Sunday, July 21, 2013

History from Another Perspective

Today is Sunday, July 21, 2013

Perspective matters.  History is written by the victors, always from their perspective, but it is worthwhile for us to know about the history of the United States from the perspective of the Native Americans who were here first.   It's not a pretty story, unfortunately. 

When Europeans got to the New World, there were anywhere from 15 to 50 million inhabitants. It's hard to estimate, but in general the figure has been revised upwards in recent years.  They spoke around 1,000 different languages.  They lived in relatively small groups with leaders that inherited their position or were elected.   Modern DNA research says that the Native American population was likely at an all-time high around 5,000 years ago.

The Native American population quickly shrank by about half, following European contact 500 years ago.  At first, diseases such as influenza, smallpox and the plague, brought by the Spanish explorers and English settlers wiped out whole communities.  It is estimated that tribes lost anywhere from 50-90% of their populations from these diseases, alone.  In Massachusetts, 96% of the local Indians died.  In later years, their numbers were reduced by wars, forced relocation, and enforced poverty.

In 1850, then President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which relegated all Indian tribes to land west of the Mississippi River, specifically Oklahoma, which was then known as "Indian Territory."  Within a span of 10 years, 70,000 Indian followed the Trail of Tears.  Many of them died along the way from starvation and exhaustion.   Among the five tribes that agreed to move west were the Cherokee, who lost 3,000 of their people, and that was only the ones who died along the way. 

The Indians had been promised help with their move, and they were told that the land west of the river would be theirs to use as they wished, but the settlers from Europe needed more land, and in 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which allowed individuals and their families to claim 160 acres of land and own it after living on it and cultivating it for five years.  This was only the first of several Homestead Acts.  Soon, it became bothersome for the U.S. government to engage in treaties with separate tribes of Indians, so the treaty system was abandoned, and the goal of the government became assimilation of the Indians into white culture and religion, namely Christianity. 

In 1876, after the Battle of Little Bighorn, commonly known as Custer's Last Stand, whites were outraged by the death of Custer, a popular Civil War hero.  The Black Hills, land that was and is sacred to the Indians, was placed outside the Indian reservations and opened to white settlement.  Why?  For the same reason that the United States annexed California: gold. 

In 1889, under pressure from white settlers and the railroad companies, President Harrison opened the land in Oklahoma that had been promised to the Indians, and the tribes that resided there were pressured into signing agreements allowing white settlement.  

With the goal of "civilizing" the Indians and assimilating them, Indian kids were forced to go to boarding schools, where they were harshly punished for speaking their native languages.  The goal was to obliterate native culture by not allowing adults to teach spiritual and cultural practices to their kids.  Native American spiritual practices and ceremonies were declared illegal.  

Indians were the last group to attain full U.S. citizenship, and the last to be granted the right to vote.  Today about 76% of all Native Americans do not live on reservations.  The ones who do are among the poorest people in our country.  

A few years ago, PBS made a series of five programs illustrating history from the Native American perspective, called, "We Shall Remain."  The series consists of five 90-minute episodes, all narrated by Benjamin Bratt.  "After the Mayflower" begins in the 1620s, showing how the Wampanoag and New England settlers coexist for nearly 50 years until war breaks out.  In "Tecumseh's Vision," the Shawnee leader and his brother try to unite native peoples to resist the U.S. government in the early 1800s.  "Trail of Tears"tells how the Cherokee nation opposes being forced out of its lands, taking the case to the Supreme Court.  "Geronimo" tells the story of the controversial Apache warrior who fought the government for several decades before surrendering in 1886.  In the final episode, "Wounded Knee," American Indian activists engage in a 71-day siege in 1973 to publicize their grievances.   You can still order the DVD here.  :-)

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