Settler colonialism was an unmitigated disaster for Native Americans. Prior to the arrival of our fore fathers, the indigenous people were free. They had a vibrant culture with an established values and belief system. They hunted and fished for food. They had communities with leaders, rules that governed their actions and a justice system for those that did comply. They sang and danced. They practiced a religion that was land based, praying to the one entity that supplied them with all they needed to survive and thrive. Settler colonialism destroyed that way of life with effects so devastating that still, to this day, the indigenous people have yet to fully recover.
Colin G. Calloway defines Settler Colonialism as more of an imposed structure than an historical event. The structure is characterized by the dominance of the outsider and the native’s subjugation. The objective of settler colonialism is not just to acquire land and resources but to stay. For that to be accomplished, the native must be displaced and their lives, histories, and culture erased. This is done because the settler colonizers believe that they are right; that their “values are moral and superior, and therefore, inevitable and natural” (Calloway). This elimination can be achieved in many ways. In America, this was primarily done through assimilation policies. Designed to annihilate Native American culture, assimilation had a devastating effect on the Native American way of life. Although the damage was immense and catastrophic, Native Americans resisted and persevered. Today, Native Americans join indigenous people around the world in decolonization efforts to reassert their cultural identity. Therefore, although the historical, political, social, cultural, and economic forces of Settler Colonialism did much to dispossess and degrade the Native Americans, it is these same policies that contribute and drive the Native Americans in their decolonization efforts to restore their culture and identity.
Settler Colonialism demanded the removal of indigenous people and the destruction of their cultures. This was accomplished through a variety of forces. First, history ignored the American Indian. One of the ways that Native Americans were ignored was by not including their story in the American narrative. The American narrative is a success story. It talks about building a nation and progress. In this story all the participants are united and support the American dream and experience. In contrast, the American Indian story is one of decline and defeat. As a result, school textbooks had “great difficulty shaping the Native American experience to fit the upbeat format of their books” (Calloway 6). As a result, the Indian story was left out. The film “Dakota 38” gives many examples of how after decades suffering hardship, broken treaties, and relentless encroachment on their land, the Dakota tribe went to war with the American military. After six weeks of fighting, the uprising was defeated and thousands of Indians were taken prisoner. President Lincoln, intervened to save the lives of many of the captured, but in the end thirty-eight Dakota men would be hanged in the largest government sanctioned execution in history. This important part of American history has been overlooked and ignored partly because the Indians stood in the way of the story of American progress and because the story diminishes the presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Dakota 38).
Second, politics has treated the American Indian unfairly. Treaties were an important part of early Indian and European relationships. They were essential during times of land acquisition especially during Westward expansion. Treaties were used to establish allies as well as trade and conduct business with peace and diplomacy. Most importantly, treaties helped the United States to achieve sovereign nation status and become a recognized nation within the international community of nations (Calloway 4). The U.S. Constitution states that treaties are binding and are the supreme law of the land. The Unites States signed more than 500 treaties with the American Indians and has broken provisions on all of them (Treaty Lecture p.5). The best example of that is the Dakota Access Pipeline. Established treaties were ignored when the pipeline was scheduled to cross sacred lands and historic and cultural sites, including gravesites of the Lakota tribe. The tribe was denied access to information and excluded from consultations in the planning stages of the build (Why Treaties Matter).
Third, society has treated the American Indian unfairly. The family structure of American Indians is very different from mainstream America. They had large extended families with multiple generations living and working together. These families live in tribes which formed a greater community. These tribes have established values and belief systems that are part of a culture passed down through generations. The Residential School System tore a hole in the fabric of Indian community and family life. Children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to live in boarding schools. The goal of these schools was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Children were stripped of their clothes, native foods, languages, religion and traditions. Deprived of theses links to their cultural identity, Indian children suffered from isolation, loneliness, low self-esteem, and depression (Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Athens Indian Boarding School).
Fourth, mainstream white America culture has suppressed the American Indian. Native Americans have a rich culture of diverse lifestyles, customs, art forms, and beliefs. They also have a complex polytheistic religion of which White America is especially suspicious and dismissive of. To Native Americans, the land is a sacred and the most important religious duty is to protect their sacred lands. The land itself has an intrinsic spiritual and cultural value and does not require manmade infrastructures or improvements to give it value. Regrettably, these sacred lands are continually threatened by industrial and commercial development with devastating impact. Unless these sacred lands are preserved and protected, these developments will result in permanent cultural losses for future generations of tribal members (Sacred Lands).
Fifth, there are severe economic restrictions imposed upon the American Indian. Forced to relocate to reservations, Indians have been living in essentially third word conditions. There is a scarcity of jobs and lack of economic opportunity. Decades ago, when forced to leave the reservation to work in cities; poor conditions and economic hardships continued. Many were met with “bias, prejudice, and active discrimination” while working in the most menial jobs available (Indians and the Cities). In the past few decades, tribes have made strides to improve the quality of life for their people but challenges remain. American Indian tribes are under-represented on the national, political, and economic scene and have very little participation in the major financial markets.
Currently, Native Americans have been attempting to reestablish their culture and identities through the process of decolonization. Decolonization is in direct opposition to the colonial world view. It challenges and disrupts colonial superiority by attempting to restore the indigenous world view, culture, and traditional ways. It replaces Western interpretation of history with a Native American historical perspective. In decolonization, indigenous people and non- indigenous people must change the way they think about things and recognize how settler colonialism has impacted on and subjugated indigenous peoples (Syllabus).
There are several examples of historical, political, social, cultural, and economic decolonization efforts. First, the historical perspective, numerous examples of decolonization exist in the documentary film Dakota 38. The Dakota 38 Memorial is an annual 330 mile ride of horseback that memorializes the largest mass execution in US history. The Dakota 38 Memorial brings national attention to Native American history by remembering this tragedy that has been largely ignored. Second, the political perspective. In 2016, protestors sent a message to the world that Native Americans were standing up for themselves, encouraging indigenous people from around the globe to join in the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, whose location near Standing Rock Reservation constituted and existential threat to the tribe’s culture and way of life. Additionally, Vine DeLoria’s “The Popularity if Being Indian: A New Trend in American Society” and Wilma Mankiller’s Returning the Balance” are examples of decolonization because both believe that political leadership should come from within the Indian community with less reliance and affinity to White American government. Both believe that tribal representation of the national political scene promotes cohesion and individual and tribal identity in the Native American community. In other words, survival and adaptation to the modern world can only be achieved by consistence with tribal values and practices. Third, the social perspective. The film, “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: The Indian Barding Schools” is an effective tool for decolonization. It presents the indigenous people’s point of view as a direct contrast to the Settler Colonialism European-Western point of view of this important historical event. It does this with comprehensive research and emotionally moving testimonies from many victims/survivors.
Along with changing the narrative, the film shows how indigenous people are using their ability to read and understand English learned in the boarding schools to engage on political processes to right the wrongs of Settler Colonialism. Boarding school graduates have become leaders in their communities and preserve culture, fight for equal rights, fair wages and succeeded in taking back the Indian educational system. Fourth, the cultural perspective. In “Two Sioux,” both Luther Standing Bear and Zitkala-Sa graduates of the Indian Residential School System act as culture brokers and are examples of decolonization. Culture brokers explain and justify one culture to another. They help to answer the question “Who are you?” They helped Indians and non-Indians make sense of one another, promote beneficial contacts and understand the differences between the individual groups. Often, culture brokers try to protect one culture against the power of another. By volunteering to go to reservation schools, it can be said the Luther Standing Bear and Zitkala-Sa exhibited the characteristics of culture brokers. Their written record of experiences is used to inform their own culture of Indian heroes who resisted assimilation and successfully adapted to a dominant society so that tribal societies could survive. Finally, the economic perspective. The Cheyenne River Youth Project is an example of decolonization. In the film, “Lakota in America,” the Cheyenne River Reservation is presented. It is in one of the poorest counties in the United States. There is little to do and job prospects are poor. The Cheyenne River Youth Project is a grass roots program dedicated to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a secure future through a variety of culturally sensitive programs and projects. To that end, the organization developed internships that provide young people with meaningful economic skills to help them compete in the job market. This is done with the hope that the next generation will be better positioned to lift up the whole tribe by living and working in the modern world while still keeping the traditional ways alive.
In conclusion, despite war, assimilation, and other oppressive acts that attempted to destroy their culture and existence, Native Americans have survived. They continue to adapt to the changing word around them, finding a place for themselves and their culture and traditions. Living inside and outside mainstream American society, they seen to possess a collective memory of who they once were. It is this, I think, that sustains them and drives them to become what they once were, once again.
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