“During the following thirty years these leaders and many more would enter into history and legend. Their names would become as well known as those of the men who tried to destroy them. Most of them, young and old, would be driven into the ground long before the symbolic end of Indian freedom came at Wounded Knee in December 1890. Now, a century later, in an age without heroes, they are perhaps the most heroic of all Americans.”
A few days ago, I found myself screaming, “No!” at this video by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
My alarm turned slowly to deeper anguish when I realized that not only was it being shared all over Twitter, it actually made the Morning Joe show on MSNBC with zero critical analysis of its claims about the United States and its supposedly untarnished history (in comparison to the tragedy of the Holocaust that occurred in Europe).
I am here to set the record straight by naming names and giving credit where credit is due!
Between the Civil War and December of 1890, the men to which the quote at the beginning of this article refers made the last, great stand against United States’ aggression in the western territories.
Their names were:
Little Crow and Wabasha of the Mdwkanton Santee (also Lakota);
Red Cloud and Crazy Horse of the Oglala Tetons (also Lakota);
Tatanka Yotanka, the Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas (a smaller division of the Teton “Sioux,” again, more properly referred to as Dakota or Lakota);
Spotted Tail of the Brulé Teton (also Lakota);
Dull Knife (aka Morning Star) of the Northern Cheyenne;
Black Kettle, Tall Bull, and Roman Nose of the Southern Cheyenne;
Satank, Satana, Lone Wolf, and Kicking Bird of the Kiowas;
Little Raven of the Arapahos;
Ten Bears and Quanah Parker of the Comanches;
Mangas Colorado, Cochise, Delshay, Nana, and Geronimo of the Apaches;
Manuelito of the Navajos;
Kintpuash (aka Captain Jack) of the Modoc (according to my 93-year-old grandmother, we are descended of the Modoc people on her father’s side);
Heinmot Tooyalaket (aka Chief Joseph) of the Nez Percés;
Wovoka (a spiritual leader) of the Paiutes.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the Native peoples and leaders who made this last, great stand against the white invaders. Taken from the pages of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, it is meant to convey to you just how many nations were subjected to the horrors of genocide in just the short window between roughly 1860 and 1890. It is meant to put the names of actual humans in front of you, and thereby, it is meant to humanize the facts of history.
If we expand the window of time just a little bit, we will also enfold the struggles of my grandfather’s people. A mere 30-odd years before the Civil War and roughly sixty years before Wounded Knee, after years of trying to retain control of their ancestral lands in what is now Mississippi (and untold numbers of broken treaties), my Choctaw ancestors walked and died along the first Trail of Tears.
Just 10 short years or so after the massacre at Wounded Knee, my great, great grandfather (born in Oklahoma in 1862) carried my great grandmother, an infant, away from Oklahoma, away from Indian territory, and into an assimilated life. They left Oklahoma during the allotment period (Google it) and never registered for the Dawes Rolls that determine membership in the “Five Civilized Tribes.” Many chose not to put their names on an official government roll of Native people in exchange for private title to land (one more genocidal step in the process of breaking up the collective holdings of tribal nations).
Now consider that this nightmare began for the Indigenous peoples of the United States in 1492. Four hundred years of genocide passed between the beginning (a slow and barbarous conquest of the Eastern Seaboard) and the symbolic end of the Western conquest at Wounded Knee. From sea to shining sea the colonizers, and later, the official government forces of the United States of America murdered, rampaged, desecrated, and destroyed their way to possession of the lands upon which all non-Native people now live.
To this day, the genocidal tactics of those four hundred years continue. They have simply been adapted from the strategies of war to the strategies of cultural, personal, and national persecution of Indigenous peoples.
Staggering isn’t it?
“An estimated 18 million Native people were custodians of the North American continent when European colonists arrived. They and their ancestors had lived here for an estimated 14,000 years.
Today this same land contains over 204 million white Americans, over forty-six million Black Americans, and just over five million Native Americans. The story of the unique arc of trauma in the Native American body is only now beginning to be told.”
It is against this backdrop and through this lens that I am watching with horror, not just the events that have recently unfolded in the United States capital, but the dangerous, genocidal narrative that has accompanied these horrors.
This narrative is unfolding as a terrible erasure of the history I just relayed. Its prominent expression always goes something like this: “Never imagine it could not happen here.” It is usually followed with, “Donald Trump is the worst president in U.S. history.”
This is effectively what Arnold Schwarzenegger said in that video as he shared his moving, personal history about the Holocaust in Austria. In that video, he also said these kinds of horrors are made of lies. He was right about that. So, I can’t let stand unchallenged this perilous narrative that situates the Holocaust as a uniquely European event and declares that no holocaust has ever happened on these hallowed lands.
Underlying this dangerous story are the very bedrock lies upon which treachery is being carried out in our midst, not for the first time, but still!
Both of these first two ideas (about our innocence as a nation and Trump’s status as the worst U.S. president ever) amount to genocidal erasure. They represent our national myths of innocence and exceptionalism that will, in the long run, make it impossible for us to ever heal as a nation. They perpetuate white supremacist myths that allow us to avoid looking at the truth of our own history, and in so doing, taking honest steps to make sure this stops now and never starts again.
Consider the way that President Andrew Jackson cleared my ancestors from Mississippi with viral plagues (small-pox-ridden blankets ring a bell?), military and diplomatic hostilities, and finally, the forced, murderous removal to Oklahoma. With that in mind, I think we can dust up quite a controversy over the idea that Donald Trump is the worst. Given the atrocities at the southern border and his attempt to literally overthrow our own government, he is still a contender! He just doesn’t stand alone in the ring of the worst.
And Lincoln’s pursuit of land for his constituents before and after the Civil War? His presidency was built on the free-soil movement that demanded westward expansion (i.e., expansion further into Indian lands).
Before this article is over, perhaps for the first time, you will understand Wounded Knee for what it was: the tragic apex of a 400-year genocidal assault on Native peoples.
“Worst” is in the eyes of the beholder, and we are in dangerous territory every single time we view these historical and current events through the white lens of history. We cannot atone for and heal the things upon which this nation was founded, and which ultimately became the foundation for Trumpism, if we continue to deny reality. But, beyond that, we do immeasurable harm to the Native people still living and breathing today.
We are still here. We can hear you!
And what are you telling us when you espouse these myths? What are you saying to those who are members of sovereign Indigenous nations, and those like me, who are the lost children of genocide? You are telegraphing with your ignorance and your denials, that the holocaust of our ancestors and the continuing persecution of our people, ongoing to this day, do not matter in the slightest.
So well have we, as a nation, in our dominant narratives and historical accounts, erased these realities that you might be learning all of this for the first time. I grew up not knowing either. My mother hid us far away from the horrors that drove my great, great grandfather and his family out of Oklahoma over one hundred years ago.
Whether you know these historical realities or not, I am here to tell you that these national “secrets” (hiding in plain sight) matter more than you can imagine. Their significance is evident in the lives of Native people today, in the pain and the triumphs of a continuing struggle for land and sovereignty and a continuing struggle for well-being. These truths are also apparent in the way our country is convulsing from its own unconsidered sins.
A house with a rotten foundation left unrepaired will eventually fail.
Genocide and holocaust are the foundations of the United States. Full stop!
We saw these things on display at the Capitol. On January 6th, white supremacy showed its true character (running over even white police officers who are supposed to be the darlings of “law and order” Trumpism). Paradoxically, white supremacy isn’t and never was about race. White supremacy will destroy any and everyone who stands against it because it is about power, hunger for resources, lies, slander, and the willingness to murder in the name of a false righteousness that props up a murderous systemic order.
Race was always, and is now, a construct deployed to address and justify other systemic realities via slanderous characterizations of inferior and superior classes. Donald Trump just managed to weaponize race as a mob of people who believe the lies. They became the foot soldiers of a white supremacist order that does not want to admit what it has already done and which does not want to be replaced with something more equitable.
Economic profit (often in the form of land) and inequity are, and always were, the aim of white supremacy.
“The ideology of white supremacy was paramount in neutralizing the class antagonisms of the landless against the landed and distributing confiscated lands and properties of Moors and Jews in Iberia, of the Irish in Ulster, and of the Native American and African peoples.”
~ An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Last time I checked, the Irish have always had white skin. See my point?
Our peril at this moment stems not just from these historical truths, but their impacts. These genocidal realities are wired into our minds, embedded in our cells, embodied in us. All sides are marked with the atrocities of genocide. All sides need to heal or the trauma will morph into a new expression (as we are witnessing now) and take down the nation. Trauma is intergenerational and repetitive.
“…Clinical psychologist and researcher Eduardo Duran assessed that in the overall body of research on the subject of historical trauma and its transmission, there is evidence that ‘not only is trauma passed on intergenerationally, but it is cumulative…when it is not dealt with in previous generations, it has to be dealt with in subsequent generations.'”
~ Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds by Thomas Hübl and Julia Jordan Avritt
I should know. Both sides of it run through my blood, through my white skin, through the assimilated life my great, great grandparents began and my mother continued. I am the whole story all wrapped into one body. I am Native blood buried beneath white Irish skin and acculturated to white society as the founders of this nation intended. They pursued Indigenous annihilation through murder, cultural suppression, “reeducation” in boarding schools, indoctrination, intermarriage.
Their aim was to end us.
Their aim was to make me—someone who is too white to be Indian and too Indian to be comfortably white (often for reasons I can barely explain).
I am still here. I can hear you.
The aim of the United States government and white supremacy was and is to bury this truth and this intergenerational trauma under complex lies of innocence, and pearl-clutching claims that things like what happened during the Jewish Holocaust in Europe are beyond what we have historically been capable of as a nation.
Maybe I have been too antiseptic about this until now?
Maybe I also have buried the truth in strong language that is still too vague for you to really feel.
Return with me now (for a different kind of history lesson) to the last name on the list at the beginning of this article: Wovoka, that spiritual leader of the Paiutes people.
Wovoka was more of a prophet than anything. He was a shining beacon of hope to a decimated, demoralized Native world. Wovoka had a vision and because of it, he dared to dance. Wovoka incited others to dance too. And dance they did. The dance was itself a last stand. It was a liturgy called “The Ghost Dance.”
According to Choctaw Elder, Steven Charleston, Wovoka had a vision in which this liturgical dance would hasten a promise: Native nations would be “free of fear and allowed to coexist with their white neighbors without further exploitation.”
And so the people danced! At the prophet’s word, in honor of his vision and their hope to be free of fear and exploitation, the Native peoples of the West violated United States law. It was considered devil worship and was prohibited as a form of sedition for Native people to practice their Native religious traditions.
The massacre at Wounded Knee was about the Ghost Dance as much as it was about anything because the Lakota, whom the United States’ seventh Cavalry massacred, were on their way to join their kin for the purposes of performing this dance. The massacre was about breaking the bodies of not just those making the last stand as warriors on the battlefield, but of the spiritual warriors making their last stand before heaven.
The soldiers murdered them—women, children, and all—as they attempted to join their kin for prayer. Two weeks earlier, fearing the Ghost Dance the government police had also murdered Sitting Bull, a revered Lakota medicine man.
“Weakened from hunger and stripped of their dignity as hunters, small bands of the Lakota gathered to perform the Ghost Dance as a last hope for redemption from what they saw as genocidal oppression…On the Pine Ridge area in the southwest corner of the Dakotas, one of these bands under the leadership of an elder, Big Foot, decided to travel to be with their kinfolk. The 7th Cavalry…told them they could not move because even travel was restricted for Indians…
…Tensions were high because only two weeks earlier the most revered medicine man of the Lakota people, Sitting Bull, had been killed when the government police attempted to arrest him for no other reason than a fear of what the Ghost Dance might be doing to incite the Native people into some action…
…The 7th Cavalry opened fire…
…The corpses of some two hundred Lakota people were piled up and then placed into a mass grave; photographs were taken to commemorate victory. To add insult to injury for this massacre, and perhaps to send a clear message to any other Native people who dared to disobey an order from white authority, around twenty soldiers who participated in the massacre were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest medal for bravery given to the United States. At Wounded Knee in 1890 a military force gunned down innocent civilians in a massacre. They killed the dancers, but they could not kill the dance.”
~ The Four Vision Quests of Jesus by Steven Charleston
Don’t tell me it never happened here.
It happened and it is happening. In terms of armed conquest, it went on for four hundred years. That conquest hit its crescendo when the United States government awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the “bravery” it took to massacre the dancers.
Even coexistence was denied to the Native peoples. The United States was not satisfied to coexist. It wanted to extinguish the spirit, destroy the cultures, break the people, and take every last inch of the land. Even when the United States government had taken almost all the land (save the reservations), it pursued a relentless genocidal agenda of destruction against Native people.
This is who we are as a nation!
Until we can admit that, we will never be at peace. We will never be redeemed. Donald Trump and his siege of the capital was the grotesque emergence of the truth that has always been seething beneath the surface, beneath our thin veil of respectability and our lies of innocence and greatness. But this truth has been here all along, showing up as (just to name a few):
>> poverty and its secondary impacts on Native reservations;
>> the police brutality that dogs Native people at higher rates than Black people;
>> the disappearance, sexual assaults, and murders that disproportionately destroy Native women;
>> the continuing erasure of our history by people like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who seemed to have good intentions);
>> the way COVID-19 has killed vast numbers of Native people (on a per capita basis, far higher than the population at large); and
>> the ignorance of every single call to consider that it might, potentially, happen here.
Go on! Google these facts. I am purposely not linking to articles because I want you to want to do the work instead of me laboring to bring it all to you on a silver platter.
Right now, before our time together in the pages of this short article (short compared to hundreds of years of genocide) is up, we must own the truth:
Genocide is not some far-off, European aberration expressed in the Holocaust.
Genocide is as American as apple pie and we have our own holocaust for which we must account.
In this truth rests our salvation because when we finally deal with this reality, we will free ourselves from trauma’s legacy of repetition.
In our continuing denial rests more of the same.
The choice is yours.
“…And the streets don’t change but maybe the names
I ain’t got time for the game…”
~ Guns & Roses