“Wherever we went, the soldiers came to kill us, And it was all our own country. It was ours already when the Wasichus made the treaty with Red Cloud, that said it would be ours is long as grass should grow and water flow. That was only eight winters before, and they were chasing us now because we remembered and they forgot.”
― Black Elk
Here in the U.S., what we call home was stolen from others. Our ancestors were immigrants. The people who lived here – possibly as many as 112 million – welcomed them, taught them skills, and shared their food. Yes, they said, this is home. It can be your home too.
In exchange, they were killed, deceived, rounded up, and moved like cattle.
That’s a grim way to start a post but today is a good time to acknowledge the truth.
Today we celebrate the beginning of the greatest genocide the world has ever known. We elevate a man whose actions were considered ruthless even in his own time and make him the hero of an outdated American mythology where white Europeans are ordained by God to have dominion over the earth and all animals and people living on the earth.
We honor the indigenous people of North America. We remember the women, children, and men—sometimes complete bands—that were slaughtered, along with the wisdom and potential that went with them. We celebrate the resiliency of those who survived. We recognize the 574 tribes of Native Americans in the United States today.
Oklahoma has the second largest population of American Indians in the country and is home to 39 tribes, only five of which are indigenous to this state. The other thirty-four tribes were forced to leave their native lands and relocate here between 1814 and 1824 under the command of Andrew Jackson.
Jackson, the seventh president of the United States and the face featured on our $20 bill, was pretty darn awful when it came to American Indians. Mostly he is known for the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forced eastern tribes to move west, resulting in the Trail of Tears. There’s a lot that can be said about Jackson but the truth is that everything he did was sanctioned by the government. Treaties which stripped tribes of their lands. Military assaults that resulted in more than 25 million acres being taken from tribes and transferred to white cotton farmers.
It wasn’t enough to share this home with those who already lived here. We wanted it all to ourselves. We were civilized. We were superior.
In 1823, the Supreme Court declared Indians could live on land within the United States but could not own those lands. In other words, the “right of discovery” by white Europeans and their descendants was superior to the “right of occupancy” of those who already lived there.
Oklahoma was supposed to be the answer. Native Americans were moved here to what was called “Indian Territory” because no one thought the U.S. would grow west of the Mississippi. But then gold and oil were discovered and even the rugged rocky land of Oklahoma, originally reserved for Native Americans, became highly favored. So the reservations were largely cut up into allotments that allowed white settlers to stake a claim.
The Land Rush of 1889 resulted in approximately 50,000 people swarming Oklahoma on opening day. And those who crept into the territory early and hid in the night only to stake claim first thing in the morning, essentially stealing a leg up on others, were called Sooners. A designation that was derogatory but eventually became a point of pride.
We are a nation that is proud to have stolen homes. Proud to have broken treaties. Proud to declare ourselves better and more deserving than those who lived here before us. And anyone who comes after us.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. As James Baldwin said,
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
After over 30 years of planning, funding, and defunding, the First Americans Museum has finally opened in Oklahoma City. This 175,000 square foot building sits on 40 acres of land and recognizes the 39 tribes of this state. The deputy director of the museum, Shoshana Wasserman, said, “It’s almost like this project had to go through the same historical trauma that our tribes did.”
In the early 1900s, countless Native American objects were removed from Oklahoma and placed in museums. Objects sacred to tribes and used for ceremonies were treated as curios. Some even removed from graves. Can you imagine? Really, can you imagine?
Thousands of those objects were brought to Washington DC, where they sat in storage for over a century and were never displayed. Now, more than 100 of these sacred objects have come home to Oklahoma. Currently on display at the First American Museum, they will also be used during special events and celebrations as originally intended when each piece was created so long ago.
It’s not my place to speak about the relationship between Native peoples and home. To even attempt to would be insulting.
All I know is this:
It’s way past time that we, as a country, acknowledge our past. It’s time to correct the lies we’ve been telling for over 400 years.
Before any of us called this place home, these lands were already home to tens of millions of others.
Today we remember. Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.