The Disintegration and Reclamation of Indigenous Identity in America

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Jan 2 13:48:43 UTC 2008


*The Disintegration and Reclamation of Indigenous Identity in America* (from
the archives: 12.13.2006)

[image: Wagon Train]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."

[image: Comanche Chief Quanah]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.

[image: The Tempest]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).

[image: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown]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
extinction" (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.

[image: Leonard Peltier]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.

[image: Gertrude Simmons Bonnin/Zitkala-sä]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-sä, which means Red Bird" (Fetterley 532). This identification
provided a solid base from which all other thought flowed for each author.

[image: Gertrude Simmons Bonnin/Zitkala-sä]This focus on connection with
Indian people is what inspired the English writings of Dee Brown, Leonard
Peltier and Zitkala-sä. 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-sä 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. That 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)

*Works Cited*

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.

January 1, 2008



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