Sunday, December 9, 2012

Founding amnesias: Native Americans and Palestinians

In "Founding Myths: a view from below" here, here, here, here, here, here and here, I have emphasized looking at the American founding fathers from the standpoint of slaves and impressed sailors, and at the Israeli government, from the vantage of Palestinians. This is both a democratically and morally apt way of assessing the importantly false claims of both regimes to found freedom and democracy. For the freedom of some was built on the dispossession and killing of many others.

But the most precise analogy to the Palestinians is the indigenous Americans, for both were already on the land (while blacks were terrifyingly kidnapped in chains and transported, if they survived the voyage, from Africa).

Both peoples, along with African-Americans, suffered genocidal attacks in the "settlement" of these mythically "empty" lands. I am referring to the United Nations definition of the destruction of a people "in whole or in part" of which the murders, direct and indirect (through guns, dispossession, resettlement in cramped and poor areas\reservations, starvation and despair) of perhaps 90% of the indigenous population in the United States is one of the most extreme examples.


In thinking about the Dorothy Cotton Institute's delegation to Palestine that we both went on in October, Vincent Harding forcefully raised this point with me. And I agree, following his important thought about healing, that some new rituals, yet to be invented but meditating on, mourning for and resolving that such murders not be allowed again are part of any hope for the survival of humanity.


The claim both of America and Israel that "we" are simply good and our military actions - often aggressions - are "justified" draws its legitimacy from radical denial. There were supposedly no peoples in these "new" lands settled by rapacious violence...

Amnesia about earlier slaughters makes each new aggression and the falsehoods that the political leaders and the corporate media in each state bruit about it - consider, the lies told during the American Occupation of Iraq or the fairy talk that Israel is being attacked by the Palestinians (the latter are possessed by Israel, the former have a few rockets, and most recently, four civilians killed in retaliation)...- part of an ever renewed "good guys" in America or "little Israel protecting itself against the big, nasty Arabs" somewhat believable for some Americans - after major losses, the tale is eroding for bombing Iran - and Israelis.


In response to my "Gaza: who is George Washington and who George the Third in the Occupied Territories?" here, Tink Tinker wrote me a kind note, but one that underlines the weakness of this analogy. I was trying to get Americans to realize that the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians is not just missile in response to missile, but rather that the Palestinians, in revolt against Israeli aggression and Occupation, have a decent claim of self-defense and the Occupiers do not. I mean about the Occupied Territories in a two state solution (or in a one-state democracy which emphasizes rights provoked by the expansion of "Greater Israel"). For the Israelis also need to be recognized as humans – a decent settlement there requires the recognition of the human rights of each person.

But Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence (University of Chicago Press, May 2012) also reveals Washington as a predator (more vacillating during the War about blacks, since he desperately needed black recruits, sometimes in exchange for freedom, to defeat the British). And Barbara Mann's George Washington's War against Native America, which everyone interested in American history should read, demonstrates as Tink says, Washington as a murderer and dispossessor of innocents (the indigenous people did not murder children, women, the old, and noncombatants) in order to gain Indian lands in Ohio directly for his own company, as well as elsewhere.


George Washington and his followers were, in this respect decisively, "barbarians," and "savages," the name projected on, so easy to their lips about others...


Mann begins from a pointed discussion of the amnesia brought about by racist history-writing for public schools grounded, for a long time, in the history profession:

"Revelations of the depth, strength and sheer murderousness of America's past tend to hit Euro-Americans so hard that they lose consciousness with many slipping into denial, minimization or historical amnesia upon regaining their senses. Frighteningly enough, their reality-dodging was respectable as long as racism held unopposed sway in academia, that is until well into the twentieth century." (p. 1)

Her second sentence refers to eugenics in which America was the most advanced in the world in the 1920s but which was then taken further by the Nazis.

Eugenics still predominated in the American South and among its Northern apologists even through the civil rights movement and even into Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve which appeared in 1991. Among other fantasies, the book cited articles by Sir Cyril Burt with an invented co-author ("Ms. Howard"), articles from Mankind Quarterly - a neo-Nazi journal - and a Canadian psychologist who alleged to measure the "length of ejaculation" of different ethnic groups. The book made the front-cover of Time magazine as a contribution to "science" and was taught uncritically at the University of Denver, inter alia, in a course, at the Business School on "statistics." (I debated Herrnstein and Murray separately about it during a large movement from below against Murray's trial-run for the book in a "course" he taught at the University of Denver organized by former Governor Lamm's Public Policy program).

Murray, an arch-racist, is still a "respected" author...


In spite of Mann's writing, the truth about the genocide has remained far in the background since one could not admire George Washington, as she and Tink rightly say, without being blinded by it.


Here is Tink's letter:


Good essay on the Palestine/Israeli conflict! Just be careful citing George Washington from the first american civil war — until you have read Barbara Mann’s book: George Washington’s War Against Native America. Blood-thirsty, warlike savages — with a great technological edge in war-making. This war was a war particularly against civilians of the Indian Nations of the so-called “northwest territory” — Indian territory, sovereign national territory — except that Washington had finagled some speculative real estate options in Indian land. And the best way to exercise his option on Indian real estate was to kill off the Indians. Blood thirsty. Violent. Savage. It was a scorched earth campaign by a warlike culture largely against Indian civilian populations. This leaves your metaphor of the Georges a little off from the perspective of the Canaanites of this continent, we American Indians [this is a wonderful analogy].

Indians, as it is reported in the popular american lie about Indians, were not agriculturalists. Yet these Indian towns characteristically had two-year back supplies of corn harvested from their extensive agricultural production. (Yeah, what’s that about anyway? Sounds like agriculturalists to me.) So Washington’s generals (Sullivan, Clinton, Mad Anthony Wayne, etc.) attacked the people’s food supply, burning all those supplies of corn and everything else. If you starve out the babies, the land is yours for the stealing. That is George Washington. He is America’s favorite president for a reason. And a role model for our american-funded “friends” in Israel. An all-american hero. Unfortunately. And no Palestinian.

I certainly understand the intended irony in your use of Washington. But it’s hard for an Indian to swallow — all the more when the heroizing of Washington comes from the 'left.'

Tink Tinker (wazhazhe udsethe; Osage Nation)

Dr. Tink Tinker (wazhazhe / Osage Nation)
Clifford Baldridge Professor of American Indian Culutres and Religious Traditions
Iliff School of Theology"


In response to my recent post which is clear about Native Americans here, I received this week a telling comment from Tracy Strong. It is no accident that America has thought of itself over four centuries as a “new Israel” and identifies with the late-comer among settler states - Israel - in a way that shares genocide and amnesia about the people already living on the land. The founding myth in both America and Israel is, in this way, exactly the same.

The identification of Americans with Israel is thus only superficially as a parliamentary democracy, but curiously arises out of a deep and fundamental racism toward Palestinians - Orientalism - and denial:

"Alan --

When a country (The USA) has thought of itself as 'the new Israel' for 400 years almost, many in it tend to confuse it with the actual Israel. Remember also that white settlers were convinced they were coming to an unpopulated or underpopulated land. In some sense they were: By 1700 the estimation is that the native population had been reduced by 90% from 1500 (disease, genocide etc...). Yet Daniel Lerner in PASSING OF TRADITIONAL SOCIETY can refer to the Americas as unpopulated...It helps to believe that you are not displacing people...



Vincent Harding pointed me to a powerful “This American Life” - audio of "A Little War on the Prairie," November 23, 2012 here - in which the forgotten slaughter of the Dakota Indians, including the hanging of 38 warriors ordered by Lincoln in 1862, in Minnesota is recounted.

Lincoln is the great figure of the movie "Lincoln" about the 13th Amendment, but also one whose role is determined by social movements from below, black and white, even in the Civil War. See here and here.


The US government has an unbroken history of treachery toward Native Americans, of stealing their lands, including under Lincoln. The racists had forced the Indians off their lands, removing the possibility of supporting themselves through hunting and agriculture, and broken promises about providing supplies. The Dakota starved.

Some young men, looking for food, murdered 4 whites, even though Little Crow, the leader of the Dakotas, had warned of the slaughter to come from the much better armed and more numerous whites.

He had been to Washington; he knew of the Civil War.


Little Crow also, swore to go to his death with them for he was not a coward (the Patriots - update - the Union - not being barbarous and ostensibly opposing the "barbarians," eventually hung his head and scalp in a museum...


The Dakota raided and slaughtered white settlers. These innocents were unfortunately the ones whom the indigenous people mainly could reach rather than the governor and others.

The Dakota hoped to scare whites out of the territories. As Little Crow had foreseen, they failed.


There was no serious movement of nonviolent resistance at the time. It would be useful to learn from this, however, as many Palestinians are, the force of nonviolent noncooperation.


A representative of the traders, Andrew Jackson Myrick - named for another President and slaughterer of indigenous people - had responded contemptuously to the Indians’ appeal for food, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.”

At the outbreak of the war at the Lower Sioux Agency, Myrick was killed, his mouth stuffed with grass...


In Minnesota, the story circulated that Indians had raped white women. This was projection: soldiers in massacring Native Americans, often committed rape. The military presided over "trials" in which the defendants had no lawyers and were not even informed of the rules. The "verdicts" called for the execution of 303.

Lincoln responded he would only hang rapists. But he and his officials just found 2 "convicted" for this crime.


Lincoln then ordered the hangings of 38. It was the largest number of military hangings in American history; no such execution of Confederate officers, for example, occurred....

Nonwhite striving to protect their lands against the deceit of and theft by the government was thus more serious in American political history - called for more brutal repression - than the Civil War.


Tink Tinker's reference to the Civil War that the American Revolution also was should be underlined. The genocide was as real and just as important a Civil War...


In 1862, the official "Civil War" was not going well for the North. Yet Lincoln took the time to read each case. He distinguished warriors who actually fought (in this respect, he was more honorable than his predecessors, particularly Washington). He wrote out in his own hand the name of each person to be executed because he feared there would be mistakes and others, with names resembling those on the list, would be hung if he did not.


Lincoln lost votes in Minnesota because he signed off on the execution of 38, not 303. He said strikingly: "I could not afford to hang men for votes."


This is a rare attitude in American history (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? which shows, in Vietnam and elsewhere, how Presidents launch wars for votes, murder innocents abroad and cause the frivolous deaths of American soldiers...)


Lincoln sought some mercy and the possibility of healing, even for Native Americans and more sharply for Southerners: "with malice toward none, with charity [but not quite] for all."


He was hopeful and unusual in American history among Presidents. He was gunned down.


But the attitude he recommended cannot be achieved from above. It must be won by mass militant noncooperation from below of the sort Martin Luther King and the movement he led embodied.

Gandhi and King insist that everyone has a soul. Evil policies and arrangements must be stopped, but the path to Truth and Reconcilation, truth as the basis for some reconciliation - Barbara Mann recommends this in her book for America as well as South Africa - must be found.


In defiant community, the thirty-eight Dakota took each other's hands on the gallows and went to their deaths together.


Lincoln and the Minnesota whites were genocidal conquerers. Lincoln supported the monstrous policies both of the Federal Government previously and of Minnesota. He was, in this most important respect, despite his insistence on hanging only those who had fought, just as evil in action as the others. It is Lincoln's participation in those crimes, which the praise in Ron Soodalter's article below conceals.


The Dakota were driven out of Minnesota. They join with their fellow Sioux, the Lakota of South Dakota, and the massacre at Wounded Knee (see below) is also their tragedy.


In Minnesota and South Dakota, forgetfulness is the word.


In Mankato, the center of the murders and hangings, a street is named for Pocahantas, not in memoriam to the people the racists swindled, murdered and drove out.


One admires the indigenous people, not their murderers...


The founding fathers, as Tink says, were no better in this way than they are about slavery.

The analogy of indigenous people to Palestinians has long been emphasized by Russell Means and AIM - see Tink's remark above, a Theology professor, about Native Americans as Canaanites...


Colorado Governor John Evans sent out General Chivington to do the Sand Creek Massacre. I am John Evans professor for career distinction in research (this is a position at Northwestern as well as the University of Denver); there is Evans Chapel at DU and Evans Boulevard and Mt. Evans celebrating the slaughterers and American forgetfulness...


The criminality is in the American soul. Each of us needs to honor those who were attacked, mourn and take in what to do to honor survivors and prevent recurrence if today we are to have a democracy which can survive through this century and not destroy the planet (through global warming – see here – and militarism.)


Here are some words on the massacre, no different in kind from others, though in a way, final at Wounded Knee:

Black Elk (1863–1950); medicine man, Oglala Lakota:

"I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream ... the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."
(Source: Black Elk Speaks, c. 1932)


American Horse (1840–1908); Chief, Oglala Lakota:

"There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce ... A mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing ... The women as they were fleeing with their babies were killed together, shot right through ... and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys ... came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there."


Edward S. Godfrey; Captain; commanded Co. D of the Seventh Cavalry: "I know the men did not aim deliberately and they were greatly excited. I don't believe they saw their sights. They fired rapidly but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies, and dogs ... went down before that unaimed fire." (Godfrey was a Lieutenant in Captain Benteen's force during the Battle of the Little Bighorn)


Hugh McGinnis; First Battalion, Co. K, Seventh Cavalry: "General Nelson A. Miles who visited the scene of carnage, following a three day blizzard, estimated that around 300 snow shrouded forms were strewn over the countryside. He also discovered to his horror that helpless children and women with babes in their arms had been chased as far as two miles from the original scene of encounter and cut down without mercy by the troopers. ... Judging by the slaughter on the battlefield it was suggested that the soldiers simply went berserk. For who could explain such a merciless disregard for life? ... As I see it the battle was more or less a matter of spontaneous combustion, sparked by mutual distrust [a feeble last attempt at justification,the word "mutual" despicable...]


From the Times Opinionator blog (too much truth below, despite its one sided praise of Lincoln, to make it into the paper):

DISUNION August 20, 2012,
Lincoln and the Sioux

During his term as president, Abraham Lincoln was responsible for the largest mass execution – and the greatest act of clemency – in our nation’s history.

Indeed, as every schoolchild is aware, the history of our government’s relations with the American Indians is disgraceful. Congress never made a treaty that it wasn’t more than willing to break at the slightest provocation. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, tribe after tribe was left with no recourse other than rebellion or starvation, and the Dakota Sioux were no exception.

In 1851 – 10 years before the Civil War – the United States signed two treaties with the Sioux that resulted in the Indians’ ceding huge portions of the Minnesota Territory. In exchange, they were promised compensation in the form of cash and trade goods, and directed to live on a reservation along the upper Minnesota River. The thoroughly corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs was responsible for overseeing the terms of the treaties. Not surprisingly, many of the trade goods were substandard and overvalued by several hundred percent, and the promised payments were often not forthcoming – stolen by Washington functionaries, or simply channeled directly to the crooked traders and Indian agents.

This situation continued for years. Finally, in 1858 – the year Minnesota entered the Union – a party of Sioux led by Chief Little Crow visited Washington to see about proper enforcement of the treaties. It did not go the way they’d hoped; instead of acknowledging the Sioux grievances, the government took back half their reservation, and opened it up to white settlement. The land was cleared, and the hunting and fishing that had in large measure sustained the Sioux virtually ended.

The situation worsened with each passing year, with the Sioux suffering increasing hunger and hardship. There was nothing to be gained by appealing to the traders; reportedly, their representative – a clod of a fellow fittingly named Andrew Jackson Myrick – responded to the Indians’ appeal for food with the comment, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.”

[the program would not reproduce the photograph - see here]
Library of Congress
Little Crow, a leader of the Sioux Uprising

In August 1862, the powder keg exploded. It began almost randomly, when a party of four braves on an egg-stealing foray impulsively killed five white settlers. From there, it escalated rapidly. Under the leadership of a somewhat reluctant Little Crow, several bands held a war council, and set about attacking the new settlements. They seized the Lower Sioux Agency, killing whites and burning the buildings. At the outbreak of hostilities, Myrick was one of the first casualties, and when his body was discovered, his mouth was stuffed with grass.

A combined force of militia and volunteer infantry set out to subdue the Indians. The two sides met at Redwood Ferry, where the Indians gave the soldiers a thorough drubbing, killing 24 men. Flush with victory, roving bands of Sioux destroyed entire townships throughout the month and into September, plundering and killing as they went. A number of desperate appeals for help had gone to Lincoln, but he was immersed in such day-to-day matters as the stunning debacle at Second Bull Run, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, Gen. George B. McClellan’s heartbreaking failure to follow up after Antietam, and the release of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Finally, over a month after the outbreak of the Sioux uprising, Lincoln responded, assigning Gen. John Pope, fresh from his defeat at Bull Run, the task of ending the uprising. A pompous, self-righteous man, Pope declared his “purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux…. They are to be treated as maniacs and wild beasts.”

The Army finally subdued the Sioux in the battle of Wood Lake on Sept. 23. The butcher’s bill at the end of the fighting totaled some 77 soldiers killed, between 75 and 100 Sioux, and – no one took an accurate count – between 300 and 800 white settlers.

The Sioux who surrendered were promised safety. But once the hostilities were over, hundreds of Sioux – some of whom had had nothing to do with the uprising – were arrested and summarily tried by a five-man military commission. The trials were perfunctory affairs, some lasting less than five minutes. More than 40 cases were adjudicated in one day alone. Due process played no part; most of the defendants hadn’t a clue what was happening. Of the 393 tried for “murder and other outrages,” 323 were convicted, and 303 sentenced to hang – including those who had surrendered with a promise of safety.

The final approval for the executions rested with the president. General Pope, seeking a quick and dramatic finish to the affair, pressured Lincoln to sign the orders for all 303 executions. Nor was he alone; outraged newspaper editors and congressmen advocated a speedy hanging as well. Alexander Ramsey, the governor of Minnesota – who had made a fortune cheating the Sioux — threatened that if the president didn’t hang all the condemned, the citizens of his state would.

The Sioux had a rare friend, however, in Minnesota’s Episcopal bishop, Henry Whipple. The clergyman traveled to Washington and met with Lincoln, who was so impressed with Whipple’s account that he ordered that every case be re-examined on its own merits. After thorough analysis, only 38 Sioux could be proved to have participated in the uprising. Lincoln immediately approved their execution order, and commuted the sentences of the others. In a finish that is pure Lincoln, the president hand wrote the list of long, difficult, phonetically spelled Sioux names himself, and advised the telegrapher on the vital necessity of sending them correctly, lest the wrong men be hanged.

On Dec. 26, 38 Dakota Sioux were led to the scaffold; they sang their death songs as they walked, and when they had mounted the scaffold and the hoods were drawn down over their faces, they continued to sing and sway, and clasp one another’s manacled hands. At a drum signal, the trap was sprung, and the watching crowd of thousands cheered.

[the program would not reproduce the photograph - see here]
Library of Congress
The execution of 38 Sioux men on Dec. 26, 1862

The year after the uprising, Congress expunged all Sioux treaties from the record, took back their reservation and ordered that the entire tribe be expelled from Minnesota. As an incentive, a bounty of $25 was offered for the scalp of any Sioux found living in the state after the edict. There still was scattered resistance, but the Dakota War was over. The Sioux would continue to fight for years to come, until 1890, when the Army marked paid to their account by massacring at least 150 men, women and children from the tribe at Wounded Knee.

Given the mood of the country regarding what were seen as unprovoked savage depredations, what drove Lincoln to spare the lives of so many Sioux? The wonder isn’t that Lincoln allowed more than three dozen men to hang; it’s that he took the time away from a war that was going badly – and that threatened the very existence of our nation – to examine one at a time the cases of more than 300 Sioux, and to spare the lives of all but 38 of them.

While Lincoln felt that there must be a reckoning, and that the wholesale killing of settlers could neither be condoned nor ignored, he would not allow the law to be used to elicit indiscriminate revenge, despite the tremendous pressure on him to do just that. When it was suggested to him that he would have garnered political support by allowing the original orders to stand, he responded, “I could not hang men for votes.”

Ron Soodalter is the author of “Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader” and a co-author of “The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today.” He is a featured writer and columnist for America’s Civil War magazine and a frequent contributor to Civil War Times and Military History.

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