"The Americas were, above all, lands filled with spirits, deities, and sacred places sanctified by centuries of familiarity and mystery. Each society in the Americas in 1492 considered its homeland a holy place. Past, present, and future depends upon the intervention of the spirits within the sacred spaces defined by each society. Cardinal directions and precise landmarks such as mountains, valleys, and rivers gave each homeland its own sacred geography. Beyond this earth-world, as underworld, a sky-worl d and many layers in between made up the Native American cosmos."
I BEGIN this article with a quote from "American Civilization on the Eve of the Columbus Voyages," written by William Swagerty and John Aubrey and published by Newberry Library of Chicago, because most Americans can't understand where Native America is today unless they have a small understanding of where we were 500 years ago.
Whenever I write about the way things are in Indian country and attempt to explain why they are that way, I frequently receive letters from people who tell me to stop whining about yesterday. "This is 1992 not 1892, so get on with it and tell your Indian readers to join the rest of America" is the comment I get most often.
Or, "You are a conquered people and like all defeated people you just have to learn to live by the laws and the ways of your conquerors."
These two comments exemplify the flawed moral reasoning that makes white America so ignorant of Indian America. Perhaps many of the tribes that were overrun or relocated from the east coast could be considered conquered, but many tribes in the West retained much of their ancestral lands and surrendered millions of acres to the invaders not through military defeat but by signing legal treaties, nation to nation, with the United States.
In exchange for signing these treaties, giving up millions of acres of land and opting for peace, the Indian nations were given specific treaty rights. These included health care, educational opportunities, hunting and fishing rights, self-government, and tribal lands with clearly defined borders that would remain under the domain of the Indian people.
These rights were guaranteed by treaties that are still legal and binding because they have never been abrogated by Congress. If the rights guaranteed by the treaties had been honored, the American Indian would not be the poorest of the poor in a nation we once owned. Instead, the US government started to look upon those rights as a weapon that could be used to further subjugate Indians.
Treaty rights were viewed as social welfare rather than as rights guaranteed by a treaty that was to be in effect "as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers flow."
The American Indian, although subjected to hundreds of experimental programs intended to destroy culture, language, and religion, has - for the most part - been able to escape the clutches of mainstream America. The determination to remain a people free to decide their own future, retain their own culture, speak their own language, and practice their own spirituality is viewed by most Americans as somehow un-American.
And yet, no American has been more patriotic in defending America's freedom than the Native American. Per capita, Indians have been among the most decorated of soldiers in defending the United States of America in time of war.
Lakota Holy Man Frank Fools Crow once said that it is much easier for the white man to say let's get on with tomorrow because for him there is no cultural yesterday. "He left the homes of his ancestors buried in lands across the ocean. The Indian walks on the soil where his ancestors are buried. The Lakota people walk through the dust of the homes of their ancestors dating back thousands of years. Our land is our culture."
It seems that when the subject matter drifts to the American Indian, the white man says, "Let's get on with tomorrow." As Indian people, our past is a part of our tomorrow. We are not living in the past when we talk about our sacred treaties, sacred sites, or the visions handed down to us through the oral history of our ancestors. We are talking about yesterday, today, and tomorrow. To us they are all one and the same.
But when we try to make clear the way white historians have distorted some of our beliefs and attempted to change them, we run into a new term meant to belittle these efforts: "politically correct." When tribal leaders began to ask why the Custer Battlefield was named after the loser and not for the winners, or why only the dead of the cavalry and not the dead of the Indian warriors were honored there, they were accused of trying to be "politically correct."
But it was history, not politics, that needed correcting. In this instance, fact finally won out. Custer Battlefield will now be known as Little Big Horn National Monument.
This same verbal arrow, "politically correct," is also being shot at attempts to change racist mascot names, and at the city of Berkeley's commendable change of Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day.
Since 1492, the Indian has adapted in order to survive, but we have not given up those things that have made us a unique people in a unique land. For every Indian who has been assimilated into mainstream America, there are thousands who have not. So don't hold this assimilated Indian up to the rest of us as an example.
There are yet thousands of Indians who live on their ancestral lands, practice their ancestral ways, and want nothing more than to be left in peace. They accept the modern ways because it means survival, but a sacredness within them will always remain apart from mainstream America.
They are Lakota/Dakota, Ojibwa, Navajo, Pima, Cherokee, Creek, Cahuilla, Nez Perce, Gros Ventre, and on and on, who were the original landlords of the Western Hemisphere and who still live in harmony with the land.
For once, and the quincentennial of Columbus may be the year it could happen, white America can make an effort to see this nation through the eyes of the Indian people, and maybe then they will understand why Indians will never be assimilated into a melting pot that would destroy them as a people.
Although their land base has greatly diminished and some cultures have been destroyed or altered, the one thing that has remained, even though it had to go underground for a few hundred years in order to survive, is the spirituality of the Indian people. Their spirituality lives on, and having never died, need not be reborn. Perhaps this is the legacy of the indigenous people since Christopher Columbus.