Prairie Lights: Some history is not so easy to get over


Imagine the allied armada of June 1944, a small portion of which is pictured here, invading the United States in 1810. Do you think we’d be “over it” yet?

I was unable to attend an all-day Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium at the Billings Public Library two weekends ago.

And then I didn’t see Stephen Dow’s story on the symposium in the Billings Outpost until a week after the fact, by which time I thought it was too late to run his story on Last Best News.


Ed Kemmick

If you haven’t seen it, though, it’s still worth a read on the Outpost website. I kept thinking about the symposium for days after reading Dow’s piece, particularly that portion of it which dealt with the remarks of Shawn Silbernagel, a member of the Sioux nation who works with the Indian Outreach Program at Montana State University Billings.

The most compelling part of his remarks was his answer to people who tell him that Native Americans need to “get over” what happened during the Plains Indian Wars of 150 years ago.

“One hundred fifty years are a drop in the bucket in the broad scale of things,” Silbernagel said. “It’s really very recently that our people’s culture was completely stripped of them. Genocide was committed right here on this soil. … On one hand, 150 years is a long time and we should be over it by now, but at the same time our culture was robbed of us very recently and it still affects us deeply to this day.”

I am not able to share in Silbernagel’s bred-in-the-bone understanding of how small a period of time 150 years is, but I think he is absolutely right. There is no modern equivalent for what happened to native peoples killed or displaced by European invaders.

There are millions of refugees in the world today, people driven from their land by war, oppression and famine, but there is nobody whose culture was overturned, torn out by the roots, obliterated.

The closest analogy—and it has been made by many others—would be an invasion of a modern society by extraterrestrials, arriving in outlandish vessels, equipped with unheard-of weapons. These ETs might be friendly at first, but ruthless when necessary, and they would not think it enough merely to slaughter people indiscriminately and destroy their means of sustenance; they would also compel the survivors to adopt a religion that mocks their deepest beliefs, their very understanding of the world.

Or picture a very young United States, in 1810, when the country’s population first hit 7 million—a more or less plausible estimate of the number of Indians in North America on the eve of European contact. Now imagine the United States in 1810 being invaded by the allied armada that descended on Normandy in June 1944, but speaking an unknown language and bent not on ending a war but on subjugating a continent.

Do you think “we,” the descendants of the remnant not immediately killed in the invasion, would be over that yet? Or how long would it take our descendants to get over that onslaught of extraterrestrials?

Historical consequences percolate, and occasionally erupt, for a lot longer than 150 years. Consider the Europe of today, where various countries are being “overrun” or “inundated”—to use two common words for the phenomenon—by migrants and refugees.

Europeans worry that their culture might be permanently altered by this influx of outsiders. It’s not hard to sympathize with their concerns, but for hundreds of years, starting even before Columbus, when the Portuguese started venturing down the west coast of Africa, Europeans permanently altered or destroyed the culture of thousands of societies and killed countless millions of people in wars or by the introduction of new diseases.

Now, in a sense, many in Europe want history to stop. Having overrun and inundated cultures in every corner of the globe, they want to stop the flood at the gates of their own continent. Maybe they should just get over it, right?

Meanwhile, Silbernagel, whose remarks at the symposium prompted these reflections, also had this to say:

“For years, I idolized Abraham Lincoln. I’m ashamed to say that at this point, but I didn’t know at 7 or 8 years old that Abraham Lincoln gave the go-ahead to a mass execution that killed hundreds of my people. You can’t keep kids in the dark about this kind of stuff.”

Since we’re talking about historical fairness here, I respectfully suggest that Silbernagel might still consider looking up to Lincoln. It is true that Lincoln, as president, presided over the hanging of 38 Dakotas charged with crimes committed during what is known as the Dakota War of 1862, in Minnesota.

But the military commission that sentenced those Dakotas to death wanted to hang 303 of them. Lincoln ordered a thorough review of each case, resulting in his decision to hang 38 men. It’s true that this was and remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history, but it was also the largest act of clemency in our history.

Can you imagine any other president before Lincoln having the moral courage to commute the death sentences of 265 Native Americans in the face of bloodthirsty howls for vengeance from the white population of Minnesota?

Lincoln listened closely and thought deeply before taking action or making up his mind. If more of us were like him, that recent symposium might have not have been needed.

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