By Arthur H.Gunther III
I don’t know what karma or the gods have in store for this great nation of ours, conceived in the stew that is the rights of humankind and progressed enough to have earned its mettle despite horrific mistakes. As Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Yet a particular debt is outstanding, and it must be repaid before the finish line is reached.
I write of our Native Americans, those people of spirit and great humanity who were pushed aside in the name of progress, in westward expansion, in the never-ending chase for a constant frontier. That is America’s leitmotif, its source of inspiration, its reason for being, indeed its excuse for bettering all classes, but it is also its shame. It is more than the moment to revisit what has been done to the first settlers of this land, truly the only ones who do not need a green card.
Last week, President Obama became just the third president to visit the Indian nations, his trip to Cannon Ball, N.D., where sit the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation. Sits there, too, is a 60 percent unemployment rate, 40 percent of its people in poverty, 50 percent student drop-out figure. These statistics in a USA that can pay defense contractors billions, that can write foreign nations of dubious intent a blank check.
To be fair, while this was the president’s first visit to an Indian reservation, his administration has paid more attention to Native Americans and their concerns about education, health care, jobs and respect than his predecessors. There is at least some recent dialogue on schooling, for example.
Yet how do you do more, so much more, in particular erasing the distrust built up over centuries and finally recognizing the substance of treaties signed in the 1800s? It was convenient for progress to move Native Americans to reservations. It can even be argued that it was a saner way than killing them off. But the late-1800s’ attempts to “Americanize” Indians through forced education in the white man’s way and then what continues as the almost complete rejection of their rich, cultural history and lifestyle, with prejudicial portrayals of “redskins” the usual offering all a sad part of our national history.
We non-Indians owe a debt to Native Americans — for their land, for their sacrifices, for our insults, and especially for not taking lessons from them about land and resource management, about treating people with respect, about using accumulated wisdom. It is a debt overdue.
Some way, some day, perhaps in the setting sun of this great American democratic experiment, the long-whispered spirit that is now kept to the reservations will be spoken. That could prove our salvation in the maturing of a dream that must be fulfilled for all — not just some — in this epic journey called America, taking place on Indian land.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.