When it comes to reparations for marginalized groups, perhaps Americans have been in debt with Indigenous peoples the longest. It has been over 500 years since Christopher Columbus first reached America, claiming it for his own country — and later, race — from the Native peoples living there prior. It has been over 500 years of segregation, genocide, and abuse. And it is no secret that our society continues to marginalize these people, including us liberals who only hear out Indigenous peoples when Columbus Day rolls around each year. Even then, there is a serious lack of attention to Native populations as American citizens, and I think recognizing their rights, voices, and struggles as such will be the first step to moving forward and making amends.
When we learn about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, we act as though the white men are alone on the continent away from the Eastern Hemisphere of our world. We never consider the enslaved peoples. We never consider the masses of Native peoples, despite that according to Claudio Vaunt in “The Invasion of America,” even “as late as 1750… fully 250 years after Europeans first set foot in the continent – they constituted a majority of the population in North America, a fact not adequately reflected in textbooks.” Amidst our tales of freedom, we were rapidly confining Indigenous Americans to small corners of the world, focusing on European interactions and wars, but very little on the presence of Native individuals. This is erasure.
Vaunt continues to describe the abuse of power by white Americans when writing that “both Congress and the president can create reservations and take them away,” and that they have used this unjustified power extensively. Vaunt informs us that “In July 1864, for example, President Abraham Lincoln created a reservation within present-day Washington state for the Chehalis people, reducing their once extensive homeland of 5,000,000 acres” to a total of “about 4,000 acres.” The fact that a single man had the ability to displace and rob a whole population is astounding. The fact that there have been no repercussions for these perpetrators, both from back then and in present-day, is astounding. And the fact that there has been no attempt to atone or compensate significant enough for the magnitude that was those 5,000,000 acres is inexcusable and unforgivable.
This issue of land has been something I have barely been conscious of. Consciously I knew that we, as non-Indigenous peoples, were on their land, and that we had to acknowledge that privilege. However, I supposed I’d always thought of these crimes as belonging to the white man. After all, my ancestors weren’t here when they took land from Indigenous peoples. It was Vaunt’s words that “Acre by acre, the dispossession of native peoples made the US a transcontinental power” and that “it is high time for non-Native Americans to come to terms with the fact that the US is built on someone else’s land.” These resonated with me because all the resources I benefit from, all the wealth of America, came from the very earth of Indigenous people. I didn’t think of myself as an individual as too relevant to Native Americans, mostly just my community, but it’s become more personal to me as I realize that my house is on Indigenous land. I walk my dog on Indigenous land. It dawned on me that I’d never gotten permission to do these things from the people who actually matter, so the burden of understanding the experience of Native Americans is also my own. I think that’s also the first step to confronting our history and making amends — recognizing in our hearts what we have gained through others’ loss.
When we examine the discrimination and atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples now, I think perhaps the forced sterilization of women is one of the most overlooked. It’s horrifying to discover that this is a practice that has gone on since the 1960s, that according to Erin Blackmore in “The Little-Known History of the Forced Sterilization of Native American Women,” these procedures were “thought to have been performed on one out of every four Native American women at the time, against their knowledge or consent.” I think ‘sterilization’ is a very clinical term, but Blackmore illustrated it how it was — women could go to the hospital to have their tonsils removed and instead receive tubal litigations, they could have their actual uterus completely removed against their will. We might hear of the sterilization of women and not fully comprehend the depth of the violations of these women. What is more, we see that these acts are committed from racist beliefs, that the Indian Health Service doctors thought that women of color didn’t have the “intelligence to use other methods of birth control effectively” and that there “were already too many minority individuals causing problems in the nation.” In class, we have seen that many acts of the United States were paralleled with the atrocities in Nazi Germany, but this action of “solving” the problem — which minorities were blamed as — aligns in my mind as such a fascist technique which I didn’t know existed for this country at that time.
In addition, we overlook the depth in the horror that is “thousands of Indigenous women who’d gone unrecognized, ignored, and unprotected,” according to Carolyn Smith-Morris in “Addressing the Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.” It is frightening to see how little our government and our society cares for the wellbeing of women of color. Smith-Morris continues with the point that due to small populations and scattered land, the Indigenous population is spread out, and that “this too makes Indigenous women invisible, their vulnerability unrecognized.” I think in order to address these crimes committed against Indigenous women, and the larger population, is to make sure they are not invisible. In our allyship, Americans must recognize these violations and abuses as ones happening in their own community, instead of seeing Native Americans as separate. The next time there is a pipeline or an abduction — because the awful truth is that there will be — we need to bear injustices against Indigenous peoples as grave injustices committed against Americans. I think passing laws is one part of this, since many laws ensuring the protection of Indigenous peoples have not been prioritized. For instance, Smith-Morris writes that Savannah’s Act (targeting DOJ/Tribal coordination in addressing data gaps) was shot down by the Senate. We must ensure that as allies, we make it known to our legislators that we care about legal protections for Indigenous peoples.
Another part of this is stopping the appropriation and stereotyping of Native Americans — whether on food labels or sports teams, we need to stop using the culture of people we tried to force to assimilate, and we need to treat their misappropriations with as much indignation and gravity as we would with those of our own cultures. I think many people treat these appropriations lightly because they are not educated enough on the true magnitude of brutality committed against Native Americans. As Vaunt put it, “A history that glosses over the conquest of the continent… misleads people about the past and misinforms their debates about the present.” The issue comes in with Trump, who opposes any talk of a standardized curriculum about racism in the United States. Ezra Rosser, in “Trump and the Native American vote,” exposes Trump’s detrimental influence, writing that “Trump’s proclamation is an effort to put history back in the bottle” and to lie to ourselves about our past. This is so dangerous, considering our past provides context for everything in our present. In the end, I want to do exactly what it is that Trump warns his followers about, to “replace discussion of [Columbus’] vast contributions with talk of failings.” I think it is a further disservice to Indigenous peoples by not acknowledging their history, and in order to address that Native Americans were harmed and massacred, we have to accept and proclaim the sins of colonialists as such. We can’t hide behind comfortable stereotypes or “twistory," we have to teach our up and coming generations the words, the cultures, the history from the voices of Native peoples instead of biased textbooks, something we’ve been denying for so long.
As our world turns more to capitalism and urbanization, to profit and exploitation, to harming of others instead of conversation, we need to remember where our country has come from. We need to remember that we are all the invaders in a land that was cared for by the people we drove out and killed. We need to remember that our country will never move towards equity if we keep its earliest residents invisible and voiceless. Unless we create legal and social structures that allow Indigenous peoples to flourish, we dig ourselves further into debt.