Amalia FourHawks: Exiles in their homeland
NORTHAMPTON — In recent days, two guest columns in the Gazette told the stories of exile, racism and injustice visited upon the Palestinian village of Ramle-Lydda and upon African-Americans in this country. Both were well thought out and made valid points about things that should not be perpetrated by one race upon another, or by one country upon another.
However, nowhere in these heartfelt arguments was there any recognition of how the same crimes were perpetuated here on Native American people. In the first column, titled “Moved by sad songs of exile,” the writer speaks of the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Russia when Jews were forced from villages they had known all their lives. He writes that “people are attached to their homes, their neighbors, their community ... and the landscape.” And that forcing them to leave is “horribly traumatic.”
There is no disagreement here, but why look so far away? Why does the writer not look to the same type of treatment of Native Americans right here in this country?
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Policy which stripped the homes and lands of native people in the southeastern United States, and in 1838, these people were put upon a forced march to Oklahoma, known as Indian Territory, and granted by treaty to native people for all time. Known as the Trail of Tears, this march caused the death of fully one quarter of the native people who started out. In 1864, thousands of Navajo, Apache and other southwestern native people were forced at gunpoint to walk 450 miles from their homelands, their communities and their farms to an area deemed uninhabitable by “civilized” people.
It was a land that offered only contaminated water, poor soil and few natural resources. There were no fortunate exiles who found new homes in the same area as their original homes, nor were they allowed into American communities to try to make a new life.
The column that appeared the day after this one was titled “Arms and the black man” and discusses the racism that allowed “the traitor, Robert E. Lee, leader of insurrectionist Southern militias,” to retire in peace, and not be tried as the war criminal that he was, while African-Americans who attempted to defend themselves from racism and attacks were labeled as criminals.
Rather like the racism that ennobles Lord Jeffrey Amherst, founder of germ warfare, when he commanded the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to be handed out to the native people. Imagine naming a town and a college for a man who additionally wanted to “try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race,” including hunting them down with dogs.
This writer decries the racism that cast African-Americans as “three fifths of a person,” but never discusses the fact that African-Americans were granted citizenship in 1868 by the 14th Amendment and given the right to vote in 1870 by the 15th Amendment, while Native Americans were not even considered “human beings” until 1879 — nine long years after African-Americans were not only voting, but holding office.
Native Americans were not granted citizenship in this land, the land that had been their home for thousands of years, until 1924. And that right to vote was only granted on a state-by-state basis, with Utah being the last state to grant the basic right of Native people to vote in 1956.
There are many references in the article to African-American leaders and to organizations that fought for the civil rights and the dignity of their communities, and were vilified, arrested or exiled.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) suffered the same type of consequences. Leonard Pelletier, a Lakota man, remains in prison for the killing of a FBI agent on his reservation, despite incontrovertible evidence that the fatal bullet was not from his gun.
It is a sad fact that powerful communities still seek to destroy smaller, less well-defended groups in the name of taking land and wealth. Even today, the Keystone XL pipeline threatens hundreds of miles of native reservation land, land that belongs by treaty to the native people. Native leaders who seek to stop the pipeline in order to preserve some of their sacred sites and irreplaceable cultural areas have been jailed and vilified.
Let there be tears not only for all of those displaced people represented by the fictional village of Anatevka. Let there also be tears, and a call for justice, for native people who continue to be ripped from their homes and robbed of their rights to defend themselves equally.
Amalia FourHawks lives in Florence.