American Indian Relations, Past and Present
They tell ya “Honey, you can still be an Indian down at the ‘Y’ on Saturday nights. -- "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," Buffy Sainte-Marie
The question of whether European Americans feel guilty for taking over American Indian land is a complicated one. I think many Americans do feel bad about the situation of the native tribes, when they think about it at all, but not necessarily bad enough to do anything about it, and certainly not bad enough to give the land back.
The question of whether European Americans even should feel guilty is equally thorny. The ancestors of a significant percentage of European Americans today were not directly involved in killing the native peoples and taking their land, though they benefited after the fact from it. And even among those who are descended from soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars, or traders who passed along smallpox infested blankets, or even scientists and other educated people who used their intellect to construct elaborate justifications for the land grab and near-genocide of America's first peoples, very few modern Americans share their prejudices and hatred of the native tribes.
I personally do feel guilty about our past treatment of American Indian tribes, yes. I think what happened to them was appalling and frequently outright criminal. However, I also think that what's past is past, and cannot be changed. It is more important that we work to ensure that the injustices of the past are not repeated.
The Alcatraz Proclamation
In 1969, a group of American Indian Movement (AIM) activists and others occupied the then-deserted island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay for 19 months, claiming jursidiction under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. They issued the following proclamation:
We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian reservation, as determined by the white man's own standards. By this, we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations in that:
1. It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.
2. It has no fresh running water.
3. It has inadequate sanitation facilities.
4. There are no oil or mineral rights.
5. There is no industry and so unemployment is very great.
6. There are no health-care facilities.
7. The soil is rocky and non-productive, and the land does not support game.
8. There are no educational facilities.
9. The population has always exceeded the land base.
10. The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others.
I learned a safety rule, I don’t know who to thank: Don't stand between the reservation and the corporate bank. They send in federal tanks. It isn’t nice but it’s reality. -- "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," Buffy Sainte-Marie
And the sad fact is, the injustices of the past are still being repeated. Indian reservations throughout North America suffer from extraordinarily high rates of poverty, alcoholism, and unemployment. On some reservations, the unemployment rate is as high as 90%. The life expectancy of many Indians, especially Indian men, is on par with that of third world countries, and Indian tribes suffer from the highest rate of teen suicides of any ethnic group in the United States: more than three times the national average. Crime rates on many reservations are very high, and significant percentages of the homes on many reservations lack adequate plumbing, sanitation, and electricity. The Indian Housing Authority estimates that only 68% of Indian households even own a telephone.
A lot of whites wonder why the Indians haven't adjusted all that well to white culture when, "Heck, my grandparents came over here from Holland - didn't speak a word of English and didn't have a dime - but they managed to do all right, and they never went on welfare either." That's the way Royal Cupp put it, and you've heard the same thing from other people in other places. Well, there's a much bigger jump from Indian to white than from Holland to America. -- It's Not the End of the Earth, But You Can See It From Here, Roger Welsch
In recent years, many tribes have undertaken renewed efforts to preserve and celebrate their cultural heritage, in the hope that doing do will renew the peoples' pride in their heritage and help reduce rates of alcoholism, violent crime, and other proplems. Other efforts have been more controversial, and many of the founding and/or active members of AIM are jailed or dead.
Although disastrous previous policies, such as the practice of taking Indian children from their parents and educating them in boarding schools and the "termination" movement of the 1950s and 60's, have been discontinued, there is clearly still a long way to go before white-Indian relations have healed.
20th Century Indian Policy
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