Omaha Indians at UNO

Profiles By: Robyn Tait

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Re-Telling History: Genocide and Broken Treaties

Native and non-Native writers are beginning to retell American history from the perspective of the oppressed peoples (usually minority ethnic groups), rather than the victors (usually whites). In these versions, Americans are reminded that “as this nation was born and expanded, the result was the decimation and genocide of a people [the Indians] and their way of life” (Zendejas vii).  When Columbus arrived in the New World and mistakenly named the inhabitants “Indians,” he and his crew began the long process of “slaughtering” the Natives in the name of colonization (Kendall 64). Rather than the brave hero Columbus is presented as in American schools and on Columbus Day, Native Americans see him as “a savage despoiler who brought slavery, disease, and genocide” (Worsnop 1).

The genocide was literal. Howard Zinn confirms in A People’s History of the United States, a re-telling of history from the perspective of the oppressed, that “the Indian population of ten million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million” (16). Ninety percent were ether intentionally massacred or annihilated by starvation, poverty, and European diseases. The white invaders were hungry for land and brought with them “a will to destroy, terrorize, mutilate, and conquer that which most Indian communities found foreign and even incredible” (Stannard qtd. in Fletcher 1). In contrast, in the words of Lakota writer Joseph Marshall, “[T]he first peoples . . . understood that co-existence was the means to survival for all species because it was central to the reality of the shared physical world,” and “they learned to dance in step, in unison, with everything around them” (9). Vine further explains the Natives’ spiritual connection to the land and each other; they “recognized their neighbors as co-owners of the land given to them by the Great Spirit” (qtd. in Wilkins 72). They lived in highly-evolved, successful relationships with the land and other members of their tribe. In the manner of colonization, the whites, who saw them simply as expendable heathen savages in the way of their settlement and expansion, did not recognize this.

Old world ideologies inferred the colonizers’ superiority and provided rationalization and justification for the barbaric treatment of any non-Christian, non-farming, indigenous inhabitants.  Mihesuah, writing about common stereotypes of Native Americans, states, “[T]hat tribes were not Christian only added to the Europeans’ rationalization that they were superior and civilized and that the tribes deserved to be subsumed” (25). Sadly, this policy of taking whatever the Indians had that the whites wanted and devaluing their tribal culture and religion has continued through government policy until very recently.

Destructive government policy is vividly demonstrated in broken land treaties and land swindles, an educational system that forced assimilation, and the outlawing of Native religions until 1978 (Fitzgerald 35). Many treaties promised the Indians could have certain parcels of land forever; President Andrew Jackson promised for “as long as grass grows and water runs” (qtd. in Zinn 134). Treaties required them to move from their ancestral homelands, and as subsequent treaties were repeatedly broken and made following the settlers demands for more land, the Indians gave up more and moved further and further west.  This “Indian Removal, as it has been politely called, cleared the land for white occupancy between the Appalachians and the Mississippi” (Zinn 125). Once the Natives were re-settled onto reservations—or, as Dr. Wagner, sociology professor at UNO succinctly describes it, put “on reserve” on the poorest land in the country—the government’s policies changed to forced assimilation and tribal dissolution (Lecture).

In 1953, Congress passed the Termination Act, terminating all Indian tribes (Rockefeller-MacArthur 10). This was their latest answer to the “American Indian problem,” aimed to “end the federal government’s responsibility for Indian affairs and also assimilate the Indians into white society” (11). This proved disastrous for the Indians, but “Congress continued its policy, having found a new weapon in the ancient battle for Indian land” (11). The combined effect of these policies was physical and cultural annihilation. This “land loss at the hands of whites” destroyed the Indians traditional way of life, their tribal structure, and their connection to the Great Spirit (Fitzgerald 65). This attitude and practice of colonization toward the Indians has lasted for hundreds of years.  A quick drive through the Omaha reservation or a visit to the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition highlights the poverty, hopelessness, and alcoholism many Native Americans are still struggling with today. Dr. Robbins ascribes this to the effects of intergenerational trauma and post-traumatic-stress. Each generation of Indians since colonization began has undergone huge traumas, so Indians today are dealing not only with their own trauma, but also all the inherited trauma of their forbearers (Interview).  In the 21st century, the damages of white colonization are still raw and real.

 

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Assimilation

Assimilation, the process whereby Native cultures would be swallowed up, dissolved, and absorbed into dominant white culture, was “encouraged” through education and the law. Educating the children into white man’s ways was seen as an expedient method to destroy their Native language, culture, religion, family structure, and in so doing, “civilize” them.  This philosophy was particularly prevalent in the missionary and state-run boarding schools, which Matthew Fletcher, in his book American Indian Education, calls “some of the most horrific examples of the attempt to assimilate Indian people into the melting pot of American society” (3). For example, Sidney Keith, a Lakota speaking of his own boarding school experiences, said the teachers “wouldn’t let you speak your own language—they would soap your mouth” (qtd. in Matthiessen xxxiii). A UNO professor, speaking anonymously of her grandfather’s experiences, told me he had attended