Your Heroes Are Not Our Heroes

Feb 15th, 2003 | By | Category: 14-3: Your Heroes Are Not Our Heroes, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Many American Indian parents’ hearts have been broken by walking into a room with a television and overhearing their own children cheering for the cowboys. No matter what the parents do to instill pride in their children they have a difficult time overriding the lessons taught by movies, novels, and textbooks. Their ancestors are portrayed as savages, rapists, and losers in the battle for ownership of North America.

A statue that stood for over a century on the east front steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC, showed a gallant white backwoodsman grasping the arm of a naked red man intent upon killing an innocent white woman cowering in the background (Horatio Greenough’s “Rescue Group” as described by Richard Drinnon in Facing West: the Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building). In her popular children’s book, Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes savages begging at her family’s door, not mentioning that these Osage people had been forced into starvation by trespassers such as Ingalls’s father.

Children, both Indian and non-Indian, absorb these messages and take them with them to school. Their classroom experiences further alienate Indian children. Sherrole Benton remembers white boys throwing stones at her when she was in third grade and yelling, “Nigger. Go back to where you came from!” She wrote about the experience in Tribal College Journal several years ago (TCJ, Vol. 6, N.4). As an Oneida and Chippewa Indian girl, she eagerly had embraced Pocahontas when she found her in the textbook, hoping that everyone in her class would learn that Indians were here in this land and that this is Indian land.

The Pocahontas story with its questionable message was the only mention of Indians in her entire junior high textbook. There was no mention of historical visionaries such as Black Elk, Ma-se-wa-pe-ga, or Sweet Medicine; no mention of leaders such as Manuelito, Sitting Bull, Dull Knife, Plenty Coups, or Sequoyah. Nothing portrayed her tribes – or any others – as living, breathing people.

Many of us non-Indians try to find books with diverse heroes for our children and grandchildren. Our eyes have been opened to the sins of our ancestors by writers such as the late Dee Brown (Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee), Vine Deloria, Jr. (Custer Died for your Sins), and Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States). However, we might not realize how biased we are in remembering various American figures. Years ago I read a column by Tim Giago (now publisher of Lakota Journal) pointing out that his Lakota people did not share our heroes. While I lost my copy of the column, its message stuck with me and led to the theme for this issue.

“Rational” people often question tribal creation stories, saying they are merely mythology. We are just beginning to realize that the history textbooks we rely upon for a scientific accounting of our pasts are actually filled with half-true creation stories, written from the viewpoint of a particular ideology. Our history lessons are not much more complicated than the cowboy and Indian movies we watched on television; they make it much too easy to tell the black hats from the white hats.

It is deeply disquieting when we encounter the other side of people whom we had classified as villains or heroes:

  • One of the most startling, for example, is Richard Nixon. Vilified for his corruption in the Watergate scandal, Nixon was a hero in the context of advancing Indian policy. In an address to Congress in 1970, Nixon introduced the self-determination policy that for the first time recognized the right of Indian tribes to control government programs, including schools. (interview with Helen Schierbeck and Tom Davis, who were involved in Indian controlled schools in the 1970s)
  • Dakota people remember Abraham Lincoln with mixed feelings for his role after the 1862 Dakota conflict in Minnesota. The Dakota Sioux were starving, and the federal agent said, “Let them eat grass.” In the ensuing battle, hundreds were killed on both sides. More than 300 Dakota were condemned to death by hanging, but Lincoln reduced the list to 38, feeling compelled by political pressure to punish that many despite the lack of evidence. At about the same time that he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln signed their death warrant. (interview with Dr. Elden Lawrence, Dakota historian)
  • When Thomas Jefferson listed the offenses of King George III in his draft of our country’s Declaration of Independence, he said George incited the “merciless Indian Savages.” The man who sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their peaceful exploration voyage vacillated between calling the Indians “my children” and calling for their extermination. (Richard Drinnon’s Facing West: the Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building)
  • Lewis and Clark were army officers who met each other fighting Indians in the Ohio Valley before they embarked on their voyage of discovery. Clark owned York, his body servant during the voyage. Although York played an important role in making the Indians friendlier toward the explorers, Clark and our nation mistreated him after the journey. He did not get the double pay and land grants that others in the group received after their return. (Time, July 8, 2002, Lewis and Clark special issue)

In 1992, the United States celebrated the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee.  American Indians felt they had to force their message on event planners and the public: Columbus was no hero to them. Protestors poured blood-red paint on statues of Columbus and hanged him in effigy. Columbus is reviled not just as the icon of change, when the Old World of Europe met the Old World of the Americas. He personally led the genocide and enslavement of the indigenous peoples. Bartholomé de Las Casas described the aftermath of Columbus’s arrival, estimating that between 1494 to 1508, over 3 million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Historian Howard Zinn acknowledges that Las Casas’s number may be either high or low, but in either case, Columbus’s image is bloodied.

From 2003-2006, the United States will be “commemorating” the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Bicentennial. Organizers are not calling it a “jubilee” or even a “celebration.” American Indians, including people

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