The March 1, 2007, New York Times article on the death of one of America's most respected and influential historians and advisor to presidents Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. states "He also admitted his mistakes. One, he said, was neglecting to mention President Jackson's brutal treatment of the Indians in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Age of Jackson." which he published at the age of 27. Andrew Jackson, the architect and driving force behind the Removal Act of 1830 and its devastating legacy for American Indians for going on 200 years. What might prompt Mr. Schlesinger to express this remorse in his latter days? I propose that as a historian his life-long learning made him more familiar and understanding of the violence and injustices of removal and their lasting consequences for American Indians, and also perhaps his awareness of the denial and white-washing by American's intellectual establishments of historical facts and legacy of removal.
The timing of this removal/relocation discussion is great for me and for the graduate library school students I will be lecturing to this week on the issues of American Indians and libraries - I will include this exchange as an example of the institutionalized bigotry that still permeates American institutions when it comes to American Indians and our history.
In my graduate work in American Indian Studies History and Law, which included research at the National Archives, Library of Congress, and Department of Interior Library, nowhere did any respected government or historical authority on American Indians equate "relocation" with "removal". The Removal Act of 1830 is a cornerstone of U.S. history that influenced the development of the Civil War, and paved the way for "westward expansion" and "manifest destiny" all of which devastated American Indian life across the nation. "Relocation" on the other hand is a specific government program under 1953's Public Law 280 that promoted American Indians to move from their reservations to cities. By 1953 over a century of damage originating in Removal had already been inflicted upon tribes - a history that is the source of volumes of materials in federal Indian law. Relocation on the other hand is more accurately described as a historical consequence of Removal and other major pieces of federal legislation. To claim that the term "relocation" trumps "removal" is parallel to saying that a baby predates its parents – this makes no sense whatsoever – especially when volumes of federal Indian law materials on the subject of removal prove otherwise.
The Library of Congress' Weiss wrote that "relocation" "…is more suitable as a subdivision that may be used across the board under all ethnic groups". Exactly what does this mean? Does this mean other "historic events" the effected other "ethnic groups" are to be termed "relocations"? The American slave-trade? The internment of Japanese-Americans in prison camps? Are these "relocations" as well? The U.S. Constitution defines American Indians first as citizens of their tribal governments, not as "racial minorities" nor as an "ethnic group". This definition is upheld in modern acts of Congress and U.S. Supreme Court decisions – American Indians are not an "ethnic group" by any legal definition and to claim otherwise is to ignore the current U.S. law.
My response to Mr. Weiss' explanation is that the Library of Congress' response regarding "removal" vs. "relocation" is simply a contemporary example of institutionalized bigotry towards American Indians.
A fundamental aspect of bigotry is the avoidance or denial of telling the complete story - the failure to give full credence to opposing viewpoints that conflict with the "established" view – in this instance the "authoritative" opinion and declaration of the Library of Congress – thought by most to be the American institution which serves as this nation's foremost purveyor of reason, truth, and enlightenment.
All American Indians and those who know our history know that since 1776 Native viewpoints have been trivialized, minimized, outlawed, fictionalized, silenced, white-washed - many forms of distortion, inaccuracy, erasure - that serves the need/bigotry/agenda of the dominant culture and its institutions, in this case the Library of Congress.
As one who works for a large bureaucracy I understand how decisions must be filtered through a bureaucratic hierarchical process of committees, task forces, departments, sections, et al. I understand a bureaucracy's carefully constructed decisions are "intended" towards a "generic" "common good". But what "good" is served if a decision is less than the full truth and only serves to promote more ignorance?
Every person educated in America has a basic understanding of the historical injustices done against American Indians by the U.S. government. It is unfortunate that a major institution in this day, that is in the position to help influence the education and enlightenment of so many, that should be the model to promote knowledge in its fullest sense, chooses to continue to whitewash basic historical facts, and thereby further promote ignorance and all that comes with ignorance.
The Removal Act of 1830 was not simply a physical relocation of groups of people from one geographic location to another – it decimated the traditions and cultures of ancient communities and unleashed forces that resulted in rape, murder, shattered lives, and the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Although the Cherokee and the "Trail of Tears" is perhaps the most well known example, removal set in motion a process that set the stage for the near extinction of an entire race of people. It set the example for the near extermination of American Indians by white American soldiers and citizens across the United States. In California the American Indian population dropped from an estimated 300,000 in 1850 to 15,000 by 1900 over a 95% drop. 95%! My own tribe, the Winnebago, was "relocated" five separate times over a 30 year period, the last forced march from South Dakota to Nebraska in 1862. In today's terms that journey is simply a half day drive by automobile. But then, in the dead of winter, of the total of approximately 1,400 tribal members that started the journey, 800 survived, a 43% loss of the tribe's population. 43%! Removal precipitated and justified in the eyes of the American government and American citizens hundreds of other such removals of tribes across the U.S. In those days the U.S. government's methods often simply involved announcing to the tribal members that they had to move sometimes the next day and pack what they could. These methods were not subject to appeal or discussion. Even the protests of non-Indian missionaries and friends could not stop these methods. Is this not precisely how the Nazi's treated Jews and other peoples it deemed "sub-human"? For the sake of comparison what if this were done to a white population; what if an act of legislation produced the death of 43% --95% of the population of England, or Sweden, or Massachusetts, or Virginia, or Baltimore, or Minneapolis. Would the legislation and its historical consequences that produced the near decimation of entire groups of human beings be termed simply a "relocation"? Well, according to the Library of Congress' decision to subordinate "removal" to a more benign "relocation", apparently so.
"Relocation to the east" was the term used by Adolph Hitler at the beginning stages of his "final solution" in dealing with the Jews and other "undesirables", first in Germany, then all of Europe, and in the world if Hitler had won. "Relocation" - simply a geographic move of a group of people – sounds benign enough. Hitler knew EXACTLY what he intended for Jews, he doesn't disguise it in Mein Kampf. But at the early stage of his dictatorship why did he choose to use the word "relocation"? Could it be that even Germany's idolized leader knew that plainly stating extermination might alarm even some of his most ardent supporters. The extreme connotations of "extermination" even in Nazi Germany would probably have resulted in Hitler losing public support. "Relocation to the east" became the public relations term used to smooth over what Hitler and his intimates knew would be the start of "the final solution" – extermination of all peoples deemed unfit to live by a Godly "superior race". Only because Hitler lost the war does the world know today of the butchery and savagery perpetrated as part of Hitler's "final solution", and how the German people knew but "looked the other way" as extermination unfolded. Today Hitler's "relocation" is known world-wide by what it was in fact - extermination - a holocaust. But we know this only because Hitler lost that war and the Allies made the surviving German people publicly accountable for that which they first denied they had permitted to happen - directly and indirectly. Germany was made accountable for the holocaust in its history books and in compensation to its innocent victims. But history is written by the victors. Had Hitler won, there might be a historical footnote in textbooks about how Jews once lived in Germany but were "relocated to the east" where they apparently lived happily ever after. "Relocation" pointing the way to another shining historical episode in world history planned and carried out by the "superior race" in the name of Godly righteousness for the ultimate good of all humankind (worthy of existing). But in America the "superior race" did not lose but won the war, and so American Indians have become the recipients of "relocation" in American history books thanks in part to the educational standards promoted by America's intellectual standard bearer institutions such as the Library of Congress.
According to LC then, what exactly is the difference between "removal" and "relocation"? Holocaust? Genocide? Is it a matter of numbers? Or percentages? Political influence? I proposed that the reasons are found in institutional bigotry. Institutional bigotry is most insidious because it stands behind its "position" and "authority" to deflect any questioning of its mandates. Its' mandates become repetitions of "desired conditioned responses" much like Pavlov's dog to educate or conversely to marginalize, alleviate or destroy any viewpoints or facts that contradict its mandates. Institutional bigotry serves not only to protect the institution's authority but works to render invisible any issues or facts that might challenge that authority. But what exactly does institutional bigotry protect?
To answer that question we first we need to analyze bigotry in detail. Bigotry is manifested in many forms from blatant to so subtle it could almost evade detection. When it comes to American Indians we are all quite familiar with the more blatant variety such as mascots and stereotypes depicted in every type of pop culture media and in education, but it is the subtle manifestations perpetrated by Americas lofty intellectual and educational institutions that need to be scrutinized in detail to truly understand it. Bigotry can be dissected in layers outward to the core – 5. Bigotry statement, 4. intellectual justification, 3. denial / rationalization of any questioning of the justification, 2. the belief system in operation, and 1. the foundational core – the raw emotions that form the belief system. The first four outer layers are intellectual constructs but the foundation is raw emotion and in the case of bigotry it is fear. Unaddressed fear justifies faulty belief systems, all forms of rationalization, and the final bigotry statement – public or private. Fear of what? I propose that it is fear of the whole truth, all the facts, unfiltered, uncensored, not whitewashed. This includes fear of being fully accountable for one's part in that truth, in those facts, and any cover-ups.
The steps of examining bigotry are simple - it is in owning our innermost private thoughts and the feelings underneath them that is difficult because humans seldom choose to deal with their core emotions such as fear until they are absolutely forced to. On a personal level we often use "wishful thinking" and "good intentions" to deal with them, while at institutional levels we rely on social constructs such as legal mandates, or "political correctness", or some other form of publicly acceptable rationalization to avoid looking at the fundamental core of a decision or action.
LC's decision to use the white-washed term "relocation" is simply a current example of American institutionalized bigotry. Such decisions demonstrate the same bigotry that is found in the beer joint and sports arena. I will venture a rough description of what raw American bigotry towards American Indians is: "What you think really doesn't matter (lucky for you the law forces us to think about you at all). We are in control, we won. Our agenda, our mission, our ways of looking the world are the only ones that matter. And besides we all know at heart you still remain nothing but ignorance savages who should be grateful that you have been allowed to bask in our presence these last 500 years. You should be grateful we allow you to have any place in the scheme of things whatsoever. So get out of my hair and go do a rain dance or something. We'll call you when we want to hear from you."
I claim that this bigotry is simply the cover for America's shared fears and that America institutions work to alleviate these fears lest America has to look squarely at them and own and be accountable for them according to the Judeo-Christian morality American purports to stand for. I believe that the core of American bigotry are fears such as "what if we are wrong, about everything, everything we've taught, and preached, our history, our goals, everything we have ever stood for". "What if America is not "the real thing" it claims to be that it preaches to the world." "What if everything we stand for is fraud - starting with our history."
Rationalizations and justifications come in many forms. Unfortunately most of contemporary America has made itself an addict to whatever the current "fix" is. Why do people become addicts in the first place? Because they know deep inside, where they don't want to look, something is very wrong, and they run from the accountability to see the light of day what exactly is wrong lest they have to own it and be fully accountable for its consequences. On a daily basis American media hypes distractions for looking at the deepest truths about itself – which celeb is in or out of rehab, what politico said what and how do other politicos respond, the latest church corruption scandal, or the next "sports final" or the next "make-over" tip. What a historical legacy America is building! Why does American hunger for these distractions? I propose that it does this to avoid looking at the truths – past and present about itself, and what it claims to stand for. Big oil, gas prices, church leadership scandals, American policy in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan Panama, Chile, Viet Nam, Cuba, the Spanish American War, and all phases of federal Indian policy starting with Removal.
A practical way to take the focus away from any discomforting issue is to change the focus to some thing or someone else. But if that focus somehow brings into questions our bigotry, we color the "other" in ways that will lessen our discomfort, "Relocation" then, certainly not violence and extermination or anything that hints of those as "removal" might. LC's choice to do its part to keep this history as benign as possible is simply an act of bigotry, an act of refocusing attention away from the historical facts with the objective of maintaining the myth of "America the benevolent".
The deeper underlying truth that few Americans are willing to even consider, let alone acknowledge, is that America while claiming Godly Judeo-Christian mission and purpose under the myth of "American the benevolent" justified in any action by Godly "righteousness", has in fact been a lying, thieving, raping, murderer. And all American popular culture and institutions are dedicated to upholding this myth at whatever cost to the truth or the facts.
The facts are that just as in Nazi Germany, the American public – average people - farmers, clerks, laborers, teachers, housewives, ministers grew to know the atrocities that were taking place near their backyards but turned their heads away to not have to face it. The violence and death that accompanied every "relocation" cannot be attributed solely to acts of military overzealousness but were aided and abetted by the local citizenry. When confronted with these facts today Americans are quick to respond in denial "I didn't do it! That was way before I (my family) got here! That's all in the past, what does it have to do with today?" What it has to do with today is that America is standing on land gained by lying, thievery, and murder, on the dust of the bodies America avoids looking at, and that Americans have position, prosperity, security, and power gained by the annihilation of others. Denial of these facts robs America of the possibility of true character building that every nation must come to grips with if it is to become a mature and honorable nation. Professor Robert Jensen at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin is one of the few white academics who write about America's bigotry and its underlying causes in his writings about "white privilege": "A first step for white people, I think, is to not be afraid to admit that we have benefited from white privilege. It doesn't mean we are frauds who have no claim to our success. It means we face a choice about what we do with our success…The obvious difference is that racial categories are invented; they carry privilege or disadvantage only because people with power create and maintain the privilege for themselves at the expense of others. The privilege is rooted in violence and is maintained through that violence as well as more subtle means…The first step for white people is to face that ugliness, to tell the truth about the system we live in and tell the truth about ourselves. But that means nothing if we do not commit to change, not just to change ourselves, but to change the system. We have to face the ways in which white supremacy makes white people foolish but forces others to pay a much greater price." - More thoughts on why the system of white privilege is wrong
"Why should Indians have the right to make the decision over how their name and image are used? Because in the absence of a compelling reason to override that right, a person or group of people should have control over their name and image. That's part of what it means to be a person with full humanity. And in this case, the argument for white people giving Indians that power is intensified by the magnitude of the evil perpetrated by whites on Indians. The past is past, but maybe some of that past also is present. Is white America afraid of looking too much at the past, lest we have to look at the present? Are we afraid of what we might see? What might we learn -- about ourselves? To acknowledge all that is to acknowledge that the American nation is based on genocide, on a crime against humanity. The land of the free and the home of the brave, the nation that was born as the vehicle for a new freedom, rests on the denial not only of freedom, but of life itself, to a whole group of people -- for the crime of getting in the way of what the European invaders wanted for themselves, the land and its resources. The way in which white America refuses to come to terms with its history and the contemporary consequences of that history has material and psychological consequences for Indians (as well as many other groups). But in a very real sense, we cannot steal the dignity and humanity of indigenous people. We can steal their resources, disrespect them, insult them, ignore them, and continue to repress their legitimate aspirations. We can try to distort their own sense of themselves, but in the end we can't take their humanity from them. The only dignity and humanity that is truly diminished by the 'Fighting Sioux' is that of white America." - What the Fighting Sioux can tell us about white people. Bias. Fear and choice. In the bible Matthew 5:24 Jesus Christ said "…if you brother has any claim against you, first be reconciled to your brother…before you come to worship me…" Wow. What a concept! Get clean with your brother - look your brother straight in the eye, hear all that he has to say, honor all his claims, bear the discomfort that will arise, reconcile WITH him based on mutual agreement, not what you think best for him. What a concept, especially since it comes from the source of that American claims as its moral center and reason for being. Why is it that a country that promotes itself as the paragon of Judeo-Christian civilization manages to not see this in its relations with American Indians? Bigotry. Fear. The reality seems to be that in America's eyes, American Indians are not "brothers" at all, but mascots, historical artifacts, historical curiosities…interesting, colorful, even entertaining… relics of by-gone days that America honors on national holidays, bemoaning the loss of American Indians' "harmony with nature" (sigh), their demise the unfortunate unintended by-product in the process of building a Righteous "America the benevolent". But "brothers"? Certainly not. Never were, and as evidenced by the daily practices of Americans and their institutions that deem first to perpetuate the myth of America, never will be. These are choices that require responsibility.
"First be reconciled to your brother…" Jesus Christ.
On the last Saturday in February 1860, the Wiyot completed their weeklong world renewal ceremony at Tuluwat, now Indian Island which is part of the City of Eureka, California, to bring the world back into balance and mark the equivalent of their new year. The massacre on Indian Island was not the first in the region, nor would it be the last. It was part of an accelerated pattern of destruction, beginning with random killings and rapes by miners and ranchers, and including kidnapping and legal slavery of mostly women and children under California's 1850 Indian indenture law. But Indian Island became the most infamous massacre in Northern California probably because of Bret Harte, who before achieving literary fame reported for a newspaper in Arcata. His account of the massacre and his editorial condemning its cruelty made him a local outcast. An anonymous letter about the massacre thought to be from Bret Harte was sent in 1860 to the San Francisco Bulletin asserting: "The pulpit is silent, and the preachers say not a word." In 2001, Clay Ford, pastor of the Arcata First Baptist Church said "They did nothing, they said nothing. We realized that we needed to take responsibility before God and before the Wiyots for what Christian people did not do, even if we weren't there."
"Eureka Returns to Wiyot Tribe in Reconciliation for 1860 Massacre," Jeff Barnard, The Associated Press State & Local Wire, June 26, 2004. "EUREKA, Calif.: In a waterfront ceremony steeped in history and reconciliation, the city's mayor presented a tribal chief the deed to 40 acres of land Friday - the same land where the tribe was massacred by white intruders almost 150 years ago. Wiyot tribal leader Cheryl Seidner credits a reconciliation conference held at the First Baptist Church in neighboring Arcata three years ago for creating an atmosphere that made this day possible."
What amazingly simple acts in this small California city – to acknowledge the historical facts and to step up and be accountable to what their consciences told them was right. It didn't even take an act of Congress, just a collective moral conviction – "First be reconciled to your brother..." And what an example, white Americans accepting responsibility to be morally accountable and treat the descendents of the Wiyot as brothers, as simply fellow human beings.
Across this land traditional American Indian cultures' decision-making process can be described as having one common element – consensus. No voice was left unheard and no decision was final until ALL voices were heard - all voices figured into the final decision. The responsibility of every individual, young, old, all genders, all "ranks", to speak-up and take a stand was expected, listened to, and made part of any decision. Isn't inclusion a fundamental characteristic of what a true democracy is? Is this not Matthew 5:24 in action? "Government by the people, for the people". Is not the Library of Congress an instrument of "the people"? Does the institution of the Library of Congress truly regard American Indians as being among "the people"? A "brother"? As evidenced by it choosing "relocation" over "removal", the answer at this point is plainly "no".
The question I pose to the Library of Congress and to any American show knows somewhat of our history: Do you honestly think an American history authority such as Mr. Schlesinger would have agreed with the Library of Congress calling this devastating, murderous phase of U.S. policy and all that it precipitated against American Indians "relocation"?
There is no point in whining over a past that cannot be changed, but what can be changed are our attitudes about the past and our choices to ignore or learn from the past's painful lessons. If we chose to learn to fully face the painful lessons of the past, then we can start the process of building reconciliation and truly responsible character for ourselves as individuals and for our nation.
But who am I to say. A brother? Perhaps, or perhaps I'm just an ingrate, ignorant savage, who is too dense to comprehend that he is a fortunate recipient of "relocation".
© Michael McLaughlin, 2007