American Failure

Rain upon arrival:

As I entered Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota on my first day there, rain began to fall. It was slow rain, just enough to cover the windshield and make me turn on the windshield wipers, but not enough to stop me from seeing that I was entering a place completely different from anywhere I’d been. I saw the Rosebud Casino and the homes scattered around me, some cows in the distance and people walking along the highway. I knew immediately that these days would be informative. At the time, however, I didn’t know my time there would be a fundamental challenge to the very trip I’m undertaking.

Historical ignorance:

Growing up, I received the same education on indigenous people’s that I think many students do today. I heard about the way the Spanish massacred the first Americans; I read about the Trail of Tears; and then I learned nothing else. The Lakota, the Navajo, the Winnebago all faded into the backdrop of American history.

An education in Rosebud:

As a result, when I arrived in Rosebud, I didn’t know about the removal of indigenous children from their homes. I had heard of the Doctrine of Discovery, but didn’t know it was still relevant today. While studying history in college, I came to peace with much of America’s bloody history. I always thought that despite its flaws and failures, of which there are many, America has consistently come closer to living up to the world’s greatest ideals: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But that thinking rests on the idea that we’ve made progress, that we’ve become more inclusive.

It became clear this week, that when it comes to tribes such as the Lakota, we have absolutely failed. Our government took children from homes based on the idea that they need to be “civilized.” In 2017, people use a modified n-word to describe students from the Lakota community. When it comes to indigenous people, the idea of being an American still depends on defining “America” in opposition to “indigenous,” rather than in a way that’s inclusive of those people.

Whether people would like to admit it or not, indigenous people have contributed in a fundamental way to the American founding. As Dwayne showed me, our Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. Indigenous people created many of the crops that are crucial to American agriculture today. And indigenous people discovered the medical use for quinine.

But it’s not just their contributions to American life I was ignorant of. I also knew nothing about indigenous culture. Marianne explained that indigenous people valued and still value spirituality and family above all else. In that way, indigenous society was and is no different than Christian or Jewish America.

We are failing:

Despite all of these truths, I think people today sometimes have a historical stereotype of indigenous Americans that people held during the founding of the United States: they were savages, people unable to contribute or live peacefully. Although I think I didn’t hold this stereotype, I still didn’t reject it or disagree when people expressed it. Now, having spent time at Rosebud, I see just how wrong it is.

My time challenged me to think about what and who an American is. One student said to me that being an American is about “boundaries…between the reservation” and the rest of the country. If we continue to exclude and judge people who were so fundamentally important to all things good about our country, especially after massacring them and taking their land over several centuries, what does that say about us? About who we are? I don’t know.

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