Cowboys and Injuns
Injustice and Indictrination
I used to love to strap on my cheap, metal six-guns filled with the little rolls of caps which would snap when you pulled the trigger so that I could go get the injuns. We all played cowboys and injuns, who didn’t, well I guess the injuns didn’t or maybe they did and the results were switched. That was irrelevant because there were no injuns in my neighborhood or anywhere else as far as I knew and as far as I was concerned they were only on TV, either being subservient to the Lone Ranger or howling and giddyapping on their ponies away from the U.S. Cavalry troops who were protecting Americans from the red savages and always won. But to say I was prejudice against injuns is not true and it reminds me of the old “joke” about the liberal who loves injuns in New Jersey and the racist who loves blacks in South Dakota. It’s hard to hate someone who you never see and it’s easy to love someone you never see. And I never did like the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians, not because of the native American references, but because I was a fan of the N.Y. Giants (hopefully I’m not insulting big people) and the N.Y. Yankees (and hopefully northerners won’t take it as a slur).
When I applied to be accepted in the VISTA program, or Volunteers in Service to America, like most other middle class, liberal white kids in the 1960s, I asked to be located on an Indian reservation, even though I had absolutely no clue about what it was like on an Indian reservation but it just sounded very 1960ish. And when I wasn’t assigned to a reservation I was disappointed but at least I was sent to a low-income housing project in Fort Lauderale, Fla., where I could help the poor black people down there.
The reality of life as a native American is not the stuff of cowboys and Indians television shows. It was more like ethnic cleansing, genocide and yes, holocaust. A unique aspect of the assault against the native Americans involved the wholesale plan to eliminate any sense of Indian identities and it focused largely on around 140 overcrowded, under-staffed, unsanitary, disease-ridden, harsh and sometimes deadly Indian residential schools that opened in the U.S. in the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries and their primary purpose was to “assimilate” young Indians into the dominant white culture, where assimilate is actually spelled “strip the Indians of their culture, their language, their dignity and anything else that wasn’t white and Christian.” Some native American parents sent their children to the residential schools, hoping they would get a white education and a leg up in the white world but most were simply uprooted by the white authorities, without parental permission and many would never again see their children or their parents. Many of the schools were run by Catholic and Protestant clergy with the primary goal of converting the Indians from their “pagan” worship to Christianity.
Usually the school year began with hair cuts for every boy and girl, to shear them of their traditional long hair, which is eerily similar to the Jews whose heads were shaved upon entering the concentration camps. In the native American culture, hair should be cut only once during the child’s first birthday and they believe hair is a symbol of physical strength and masculinity. Indian clothing was seized, they were ordered not to speak their native language, they were not to practice native religions and if they did, they would face severe corporal punishment. Investigations have revealed many cases of sexual, manual, physical and mental abuse occurring mostly in church-run schools.
There was a wide network of residential schools for indigenous children in Canada. A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission declared in 2015 that the schools, which operated from 1883 to 1996, were a form of “cultural genocide.” The U.S. has had no such commission but one is sorely needed to uncover the truth about the assault on indigenous people.
In past weeks, Canadian authorities have uncovered hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds of three former schools in Canada. The remains are mostly of children but how they died, who they were or when they died is not known. Indigenous communities believe that 10,000 to 50,000 indigenous children, the “missing children,” went to the schools and never returned home. We don’t know if the indigenous children in the U.S. schools have suffered the same fates but conditions were similar, attitudes were similar so why would you think their fates were any different? We owe answers to the native Americans in this country who have seen their cultures devastated, their lands stolen and their children forcibly removed.