History Illuminates Native-American Militance
The front page of The Ann Arbor News on July 16th carried a powerful Associated Press photo of a Native American being burned in effigy in a small Canadian town outside of Montreal, Quebec. This violent protest on the part of white neighbors of the Kahnawake reservation in Oka, Quebec was one of the most recent incidents in a protracted struggle over Indian land rights in eastern Canada, and echoes of the violent atrocities Native Americans have suffered for some 500 years.
Local officials in Oka are determined to confíscate a section of Mohawk land in order to build a golf course for the entertainment of wealthy white Canadians. An armed confrontation has ensued leaving a policeman dead, accidentally shot by a fellow officer. The Mohawks, members of the multi-cultural Iroqouis nation founded in the 16th century, are determined to defend their rightful claims to the land and to forcibly protest the arrogant chauvinism of local Canadian authorities.
In order to fully understand this particular dispute, however, and the militancy and determination exhibited by the Mohawk activists, it is important to examine the situation against the backdrop of the historic plight and persecution of the indigenous peoples of North America. For every inch Native Americans have given in the struggle over land and autonomy, 100 miles have been taken from them.
It is memories of massacres, forced removals, the razing of Indian villages, and the arbitrary and callous reversal of treaty agreements that fuel the uncompromising spirit of many Native American rights activists today . It is the grueling oppression and repression still faced by thousands of Native Americans on reservations throughout the United States and Canada that led South African leader Nelson Mandela to describe these reservations as America's "bantustans" and to pledge his support to the struggle for Native American rights.
The struggle of Blacks in South África, Indian peasants in South America, and the indigenous Koorie people of Australia are all variations on the same historic conflict over land, the resources of the land, and who should have control over them. In contrast, some media analysts have wrongly tried to simplify these issues as mere struggles between progress and technology on the one hand, and primitive ways of life on the other. The struggles of indigenous peoples the world over, including the United States and Canada, are complex political struggles with a long history of economic exploitation and racist ideology at the center.
This is not, however, the perspective most Americans have of the history of Anglo-Indian relations. Most have been influenced by an entire genre of Hollywood movies which have consistently depicted Native Americans as a mass of bloodthirsty savages pitted against noble and courageous white settlers. With these images in mind, it is not surprising that white North Americans on the whole have been insensitive, at best, and hostile at worst, to the demands and concerns of Native Americans. The reality of the Native American experience over the last 500 years stands in stark contrast to the fictional Hollywood scenario most of us grew up with. It is also in contrast to the biases and glaring omissions characteristic of the majority of elementary school textbooks.
Our children are taught that Columbus, a legendary hero, "discovered" America in 1492, when in actuality, he was lost, stumbled upon the islands of the Carribbean and was "discovered by" the native Arawak Indians. Despite the fact that the indigenous peoples he encountered were generous and peaceful, the European explorer's first inclination was to capture and exploit them. Christopher Columbus wrote in his 15th century journal: "As soon as I arrived in the Indies. . . I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts, (preferably gold)."
Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest who witnessed Europeans' conquest of the native peoples of Cuba in the early 1500's later wrote of what he saw: "...while I was in Cuba, 7,000 children died in three months. Some mothers drowned their babies from sheer desperation. In this way, husbands died in the mines, women at work, and children died from lack of milk.. and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile...was depopulated."
This saga of genocide and brutal exploitation of the native peoples of this hemisphere continued into the 19th century. The infamous U.S. Indian Removal Act of 1830 mandated the forced removal of thousands of Native American Indian families on a historic and grueling trek known as the 'Trail of Tears" because of the hundreds of men, women and children who starved, froze to death, and collapsed of sheer exhaustion along the way. In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act mandated cultural assimilation as a precondition for human rights and was opposed by many Native American activists.
This is the legacy of oppression, betrayal and genocide which is the foundation for current struggles over Native American rights in the Americas. We should try to deepen our understanding of this history in order to better understand and support the contemporary struggle which has grown out of a past that most Americans would like not to face. If we are to come to grips with current political issues involving Native American rights to land and resources, we must bury John Wayne, demystify Columbus, and pay our respects to the memory of 'Cochise, Geronimo and other valiant freedom fighters.