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Walter Rodgers

Uncle Sam’s shameful treatment of today's American Indians

One hundred and thirty four years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, the United States is still cruelly punishing the native Americans for their resistance to white encroachment in the lands west of the Mississippi. We treat Iraqis and Afghans better than native Americans.

By Walt Rodgers / October 4, 2010

I have a friend, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, who has a provocative theory. He says that when the United States goes to war in a foreign country, its armed forces – win, lose, or draw – leave behind a spirit of goodness and decency, which, despite the violence of war, leavens society, improving the lives of women and the poor.

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The jury is still out on Iraq and Afghanistan. But wars in Vietnam, Germany, Japan, and Korea tend to confirm his theory. There remains, however, a glaring exception that should shame all Americans. One hundred and thirty-four years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, we still cruelly punish the native Americans for their resistance to white encroachment in the lands west of the Mississippi.

A few years ago I was fishing the Little Bighorn, a trout river flowing through the Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana. Lush, green, irrigated crops grew on either side. Well-heeled fishermen pumped cash into the area. A railroad ran into the reservation, giving the Crow additional income from leases to coal-mining companies.

But I also wanted my wife to see by contrast what Uncle Sam gave the Northern Cheyenne for a reservation just to the east. There, poverty was appalling. Countless auto hulks rusted in fields that could support no crops. Along Route 212, small white crosses with plastic flowers were planted about every mile, tragic signs of Cheyenne killed, most probably in alcohol-related traffic accidents. The Cheyenne reservation was parched and brown, supporting only outcroppings of scrub pine.

Guess which of those tribes allied with the US Cavalry and scouted for the US Army against their fellow Indians? And then guess which tribe resisted white encroachment and participated in the massacre of General Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn a few miles away?

Jim Adams, a historian and former editor of the national weekly newspaper Indian Country Today, says the maltreatment of the Indians in the Trans-Mississippi West “is directly proportional to their resistance to migrating whites in the 19th century. Those who took arms and gave the US Cavalry its greatest thrashings have been treated most harshly from the 1876 Custer massacre until today.”

Americans fancy themselves a fair and forgiving people. Today, we are one of Vietnam’s largest trading partners. The US and Vietnamese navies recently conducted joint naval maneuvers. But our discrimination against the victorious tribes at Little Bighorn is unconscionable. We treat Iraqis and Afghans better than native Americans.

If you associate reservations with shiny casinos, go look up tribal health and poverty statistics. From unemployment to disease and suicide, they paint a picture of third-world conditions.