The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors. Chief Plenty Coups, Crow
We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. Native American Proverb
Several months have passed since our five-week-southwest journey with friends from southern France. Embedded in my nostalgic reveries are images of unparalleled beauty, lush ascending and descending valleys, graceful rolling mountains, and gigantic rock formations of multitudinous colors and shapes. We and our friends were in perpetual awe of Nature’s grandeur. In all my travels across the globe, this trip will remain as one of the most memorable. As a complement to our euphoria, we listened to the evocative western frontier American masterpieces of Antonin Dvorak and Aaron Copland. The sonorous strings of Dvorak’s String Quartet in F Major,Op. 96 and the blaring horns of Copland’s Music of America (Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man) echoed the spiritual tranquility of these incredibly majestic landscapes.
Mesmerized, I imagined this rustic scenery as the backdrop of the galloping cowboys of my 1950s youth when shooting marbles and playing cowboys and Indians were king. In our fanciful play we imitated the wild west frontier on the silver screens of our family’s black and white Philco. Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and the Cisco Kid were our heroes. Like them, we chased the bad guys, cattle rustlers and Indians. But that was a distant time of innocent youth. That innocence quickly faded when I considered the Native Americans’ painful loss of this land to westward expansion. I imagined this territory inhabited by millions of Native tribal communities. Then, buffalo and other wildlife roamed freely on the range. Today, the buffalo, once nearly extinct, are contained on land preserves; Native homelands are isolated, barren flatlands. Our country’s historical treatment of Native populations has caused generational problems and suffering. A further examination of why is beyond the scope of this brief blog.
Prior to our trip, a friend visiting from Wisconsin suggested that I read Timothy Eagan’s book, Short Nights of the Spirit Catcher, about the famed early twentieth century photographer, Edward S. Curtis, who worked tirelessly and industriously to capture in photographs the rapidly fading culture of Native Americans. His images are haunting.
In posed profiles, he captured the sadness and suffering of vanishing Native American tribes. Other photographs depicted the daily activities of Indian life. Thanks to his interest in the new technologies of the camera and the recorder, he preserved in photographs and recordings disintegrating cultures and dying languages. Even today, the Native way of living struggles mightily against the tide of assimilation.
This became starkly evident when one afternoon during a refueling stop, I picked up a copy of the May 11, Navajo Times. Reading it was akin to peering into life on the reservation. Within its pages were a full-page congratulatory ad listing the names of all the graduates of Navajo Technical University, articles about family services on the reservation, the construction of a new high school, racial profiling, a heartfelt Happy Mother’s Day tribute to a deceased mother, a column on the Navajo Blessingway ceremony and other general interest stories pertinent to the local Indian community. Interestingly, there was a front page article about scientists and students from Notre Dame working with the local community to clean up an abandoned uranium mine site that had been an environmental hazard to the residents of the reservation. But the most intriguing story, a guest column, was written by a young Navajo woman about her tenacity to hold onto her Navajo heritage amidst the overwhelming majority American culture. I resonated with her struggle to maintain her Native identity. I, too, struggle to seek balance among the tensions among my multiple ethnic, cultural, racial and linguistic identities. I wrote about it in an article that was re-published in an intercultural textbook (Among Us: Essays on Identity, Belonging, and Intercultural Competence).
When we returned from our trip, I vowed to learn more about the Native American experience in the United States. My desire to know more flows from my own cultural background. My paternal great-grandmother, known as Papoose, and deceased before my birth, was from a little known Louisiana tribe, the Houma Indians. I know her only from a family photograph in which she is dressed in tribal garb. I’ve always taken great pride in sharing this kinship with Native Americans.
My other, perhaps more intimate contact, dates to my time as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Humboldt State University. The campus, nestled among the redwoods and overlooking Humboldt Bay, was home to the Center for Indian Community Development. Several tribes reside in this northern, remote section of California – Hupa, Wiyot (HSU was once the land of the Wiyots), Karok, and Yurok. The Center’s director, a Hupa Indian woman, personally took me to meet with many tribal communities to discover how best the university and the respective tribes could align in partnership. During my time at HSU, I learned about the peculiar status of these tribal communities as sovereign and independent nations within the United States.
But it was through the reading of Benjamin Madley’s book, American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe that I learned in more detail of the horrifying state and government sponsored slaughter of Native American tribal communities. Wanton killing of women, children and the elderly, enslavement of surviving men, total destruction of homes, livestock and agricultural fields. All of these were part of institutionalized annihilation of the Indian. Madley’s book details these gruesome killing campaigns in California from roughly 1846-1873. The Indian was defined by Anglo-Americans as sub-human and an enemy to western expansion. This demonization was sufficient justification for genocide. In 1845, the native populations of California stood at roughly 150,000. By 1880, they had shrunk to less than 20,000. Despite the constant onslaught of killing raids and death by disease, the resilience of Native Americans in this country is remarkable. America is soaked in blood, and even more so when the mutilation of black bodies in slavery and the needless spillage of blood during the Civil War are added. There has been talk nationally about reparations to the ancestors of enslaved African Americans. I would argue, too, that an equally strong case can be made for reparations to Native Americans. Their continued suffering is our nation’s shame.