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Education About Indians Reaches far Beyond School
on October 21, 2014
Indeed it was heartbreaking; I thought I had been given quite a detailed, liberal, truthful education about the late 1800's in America in a great high school (I was lucky enough to live in a tiny Chicago suburb which got included with several large wealthy towns). I know I got even more detail and some broader facts (WHY were so many millions pouring into North America from Europe just then, putting so much pressure on the federal government, and then on the American Indians?). I even got to know a number of Indians during my first job , right out of Law School, in a small 2- lawyer firm, because my boss was determined not to let any Indian (most of them near our city were Menominiee or Oneida) go without legal representation when charged with a crime, and many of them were "working poor," just a hair over the "poverty line" for Public Defender (state-paid) attorneys. He never charged them anything for his or my work, and if the charge was a felony which occurred on their reservation, it was automatically a federal crime and handled in U.S. District Trial Court. That meant traveling three hour each way to Milwaukee for each court hearing. We talked a lot, about old times, their parents, grandparents, ancestors from before white settlers arrived in Wisconsin - stories were handed down for decades, often with sketches on skins, since the 1600's. This was a real eye-opener to me; I couldn't understand how they could be so polite to us whites. One man who was Tribal Court Judge (for non-felony crimes on the res.) laughed when I said that and said "Honey, we don't have any other choice."
Then, last week, I read "Bury My Heart..." I thought I had read the worst stuff, but I had not; in this beutifully-researched book, I read of the most inexcusable atrocities, read of the repeated land-grabs and treaty-breaking moves whenever gold, silver, water, or simply more land was desired. I knew that horrible things happened because there was no respect for the signed government contracts (treaties) or the general ethics and morals in the treatment of the millions of mostly-peaceable people who whose sole "crime" was to be here in North America first. I never knew, however, how direct the President and many Generals, such as Sheridan and then Sherman (he of the notorious and unnecessary "March to the Sea" near the end of the Civil War), constantly set up roadblocks to decent land even when tribes or sub-groups of tribes were willing to sign treaties and go to a reservation - Sherman often demanded death for chiefs as well as capitulation of all of the people under them. The famous "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" has been attributed to Gen. Sherman, as well. Brown's research brought me more surprises, in that I learned that President Grant was far more reasonable and even sympathetic to the Plains Indians than his generals, and he countermanded many orders resulting in saving the lives of well-loved Chiefs. Grant wisely appreciated that working with the chiefs would save lives, and pain of many kinds. (By the time Grant was Pres., most of the eastern and midwestern tribes had been subdued and driven onto reservations, fled to Canada, or were killed by European diseases or bullets).
The most shocking passages in this book need not be reviewed here; they are many, far more than I had ever imagined. At the slightest provocation, whole villages ( women, children, even unborn babies) were slaughtered while the adult male warriors were ready to do battle at a specific place arranged for, or at least well known by, the American troops, sometimes with paid enemy Indian agents' help. It was common, when the men came back to their village to see the horrors done to their families, for the soldiers to surround them and attack again, either to slaughter once more or take the Indians as prized slave-prisoners. Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, both named for peaceful little streams where Indians liked to set up camp, were two sites of such slaughter, and they are certainly not the only ones where any American Indian would want to bury his or her heart. What a book. Just the photographs are hauntingly beautiful. Every white American should read it. The problem is, the ones who need the education it offers the most would never, ever, read it. Too bad...