Sunday, May 24, 2015


Will no one talk about Native Americans?


This is a season of commemorations. It is 100 years since Turks massacred over 1 million Armenians during World War I. 70 years ago American soldiers liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Our leaders take these occasions as opportunities to castigate the Turks for not admitting their responsibility in the slaughter of Armenians and to point the finger once again at Germans for the Holocaust. It is, for our leaders, one more opportunity for boasting about our freedom loving nature.
It is also a season in which Americans once again confront their history of racism and its continuation to the present day.
In all of this, Native Americans are strangely absent. When urging the Turks to admit their guilt, when, once again, criticizing the Germans for their Nazi past, not a word is ever said about the fate of Native Americans on this continent. Nor are Native Americans mentioned in discussions of American racism and of slavery.
To be sure, a very few respectable scholars write books about the "American Holocaust." Others tell us that Adolf Hitler borrowed techniques for exterminating Jews, Gays and Gypsies in large numbers by studying the history of US persecution of Native Americans. The degree of similarity between the German Holocaust, the Turkish genocide, and the suffering imposed on the Native American population of the United States is open to argument. But it seems clear that citizens of the United States have their own burden of guilt and responsibility for the harsh treatment and large-scale killing of other peoples.
When whites first arrived on this continent, they survived only with the help of indigenous populations. But for several centuries warlike relations have predominated as whites increased in population and expanded their hunger for land and control. The history of these wars records great cruelty on both sides. But the outcome is clear. The white immigrants have taken away the land from the Native Americans. They have been pretty unscrupulous in the process.
Today there upwards of 2 million native Americans in the United States. Estimates of native American population in North America when whites first immigrated from England in the 1500s range from 1 to 18 million people. What we do know more precisely is that in the early years, Native American tribes who had no immunity to European diseases were decimated by various epidemics. It is still a matter of debate whether these disease epidemics resulted from accident or were, at least in some cases, brought about intentionally.
In the 1830s the US government forcibly moved Native American tribes from North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to what was then the Oklahoma territory west of the Mississippi. Thousands died on what came to be known as the "Trail of Tears." These forcible migrations were repeated whenever white Americans wanted the lands then inhabited by Native Americans, for farming, for mining, or other forms of exploitation. Native Americans, moved to barren lands they did not know and did not know how to farm, died of starvation.
Pretty much until World War I – 400 years since the arrival of the first white settlers – Native Americans were at war with white immigrants. Mainly confined to reservations, their tribal structures weak, their languages and religious customs forgotten, native Americans live in poverty at about the same rate as African-American and Hispanic citizens. The methodical displacement of Native Americans, the planned destruction of their culture by forcing Indian children to grow up in English language boarding schools away from their tribes and families, the careless impoverishment of whole peoples because they occupied lands desired by whites, is one more terrible blot on the history of the United States and its people. We need to be more forthright in acknowledging our responsibilities when we remonstrate with other nations to take responsibility for their past brutalities.
From every side we currently hear calls for "conversations about race." These calls for conversations must seem disingenuous as long as a large portion of American racism is being completely overlooked and remains concealed. Such conversations may salve the conscience of some, but will not really accomplish greater mutual understanding because they are not intended to confront the full extent of white responsibility for continued aggressions towards persons of color – including Native Americans.
It is high time that the fate of Native Americans be included in our national reflection about our past and present racisms.