Should the United States ever need to defend its history as a nation wherein liberties are respected and upheld, it will not be accomplished through a turning to the gradual and often troubled story of the African American in America. That would be difficult enough, although many view the black civil rights struggle as a model of American justice in action, if of a perhaps sluggish nature. The far more disturbing issue, and one which would not likely render a verdict in favor of the U.S., is how this nation has steadfastly trampled on the rights of the people in place before the nation was formed. This is a legacy of political and social behavior adamantly at odds with the founding concepts of America, and it is a legacy enduring today.
To this day, American children are encouraged to reenact versions of the first Thanksgiving, wherein grateful and starving English colonists enjoy the kind attentions of the Native Americans who have come to their rescue, and who form bonds of lasting friendship with them. That what is essentially a myth survives at all in this fashion is extraordinary, and serves as evidence of the American determination to deny what is a monstrous component of its documented past.
The reality of the Plymouth Rock colonists was somewhat less egalitarian, when it came to survival and asserting their presence. The people were indeed in danger of dying, and it is true that a local Native American tribe assisted them. The fairy tale, however, ends there: “The people of the Plymouth colony entered their first treaty with native peoples in…the early spring of 1621….Despite the abject weakness of the colony, the colonists chose to interpret the treaty as one in which the Pokanoket Nation became subjugated to the superior English” (Tinker, 1993, p. 15). As would be blatantly evident in all dealings of European settlers and Native Americans, an unshakeable conviction in an innate, white superiority would dictate all interactions.
It is ironic, if gruesomely so, that all the various ethnic and national types of people who settled in America were united in one stance, that of dismissing the Native American as something other than human. This was racism at its most widespread, for virtually every non-Native American culture was enabled to practice it. If the English despised the French, no matter; both could confidently destroy Native American ways of life because the Native American was deserving of nothing better.
The genocides perpetrated by European colonists are both enormous and shameful. It is entirely possible that “decent” motives spurred on some of the atrocities, and utter disregards of Native American life and liberty; the Europeans were predominantly Christian, and it was widely believed that the “savages” were doomed without the spiritual salvation the newcomers could provide. Obviously, however, motive pales to nothing in light of the cruelty enabled by even the best of it, and that in itself is notwithstanding the extraordinary hubris of the colonists. “Whatever justifications accompanied Spanish colonization – a desire to save Indian souls, a desire to educate and enlighten benighted heathen – the Caddos and other southeastern Indian peoples encountered terrifying violence, brutality, and destruction” (Oberg, 2010, p. 32).
A search is made to account for this kind of activity in a comprehensible way, and in one that at least remotely relates to how a civilized people would behave. There is a temptation, at least for argument’s sake, to suggest that the primitive dress, rituals, and habitats of the Native Americans were too easily interpreted as barbaric for them to be considered of human stature. The argument, however, is completely unsustainable. The customs and ways encountered by the Europeans must certainly have appeared alien, yet they could not be mistaken as anything but the expressions of a stratified society. The greatest difficulty in accounting for the ongoing and brutal treatment of Native Americans by European settlers, in fact, lies in the actual incomprehensibility of it. It was, widespread and for centuries, a systematically conducted violation of a race.
Racial Supremacy and Subjugation
The gradual theft of Native American lands is equally unacceptable to a modern consciousness, although it was through this criminality that the bulk of the nation was founded. It was not, of course, viewed as “theft” by those taking the lands, for Native American ways of life did not conform to Western ideas of settling and living. “Native American agricultural methods were not sedentary and were not recognized by Euro-Americans as signs of Indian occupancy of land” (Sullivan, 2006, p. 132). The Native Americans chose to move on and make use of alternating environments, leaving white settlers free to stake permanent claims wherever their greater power could establish possession.
There have been, naturally, investigations into societal and governmental abuses of Native American rights, particularly in regard to usurpation of land. The Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946 was established by Congress “…’to right a continuing wrong to our Indian citizens for which no possible justification can be asserted’. The ‘wrong’ was stolen lands and broken treaties that had taken millions of acres from indigenous nations” (Schultz, 2000, p. 633). Disbanded in 1978 after decades of virtually no reparations made or actual cases redressed, this Act served to promulgate the disgrace it was meant to address.
Not even the African slave trade engaged in by the United States can compare in outrage to the gross violations done to Native Americans since the nation was in its infancy, and to some extent occurring today. The grim reality is that America, beacon of liberty and respecter of freedom, was not so much settled as conquered, and the conquerors were the English pilgrims, French trappers, and Spanish colonists who uniformly debased and robbed the indigenous people of the new land.