Imagine being out in a blizzard in subzero cold, without modern insulated or padded clothes. A group of riders on horseback completes a ride to Wounded Knee across the Dakota plains every year to commemorate a tragedy.
We should all remember.
Why? One might ask. Dec. 29, 1890 was a long time ago and doesn’t usually rate much of a mention in history class.
On this day, 500 troops of the 7th Cavalry, who had lost the famous battle of Little Bighorn to relatives of these people, were there to see to it that the last of the free Indians of the plains territory gave up their weapons and entered into life on the reservation. One of the tribal group, who happened to be deaf, seemed to ignore an order to lay down his rifle. The soldiers panicked, then opened fire. They had four wagons mounted with a predecessor to the machine gun (Hotchkiss guns) in addition to rifles and pistols. Since the firing was essentially into a circle, the casualties on the cavalry side were more than likely friendly fire. 200 men, women and children were killed on the spot, and an unknown number of the estimated 150 who fled the scene on foot froze to death.
The massacre followed a series of massacres in a holocaust. Maybe it should be called Wounded Heart, because it ought to be a matter for the heart for all of America.
The history most people know is a recounting of the military events of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries that are most widely described and talked about. Usually the recounting beefs up the justification for organized military units attacking unorganized ordinary people.
The basic reason for remembering is to learn lessons, so as to produce wiser future ways of dealing with other human groups outside our immediate understanding.
The Middle East comes to mind as a place to contemplate how to apply such lessons, but Latin America also should be in mind as well.
A common element is a tendency to see browner skinned racial or ethnic groups, particularly if they have a religious tradition that is outside Christian experience, as strange and to become very paranoid about them. It isn’t all religion that causes people to behave this way, it is specifically the Christian religion that does, because it has as its core, a belief that other people are inferior and should be brought to heel. Nowhere does this get stated in the Bible. It is a consequence of a history particular to Europe in which religion became a tool for building and maintaining state power. The rise of the state was made possible by efforts to separate people from a tribal system based on families and extended family communities that were maintained through a spiritual relationship with the earth, with local nature and local place. Breaking this system had to happen before people could be citizens of a state and units of economic productivity instead of self sufficient. This was not done through persuasion, but through pain.
Demonization was a powerful political tool, still used today. To call someone a “witch” was initially no real insult. However, after a lot of women had been horribly tortured and burned at the stake, the term, along with other terms such as “heathen” became terrorizing at the mere mention. Still are, hundreds of years later.
The word, “heathen” originally referred to someone who lived in the country, out in the heath. Out in the country, people were generally less interested in the going thing, so they had to be persuaded through terror to go along.
This terrorism of the state became cultural and normal. European citizens began to be systematically uprooted from village communities and the life they had become accustomed to as peasants under the feudal system in the 1600s. A prime motivation was land and money. The prior Neolithic order, which was similar to that of Native American tribal groups, and which the Christian state builders had broken, was primarily focused on the principle that the strong should serve the weak and the wealth of the community shared among its members. The new ethic was that the strong could exploit the weak and become enriched and empowered above others in the process. The feudal village was a step in the evolution of modern economics.
The baronial estate had a population of peasants who worked the land and lived in the feudal village composed of extended family relationships. The focus of the Neolithic ethic was the estate instead of the tribe. The estate provided for those who lived there in exchange for the military service of the men.
At some point, the aristocracy realized that greater wealth could be achieved by getting rid of a lot of peasants and putting a more businesslike management of the land in place. To do this, laws were changed, debt was made a crime and people were hanged or sent to Australia and America by courts set up to administer this process of liquidating the population.
So, when Europeans got to America they had been indoctrinated in a hatred for non-Christian Others, and especially for people living as their ancestors had. Since the truth of history was unavailable to them, there was a mixture of beliefs and experience that were acted on. Some remembered that it was the aristocrats who had set them up for betrayal and supported a more democratic form of social organization. Some made friends with the Indians, others fought them.
But right from the start, the momentum of Christianizing as a process of political aggression towards others seen as wrong, as “heathen” created a justification for extreme prejudice and the use of deadly force, particularly in the taking of land and enlarging state power and wealth.
This interpretation of history can be found in a book called, “Exiled in America” edited by Oren Lyons and several other Native American students of history. The attempt results from a study to understand what happened back there in the past that has led us to today.
The Haudenoshaunee people, aka the Iroquois Confederacy (straddles the New York/Canada border), has maintained a civil government for some 600 years and in some respects, formed a model for the Founders who incorporated principles of the confederacy into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
There is some scholarship on this as well, even though it has largely been suppressed by the academic profession, especially historians.
It is my belief that America will never come to its full potential until it comes to terms with the meaning of its indigenous heritage.
To me, when I look at Vietnam and Iraq, I see ongoing tragedy with roots in the holocaust of Indigenous America and prior European history. We are now becoming a truly multicultural society, due to many waves of immigration that began really with the first peoples.
In looking around in towns on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona like Kayenta or Ganado or Chinle, places where the majority population is Dine', you can see how history could have been different. It could have been a large exodus of people coming over from Asia centuries ago that created the larger population of the US instead of Europe. One could review the reasons why it happened the way it did and conclude, “No way!” but given ten thousand years of time, there really is no reason why it couldn’t have happened. A thousand or more years in the future and the prospect is that the human race would have mixed quite a bit more because of the increased general mobility.
So this whole history of nursing some sort of grievance against Others simply because they have a different religion or they look different should be seen for what it is: a long chapter in human evolution that we should study in order to become wiser and to find a way to transcend outmoded models for organizing ourselves in societies.
We ought to perhaps look into the religious practices of indigenous peoples (those of America and those of Europe and other places around the world) and see a wisdom there about the earth as a living wholeism in which every thing in creation, including the planet itself is alive and deserves respect as interrelated. The Lakota practice on entering a sweat lodge is to honor this by saying, “Mitakuye Oyasin,”
meaning “all my relations.” Literally this observes the interrelatedness of all people, all flora and fauna, unseen spirits and the earth itself as a living being. This wholeism is a healing opposite of the fear of the Other and need for greed represented by the barking of the Hotchkiss guns, echoing into cold air.
Personally, I will light some sage and maybe some tobacco and contemplate this in the light of where we are, on the verge of a new year, with the upcoming inauguration of a multicultural president. May we all walk in beauty.