Callous comments reflect historic erasure of Native people

Last Thursday, I, along with millions of other Americans, sat down on the couch to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. At my house, it’s a tradition: come downstairs in your pajamas and watch the floats and lip syncing top-40 artists while Thanksgiving dinner begins to simmer in the kitchen. It’s a bit cheesy, but like the Rose Bowl parade, it happens every year, so I watch it every year.

This time, however, was a bit different. This time, the parade was more than a shameful plug for the new ABC shows. It was a site where racial inequity was quietly pushed under the rug. Firstly, there were the protesters who demonstrated their anger and frustration in response to the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. They were promptly arrested and, to my knowledge, their presence was never made known to the viewers of the program. I only found out about the protest after the fact.

Secondly, there was a quick, paternalistic comment about one of the marching bands from the Bahamas. The commentators noted that the band served as a way to deter Bahamian kids from engaging with drugs or violence, and he emphasized that the audience should feel good about knowing such information. This, of course, fails to note the European and American influence that has shaped the country’s economy since Columbus first landed there 400 years ago. To me, the comments seemed to be a means of showcasing a developing country’s socioeconomic struggles within the frame of American capitalism, completely removing the element of historical blame.

What was most striking to me was a quick introductory sentence to the float sponsored by the tourism department of South Dakota. The float itself featured a miniature version of Mount Rushmore, complete with people dressed as mountain climbers pretending to scale it. One announcer exclaimed, “And here we have Mount Rushmore, a perfect symbol of democracy.” At this point, I nearly spit out my pumpkin-flavored coffee. To me, a carving into a mountain centered squarely in stolen land illegally acquired by the federal government from the Sioux tribes is more exemplary of dominance, not democracy.

Full disclosure: I’ve been to Mount Rushmore. Admittedly, it’s a great artistic feat, but when visiting the site, there is absolutely no mention of the land itself. There is no sign that marks it as land that had been occupied by indigenous people for centuries, was then promised to them in the mid 19th century only to have it stolen away several decades later when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. The thousands of tourists that venture to the attraction are never told about the historic struggle of the Sioux and hundreds of other Native tribes who watched the land their ancestors lived on disappear.

Even the faces of Mount Rushmore completely disrespect Native peoples. George Washington fought against a confederation of Native tribes during the French and Indian War so that Britain could gain control of the territory. Unlike the French who, while far from engaging in perfect relationships with Native peoples, attempted mutual reciprocity with the indigenous people, the British were focused on dominating the land and its inhabitants. Thomas Jefferson oversaw the purchase of 800,000 acres of “empty” land, resulting in the exploration of Western territory that began a legacy of theft and murder of Native peoples west of the Mississippi. Abraham Lincoln approved of the largest mass execution in American history, in which 38 Dakota Indians were hanged for their role in the Santee Sioux uprising in Minnesota. Theodore Roosevelt established the National Parks Service, which sought to “preserve” America’s natural beauty by forcing any and all indigenous people living there to move elsewhere so that white tourists could visit and the nature would be undisturbed. Never mind that those same indigenous people had been living there for centuries and had already kept it beautifully. Furthermore, he referred to the Sand Creek massacre—an attack on Cheyenne and Arapaho people that resulted in the deaths of 600, most of whom were women and children—as “a righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier” and remarked about Native people more generally, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe 9 out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” These are the men who have been carved into the mountainside of stolen Native land.

Most Americans are never told this, and quick comments such as the one made during the parade further clouds the complex legacy of American expansion that has been devastating to Native peoples and whose effects are still felt today. Worse yet, the context of the comment is a Thanksgiving parade. The holiday itself chooses one moment in time, a brief peaceful exchange between the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims, and turns it into the creation story of America. Never mind that due to Chief Massasoit’s mercy, the Pilgrims lived and were able to pave the way for thousands of other European settlers who brought smallpox with them and consequently killed over 75% of the indigenous population in Massachusetts.

The erasure of Native people and the disregard for their sovereignty happens at the level of history textbooks, which ignore Indians until the West is conquered by cowboys some time during the 1800s. It happens within Congress, which barely managed to pass the Violence Against Women Act that would punish non-Natives who sexually assault women on reservations because it would take away some degree of power from the federal government. It happens in the environmental destruction of Native lands that happens across the entire continent, from the Tar Sands to the uranium mines on Navajo territory.

Callous comments about the democratic nature of Mount Rushmore are only a small part of the ongoing violence against Native peoples. When we celebrate Thanksgiving, we celebrate centuries of indigenous peoples being pushed to the margins.

—Meaghan Hughes ’15 is a psychology major.

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