civil rights, I don’t see this happening without governmental leadership. If we spent just a small percentage in effective assistance (not dependency creating aid) of what we spend on overseas military ventures, I think we could do a lot of good.

  8. #8 by renaissanceguy on October 4, 2009 - 11:11

    Scott, you and I are mostly in agreement.

    I apologize for the stuff about the value of different people groups. Whenever people make anti-war arguments based on their sympathy for a particular group, I always wonder why they care more about one group than another. That was a bad assumption I made in this case.

    Yes to renegotiating treaties. Absolutely. In my clumsy way I was trying to convey the point that whatever the U. S. government does for Native Americans needs to be truly what is best for them and needs to have their approval. I see that we agree on that point.

    We, the American nation, do owe it to them. You will get no argument from me on that point.

    I do question your apparent belief that white Europeans were inherently evil and that Native Americans were pure and innocent. I am not talking about in their relations with each other. I am simply meaning that every people group has its virtues and its sins, its heroes and its villains, its strengths and its weaknesses.

    In regard to U.S.-Indian relations, the fault is pretty much on the U.S. side. I totally agree. However, let’s not romanticize Native Americans. (I don’t think that you mean to, based on what you wrote about Dances With Wolves.) It is not like they are some heavenly class of humans who never did anything wrong. I think it actually robs them of their humanity to ignore their faults and their flaws as a class.

  9. #9 by Scott Erb on October 4, 2009 - 13:35

    There is nobody inherently evil or pure and innocent. I’m noting the Europeans conquered them (and most of the world) and in places like the Americas and Africas destroyed whole civilizations and political cultures. It was brutal, though they clearly thought they were doing what was right and natural. Most “evil” done is done in the name of higher ideals.

    In my field I am a “Europeanist” (study European politics), I do travel courses to Italy, Austria and Germany, and I am a self-described Europhile. So I certainly agree that the Europeans (and Americans) are not inherently evil — I find the cultural history of Europe fascinating and gripping. I do think, though, that the pursuit of rationality and reason over tradition and faith had a cost. Reason is a tool, it doesn’t contain core values or meanings themselves. To the extent the Europeans disconnected themselves from core religious and spiritual values, the easier it was to rationalize conquest in the name of social Darwinism. Not that religion isn’t often abused to justify conquest (Islam and Christianity both saw that), but the enlightenment gave them new tools as well as a very materialist bent. I think the EU shows the Europeans have learned many lessons, but culturally I think we (the West) still suffer from what I once described as “spiritual dehydration” and “material saturation.”

    Thanks for understanding about particular groups. I of course opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait too — I’m just not convinced that killing more innocents is the most effective way to counter someone else killing innocents. Gandhi argued that such a response simply reaffirms and strengthens the idea that violence and killing is the best way to achieve results. But those are indeed complex and unclear issues!

  10. #10 by henitsirk on October 4, 2009 - 22:57

    I took a class on Native American literature for my BA. It was a tremendously depressing class. As you said, it’s not about me feeling guilty or being responsible on an individual level. But it’s hard to read about so much pain and suffering.

    On my mom’s side, I’m a first-generation American as she was born in China after her mother went there to escape the Nazis. On my dad’s side, we have settlers from Puritan America through the 1800s, so there is more of sense of benefiting from European settlement in this country (one ancestor was directly involved, in King Philip’s War, in the oppression/extermination of native people).

    I grew up in California, where the native presence is experienced almost totally via casinos. Tribes are seen as being successful, wealthy groups given a distinct economic advantage through their ability to offer gambling that is otherwise illegal in CA. Here in Idaho there is a strong native presence (the Shoshoni-Bannock reservation almost surrounds Pocatello) with a small casino. I would say the tribe here is much less advantaged than those in CA, and much more than in South Dakota as you describe. However I’d guess that there are serious issues in any case — obesity seems quite rampant, and I doubt there is much true wealth here.

    Reparations are a complicated thing. My grandmother received checks from Germany for many years. But what does that really have to do with having your entire family exterminated? It’s a gesture — certainly not unwelcome, but really ineffective in the end. Real reparation might be returning their *original* lands to the tribes in the US, which isn’t really possible.

    I just watched the animated “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” with my kids. What a romanticized view of the American West and the culture clash between white and native! At least that story took the side of the wild mustang, showing that even the Lakota who treated him kindly was still fencing him in.

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