Insult to Injury: Stereotyping American Indians in the Wake of Conquest

The "Siouxper Drunk" t-shirt incident in Grand Forks is too important to let go with a hand slap and a two-day public debate about the limits of free speech. It is in the interest of all of us to step back at a moment like this and ask ourselves some hard questions about the current state of white-Indian relations in North Dakota (and beyond).

When Lewis & Clark came here in October 1804, the future state of North Dakota was fully inhabited by sovereign nations. The Mandan had recently moved north from the country around today's Bismarck to the country around today's Stanton. The Hidatsa had been living at the mouth of the Knife River for a very long time. The Arikara were still mostly clustered around the mouth of the Grand River on today's ND/SD border, but they were sending out feelers to the Mandan and Hidatsa. The Lakota (Sioux) were pushing up from today's South Dakota. The Assiniboine controlled the area west of the Turtle Mountains down towards Minot (and beyond), and the Ojibwe and Cree held the lands to the east of the Turtle Mountains. The Dakota (also "Sioux") controlled the eastern half of the future state of North Dakota.

When Lewis and Clark arrived, the state was not empty. It was full.

The peoples Lewis and Clark met were members of proud tribal nations, with the same rights to their traditional lands as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese have to theirs. Their rights were formally recognized by United States law. In a landmark Supreme Court case in 1831, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, Indians may "perhaps be denominated domestic dependent nations." With these words Marshall recognized that the aggressive Anglo-Americans were going to put enormous pressures on the Indian nations of the continent, but that they could not simply ride roughshod over Indian sovereignty.

Non-Indians wanted the land of North Dakota. All of it. Through a complex series of maneuvers--including "free" purchase, forced purchase, conquest, unilateral Congressional action, Presidential Executive Orders, land condemnation, flooding, the Dawes Act, and state and federal judicial rulings--non-Indians, between 1804 and 1953, gobbled up North Dakota. North Dakota has a total surface area of 45,348,000 acres (70,700 square miles). Indians once owned all of it. Today their five reservations cover approximately 2,500,000 acres of North Dakota. That's about 5%.

But even this is a misleading statistic: Thanks to the 1887 General Allotment Act (the Dawes Act), non-Indians were permitted to purchase "surplus" lands within the boundaries of Indian reservations. Today, approximately half of the acres on each of the ND reservations are owned by non-Indians. When you look at the state highway map you see solid blocks called "Standing Rock Indian Reservation," etc., but if you could see a detailed land ownership map the reservations would look more like checkerboards of mixed Indian and non-Indian ownership. On the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, for example, only 457,837 of the 988,000 acres are owned by Indian individuals or the tribes. The other 530,163 acres are owned by non-Indians.

So far I have only summarized the conquest of land since Lewis and Clark popped into the state to announce that a French white man who had never been to the Great Plains had "sold" the Louisiana Territory to a red-headed American white man who never traveled west of the Appalachian Mountains. If you add to that the other factors, you begin to see the ruthlessness of the white conquest of America. A short list of those factors would include: 1) deliberate use of alcohol as a trade and treaty lubricant; 2) the accidental, but often indifferent spread of epidemics that Indians had no immune system to fight off; 3) the systematic and deliberate extermination of the keystone of the Indian economy, the bison; 4) military occupation and warfare (e.g., the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, 1864); 5) U.S. government sponsored missionary work to "de-paganize" Indians (a clear violation of the wall of separation between church and state); 6) heartless Indian boarding schools in which young Indians were sent to facilities hundreds of miles from their families, where their hair was shorn and they were beaten for speaking their native languages, on the principle of "kill the Indian in him, and save the man," as "philanthropist" Captain Richard Pratt formulated the national mission; 7) the outlawing of Native American religious practices (such as the Sun Dance and the Mandan Okipa ceremony); 8) corrupt or incompetent reservation agents who failed to get to reservation Indians the rations they were solemnly guaranteed by treaties.

And on and on.

Now add just one more factor to this list of horrors. The two great Dakota dams on the Missouri River—Garrison, 1953, and Oahe, 1962—flooded out the 155,000 acres of prime agricultural bottomland of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, thus instantaneously shattering their solid agrarian economy and forcing them to try to piece their lives back together on the flood-isolated fragments of their reservation. The damming of the Missouri at Pierre, SD, "cut the spiritual artery" of the Lakota Nation, in the heartbreaking phrase of the Lakota writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. In the world of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Lakota, this is not an ancient wrong, but a still-fresh wound. If you want to understand this, read Paul Van Develder's Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation.

Non-Indians don't like to think about these things very much. If we really absorbed the dark significance of the white conquest of the Americas, it would degrade our comfort level. It would damage our mythology about ourselves. It is so much easier to ignore the problem altogether, and to convince ourselves that our post-conquest appropriation of Indian terminology and iconography is our way of honoring the people we displaced. In my view, a better way to honor the Lakota, Mandan, Hidatsa, Assiniboine, Ojibwe, Dakota, and Cree would be to ask them, first, how they would most like to be honored and respected, and, second, to accept without defensiveness the sorrowful history that has brought us to 2014. It would be a mistake to cast Indians as mere victims and non-Indians as mere culprits. Nor can the clock be turned back. The thing that happened between 1804 and 1953 would have been very hard to prevent, given the disparity in population densities, the technological superiority of the Euro-Americans, and the aggressive dynamics of U.S. history.

The two most common things I hear from non-Indians around the coffee houses, bars, and water coolers about the white-Indian "situation" in North Dakota are: 1) "Sure, bad things were done to Indians long ago, but that was then and this is now and I personally haven't done anything to them, so what exactly do you want me to do about it?" And 2), "Why can't they get over it? Why can't they get on board and enjoy the good things American society offers everyone who wants them?" We have a long journey ahead.

North Dakota's Indians have been amazingly resilient. Their cultural survival is little short of miraculous. We have the opportunity to enter a new era of mutual cultural respect and reconciliation. At the very least it is time for all of us to insist on zero tolerance for cultural slurs and racism, stereotyping, and cultural appropriation.