After the death of Osama bin Laden a column I wrote on September 11, 2006 seems to be an appropriate column for this time and place. Living in a world of violence and terrorism, reflections on the 500 year assault upon the Indian people of the Americas is something all Americans should read about. Most Americans have short memories, but the Native Americans of 2011 will always remember the terror that stalked them for centuries.
The Indian people never knew what act of violence or terror would befall them from the invaders. But death did come. It came in the form of biological warfare when small pox tainted blankets were distributed to the unsuspecting victims.
It came to them from the muzzles of guns that did not distinguish between warriors, women, elders or children. It came to them in the ruthless name of Manifest Destiny, the American edict that proclaimed God as the purveyor of expansion Westward.
Indian people were often slaughtered like animals often while waving the American flag in pitiful efforts to convince their killers that they were not bad people.
At Wounded Knee in 1890, a slaughter took place that the white man often called the last great battle between Indians and the United States Army. It was not a battle. It was one the last heinous acts of terror against innocent men, women and children. The attack by Islamic terrorists on 9/11 was another.
The Indian people died not knowing why as did the people in the World Trade Center. The Lakota died in fear. They died in the frozen snow of that bitterly cold December day at Wounded Knee while fleeing to find safe harbor amongst the Oglala Lakota. These Lakota experienced terrorism by a government that did not consider them to be human beings. Americans died in the Twin Towers at the hands of a radical people seeking revenge for reasons the victims did not understand.
When human beings can be labeled as less than human their deaths become meaningless. This is the apparent belief of the terrorists and the early settlers. By portraying all Indians as murdering savages, rapists, kidnappers and worse, the national media of the day laid the groundwork for Wounded Knee. In article after article urging the government to remove the Indian people by any means from their homelands, the media stood guilty of fomenting acts of terrorism.
Similar articles in the media and speeches in the mosques in the Nations of Islam expressed similar views of Americans. This laid the groundwork for 9/11. A lie repeated often enough becomes a fact in the minds of impressionable people. Indians are savages, Americans are infidels and Arabs are heathens. Do you see how this logic works?
Just as the Crusaders believed it was their Christian duty to conquer and kill those Arabs they considered as sub-humans and heathens, so too did America duplicate their misguided logic against the First Americans. The people of the Islamic Nations never forgave nor forgot. The Indian people have largely forgiven, but they have not forgotten. The Christians of the Crusade de-humanized the Arabs, the early Americans de-humanized the Indians and the People of Islam now de-humanize Westerners. It is a vicious cycle that is centuries old.
Just as news stories and movies about Arabs portrayed them as less than human, so did the media portray the indigenous people of America. Their lives then became expendable and meaningless and therefore easily sacrificed for what is believed to be a greater cause. Westerners are now fitted into this same category by the Islamic terrorists.
I think America missed a mighty lesson and opportunity when it did not learn how to treat the rest of the world after its mistreatment of its indigenous people. America has still never settled its debt, either morally or financially, with its indigenous people.
America, as a nation, wept when nearly three thousand of its citizens died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. The Indian people still weep for the thousands killed in the more than five centuries of terrorism foisted upon them by a Nation that did not care. They also weep for those lives lost on 9/11 and for the lives of the many soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A philosopher once said, “Great Nations are judged by how they treat their indigenous people,” and I am sad to say that America has failed to pass the test of time.
When the Indian people pray in song, they sing for the lives of all who have come before, for all who are here now, and for all that are to come. To the Lakota life is “hocoka,” a circle. They know that what goes around comes around.
It is a lesson that America should learn and live by. “Great nations are judged by how they treat their indigenous people.” If America had treated its indigenous people fairly and justly and had taken this lesson to heart in the way it treats the indigenous people of other worlds, would 9/11 have happened? It is something to ponder.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the former editor and publisher of Indian Country Today.
He is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association.
His book "Children Left Behind" is available at amazon.com.
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