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Apr 18, 2014
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The Great Forgetting
Posted on Oct 5, 2007
By Eunice Wong
The display on treaties is in a tall, upright case about the size of a large armoire. It features several pieces of parchment under glass. Black letters stenciled on the glass read:
[T]reaties required tribes to cede territory in exchange for money and goods. ... The spiral of dispossession continued until substantial portions of native homelands were lost.
It is not mentioned that these treaties were usually negotiated through extreme coercion and duplicity on the part of the U.S. government. Nor is it mentioned that nearly all were broken.
“The interminable history of diplomatic relations between Indians and white men had before 1832 recorded no single instance of a treaty which had not been presently broken by the white parties to it ... however solemnly embellished with such terms as ‘permanent,’ ‘forever,’ ‘for all time,’ ‘so long as the sun shall rise,’ ” writes Dale Van Every in “The Disinherited: The Lost Birthright of the American Indian.”
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Your Father [the term denoting the U.S. president] has provided a country large enough for all of you, and he advises you to remove to it. There your white brothers will not trouble you; they will have no claim to the land, and you can live upon it, you and all your children, as long as the grass grows or the water runs, in peace and plenty. It will be yours forever.
Jackson, although this remains unmentioned, was one of the most vigorous advocates for the extermination of the indigenous people. One year after he promised that the land “will be yours forever,” he pushed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 through Congress. This bill forcibly uprooted 70,000 people of more than 60 tribes, including Cherokees, Chickasaws, Seminoles, Choctaws, Creeks, Shawnees, Senecas and Delawares, from their homes east of the Mississippi, resulting in as many as 30,000 deaths. Twenty-five million acres of land were stolen from Native Americans for white settlers and their black slaves.
A long, curving, freestanding wall in the center of the gallery displays close to a hundred guns mounted under glass, all pointing to the right. A short paragraph, stenciled in black on the glass and tucked in the small space between two rifles, states:
In the 1840s, Americans came to believe that the United States had a divine right to acquire all lands between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As newcomers pushed across the continent, Western tribes led by Rain in the Face, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise and Chief Joseph, faced losing their lands. Warriors used many of the guns seen here to defend their lives.
There is a single reference in the museum to the near-extermination of the buffalo, which was catastrophic to the tribes of the Great Plains that depended on the herds for their existence. The U.S. government promoted the slaughter because it accelerated the extermination of the Native Americans. A paragraph stenciled on the gun display reads:
By 1889, the buffalo population of North America had been reduced to 1,000 from more than 50 million in 1830. Guns such as these Sharps rifles, known as buffalo guns, and the Remington single-shot, killed most of them. The killing transformed the lives of Plains Indians who depended on the buffalo.
It was not the Sharps or the Remingtons that killed the buffalo. Men wielded those guns. Once again the museum throws up its “Great Storm” shroud over history, obliterating names, deliberate tactics, and especially culpability.
We are molded as much by the histories we stifle as by the myths we create to exalt ourselves. Those who ignore the truth about their past are condemned to replicate, over and over, their crimes. The devastation in Iraq is the legacy of lessons unlearned, from the genocide of Native Americans, to slavery, to the Mexican war, to the invasion of Cuba and the Philippines, to Vietnam.
America’s brutal cycle of imperial invasion and occupation is as enduring as the cultivated illusion of its goodness. And the first step toward breaking this cycle and exposing this illusion is facing our history and ourselves. The National Museum of the American Indian feeds the mass amnesia that makes our national psychosis possible.
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