Op-ed column: Walking on the graves

Do white Americans still enjoy killing Native Americans?

Do white Americans still enjoy killing Native Americans?

You could ask Richard Oakes, only he is dead now. A Mohawk Indian from upstate New York, Oakes is famous for helping lead the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, an action which brought considerable attention to the plight of Native Americans. In 1972, Oakes was killed by a YMCA caretaker, after Oakes had tried to defend a few Native American boys from the terrible charge of borrowing Caucasian-owned horses. The caretaker got no jail time.

Upstate New York has always tried to elude its genocidal past. James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans,” for instance, while ostensibly glorifying the “noble” Delaware tribes, actually launched a vicious character assault against both Iroquois and Huron Native Americans as a justification for American imperialism. Cooper’s work, to this day, serves as a bastion for those who wish to maintain the myth of the “noble savage” who must always be held victim to Manifest Destiny.

The genocide of Native Americans occurs in other, more subtle ways, as well. My Christian school, for instance, taught that it was America’s right to conquer them, as punishment for their “sins.” The evangelical textbooks I was given as a child argued that Native Americans were cursed by God. My teachers proclaimed that the best friend of the Native American was the Christian missionary. As a modern secularist, I know better. Now, the best friend of the Native American is state child protective service outlets, one of which placed four Little Falls Native American children in the claws of a sex abuser. Oh, the indigenous population of America must be so happy to be under the protective wings of Uncle Sam.

But it’s not enough simply to blame our government for the plight of Native Americans. For I, too, am guilty of their genocide.

You see, in that Christian school, there was an Iroquois girl. She sat through the same lessons I did, learned the same poison about the sins and evils of Native Americans. She listened as teachers debated whether unreached Native “tribes” would go to hell, because they never heard the word of God. She watched as we took tourist trips to the local remnants of the Iroquois, and casually sampled the trinkets produced by four centuries of genocide. I can still recall her father coming into chapel and preaching about the glories of creationist doctrine, doctrine Native Americans had themselves “anticipated.” Remembering that today, I feel ashamed to call myself an American, ashamed that my ancestors forced some poor Iroquois man to accept the outmoded religious doctrines of three centuries ago.

And do you, my reader, think you’re any better? Many of your children have doubtlessly played computer games like “Civilization” or “Colonization,” where points can be gained for destroying Native American tribes. Every November, you sit around a table and thank God for the blessings he has bestowed. But they are stolen blessings. When Americans indulge in their Thanksgiving festivities, they are engaging in a reverse communion. The blood isn’t sanctified this time, but merely the byproduct of genocide and butchery. The bodies broken in remembrance during these feasts aren’t figurative Christs, but literal Indians, individuals that continue to be exploited and ignored simultaneously, all in the service of the American empire.

I’ve heard all the tired excuses for years now. “It’s the past.” they say. “We can’t change it.” Some, more daring, will claim the Native Americans are better off now than they ever were before.

If you can fool yourselves with such self-serving platitudes, then God bless you. But I can’t. The land of the free, the home of the brave, is occupied by squatters, who somehow have the temerity to tell Mexicans and Native Americans that they’re the trespassers!

What can be done?

The question is, what can any American do to alleviate the ills suffered by local Native Americans? I don’t know for sure, but here are a couple of suggestions.

First, don’t complain about Indian casinos or tax evasions. Why should they be governed by our laws, when white Americans never expressed any respect for native customs?

Second, if you want a religious tradition of your own, build it yourself. Don’t try to convert Native Americans to your righteous way of living, nor steal Native religious customs that you have no right to (yes, I’m pointing at you, New Agers).

Lastly, respect the memory of Richard Oakes by at least attempting not to lace all your rhetoric with the triumphant blare of Manifest Destiny. According to Indian author Sherman Alexie, the eighth commandment of Uncle Sam to the Spokane Indians was “You shall not steal back what I have already stolen from you.”

So, I would ask you, dear readers, to refrain from walking over the graves of those you have so recently butchered. Leave the Indians their pride. It’s the only thing we haven’t stolen from them.

John Weaver lives in Amsterdam. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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