Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, is seen third from left. Photo: chascar

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn: Teddy Roosevelt wanted Indian people to disappear

Making heroes out of fantasy
By Professor Elizabeth Cook-Lynn
Native Sun News Today Columnist

I used to argue that history matters and I still believe it does but for that to be the case we really do have to move away from certain compelling fantasies.

Just at this moment we have an “end of the summer” tourist time when thousands of visitors to our area visit the Rushmore Monument and extol the virtues of the four presidents whose images are revered by all of America in the most famous tourist spot of our time.

Of particular interest to tribal history is the fantasy of the “Teddy Era” exemplified by his face on the granite because he, among many leaders of his era, may be more responsible than most for the denigration of the powerful indigenous tribe of the region that he called the Sioux.

The fantasy is that he was a defender of the “wilderness” that he set up the National Forest idea as Conservation, that he was an enemy of “big business,” and that he disdained materialism and more. We are reminded in photos that he was often seen running around in buckskins claiming to be a man of the romantic forest.

How many of our visitors to the Mountain believe that fantasy? Most, I would say.

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Courtesy photo

Factually, Teddy was born in 1877 a year before Crazy Horse was stabbed to death for defending his people and his land, and Teddy died in 1920 a few years before women got to vote in political elections and four year’s before Indians were made reluctant citizens of the U. S. Those are some historical truths about the Era in which Theodore Roosevelt’s life story takes place.

In the accompanying Indian History, however, Teddy comes off as a rather sinister figure. The first thing he did when he became president, was to open up thousands of acres of the Treaty Protected Rosebud Sioux Reservation for white settlement with a simple stroke of the pen. He is quoted at that time saying “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians but I believe nine out of ten are….and I wouldn’t want to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

Isn’t that cute?

Unfortunately that is used a lot by historians who say that Teddy “had a touch of racism” in him. From any rational point of view, and from his subsequent actions, he was racist to the core. He was a product of aggressive capitalism and he defended genocide in legislation and policy that his excusers lamely call “anti-Indian.”

He told stories of his roughriders and how they took Cuba to “free” it from Spain and he is quoted thusly: “I killed a Spaniard on San Juan Hill with my bare hands…like a jackrabbit.” Believe that if you will, but doubters say that his “cavalry” was made up of Ivy League guys from Harvard, mostly, like himself. And it was probably more bragging than reality.

Much of this is the fantasy of a physically small man with weak eyes whose father paid someone to fight for him during the draft for the Civil War.

Fantasy is a big deal for those who write about the era of what we might call western history. Other “heroes” are often mentioned with the same mentality, like Kit Carson (western hero exemplar) who was barely five feet tall but with the help of the U. S. Army forced the Dine (Navajos) on the Long March away from their homelands, killing and torturing them all the way.

The official language of the era, the challenge to “be tough” comes right out of these ridiculous western stories, and we are often subjected to it in modern times.

Ironically, no one mentions that it doesn’t take much physical strength to steal millions of acres of treaty land, make beggars of your victims through questionable legislation and continue to go to the official offices to sign documents.

About Indians, Teddy believed that Indians should “vanish,” there was really no place in his America for them, and his every act revealed his point of view as the leader of the Republican Party of his time.

It is not a great leap forward to wonder about how all of this affects us today even though I do worry about how the ubiquitous writing by critics in describing this offensive and unmentionable history is in conflict with the need for Patriotism and the defense of the Red, White, and Blue so badly needed for America’s fantastic view of itself.

Should we go on and on with the charade for the sake of mainstreaming white supreme-cism in English speaking liberal democracies or should we get real? This History that I keep recalling seems to rain on the parade of a lot of believers. It is not meant to be mere rhetoric.

A troubling reality is that the aggressive, racist, militarism of our current government comes right out of the Teddy Era. Many today are beginning to think disaster looms.


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