Students in U.S. classrooms should be familiar with two important Native American-related events in U.S. history that occurred just eight years apart.
Regrettably, they are not. Clearly, the omission is due to pervasive negative U.S. government policies and long-standing indifference by mainstream U.S. society toward Native (First) Americans.
To prove the point, let’s begin with a fact that is generally overlooked in mainstream U.S. history: The U.S. owes its very existence to Native Americans.
For example, when the Founding Fathers were searching for models to follow in organizing the colonies, they didn’t have to go far. That’s because they observed, consulted with, and then borrowed the colonies’ organizational arrangement from the Iroquois League, a federation of diverse indigenous tribes living together in harmony.
Serving as a conflict resolution idea, the Iroquois hosted a gathering of fellow elders from associated tribes. It was a unique alliance ahead of its time. Ultimately, they agreed to unite and coexist with each other in peace.
Said another way, the government style we were all taught to cherish starting in elementary school did not originate in Europe. It has Native American roots. Hard to believe, but it is true!
The first important historical happening mentioned in the opening paragraph was in 1972. Called “The Trail of Broken Treaties,” a caravan of motor vehicles travelled from the West Coast to Washington, D.C. It was a collaborative pilgrimage by Pan American Native American groups and supporters. Their ultimate goal?
Seeking sovereignty of the Indian Nations, among other solemn objectives, they sought to bring national attention to a Twenty-Point Position Paper recording major issues involving the U.S. government. Chief among their complaints was the U.S. habitual pattern of deception in breaking treaties.
Other equally earnest positions included (l) their request to reclaim ancestral lands; (2) the dismantling of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), asking that the BIA be replaced by an unbiased department that would include Native American policy makers; and (3) addressed steps to improve health, well-being, and inadequate housing in Indian Reservations, a horrid system of confinement forced upon them by the U.S.
Although the impressive group was the largest Native American gathering in Washington, D.C., President Nixon refused to meet with the movement leaders and accept their grievances. In the end, the group departed the capital empty-handed, with low-level subordinates promising to hold more treaty negotiations in the future.
The second occurrence (and the basis of this paper) is the July 23, 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case entitled “U.S. versus The Sioux Nation of Indians.” Specifically, the court declared that the U.S. government had no right to take the Black Hills in 1876. The decision favored the Sioux, who have always affirmed that position.
Known to the Sioux as Pahá Sápa), the land had been awarded to the Sioux in perpetuity per the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The ruling also meant that the Sioux Nation was correct to defend their land at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Interestingly, the 1980 ruling set a dollar value to the damage done by the U.S. However, the Sioux refused the money. (As of today, the account is over one billion dollars.) The Sioux Nation still wants the return of their sacred Black Hills. Now for some background of the case.
The Fort Laramie Treaty is a perfect example of how easy the U.S. government violated their oath and robbed Native Americans of their land. Importantly, the Black Hills’ most prominent feature, Six Grandfathers Mountain (Tunkasila Sakpe), holds deep and spiritual meaning to generations of the area’s Native Americans.
Unfortunately, shortly after the treaty was signed, gold was found in the Black Hills. Soon, a gold rush of aggressive white miners openly violated Native Americans’ rights to the territory. Worse, land speculators received congressional approval to develop the area, encouraging land sales for white settlements in what a short time before had been a Native American homeland.
Still, the Sioux weren’t about to cede any of their land to white encroachment. Under the sage leadership of Sitting Bull, they fought back. On June 25-26, 1876, they stood their ground against the trespassing U.S. 7th Cavalry (led by George Armstrong Custer), and won!
Albeit, the victorious Sioux celebration was short-lived. The main elements of the Sioux force soon dispersed. Sitting Bull and about 200 of his people rode north to Canada.
Equally, the U.S. government sent additional soldiers to the region. The result? Sitting Bull remained in Canada for about four seasons. However, facing famine, he returned to the U.S. and was forced to move to the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. He was living there quietly when reservation officials arrived at his home to move him to another location. A fight ensued and he was killed on December 15, 1890, (128 years ago next month),
What happened next proves that sometimes “adding insult to injury” is done deliberately. As if losing the Black Hills wasn’t enough, the Sioux designation of Six Grandfathers Mountain was ignored. Disrespectfully, it was renamed Mount Rushmore, after a New York City lawyer, Charles E. Rushmore.
Sadder still, the sculptor picked to create Mount Rushmore was a well-known white supremacist who openly took pride in his disdain for other races.
Discarding earlier versions for the monument, the giant faces of four U.S. presidents we see today was approved. In short, the sculpture sent two unmistakable messages: (l) it was a reminder that sacred Six Grandfathers Mountain and the Black Hills no longer belonged to the Sioux, and (2) henceforth, Mount Rushmore became a symbolic Crown of Empire, capping the seizure of Native American land by European white immigrants from the east coast to the west coast.
In fairness, another Black Hills monument located about 17 miles from Mount Rushmore features a likeness of Crazy Horse, the 19th century Oglala Lakota leader. Approved by Native American elders, the still incomplete statue was begun in 1948 by Polish American Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who also designed the memorial.
Yet, a question still remains. Why does today’s conventional U.S. society hold such a low level of respect toward Native Americans? It may be that many mainstream white citizens are unaware of their ancestors’ aggressive acquisition of Native American lands.
As a U.S. citizen with both European and Native American (Mexican) lineages, I believe strongly that every chisel mark on Mount Rushmore represents an indignity against the Sioux.
In hind sight, little did Native Americans know that by receiving the strangers (white immigrants from Europe), they were setting in motion a process that dispossessed them of their land from sea to shining sea.
In summary, there’s no better time to do restore dignity and respect toward Native Americans than this month’s Thanksgiving Day. Long seen mainly through Anglo Saxon awareness, it’s time to appreciate this observance from a Native American point of view.
Lastly, Oglala Lakota Red Cloud put the Native Americans’ plight in proper perspective: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one. They promised to take our land and they took it.”