I’m half-way through Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, and while the writing is superb, and the argument that Caste is a more accurate description and useful tool than Race is in assessing American history, I am once again disappointed in a major historical text that does not directly address Indians in America.Read Rich’s Post →
Turning the page is a common metaphor for beginning a new year—often implying that we are leaving what was unpleasant in the last year behind. There was plenty of unpleasant in 2020, but some good things happened too, sometimes in spite of or even as a result of the Pandemic. Read Rich’s Post →
One of the first axioms of White-Indian relations I remember hearing from Alvin Josephy was that from the moment Europeans hit the North American shore, indigenous peoples had three choices: they could move away; they could become white; or they could die. Assimilation—becoming white—has been the alternative favored most often by governments and by popular opinion. Read Rich’s Post →
The name—its explanation comes on the first pages of the book—pulls you into the story. The writing is measured and strong and beautiful—
“The Old Ones say that our long straight hair comes from the waving grasses that thatch the edges of bays. Our feet and hands are broad and flat and strong, like the paws of a bear… Our talk rolls and tumbles like the rivers that served as our roads.” It keeps you going.
But it’s a rough road. Richard Wagamese, a Canadian Ojibwa writer well known in his own country but not much here, tells a brutal story of old wisdom, a vicious boarding school, the grace and beauty in sport, and the depth of irrational racial hatred.
I’ve said before that slavery is not the original sin; the racism that produced and supported slavery is the country’s original sin. And here I include our neighbors to the north, who were part of, and are today, like us, a product of the invasion of White Europeans, who stole, plundered, and installed a system that we are now learning to see as “systemic racism.”
Ideas precede actions, as Ibram X. Kendi says: “race craft” had to be developed before Black Africans could be routinely put in chains. Race craft meant a color hierarchy, with white Europeans at the top; the Brown peoples of the New World were displaced as Black Africans were imported to build an economy on their lands.
The digression on race is because one cannot read Indian Horse without wondering at the viciousness, cruelty, and disdain of Whites towards Indians. And there is no room here to allow our northern friends a pass on racism. Their guilt is as deep as our own.
What Euro-Canada did give to Indians was hockey (as we have given them basketball). What will engage sports enthusiasts in the book are descriptions of the thrill of sport, and not the jaw-dropping crushes routine in hockey or football, or even the pure athleticism of any sport’s best. It is the intuitive knowledge of sport, and the grace with which the best go about it.
Saul Indian Horse sees “the rink”—from the shabbiest coldest outdoor rinks in backwoods Canadian Indian hockey to the indoor, Zamboni-groomed rinks of the pros—and the puck and all the skaters as they are and as they might or could be in the next micro-seconds. Saul scores, but more profoundly, he passes and makes other players and his teams better. Teammates learn to skate where he will find them, and defenses are befuddled by the eyes in the back of his head. He sees the hockey rink as his grandmother saw the lakes and rivers—and a hard route in freezing cold that saved Saul’s own life.
Hockey is Saul Indian Horse’s ticket out of the boarding school—and into other worlds of discrimination and cruelty. I was in tears at book’s end.
And Richard Wagamese, the writer? He’s a Canadian Ojibwa, so there are two counts against him in the American (read US) book world. I think most of his books are only available from Canadian publishers. Milkweed from Minneapolis brought this book out in a beautiful edition.
The man’s story. The scenes in Indian Horse must be close to those Wagamese lived—parents and their generation were forced into boarding schools; he himself was removed from them and placed in foster care. He ran away from abuse and intolerance at 16, lived on the streets and in prisons until finding his story-telling voice.
I sometimes feel doubly and triply robbed: robbed of the stories that were all around me when I was young—the Minnesota Ojibwa were my neighbors; robbed of any true accounting of the racism that has permeated White America from its onset in 1492; and robbed of the work of fine artists because of political, ethnic, and cultural boundaries observed by the American literary establishment and publishing industry.
Oh—one more: I should have known and invited this man to Fishtrap when I was in charge and he was still alive.
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“No adverse impact visited on the 1492 voyage of “discovery” was more profound in its consequences in every nook and cranny of the Americas than Columbus’s introduction of Western European ethnocentricity to the Indians’ worlds. Asserting the superiority of the white aggrandizers’’ religious, political, and social universe over each of the many indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, this ethnocentricity was an arrogant vice, backed by superior firepower and boundless gall, that never faltered or weakened. It continues unabashedly on both continents today, and its impact has been felt long after the conquest of the continents was complete.”
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, page 4.
There’s the sin, the hubris, the tragic flaw in our origins.
It is popular—almost automatic in some circles—to say that slavery is America’s Original Sin. It is also true that slavery existed in many parts of the world prior to the 1619 importation of African slaves to North America, prior to Columbus’s century earlier enslavement of “Indians” of the Caribbean (and exportation of some to Europe).
Ibram X. Kendi’s brilliant Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism in America, recounts the Western Europeans’ importation of Slavic slaves, the development of African slavery and the European—and eventually American—traffic in African slaves, and the development of color conscious superiority thinking in Europe. Kendi would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Josephy’s comment, made on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World.
There is no argument that slavery—the “legal” or culturally acknowledged ownership of one human by another—is evil. But Josephy’s point, echoed by Kendi and by Louis Farrakhan in a speech at the Black “Million Man March” on the Capitol Mall in 1995 (quoted by Kendi), is that “The real evil in America is not white flesh or black flesh. The real evil in America is the idea that undergirds the setup of the Western world, and that idea is called white supremacy.”
I love the word “undergirded” here. And if we think in terms of undergirded and white supremacy as visited on the indigenous peoples of America from Columbus forward, we have only to add Josephy’s “Western European Ethnocentricity” and the gradual expansion of what “white” means to get to where we are today.
Because White, for the first 400+ years of our United States history, did not mean Irish or Greek, Syrian, Eastern European, or Russian Jew. With the massive mobilization and movement of troops across the country in WW II, “White” began to include non-Anglo and non-Western European Americans. It became more fully realized, as Kendi points out, with the GI Bill and suburbanization after the War. Blacks, who were segregated through WW II, were largely excluded by the GI Bill (as were American Indians), and White emphatically did not mean Chinese American and Japanese American and Filipino-American as we enacted internment camps (there were of course no German-American internment camps during WW II), and embraced anti-Asian and miscegenation laws well into the 1950s.
White was broadening. Levittown was open to Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans as well as Anglo-Americans, and although there were still quotas in colleges and universities on the number of Jews admitted, Jewish-Americans were leaving their “ghettos” with humor—all the major comics in the age of TV variety shows and LP records I grew up with were Jewish: Shelly Berman, Mort Sahl, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce. American Jews too were making marks in book, film, and song: Philip Roth, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler…
On TV, Irish American Carrol O’Conner, as Archie Bunker, a lovable bigot with son-in-law “meathead” as his next generation liberal foil, replaced “Leave it to Beaver” as the standard American family. And an Irish-American was elected president!
African-Americans, Indians, and Asian-Americans were certainly not secure in the post-war world that created the “largest middle class” the country had ever known. They were only creeping in at the edges with policies and practices Kendi, Josephy, and the leaders and immediate followers of the Eisenhower administration called “assimilation.” Trying to become culturally—and sometimes, with hair, skin, and eye treatments, physically—White.
Kendi argues–I think convincingly–that assimilation is not the answer to white superiority. “Inroads,” yes; success for some Blacks and Indians and “other” Americans on white terms, yes; but until we root out the Original Sin of Western European White Supremacy, all Americans, including White Americans (quoting James Baldwin), will not be free and equal human beings.
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Ibram X. Kendi’s book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, is an exhaustive catalog of religious, social, and economic attitudes and policies that began with the importation of African slaves and continue to this day. The number of actors and authors he sites in telling the story of racists, assimilationists, and antiracists and their multi-layered beliefs is mind-boggling. The way he weaves the three belief poles through US history—and especially the difficult journey of Black people themselves, but also the journeys of White abolitionists, politicians, and scholars—is a vivid and important telling.
Kendi’s treatment of Indians is sketchy at best. Weaving American Indians into the narrative of racism would have doubled the page count, and maybe he has done his job and it is up to others to tell the stories of European, mostly Anglo, settlers’ assumption of racial superiority over the misnamed Indian inhabitants, imported African slaves, and later immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
Kendi’s anti-Black racism story parallels the story of Indians and White racism in many ways, complicated by one huge and overwhelming factor: land. Indians had it and Whites wanted—needed—it in advancing a potpourri of their own visions of developing a new country. From plantation to Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, settlement of invited immigrants to establishment of Land Grant universities, White America has needed Indian lands. And took them—by war, honest and (mostly) dishonest treaty, and just plain squatting on them. People squatted, but so did the government itself, rural Indian lands being the right and easy places for bombing ranges and nuclear bomb-building.
Racism and assimilation were part of the Indian picture even before 1619 and the importation of African Americans. Columbus’s original killing and enslavement of Indians are now well documented and admitted. Wars against and treaties with Indians always assumed White superiority. And “separate but equal occurred” on reservations as it did in Southern schools; send them back to Africa or move them to Indian Territory. Assimilate them—make them white with religion and boarding schools, or with Black colleges and Euro-White curriculum. Kendi calls assimilation “uplift suasion,“ and notes that Blacks who achieved—and still achieve—some success were and are evaluated on how White-like that success is.
There’s much more to be said about the parallels of assimilation and racism with Indians and Blacks over centuries—it’s worth a book. But for one minute let’s look at the post WW 2 period, 1945 into the 50s. Indians and Blacks both served in WW II; Blacks were segregated and Indians gained some notoriety as Code-Talkers. Blacks and Indians served honorably and received the praise of their services—until they got home.
We know that Black veterans were disregarded, threatened, and occasionally lynched when they tried to parlay their patriotic service into voting or education or housing. Blacks moved North and West, voting with their feet, only to find that the promise of the G.I. Bill’s housing provision could not be exercised in neighborhoods deemed “unsafe” for lenders. Cities were “redlined” and Blacks shuttled to poorer neighborhoods which became poorer without means of getting mortgages.
Similarly, The G.I. Bill’s housing provisions could not be applied on reservations, because banks would not loan money for houses to Indians on reservations. Indian reservations were lands held in trust by the federal government, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not sign a waiver granting title to the veterans. Without this waiver, there was no way to secure a loan, even under the GI Bill.
Black veterans wanted to eat in restaurants and travel freely after the War; Indians wanted to have a drink—as they had been able to do while in the service. It wasn’t until 1951, that the Oregon State Legislature removed the ban on the sale of alcohol to Indians and the prohibition of intermarriage with Indians.
And if voting for Black veterans in the South was still subject to the rules of Jim Crow—literacy tests, poll taxes, etc., Indian veterans—in fact no Indians—could vote in Arizona and New Mexico until 1948, and until 1957 in Utah.
Kendi talks about Blacks pursuit of Whiteness with hair products, marrying lighter, and college and professions in the White world. Successful Blacks and social and government programs pushed along in this uplift suasion. For Indians, do-gooders had long held that the only way to “save the man” was to “kill the Indian” in him. Nineteenth century land allotment programs, boarding schools, and the outright banning of languages and ceremony had not been totally successful in stamping out Indian culture, and Indians still clung to some tribal lands. So in the post-war years the Eisenhower administration mounted two drastic assimilation programs to finally solve the nation’s “Indian Problem.” The “Termination” program would buy out reservations and make the lands available to Whites and white-run companies. The “Relocation” program would give young reservation Indians a bus ticket to the city—with the possibility of training or work at the other end. It would certainly get more Indians off their land and striving white in the urban world.
The huge “stimulus package” to integrate American veterans back into society, was, as one author called it, “the most massive piece of affirmative legislation in U.S. history.” Some say the GI Bill created the middle class in America. Kendi shows, and Black Americans and Indians know, that it created the White Middle Class in America. It did finally make the Irish, Poles, Greeks, and Jews of European stock White—but that is another story.
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Reparations—government payments or amends of some kind to the descendants of Black American slaves—are not a new idea, but the current Covid-19-BLM crisis has brought them back into conversation. I’ve been skeptical, wondering where Indians and Latinx would fit into it. But being open minded…
Reading Coates and trying to make sense of the Reparation argument.
Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a powerful argument in his oft-cited “Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. Although White indentured servants were the earliest low-wage, no-wage North American laborers, they were still “legal subjects of the English crown,” and thus had certain protections. As the European slave trade, which had relied on eastern Europeans but increasingly, in the 16th century, became dependent on Africans, the Americas joined in. As Coates says, “they became early America’s indispensable working class—fit for maximum exploitation, capable of only minimal resistance.”
Although we—mainstream, mostly white, America—see the South and its tobacco, sugar, and cotton plantations as the scenes of slavery and its reason for being, Ibram X. Kendi points out in Stamped From the Beginning that the growing manufacturing engine of the North relied on king cotton and the South, meaning slavery, for its success. And in fact, as international slave trade was banned and “breeding” and sale of domestic slaves replaced it, slavery also became very profitable. Slavers borrowed to buy, bought insurance policies on, and paid sales taxes on slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, the slaves in our country had more total dollar value than that of all manufacturing and the railroads combined.
If the Civil War “freed” slaves, the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow continued their oppression. No need here to recount the lynchings of Blacks, including war veterans returning from WW I and WW II. But Coates reminds us also that FDR’s New Deal largely skipped Blacks—domestic and agricultural workers, 65% of the Black labor force, were exempted from Social Security. Employers didn’t have to pay the tax; workers did not get Social Security on retirement.
And the post WW II G.I. housing loans were effectively denied Black veterans by official red-lining: mortgages did not go to unsafe neighborhoods, and, by definition, Black neighborhoods were unsafe—so no mortgages.
Coates argues articulately that wealth is a cumulative exercise, and that for most middle-class Americans the largest lifetime investment has been housing. Denied housing as a way of growing wealth, and facing ongoing discrimination in education and job promotion (athletics and entertainment are exceptions that deserve their own discussion), the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks has remained static from 1970 to present.
But reparations for descendants of those who were wronged? The catalog of White transgressions against Blacks is long and, some will argue, continues to grow. From a justice point of view, it’s hard to argue. From a precedent point of view as well. Germany paid reparations to Israel after WW II. Way before that, Quaker abolitionists gave land to freed slaves.
In 1988, President Reagan apologized to the Japanese-Americans who had been interned during WW II and gave the ones still alive each $20,000. John Tateishi, who was incarcerated at the Manzanar Internment camp ages 3-6, and became a leader in the movement for reparations, says it was not about the money, but the idea that the internees had been patriots, not criminals. “We were determined to pass [the Civil Liberties Act] as a way of having Americans recognize the injustice of what happened to us—not for our sake, but in order to make sure this never happened again.”
If some kind of reparations are due African-Americans, what is due the descendants of the first peoples, the misnamed Indians who greeted the white newcomers—and initially gave them the knowledge and help that would allow them to thrive—and then had their lands stolen. The stealing which started with squatting on lands communally “owned” by Tribes, continued with forced treaties, broken treaties, warfare, through the allotment and termination programs well into the twentieth century. High Country News is now documenting the stealing of Indian lands to house or to endow the land grant universities (Oregon State, Washington State, Rutgers, etc.). Some still live on stolen land; some still live on the endowment.
Language, culture, and religion were stripped away from the Indians too—stolen, through government programs. Gradually, over the last fifty years, there has been some turning back, some acknowledgment of past sins, with the Indian Freedom of Religion Act and the Boldt Decision on Northwest Salmon. Treaties have consequences, Boldt said, and the government must help restore salmon. The Sioux continue to refuse compensation for the Black Hills taken away from them in the nineteenth century, although the courts have determined that the Black Hills rightfully still belong to them, and set aside government money to compensate them. Though many live in poverty, the proud Sioux continue to refuse.
The Mexicans of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and California have claims too. The ones “trapped” on this side when the border was moved, with Texas Annexation in 1845 and the Mexican American War in 1848, were immediately discriminated against in voting, land ownership, and leadership. The Texas Rangers ruthlessly suppressed Mexicans, Indians, and Blacks.
Measuring human losses—especially losses from the past, inherited losses, losses of opportunity—and assigning dollar values to them is an impossible task. But Coates has something larger in mind:
Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely… Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
If we see Reparations as a reckoning with past actions, a coming to terms, if we have the stomach for addressing past moral mistakes made by “fallible humans” who were mostly White Euro-Americans, then I say we should try.
Maybe some treaty rights would be restored, new educational programs initiated; maybe there would be actual cash payments and transfer of lands to tribes and to the descendants of slaves. But most importantly, there would be acknowledgement of histories, languages, and cultures that have been demeaned and buried for centuries. Quoting Coates again: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
The “how” of it is not clear, but Coates suggests that “H.R. 40, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” an act asking for study with no commitment to cash reparations, introduced regularly by Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan beginning in 1989, would be a good place to start.
I’d add Indians and Latinx…
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