If you’ve read anything about the history of the American West you’ll know that it’s a long and sad tale of human suffering. Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West is a compelling account that summarises the history from the arrival of Columbus to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.
You may be aware that wars were fought and lost. Treaties were signed and broken. Friends were made and betrayed. The accounts of the massacres will make your blood run cold. The injustices and maltreatment of survivors will make your blood boil.
Perhaps you’ve read nothing but you’ve seen films that give you some idea of the tragedy and betrayal. Dances With Wolves is one such film. For once the cinema had managed to capture something of what we had read in the history books.
We reservations about our reservations
So you might think that with the Indian Wars receding into history and Native Americans taking their place in American society, politics, business, and culture all is well.
Except it isn’t. In fact, the brutal treatment didn’t end with Wounded Knee.
Once the tribes were defeated militarily they were confined to reservations on what was then regarded as worthless land. The intention was to to provide them with the means to survive but suppliers and middle men ripped them off.
Their remaining children were forced through a schooling system designed to turn them into Americans. They were beaten for speaking their own languages. Their culture, stories, and prayers were forbidden.
Despite all of this the tribes and their cultures endured and survived, though not without many casualties along the way. Alcoholism and suicide on reservations is all too common.
Dakota Access Pipeline
Once again American politics and business is riding roughshod over the Native Americans. The Dakota Access Pipeline is being driven like a lance through the heart of the land. With comes a high risk of pollution through leaks and spills into the water supply.
They are driving bulldozers through ancient and sacred tribal burial grounds. Can you imagine the outcry if they did that through Arlington Cemetery?
Those who protest are being treated like criminals and private security firms are setting their dogs on them.
However, this outrage has had an unexpected effect. it has united the tribes of the USA in a way that hasn’t been seen for centuries. They are coming from all over the USA and beyond to show their support.
Social media has spread the message far and wide, and the world is watching. Video footage of the protest and the reaction of those paid to guard the construction sites is there for all to see.
Supporters of the pipeline are well funded. They are exploiting social media to spread their message too. They have pointed out that the intended route of the pipeline doesn’t actually traverse any Indian reservations. Thus they demonstrate their failure to understand how all things are connected.
From an ecological point of view what is over there is connected to what is here. Fences and lines on a map don’t mean a thing.
Leader of the Free World
On the one hand this this may seem like yet another example of the US government looking the other way while the Indians are abused by a powerful corporation.
But it’s much more than that and it has rallied tribal people and others from all over the USA and beyond. There is no political agenda. All people want to do is safeguard their access to clean water.
When I hear the President of the United States referred to as the ‘Leader of the free world’ I can’t help but wonder, “Free from what? Free for whom?”
Would it be too much to ask that the USA sets an example to the rest of the world?
Give the tribes a break. Demonstrate to the watching world that you can live up to the principles and ideals that you boast are your bedrock.