Saturday, 16 January 2010

Oklahoma - Genocide or Manifest Destiny?


Reading Dee Brown's book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, it just amazes me that Native American culture managed to survive the ruthless and relentless advance of the White man in the Wild West of the 19th century. Although they are not parallels that should be used lightly, the terms ethnic cleansing and genocide come to mind.

According to the Wikipedia definition 'Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.' and according to this definition, I would say it's fair to conclude that the White man of the 19th century United States attempted genocide on the entire Native American race.

We are often reminded that concentration camps were first invented by the British to contain their Boer enemies in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. Perhaps, the reservations that were designed to contain the Native American Indian populations and stop them from roaming the Praries in search of buffalo, were an earlier incarnation of this.

To the Native American it seemed as though the White man was like a spoiled child, taking all of natures gifts and destroying them thoughtlessly.  White hunters killed an estimated three and a half million buffalo between 1874 and 1876, taking the hides only, so that the Great Plains were full of the stench of rotten meat. To the Native American, living in centuries of more or less traditional harmony with the Earth, the White man's destruction of the environment in search of precious stones and oil, seemed a folly, a war against nature and the natural world.


What's more, the White man treated the Native Americans no better than animals, an attitude chillingly communicated in the words of the bloodthirsty Methodist missionary, John Milton Chivington:

'I have come to kill Indians and believe it is right and honourable to use any method under God's heaven to kill Indians.'

The history of the Great Plains is a story of deceit and broken promises, racial hatred and an unwillingness on the White man's part (not all White men, it has to be said) to make a genuine and lasting peace with Anerica's first people.

Two of the scariest words in the English language that can be put together are 'Manifest Destiny', a concept which justified the White man's appropriation of former Indian territories and has more than a suggestion of White supremacy and inspired the German concept of Lebensraum, later adopted and manipulated by the Nazis.

Brown's book is full of depressingly numerous instances of murder, insult and repression of the Native American peoples. One episode which took place in what is now Colorado, really disturbed me and left me with a feeling of rage and injustice. I'd never heard of Chivington or his drunken raiding party and the massacre at Sand Creek. It left me stunned and sickened by the cruelty inflicted on the peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho nations. If you also haven't heard about this massacre, read about it and educate others, so the crimes of Chivington and his cohorts won't be forgotten.


Brown's book endeavours to show the history of the West through Native American eyes. It's almost the polar opposite to the depiction of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages that are usual in Western movies.  In the movies everyone understands that cowboys = the good guys, Indians = the bad guys.

Having said that, growing up where I did, a Catholic boy on the border with Northern Ireland, I remember that during the Cowboy and Indian games we played as children, being an Indian was possibly more popular than being a Cowboy. I was usually an Indian.  Perhaps in some subliminal way, the adult conflict happening all around us had engendered a feeling of pride in being the bad guy, or society's outcasts.

In a much more personal way, I had a recurring dream as a child, on falling asleep, I would find myself, quite inexplicably, in a tipi, surrounded by my elders who were passing round a peace pipe. I'm not sure whether or not I really believe in reincarnation, but who knows, maybe?

Image credits:

The painting is by artist John Gast and was called Spirit of the Frontier, it represents the essence of Manifest Destiny with the Spirit bringing light, religion and civilisation from the East, regardless of the fate of the Native Americans.  The image is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

The photo is also in the public domain and shows Chief Black Kettle with a delegation of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in Denver, Colorado.
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