Native American Racism Essay, Research Paper
Native Americans: 500 years of Racism and Oppression
“In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” This little saying is something that I’m sure we all learned as children, to help us remember the year that Columbus discovered America. However, Columbus did not discover America, it has been here as long as Spain, England, and the rest of the countries in the world at that time. Although not as nearly technologically advanced as the countries of Europe, the Native American nations functioned as well, if not better, as these advanced nations of Europe. However, because the Native Americans were viewed as inferior savages when Columbus set foot on America, he saw it fit to take their land and life. Columbus was the beginning of a long history of racism and oppression against all Native Americans living in the Americas. Through this course of time, there have been many different areas in which racism has shown itself: through now forgotten wars, environmental racism, and the forcing of beliefs upon these nations.
Most people have heard the saying “history repeats itself.” There is another saying that is not as well known, written by the author of Wa*censored*a: Genocide on the Great Plains, James Horsley: “History is only the past when we choose to do nothing about it” (Gibson 7). These two sayings could be molded together to say “History repeats itself when we choose to do nothing about it,” or “The past repeats itself because we choose to do nothing about it.” Although Horsley was referring to the Wa*censored*a massacre and the Marias River incident when he wrote his quote, it is true in all cases. Racism has constantly been repeated since the beginning of time, and will always exist because people are different and have different ways of life; from racism comes fighting, which, in the past, has led to massacres and wars.
Although some people think that racism is gone, it surely is not. Although it is at much lower levels than the past (at least, in the U.S.), it still does exist. Racism by whites towards Native Americans is something that has been going on since day one, when Columbus set foot on North America. The Natives were viewed as savages and inferior to the whites. Because of this, the whites did not want the Natives to live with them, so they had one option: extermination. This racism and extermination continued over the continent into the Pacific Northwest, where racism still exists. One example of the Native American extermination is the Marias River incident. Although this massacre is not widely known, it is a prime example of racism. On January 23, 1870, the U.S. Army wrongfully killed almost 200 Piegans:
This event was almost certainly a pre-emptive act of military terrorism [Horsley's emphasis] against the troublesome Blackfoot Confederacy of Blood, Piegan, and Blackfoot tribes. General Phil Sheridan, the architect of the Wa*censored*a Massacre, did indeed specify the camp of Mountain Chief as the [Major Eugene] Baker target – but Baker’s local superiors urged him to use his own discretion and “punish” the Piegans who might [Horsley's emphasis] be guilty in the past or future (Gibson 3).
Horsley is trying to show that the United States Army killed Native Americans because they might be guilty; guilty of being different. Major Baker was urged to attack and punish these Indians. It was almost as though it didn’t matter what the Army was fighting to gain, as long as there were Indians to kill. This is a perfect example of the racism and hatred that Americans have put on Native Americans throughout the history of the U.S.
The problem with racism is that it will never go away. There are still problems today in society, just not the same extent that it has been in the past. There’s that phrase again: the past. The past repeats itself because we choose to do nothing about it. We have not solved the problem of racism and probably never will. People look and act different, it is just something that must be accepted in order to eliminate racism.
Racism can have different forms. In the case of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, they suffer from what is known as environmental racism. Environmental racism is not widely talked or thought about, but is more abundant than most may think. In cases of environmental racism, minorities, usually Hispanic or blacks, are trying to keep polluting factories out of their communities, arguing that they have been unfairly protected from environmental hazards. In the case of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, their battle has been an ongoing one since the early 1920’s, when chemicals were showing up in Lake Coeur d’Alene. Henry SiJohn, a Coeur d’Alene tribal leader, argues that his tribe has been unfairly protected from environmental hazards, and has little doubt that anything will change (Cooper 534).
SiJohn argues that this battle for environmental hazard protection began as far back as 1920, when the water potatoes that the tribe grew in the lake started having a metallic taste. When the tribe first complained, the government told them that they had no voice. In his interview with Mary Cooper, SiJohn talks of environmental racism, saying that minority communities are more exposed and receives less protection from the government than white Americans do. SiJohn states that even today, the EPA does not protect the environment for his tribe (Cooper 534)
SiJohn feels very optimistic that things will change anytime in the near future. In the final question that Cooper asks SiJohn, he makes a plea that he hopes will persuade some people to make a change:
Do you think EPA will accept your request to clean up the Coeur d’Alene River Basin?
I’m very optimistic. If America doesn’t wake up and take hold of things, it’s going to put us all in jeopardy. People need to realize they can’t survive without the environment. That’s where the Indian philosophical view comes in. It perpetuates the purity of the environment. Without the natural resources of fish, animals, birds and the like we can’t live. We will starve (Cooper 535).
He has every right to be optimistic. The government has hardly lifted a finger in 80 years to help the Native Americans of the Coeur d’Alene tribe. SiJohn’s people and their land are slowly being decimated, and they can not fix it by themselves. If politicians would take a few minutes to remind each other of a document written so long ago, the Constitution of the United States, they would see that the Native Americans and other minorities are being unfairly treated.
The purpose of this entire interview is to allow people to see the trouble and oppression that Native Americans and other minorities have to live with. The government is setting the wrong example for other Americans to follow: that it is okay to build toxic waste dumps and cancer-causing power plants in the neighborhood of minorities, and then ignore their pleas for help. As stated by SiJohn, “If the Indians were the polluters, the public would have gotten up in arms and demanded that the Indians pay” (Cooper 535)). This is just one example shows the environmental racism that the Native Americans must face in their daily lives. They do not receive the same respect that white Americans do under the same circumstances. One relief that the Native Americans do have is the First Amendment, which includes the “Four Freedoms, as do all Americans: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of fear, and freedom of want – outlined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 (Massey 2).
Who celebrates holidays? There are many holidays than some Americans celebrate, while other Americans do not. It all depends on race and religion to figure out who celebrates what. The United States of America has declared over half a dozen holidays that the working class can take off with pay. Two of these national holidays are the Fourth of July, and Columbus Day. While almost all Americans celebrate these two holidays, some Native Americans choose not to celebrate one, or even both, because to them, these two holidays carry a meaning of death and extermination.
To your average American, the Fourth of July is a time of celebration; a time when we celebrate the Independence of this Country. To a Native American, there is not much reason to celebrate this holiday. Even though as American citizens they share the same rights as any American, the Fourth is when the U.S. became free from England, not when Native Americans were free from the U.S. The Native Americans continued to be exterminated until the U.S. had taken all that they could. On July 4, 1776, there were still hundreds and thousands of Native Americans living across North America, some still unaware of the happenings on the East Coast. Why should the Native Americans celebrate this day? They still have not gotten their Independence Day. They have been confined to living on Reservations. There is only one reason that they should celebrate this day: because of what happened in 1776, they still have the “Four freedoms.” They may not have those freedoms if England still ruled. So, in essence, Native Americans still have some reason to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Although some Native Americans do celebrate the Fourth, very few, if any, celebrate Columbus Day. This day was a turning point in world history. It was the beginning of the end for Native Americans. From day one, Columbus thought of the Native Americans as savages and inferior. “They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases Our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language” (Morris and Means 537). Columbus figured that these Natives were inferior and had no minds of their own. He wanted to make them European and take away their heritage.
To most Americans, Columbus Day is a day of celebration because it is the beginning of our history. Before Columbus, there was nothing, after Columbus, more Europeans came over the Atlantic and eventually this great nation was formed. However, to a Native American, Columbus Day is the beginning of the end of their way of life. From day one, the Indians were oppressed and exterminated. Native Americans owned the land of North America before Columbus; now the Native Americans do not own land, but are placed on government reservations. Glenn Morris and Russell Means believe that no one should celebrate Columbus Day, and that it should not be a holiday. “We are advocating that the divisive Columbus Day holiday should be replaced by a celebration that is much more inclusive and more accurately reflective of the cultural and racial richness of the Americas” (Morris and Means 14). The authors are trying to say that no one should celebrate this day, because it is celebrating the hundreds of years of oppression and genocide that Native Americans suffered. It is understandable that Native Americans do not wish to celebrate Columbus Day, but it is not understandable that no one should celebrate this day. I am proud to be an American and am thankful for Columbus. I am not saying that the extermination of Natives was morally right, but I would not be here today if it had not happened. Americans should be proud of who they are and be happy that there is such a thing as Columbus Day.
Race and religion are two strong factors in deciding who celebrates what. Because the United States allows freedom of speech and religion, anyone person can celebrate what he or she wishes without harm coming to him or her. The First Amendment is one of the most important in the Constitution of the United States of America because it gives the “four freedoms” to all American citizens.
Since not only the beginning of American history, but also the beginning of world history, there has been racism and oppression. There always seems to be a more dominant race of people. Racism shows itself in many ways, and has repeated itself throughout the history of mankind. Whether it is one nation eliminating another, environmentally related, or forcing the ideas of one nation onto another, racism will always exist. For the Native Americans, the beginning of the end came in 1492: “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Cooper, Mary. “An Indian Leader Speaks Out for the Land?An Interview with Idaho’s
Henry SiJohn”. CQ Researcher. June 19, 1998.
Gibson, Stan. An Uncelebrated Anniversary. 1996.
Massey, Dallas, Sr. “Chariman’s Vision: Do Native Americans Celebrate the Declaration
of Independence Day?”. Fort Apache Scout. V.37; N.6. July 3, 1998.
Morris, Glenn and Means, Russell. “Why AIM Opposses Columbus Day and Columbus
Day Parades”. Purpose and Process: A Reader for Writers. Ed. Stephen Reid. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: 1997. 537-40.