The Disintegration and Reclamation of Indigenous Identity in America (from the archives: 12.13.2006)
European settlers, civilized folk with a strong avarice for economic and territorial affluence in the New World, fought a dark and dangerous indigenous people for nearly three centuries after the arrival of renowned explorer Christopher Columbus. Offerings of Indian Territory were extended in an attempt to peacefully divide the land among both races, but the Indians resisted and violent battles ensued. Great American heroes were born out of such battles and yet benevolence prevailed as Americans generously offered gifts of English language and Christian religion to civilize the remaining savages. Unable to achieve the desired effect, the Indians have remained an unresolved problem for America, a country fondly referred to by its thriving citizens as ?land of the free and home of the brave.
Indigenous history reveals a very different story, one of the invasion and occupation of the Great Turtle Island, genocide of the original island people, and for those few remaining, ethnic cleansing through assimilation. Forced to abandon their native identities and adopt European-American culture, indigenous people have been coerced to submit to an occupying force and are further marginalized by the power of the English language. In both its euphemistic and discriminatory capacity, English has bound Native Americans to a history and identity which is not their own, and in a way their own language could never have betrayed them.
To say these stories possess the dramatic elements of a theatrical production is a valid argument as it has already been demonstrated. The Euro-American version of history, much like Prospero’s narrative in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, offers a triumphant telling of European colonization. As Paul Brown remarks in “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” Prospero calls to his various listeners “and invites them to recognize themselves as subjects of his discourse, as beneficiaries of his civil largess” (P. Brown 218). Shakespeare, understanding the usurping power of Europe in America, calls attention to Prospero’s mastery of language as power of “civility” over “savagery.” Interestingly, the English language, as used to strip indigenous people of their culture, eventually empowered them to address their oppressors and reclaim what is left of their Native American identity. By recording the struggles they have faced, Indians have elevated themselves far beyond mere “linguistic subjects of the master language” (P. Brown 220).
Historically, the most powerful linguistic tool employed by expansionists was the euphemistic term “Manifest Destiny.” This concept legitimized American advances into territory already inhabited by Mexicans and American Indians. As Dee Brown describes in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, “To justify breaches of the ‘permanent Indian frontier,’ the policy makers in Washington invented Manifest Destiny “The Europeans and all their descendants were ordained by destiny to rule all of America. They were the dominant race” (8). While Americans were purportedly fated by God to expand in the name of their great experiment of liberty, ironically, this liberty was not meant for all people. Indians were rounded up while soldiers “concentrated them into camps” (D. Brown 7), allowing for American retrieval of Appalachian gold. Brown’s naming of a recognized dominant race indicates the point at which Indians became aware of two choices. They could either fight to retain the freedom of their land or submit to relocation, making way for the American harvest of natural resources with the promise of provisions in return. When Little Crow, chief of the Mdewkanton Santee, toured the rapid developing eastern cities, he “was convinced that the power of the United States could not be resisted” (D. Brown 9), and yet he was “determined to oppose any further surrender of their lands” (D. Brown 9). Black Kettle, leader of the Cheyenne, trusted the American offer of provisions as payment for his lands and relocated to ensure tribal survival. Black Kettle was killed on a reservation along side 103 fellow Indians in an attack of betrayal by American soldiers. Manifest Destiny was clearing the way and “like the antelope and the buffalo, the ranks of the proud Cheyenne were thinning to extinctio”? (D. Brown 174). By the late 1950’s only the terms had changed. Leonard Peltier, in Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance, describes “the most feared words in our vocabulary: ‘termination’ and ‘relocation.’ To us, those words were an assault on our very existence” (Peltier 80), as was the FBI term “neutralization.”
Another effective tactic employed by American colonists was dysphemism, linguistically painting a damaging picture of indigenous culture. “Savage” and “heathen” were common terms associated with Indian people regardless of the observation Christopher Columbus had made, “So tractable, so peaceable, are these people” (D. Brown 1). During the winter of 1868, “In his official report of victory over the ‘savage butchers’ and ‘savage bands of cruel marauders,’ General Sheridan rejoiced” (D. Brown 169) in what could be considered his own savage slaughter, although he didn’t label himself as such. Placing the words into written military record simply reinforced a long standing stereotype already in place. Still, the lasting effects of his influence are evident in Sheridan’s most famous spoken words, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” (D. Brown 171) which was “honed into the American aphorism The only good Indian is a dead Indian” (D. Brown 172). Opposition to this type of attack on the Indians proved futile as only victory mattered to the government. When “white men who had known and liked Black Kettle attacked Sheridan’s war policy, Sheridan brushed them aside as ‘aiders and abettors’ of savages who murdered without mercy” (D. Brown 170).
Sheridan proved quite influential in popular American belief. This same accusation of “aiding and abetting” savages was bestowed upon Leonard Peltier more than one hundred years later. He has resided in prison since 1976 with no substantial evidence supporting murder charges for the deaths of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Considered a political prisoner by many, he is suspected to be the scapegoat for a failed attempt by the FBI to exterminate more Indians, clearing the way to the reservation’s Uranium enriched soil. Former Attorney General and Peltier’s defense attorney, Ramsey Clark, in his preface to Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance says, “There’s no question but that our own government was generating violence against traditional Indians at Pine Ridge at that time as a means of control and domination, some believe on behalf of energy interests” (Peltier xvii). Peltier himself says, “I shot only in self defense. I wasn’t trying to take lives but to save lives of a defenseless group of Indian people. That’s the only “aiding and abetting” I did that day” (Peltier 170). Peltier has become the symbol of “an Indian who dared to stand up to defend his people” (Peltier 14), his story bearing strong resemblance to early Indian warriors who rallied against oppression for the health and well being of their tribes. For this reason, he and they share the charge of aiding and abetting, although this phrase is no longer as damaging to Peltier as is a new legal term. “So simple an act by the courts as changing my ‘consecutive’ sentences to ‘concurrent’ sentences would give me my freedom” (Peltier 171), a poignant example of bondage through language. Prison guards who attempted to cage Peltier’s spirit as well as his body often used degradation for provocation, talking about “how stupid and filthy Indian people were, about how ugly our women were and how they had such loose morals, about how our children were ‘defectives’ and should be rounded up and shot like stray dogs” (Peltier 146). Peltier returned only his strength of silence.
This constant labeling was a large part of the language that Americans insisted was superior as they stripped Indian children of their native tongue. In 1884, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin “attended White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana where she experienced humiliation and insensitive treatment” (Fetterley 532). She would “actively test the chains which tightly bound [her] individuality like a mummy for burial” (Fetterley 555). Bonnin’s mention of burial is telling as Americans attempted to assimilate the Indian children, a process in which much of their culture became dead to them. In 1953, Peltier attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota. He, like Bonnin, was forbidden to speak anything but English without the consequence of a beating. ?Still, we did. We’d sneak behind the building the way kids today sneak out to smoke behind the school, and we’d talk Indian to each other” (Peltier 78). Indian language, the connection it embodied to the Earth and to others, became contraband, criminalized for decades.
During their Americanization, Bonnin and Peltier found themselves “drawn to both cultures ‘spread eagle between them’ nearly torn apart by the conflicts and contradictions between the two” (Peltier 79). Claiming his individual identity, Leonard embraced each name he was given. He is prideful of his connection with French fur hunters through Peltier and recognizes Leonard for its meaning of lion-hearted. His Indian names include Wind Chases the Sun, symbolic of freedom, and He Leads the People, a call to action. The Christian and American labels, which can be interpreted as an act of assimilation, are respectfully declined as Peltier says of his indigenous identity, “I am a native of Great Turtle Island. Our sacred land is under occupation and we are now all prisoners” (63). Bonnin, “in discarding her white American names, gave herself her own tribal name, Zitkala-s’, which means Red Bird” (Fetterley 532). This identification provided a solid base from which all other thought flowed for each author.
A focus on connection between Indian people is what inspired the English writings of Dee Brown, Leonard Peltier and Zitkala-s’. Dee Brown reached back through the past collecting sources of forgotten oral history to “fashion a narrative of the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it, using their own words when possible” (D. Brown xviii). Hoping that these words have not been dulled, Brown explains that “we rarely know the full power of words, in print or spoken” (D. Brown xvi). The number of books sold is testament to the clarity of the words sharp truth. Peltier is compelled to join his story with Brown’s history because “speaking out is my first duty, my first obligation to myself and to my people” (Peltier 9) and “Only when I identify with my people do I cease being a mere statistic, a meaningless number, and become a human being” (Peltier 43). Peltier, in particular, is most separated from his people behind prison walls. In writing, he is able to break free like Wind Chases the Sun. Combining her award winning mastery of oratory skills stemming from Indian tradition, along with her American English writing skills, Zitkala-s’ publishes accounts of her childhood for “Atlantic Monthly”, providing a realistic and softer presentation of Indian family life and criticism of assimilation practices. Her regionalist “desire to tell Indian legends and stories in an Indian voice in written English may have created an intolerable opposition to the oral story telling tradition she hoped to ‘transplant'” (Fetterley 534). Caught somewhere between Indian and white society, her return to advocacy, or “life as a reformer may indicate that the price she paid for attaining the language’ was the loss of place” (Fetterley 534). Still, her struggle is documented and what culture could be preserved is.
People of indigenous descent have joined in a great discourse with traditional white American history. Their tale, after centuries of struggle, has just recently reached a greater audience with a fairly new possession of writing skills within a much longer history of oral culture. The English language, which originally attempts to bind them, is used to set them free because people, not the language itself, defines cultures as inclusive or other. Through their history, novels and poems, each author extends an invitation to a middle ground with no retaliation for the crimes committed against their people. As Shakespeare’s Prospero eventually learns, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” (Shakespeare 75, 28)
Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tempest Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. William Shakespeare, The Tempest; A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000, 10-87
Brown, Paul. “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’; The Tempest as the Discourse of Colonialism” William Shakespeare, The Tempest; A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000, 205-229
Peltier, Leonard. Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 1999.
Fetterly, Judith and Marjorie Pryse, eds. American Women Regionalists 1850-1910. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.