How has the historical subjugation of Native Americans’ basic rights and liberties impacted their modern day relationship with dominant American culture ?
Lili Smith 5/12/18 Cooper Reflection Essay Since 1492 the Native peoples of the Americas have been the victims of institutionalized subjugation. They have fought war after war ending in discriminatory and unlawful treaties cheating them out of what is rightfully theirs. Every victory they have won contributes to their fight for their own elemental liberties. Native Americans have been denied basic rights and liberties for centuries. This historical and ongoing oppression, manifesting in land inequality, unequal access to resources and cultural appropriation, has created a hostile and ambivalent relationship between Native communities and the dominant American culture.
Since European colonists first landed in the Americas, Natives have confronted extensive inequalities regarding land rights. These inequities took took the form of destruction of their land, and the taking of their land. Time after time, across the nation, Native people have been forced to leave their homeland to make room for white settlers on a quest for Manifest Destiny. In 1830, Cherokees in Georgia were removed from their sacred land by President Andrew Jackson. The Cherokee people fought the Indian Removal Act of 1830 in Supreme Court Case Worcester v. Georgia and won the right to be a sovereign nation in the state of Georgia, however, President Jackson ignored the decision and sent the militia to forcibly remove Cherokee people from their homes. They were made to walk thousands of miles to reservation land in Oklahoma. More than 4,000 Cherokee died and were buried in unmarked graves along what came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Another example of land inequity can be found at Mt. Rushmore. Many people are unaware of this, but the land Mt. Rushmore is built on, is known to the Sioux people as the Black Hills. It is sacred land that was taken from the Sioux in one of the many violent conquests of indigenous tribes by American settlers. In addition to the plain ransacking of this sacred land, it is symbolically offensive to the Native people because the presidents carved into the mountain include Abraham Lincoln, who supported eradicating Indian tribes from western lands and approved America’s largest execution to the day: the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato for their alleged crimes in the Dakota War of 1862. Not until 1980, in the case United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians did the US Supreme Court hold that the land was illegally taken from the Sioux Nation. Additionally, in 2012, a United Nations human rights official endorsed returning the Black Hills to the Sioux people. In addition to taking land from American Indians, the United States has a history of destroying sacred land. During WWII, the United States military had an extensive demand for Uranium. One of the premier Uranium mining locations in the US was situated in the same area as Navajo Country. Navajo miners contributed around 13 millions tons of Uranium to the US military, but also suffered exposure to high levels of unprotected radiation, causing countless cases of lung cancer and respiratory problems. This Uranium mining had disastrous effects on both the land and the people. As a result of these issues, the Navajo Nation passed the Dine Natural Resource Protection Act in 2005, 60 years after the war, prohibiting all forms of uranium mining and processing on Navajo lands. This is another example of how Native American people have suffered the destruction of both their land and their people.
Issues regarding land rights have always been a point of contention between Native communities and dominant culture, because of the extensive history of injustice toward American Indians modern society continues to be affected by the appalling decisions made by early Americans. It would be very unwise to think that the awful things settlers did to Native Americans in the past doesn't affect the relationship between dominant culture and modern American Indians today. Hard feelings still exist, how could they not? Native communities will be dealing with the economic and cultural impact of decisions such as the Indian Removal Act, the thievery of the Black Hills, and the Uranium mining in Navajo Country for many more years.
The Native people of America have also been historically denied access to the Earth's resources, an exclusion that continues to remain prevalent today. In the 1870s, the U.S. government wanted the fertile farm land of the Plains for settlers, pushing them to war with the Indians of the Plains. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the Plains Indians could easily evade the Army. They could live anywhere as long as they had access to buffalo. The government decided that cutting off their access to this resource would drive them away from this valuable land. This meant a comprehensive effort, orchestrated by the US government to execute the buffalo population. By 1890, buffalo were nearly extinct and only now has the population begun to recover. When communities were driven away from their homes during colonization, they were given the worst land, put in deserts and areas of the country where there was little water and crops had trouble growing. Many American Indians still live on those lands today, on reservations where their access to natural resources is still limited. This inequality acts as an incredible stressor on the relationship between Native Americans and White Culture. Even if people today are not actively infringing on Native land, the consequences of European colonization continue to take their toll on reservations and the communities who live on them. Although some steps have been taken, I would say that the dominant culture has yet to repair the damage that has been done.
Cultural Appropriation can be defined as “a concept dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.”Cultural appropriation damages the relationship between Native people and dominant culture for many reasons. Using the example of a Native American headdress: If a group of girls wear headdresses to a music festival, then this sacred Native symbol gets appropriated and becomes a costume, and a fundamental part of Native Spirituality is undermined and disrespected. Behavior such as this also reiterates the power difference between white people and Native Americans. One group takes from another that was historically powerless, without respecting their cultural autonomy. The way I see it, is after we have finally decimated over 90% of their population, taken and destroyed their lands, and ruined their ability to govern themselves, we left them without assistance, and then blamed them for not being able to stand on their own. Without taking responsibility for what we have done, we cherry pick elements of their culture and call it an exchange, we dilute and undermine what these cultural elements mean by turning them into something trivial. In effect, we have destroyed their population, their their sacred lands, their government, and now we destroy their culture. We take even more that is not ours because we like it, and we don’t stop to respect the people who created it. Even small acts of cultural appropriation contribute to a very unusual relationship between dominant culture and American Indians because more often than not, the people who make these decisions are completely unaware of the repercussions. And yet, the people who are aware tread very lightly, afraid of offending anyone, and so seem to condescend to Native Americans, treating them like a charity, rather than as equals.
The Native Americans’ historical experience of being denied basic rights and liberties is evident in land inequality, unequal access to resources and cultural appropriation. These forms of oppression have created a relationship between Native communities and the dominant American culture that needs to be mended. This year in school, my class visited the To’hajiilee reservation in New Mexico. While we were there I spent the morning with the 3rd grade class in the school on the reservation. I had the wonderful opportunity to share experiences with people who I otherwise might never have been able to build a bond with. We spent time in a personal setting that was not based on observing from a distance and “helping,” I was able to learn in a very open environment that was completely void of the misrepresentation and disrespect that is often present when studying cultures different from our own. It is these sorts of experiences that will be a turning point in the road to equality between Indigenous people and the dominant culture everywhere.
Work Cited Huey, Aaron. “America's Native Prisoners of War.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, TED X, Sept. 2010, www.ted.com/talks/aaron_huey#t-49310.
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. Harper Perennial, 1980.