Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Morning Thanks--Waziyatawin

Every last Native American tribe has their own tale of woe.  What's indisputable in the history of this nation is that when the White folks came--from west to east, from Plymouth Plantation to Sutter's Mill--Red people lost their culture, their homelands, their lives, by the thousands.  No one can argue that.  No one.

It's impossible and even demeaning to compare the extent of suffering two people or peoples go through?  If a family loses two children to war, is their loss deeper than the family who loses only one?  When the colonists came, who suffered worse--the Mohawks, the Seminoles, or the Ojibwa?  Such questions are impossibly insensitive.

Nevertheless, I think the Dakota people of Minnesota can make a case for what they lost.  In 1862, nearly 150 years ago, they decided to rid themselves of the White people who were systematically taking their river valley land.  They went, as White folks like to say, "on the warpath," leaving hundreds of Minnesota pioneers dead in a month-long rampage that was a bloody horror. 

When finally the colonist's militia prevailed, White folks became the savages, sentencing 300+ Dakota warriors to hang.  President Lincoln intervened and amended the list so that on December 26, 1862, only thirty-some hung in what is still the largest mass execution in American history.  Hundreds of other Dakota--men, women, and children--were marched off to camps where that winter they suffered starvation and death.  Many died.  Most of those who survived were "resettled" in reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota. 

What horrors the Dakota perpetuated on Minnesota pioneer families--and what they did was awful--has to be understood as an attempt to wrest back their homeland and their way of life from the hundreds of white settlers streaming into the Minnesota River valley they called home.

Waziyatawin, a Dakota scholar who uses her Dakota name, calls what happened "colonization, ethnic cleansing, and genocide."  Furthermore, by using the United Nations' own definitions of those words, she creates a powerful case in a book I just read, What Does Justice Look Like?  The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland.  Her people, the Dakota people, suffered everything she claims they did.

But, given all of that, what does justice look like?  Waziyatawin, who has a doctorate in history from Cornell University, frequently alludes to the story of European Jews, who were given a homeland in Palestine and encouraged to immigrate from all over Europe and Asia.  She thinks the Dakota in diaspora, wherever they are, should also be given a homeland, a place for them to return to their own culture in Minnesota's vast government lands.

I don't know of many arguments that seem so strong, so understandable, so convincing, yet so entirely implausible, even impossible--for many reasons, the first of which, of course, is the vehement reluctance of White people to understand the story of their own immigrant past from the vantage point of the aboriginals they displaced and destroyed.  One of the most incredible lessons I had to learn about Native boarding schools was that frequently in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the kind of cultural genocide created by boarding schools was the only option forwarded by the American government to plain and simple elimination.  "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" wasn't something uttered by some red neck gunslinger; it was frequently the view of political leaders.  "Kill the savage, save the man" was how liberals put their desire for boarding schools.  Cut their hair, put them in skirts and white shirts, and forbid them use of their language:  teach them to be white. 

Honestly, it was either that or extermination, another word for genocide; and lots and lots and lots of White folks would have preferred the latter.

Years ago, I heard a Lakota Christian preacher talk about doing something, somehow, about America's "original sin."  I'm a Calvinist.  I had to chuckle a bit as his use of the term because what he meant was that American's "original sin" was what had been done to his Native people.  America was in decline, he said--abortion, gay marriage, the whole litany of woes--because it hadn't come to grips with its own "original sin."  Until it did--until it recognized what it did to Native peoples--the country couldn't be blessed.

For the life of me, I don't know how to do that, how to practice truth and reconciliation, how to acknowledge the suffering White people perpetuated on Native Americans.  I loved What Does Justice Look Like? but I can't help but think that she's playing some kind of mournful melody no one will ever hear.  It's impossible for me to think of a Dakota "homeland" in the forest lands of Minnesota, a place reserved for the Dakota to try to retrace their own cultural roots and rituals.  It just won't happen.  For a lot of reasons.

So White folks will just go on calling their world Sioux Center and Sioux County and Siouxland, when there isn't a trace of Sioux culture within miles.  Maybe we ought to tag the area "Whiteland" instead of Siouxland. 

Now there's a thought.

Still, this morning's thanks are for a book that made me think, deeply, about what justice really means.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In all of this, you have to take into consideration what the church
imposed on the indigenous people through the "Document of Discovery of 1493" Not only on the indigenous but onj all of God's creation. Also note how the Episcopalians took steps towards reconciliation by repudiating the contents of this document and called upon Queen Elizabeth to do like wise.