Thoughts with Richard Bleil
Yesterday was Columbus Day for much of the nation but will be Native American Day for me regardless of where I am living. I have heard it said that America is the greatest nation that anyone has ever stolen. Today it’s been established that Leif Erikson was here hundreds of years with the Vikings before Columbus, but of course they didn’t publicize it which is why he rarely gets credit for the discovery. But, of course, thousands and thousands of years before Leif, the Native Americans were here.
The biggest problem that the Native Americans had (in my opinion) with the settlers were cultural clashes. The Native people were very open, welcoming and accommodating to the settlers regardless of what the history books say. It was the Native people who taught the settlers to bury heads of fish with their crops to improve yield, something the Native people would say was “giving back to Mother Earth”, but was, of course, the earliest form of fertilizer.
The reality is that, when the settlers landed on the American shores, there were more than enough Native people to slaughter them or push them back into the ocean if that were their desire. Instead, they gave them a chance and helped them out. The settlers had more advanced weaponry based on gunpowder, but also viewed land as property, something the Native people never did. As the Native people would migrate and move with the seasons and game, the settlers instead built permanent structures on the land they claimed as their own. Most of us have heard the legend of the sale of Staten Island for a handful of beads, but the Native people living there were under the impression that they were being paid to relocate temporarily. No doubt, it wasn’t even the “cost” of the beads that led to them agreeing to relocate, but just the friendly and accommodating nature of the Native peoples.
Yes, there were war-like tribes, but they weren’t very common. Scalping was actually taught to the Native people by the French. When the land was still up for grabs from settlers from various nations, France hand hoped to grab a large part of the new lands on the west and stoked the war between the Native people and the settlers from England. They paid the Native people for each settler they killed, and the proof of such acts were the scalps.
Recently I was at a Lewis and Clark Museum, who are still very much revered as heroes. There is no doubt that it took great bravery to undergo such an exploratory expedition as they did, but much of the heroic tales of evil and violent Native people were largely exaggerations and misunderstandings. Again, there were more than enough Native people along the way to stop the expedition if that was their intention, but because it was funded by the US military, the stories Lewis and Clark told were embellished to justify the funding of their brilliant heroism and bravery. Another member of the expedition force (was it Meriwether Lewis?) traveled with them and maintained his own journal, but the stories were quite different showing the Native people to be hospitable and friendly.
Today, here in America, we all live on the Native people’s lands. We’re still unfair to the people who were shepherds of these lands long before we arrived. We still run oil pipelines through their holy lands, withhold funds promised to them through treaties and requiring lawsuits to provide what was promised, and it wasn’t long ago that we were kidnapping children off of reservations to force them into white culture.
Although the Native people were promised their own lands and self-governance, it seems as if it has never really come to pass. In 1973, approximately 200 Oglala Americans occupied the town of Wounded Knee, the sight of a slaughter of Native people decades earlier in a botched attempt to disarm them. In 1973, a siege of the town ensued resulting in the death of two Native Americans, and another fourteen being wounded. I often think about this in comparison to the Bundy brothers, ranchers, taking over and occupying a building in Arizona in 2016. The white occupants were cut off as the building was surrounded, but there was no siege. In fact, federal officers allowed food and supplies to be sent into the building as the standoff resumed. It’s quite a difference in the way they were treated with about fifty years separating the two incidents.
It kind of embarrasses me to be part of the culture that still won’t see the Native people as even people. I appreciate my Native brothers and sisters, and apologize for the way you’ve been treated. I stand with you.