Red White and Truth
America is undoubtedly a country unique in countless ways; the proud saga of its journey, dusted with triumph. From its conception- mothered by hopeful pilgrims, fathered by bold patriotism- to its official ripe age of 240, America has grown into its purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain regardless of what, or who, was in its way.
Most Americans have heard the charming tale of the Pilgrims and the Indians joyfully celebrating the first Thanksgiving over turkey and tea, but it is safe to say we have not been told the whole story. The true narrative of this country does not encapsulate a glittering road of rainbows and freedom navigated by George Washington riding a flock of bald eagles.
The alarming truth is that the bedtime story recalling the exploration and creation of our country, artfully laced with valiant heroes and savage villains, has been fed to us with a spoonful — nay — a cement mixer full of sugar.
Since the “discovery” of America, the centuries of suffering inflicted on the indigenous people of North America by the European pilgrims have been swept under the rug, often times only mentioned in history books in a past-tense format. Native American suffering is still apparent in today’s society, and the recent events at Standing Rock in North Dakota have illuminated the years of mistreatment, and reminded the world that Native Americans are not tall-tales of the past, but are very much alive. Professors, activists, Tribal leaders- people of all blood lines are celebrating the possibility of the truth finally being recognized, and the promise of new opportunities on the horizon.
One of the first and most impeding challenges needing to be addressed is the inaccurate and frequently offensive portrayal of Native Americans in history books and mainstream media.
“There aren’t enough role models made public. Especially when you’ve got Trump elect calling Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas,” says Dorene Red Cloud of the Ogala Lakota nation and Assistant Curator of Native American Art at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, “There are still people referring to Native Americans as past figures, or mascots.”
“87 schools in Indiana, alone, still use a racial mascot,” says Charmayne Champion-Shaw, director of the Native American and Indigenous Peoples studies program of Indiana University Purdue University of Indianapolis.
“The mascot issue is still lending to the psychology of feeling like Native Americans are a character, or stuck in the past, or are only Native American if they look or act a certain way,” adds Red Cloud.
In conjunction with the fact that Native Americans are frequently referred to in history books in a “once upon a time, the end” format, many of the deplorable stories of the past have been left out.
For example, the first “Thanksgiving” was actually a feast celebrating the return of a colonial militia after an attack on a village left over 500 Native American Pequot men, women, and children dead.
Furthermore, the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie gave the Native Americans ownership of the sacred Black Hills in South Dakota; yet only 55 years later, the agreement was ignored and the hills were transformed into a monument dedicated to the expansion of America and renamed Mount Rushmore.
One of the more recent attempts to crush indigenous cultures was the Indian Relocation Act created in the 1960’s.
“Between the 1950’s and 1970’s there was a mass movement to remove native children from their homes and place them into foster care. The grounds that they used for doing that was that the children were in unfit homes,” says Kerry Steiner, Executive Director of the Indiana Native American and Indian Affairs Commission.
“They estimate 1.5 million children or more were removed from their homes and put in the foster care system. And a huge number of those landed in Indiana because they were funneled through Chicago,” adds Steiner.
Dorene Red Cloud was raised by her Lakota father, a child who had been forcefully removed from his home in Pine Ridge, South Dakota as a direct result of this act in the 1960’s.
“He got relocated to Chicago…My dad also was sent to boarding school, he would run away, they’d send him back. It was very abusive. He had braids, they cut off his braids. And whenever he’d try to speak Lakota they would abuse him and say “no you’re supposed to learn English only!” So, from that cumulative abuse and suffering he didn’t pass on the language to my sisters and I,” recalls Red Cloud.
This act, made by the American government, was created in hopes that removing children from their families, thus suspending their bloodlines, would dissolve the Native American cultures across the country.
200 years before the Indian Removal Act of the 1960’s, another colonial act forced natives all over the country to migrate towards Oklahoma; most associate this with the Cherokee Trail of Tears.
Steiner reminds us that the Cherokee were not the only people forced to migrate thousands of miles away, nearly every tribe endured this treatment.
“People don’t always know, either, that during those removals, the military gave blankets to the Indians to “help them stay warm,” but those blankets were infected with the small pox virus…That is what I would consider the first form of biological warfare. Again, it’s part of history that is just pushed under the rug, it’s just not talked about,” says Steiner.
While the past is bruised with injustice and scarred by countless lives lost, the potential for a future of healing is strong.
2016 has proven to be a monumental year for Native Americans because of the extraordinary gathering of people and nations from all over the world at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Here, the planned construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a massive $3.8 billion-dollar pipe designed to transport crude oil from North Dakota to southern Illinois under the Missouri River, was met with incalculable numbers of peaceful protestors.
This movement has lasted several months, and is the largest tribal gathering in hundreds of years.
Chandra Lisota, an Indiana woman who recently made the trip to Standing Rock, recalls waking up to the sounds of planes flying over the prayer camp:
“The planes did go over literally every morning. Every. Morning. Every morning there were chem trails. Every morning people were coughing.”
Some of the planes flying above Standing Rock were U.S. military monitoring the camp, however a number of planes spotted were recognized as agricultural aircrafts used for the aerial application of pesticides to crops.
On top of chemicals physically raining down on the camp, Lisota also heard stories of injustice that clouded the lives of several of the natives she met.
One story told to Lisota by a 12-year-old native girl named Vesta particularly struck her:
“She’s a beautiful girl with this sparkly spirit. She said “oh I’m not worried about these people I’m used to it. We’re all used to it. Sometimes I get followed around Walmart just because of what I look like…They follow me like they think I’m going to take something I guess…but I’m not worried about it, I know how to behave. It’s just something we deal with,” She’s 12 and she knows this,” says Lisota.
Another man, Jamison Jones of Chicago, made the 13-hour trip from Schaumburg, Illinois in November to deliver donated supplies and witness the power of the movement first hand.
The Anti-Dakota Access protest, otherwise known as #NoDAPL, has received substantial support and recognition all over the world with social media being the most powerful platform for sharing information. Videos, photos, and live broadcasts being shared have captured many positive moments, however, excessive and harmful backlash from the American government has been captured as well.
Water Protectors, those peacefully protesting on Lakota land, have been violently arrested, attacked by police dogs, and sprayed with water cannons in below freezing temperatures.
In the short time Jones was there, less than 24 hours, it was made clear to him that all the rumors about the injustices and suffering happening on the front lines of the prayer camp were painfully true.
Jones recalls speaking with legal volunteers on the edge of the camp facing the construction site, and being told his rights should he be arrested:
“They were explaining that the pipeline protectors were targeting people of color, they were targeting journalists, they were targeting anybody with a camera.”
Jones was also informed that those who were arrested were being denied their single phone call and were not receiving proper medical attention in jail if it was needed.
“The way that they were treated on the front line was horrendous, unamerican. They were sacrificing their own physical integrity to make a statement. They went to those front lines knowing they were going to get tear gassed, knowing that they were going to get shot at, knowing that there were attack dogs, and concussion grenades; they knew all that going in. You want to talk about long-term suffering and sacrifice, they did that on purpose so that they could get it on film and generate those social media responses,” says Jones.
Even to this day, the American government is still trying to stifle the voices of the indigenous.
However, Native Americans are rising up against the machine.
“We’re all here for a purpose, we’re all here together. Instances of past injustices were not a focus of the people of Standing Rock,” says Jones.
Despite the years of mistreatment, the blatant disrespect and inaccuracy in representations, and the general disregard for their well-being indiscreetly and repeatedly being thrown in their faces, the Native American people do not embody a “victim” mentality. Instead, these people evolve with unparalleled resiliency and focus their efforts on improving the future.
The movement happening at Standing Rock is serving as the gritty surface on which the match of justice has finally been lit.
“The elders who have watched their lifetimes of disregard and being trampled, what a feeling of pride the must have” says Steiner when asked about the potential widespread effects of the movement, “…This renews. This lights the fire again.”
On December 4th, 2016, the United States Army Corps announced it will not grant easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline, meaning the construction will halt, and the water supply for Standing Rock Reservation is safe.
Not only did the protest at Standing Rock trigger responses of encouragement all over the world, but it turned the light on and exposed an entire society of people whose hardships have been virtually ignored. With this, America now has a responsibility to teach the future generations the truth about our past, the power of peace, and the real meaning of brotherhood.
History cannot be changed, but those who took part in this movement have changed the way history will be told.
“When you look at the kids who started this thing (the #NoDAPL movement) and where it ended up today,” says Steiner brightly, “these kids got the message that if you do it, and you do it right, peacefully, you can win and your voice can be heard. And these are the kids who are going to grow up to be tomorrows leaders.”
When asked about the future of Native American people, Dorene Red Cloud answers “I definitely think people will be inspired,” a smile slowly stretching across her face, “I think it will unveil a new generation of people standing up and saying we are going to fight for what we believe in.”