By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Some people claim the last “battle” in the so-called “American Indian Wars” was “fought” at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in December 1890.
Of course, there are multiple inaccuracies in this historic depiction.
Wounded Knee was hardly a “battle” but a wholesale slaughter of more than 200 innocent Lakota children, women and men carried out by the Seventh Cavalry, the same unit infamously commanded by George Armstrong Custer.
To show how warped the thinking in Washington, D.C., was after the atrocity at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, 20 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to the soldiers who mowed down the frantic, unarmed Lakota, starving and having inadequate clothing in brutal, subzero temperatures.
The very term “Indian Wars” is also grossly misleading, for it pins blame on non-aggressors who were simply trying to defend their homelands, their freedom, liberty, culture, families and spiritual beliefs against usurping invaders.
How can it honestly be portrayed as anything other than homegrown American genocide?
Yet the attitudes and policy of American genocide did not end at Wounded Knee. They still are visible in the militaristic goon-squad tactics being deployed at Standing Rock Reservation today, where native protestors and others have been attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets, doused with water in the cold of a coming winter and, purportedly, hit with explosive concussion devices.
Sheriffs’ units from surrounding states have been called in, donning riot gear to put down the protestors; earlier this autumn, private security forces enlisted by builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline were deployed with attack dogs.
Symbolically and literally, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and hundreds of tribes from around the world are protesting at Standing Rock to highlight the significance of something all humans on earth know, for our existence depends on it every day: clean water.
Clean water—and ever greater so with climate change— will be worth immeasurably more than all the oil that could possibly ever flow through the Dakota Access Pipeline. Those justifying the tactics in North Dakota to subdue “hostile Indians” say that getting the crude flowing will make the U.S. stronger and more prosperous as a nation.
Oh, yes, the irony.
Standing Rock should force every single citizen in this country to look ourselves in the mirror and ponder what it means to be “American”?
Moreover, now that most of us have again genuflected at the altar of a national fabled feast celebrating human kindness and the coming together of native people and European colonizers, the brutal events that continue to unfold at Standing Rock remind us of our own ongoing moral failure as a nation. As some would say, it’s the giant blind spot of Lady Liberty.
When Abraham Lincoln created the first Thanksgiving holiday by presidential proclamation in 1863, it was amid a Civil War tearing the country apart. “I recommend to [the American people]…that they do…fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it…,” he wrote.
Today, we live, most of us by choice, in our own binary tribal worlds that force allegiances to be declared or face being socially ostracized and devalued.
It’s liberal or conservative, Judeo-Christian or second-class believers, Capitalist or social justice communist, pillager or environmentalist, native or newcomer, “new West” or “old West” Cowboy Code, friend or enemy, dwelling in mythology or reality.
Either you’re with us or you’re against us, and if you’re against us, ergo, you must be destroyed. This seems to be the rationale now prevailing among law enforcement at Standing Rock and, disturbingly, the U.S. Department of Justice appears to be nowhere in sight.
What lessons is the standoff at Standing Rock teaching young people in America? And as has been queried many times, what explains the differing treatments of protestors at Standing Rock versus law enforcement’s response to Neo-Sagebrush Rebellionists led by the Bundy clan at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and their armed, lawbreaking BLM livestock grazing allotments in Nevada?
What does it mean to be a “patriot?” Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again” when perhaps a better question is: “What Have We Become As A Nation?”
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Joe Medicine Crow died earlier this year at age 102.
Born on the Crow Indian Reservation of south-central Montana in 1913 —23 years after the Wounded Knee massacre a few hundred miles to the east—Medicine Crow was a person later described by Herman Viola, historian emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, as “a true American hero.”
Medicine Crow fought in World War II and was the last Crow “war chief,” earning the honor by counting coup on the German enemy four times in combat. The harrowing details are told by Viola and Medicine Crow in their book “Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond.”
In 2009, Medicine Crow received the Presidential Medal of Honor, the highest civilian honor awarded in the U.S., from President Obama. Earlier, he had received the Bronze Star for bravery and the French Legion of Honor Chevalier Award.
After he returned home to Crow country, Medicine Crow became a nationally respected tribal historian and keeper of cultural memory.
Extraordinary as his life and military service were, consider this: As a boy, Medicine Crow was an English translator for his great-uncle, White Man Runs Him, who had been a scout and sat in the saddle next to Custer on the morning of June 25, 1876.
Those scouts advised Custer and the Seventh Cavalry that the encampment of Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho along the Little Bighorn River below was far bigger than U.S. Army officers were willing to admit.
Custer smelled glory and blood, believing victory would aid his personal ambition of achieving celebrity and elected office. Many an officer had sought—and found—fame by killing Indians in the West.
Custer was an instrument of genocide, and genocide is the ultimate expression of American racism our nation has never been willing to discuss.
Custer insisted that the Indian encampment at Little Bighorn be attacked. Knowing what lay ahead, White Man Runs Him and fellow Crows began taking off their Cavalry uniforms, replacing them with traditional attire. They knew what lay in store.
Instead of fleeing, they told Custer they wanted to meet their maker and die with honor dressed as Indian warriors true to their traditional identity. Accusing them of betrayal, Custer dismissed and mocked them before his ride into self-annihilation.
White Man Runs Him didn’t perish that day. A free “pre-reservation Indian” whose family lineage on the continent went back dozens upon dozens of generations, survived and later mentored his great-nephew about the meaning of heritage. Medicine Crow was the personification of learning from his elders.
Three autumns ago, I visited Medicine Crow with Robert Staffanson of Bozeman days after Medicine Crow’s 100th birthday. Staffanson is white and the only white man who joined with a group of widely respected native leaders who founded the Traditional Circle of Elders and Youth affiliated with the American Indian Institute.
One circle is comprised of respected traditional leaders from across the continent devoted to maintaining and sharing native wisdom time-tested over millennia.
Another circle is comprised of non-Indians who share the cause of justice, reconciliation and who believe, as the elders do, that legally binding treaty rights, forged between the U.S. government and sovereign tribal nations, must be enforced, recognized and, where they’ve been violated, the harms remedied.
Medicine Crow was one of the elders who, four decades ago, was part of the first Traditional Circle.
Tea party members, including the alt-right, Staffanson says, spout the virtues of liberty and freedom, the dangers of government tyranny, the sanctity of private property, the sacredness of religious faith and the tenets of the Constitution. Yet they turn a blind eye to Standing Rock.
Why is it, he wonders, that few white tea party members in the West ever speak up and rally in support of Native American causes?
Of any Americans, Staffanson says, indigenous people have the most legitimate reason to question government, and yet they’ve stepped forward in military service, as Medicine Crow did, across generations, even willing to give their lives for a country that has done them wrong.
A few days ago, it was announced that U.S. military veterans intend to join protesters at Standing Rock in early December as a show of support. Staffanson has no doubt that Medicine Crow, were he still alive and able, would be there with other elders and youth.
Not long ago in Bozeman, respected traditional elders from across the U.S. came to Bozeman and celebrated Staffanson’s 95th birthday. Staffanson had hoped indigenous leaders from the influential traditional circle would draft a proclamation expressing solidarity with Standing Rock.
Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, told me that the groundswell of support for protestors at Standing Rock speaks to an awakening that is happening in society. It also speaks to a growing awareness of native rights, broken treaties and environmental concerns that transcend Indian Country.
In this social-media age, abuses of protestors that might ordinarily be denied are almost instantaneously made visible to millions.
After the presidential election on Nov. 8, Lyons and other members of the Traditional Circle sent a letter to President Obama and president-elect Trump. The letter noted that, according to the Fort Laramie treaties of both 1851 and 1868, the land where the Dakota Access Pipeline is pushing to cross constitutes criminal trespass. The U.S. government gave its solemn word, backed by the Constitution, that it would respect the rights of native peoples and not do them harm forever, they noted.
“The militarized aggression at Standing Rock is coming to the attention of the world. The use of the bullmastiff attack dogs is not new to the history of the Americas of our Native peoples. The conquistadors of Spain used those very same dogs against Native peoples of the Americas. Have we not progressed beyond these approaches in the last 500 years?” the elders asked.
“Our people stand in defense of land and life. Water is life. Common sense must prevail over dollars and cents if we are to survive as a species. Peace.”
The letter was signed by the following elders: Oren Lyons (Onondaga Nation), Ruchatneet Printup (Tuscarora), Tł’izishzhini (Diné), Kuuyaa Tsawa (Taytsugeh Oweengeh), Lomaviva Emory Holmes (Hopi), Jose H. Lucero (Tewa), Wahtweni:neh Freida Jacques (Onondaga), Thunder Sparks Arleen Adams (Salish/Kootenai), Clayton Logan (Seneca), Lisa Powers (Numunu-Comanche), Tracy Shenandoah (Onondaga), Fred “Coyote” Downey (Round Valley Indian Reservation), Leonard Bends (Apsáalooke).
Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He is author the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. EBS publishes Wilkinson’s New West column every week online and twice a month in the printer version of the paper, under a partnership arrangement with the Wyoming online journal thebullseye.media. We encourage you to check out The Bullseye.