April 2, 2011

Justice for Native Americans.

The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say “My God! What are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves.” ~ Pine Ridge Billboard Project by Aaron Huey

Aaron Huey is creating billboards that bring to light the hidden history of social injustice and the ongoing oppression of Native Americans.

Here’s a little piece of that history from my town, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Walking along the river today, I am thinking about Antoine Janis, the son of a French Trapper and one of the first settlers in this valley. Janis married First Elk Woman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and together they raised a family in the valley that is now LaPorte, Colorado.

Janis Cabin - Fort Collins Museum

Some of the earliest settlers in this area, particularly those who married into Indian tribes, envisioned a new society that blended the best of European and Native American cultures. Perhaps such a society would have had the best of the White Man’s technology, like steel axes instead of stone but also the best of indigenous values,  freedom for all, environmental stewardship and the needs of future generations prevailing over power and profit for small a ruling class.

One June morning in 1876 brought an end to Janis’s peace and prosperity in this beautiful and fertile valley. In the spring of 1876 many Sioux and Cheyenne people broke away from reservations. Driven by hunger, boredom and a longing for the old ways, they joined Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and headed north to camp on the Little Bighorn River.

On June 25th, 1876 the day began with trumpets blaring and gunfire tearing through the Sioux and Cheyenne villages. Unbeknownst to General Custer and his 7th Cavalry, this composite village spanned over two and a half miles and contained a population of several thousands of Indians and not the 600-800 that Custer anticipated.

The enormity of Custer’s blunder is legendary and the unexpected military engagement was both the greatest and last victory for the Sioux. A young and arrogant United States, preparing to celebrate it’s Centennial, reeled from the loss of Custer’s regiment of 700 hundred soldiers, although many Easterners believed the U.S. Army had no business being there in first place.

Subsequently, the U.S. Congress passed a law that forced all Indians to be permanently confined to reservations, even those who were married to Whites. This put men like Janis, who often had the earliest and best land claims, in a difficult position, “leave your land or leave your family.”

I can picture Janis gazing into the dark eyes of his children and stroking his wife’s long black hair as they loaded up their buckboard wagon and headed for the “Great Sioux Reservation” in Dakota Territory, where they lived out the remainder of their lives.

On the reservation Janis contributed to making peace between the army and the Sioux by serving as a fair and accurate interpreter. Some historians believe that the killing of Crazy Horse might have been prevented if the Chief’s wishes to have Janis for his interpreter had been honored. Instead, Frank Grouard, a man who had a personal grievance against the Chief, acted as interpreter and Crazy Horse’s words were misinterpreted with disastrous results.

After the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, a small American flag appeared in the hand of a statue of Antoine Janis on Shields Street in Fort Collins. I found it ironic, as Janis chose to live as an exile from American Society in order to remain with his mixed-race family.

Perhaps Old Janis made the right choice in choosing not to take part in the “civilizing” of Colorado. His line has continued and to this day there are many of Janis’s descendants on reservations in South Dakota. Perhaps there is still a chance to bring Native American and Euro-American values together but until such time our attitude towards the land will continue to be one of subjugation.

On February 13, 2008, Kevin Rudd, the newly elected Australian Prime Minister, made good on a campaign promise, by apologizing to Australian Aboriginal People of “the stolen generation.” The stolen generation are Aboriginal Australian’s who were taken away from their families by force and sent to government and religious institutions to be “assimilated.” Many were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. All of this happened to Native American’s too, until very recent times.

My Cousin Sandy lives in Australia and she said that when Kevin Rudd apologized to the Aboriginal People the country changed overnight, as if a great weight had been lifted from the nation’s psyche. People gathered by the hundreds of thousands in big cities to watch the speech on huge screens, in much the same way that people gather in Time Square on New Year’s Eve. Many aboriginal people listened with tears streaming down their faces, washing away the pain and shame of a generation.

Non-indigenous Australians, many of whom are descendants of indentured servants who were brought there as forced laborers and prisoners, listened spell-bound. When the political opposition came on after Rudd’s speech and made negative comments about Rudd’s statements, televisions all across the country switched off and aboriginal people turned their backs to the speaker on the TV screen, the ultimate insult in aboriginal culture.

Perhaps Barack Obama will be the one who will be able to do this for the United States. Obama’s mixed race heritage, as well as his composite family background, makes him a more realistic representative of the true American society than any leader we have ever had.

Until we heal our relationship with America’s indigenous people, we will remain unable to heal our relationship to this land.

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