In a previous blog I mentioned the book by Howard Zinn about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I was struck by the naked brutality employed by the police and local sheriffs departments in the Deep South to resist the efforts of black teenagers and college students, and their white associates, to integrate lunch counters, buses and bus station waiting rooms, and to take brave Black farmers to town to register to vote. The young men and women were arrested again and again, and emerged from the jails bleeding after savage beatings. The federal government offered little protection to them. It did not mobilize itself until Martin Luther King himself was arrested and threatened with violence in Albany, Georgia.
Zinn cites "what Newsweek writer Karl Fleming was told in an Alabama city: 'We killed two year old Indian babes to get this country and you want to give it to the niggers.' “ An extraordinary statement for many reasons. It testifies to the long memory of the conquest of the South. The Native Americans had had their land taken with great violence a century before the revolution in the South in 1950ties and 60ties.
The Sheriff's statement is also an open admission of how cruel a process that had been. In addition, the statement also recognizes the moral burden Southerners assumed with their cruelty. The Sheriff seems to be saying “We committed terrible outrages in order to acquire dominance in this land. Having paid such a frightful price, we will not surrender our lands to anyone, let alone to Blacks.”
Today Native Americans are in terrible shape. Especially those who live on reservations often live in abject poverty. On some reservations unemployment is more than 60%, alcohol and drug addiction are rampant, health care is difficult to get and life expectancy is significantly lower than that of other underserved groups, let alone that of whites.
But all of that is completely hidden. We have MLK Day, and streets named after Dr. King. The killing of Trayvon Martin arouses a great deal of comment. Native Americans are not in the News, their suffering is not noticed, they must bear their pain in silence. The responsibility of white society for that suffering is never acknowledged. Few give it any thought.
This despite the fact that their ancestors have been on this continent for 10,000 years, that they developed more than 100 languages and the distinct cultures that went with them. Some of the tribes invented democratic institutions that were a definite influence of on our “Founding Fathers.” Many, as for the instance the tribes that helped the English immigrants through their first winter and their first years, were much more giving and generous than most of us. Some constructed cities and great religious monuments. Others were fierce warriors and as capable of brutality as the most notorious Southern sheriffs.
As we very slowly and often reluctantly try to overcome the heritage of racist brutality, we must also be more deliberate about bringing the plight of Native Americans to public attention and to take responsibility for our bloody history in relation to the original inhabitants of this continent.