Tuesday, September 03, 1996
History - Summer Reading - Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
"Let me be a free man--free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself--and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty." (330)
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, clearly states that freedom of movement, religion, thought, and opinion are fundamental rights. (Articles 13, 18, 19) Only recently have these obvious but overlooked rights been written down. The Declaration of Independence expounded similar ideas about the right to form an independent nation and freedom from tyranny. However, these same rights which aided the creation of the United States were not granted to the American Indians and their struggle for freedom. These tribes would become lost in the blurring line between sovereign nation to government dependent and with them, their rights.
As independent tribes living in unsettled America, the Cheyenne and the Sioux were in effect sovereign states. Their self-determination and independence allowed them to sign and uphold the terms of their 1851 treaty with the United States. The Cheyenne later retaliated for an infringement on their lands; Chivington's raid and massacre of the camp. The Cheyenne disrupted the infrastructure of telegraph lines and railroads. After the army came and killed more Cheyenne women and children, the chief pursued peace. "Although your troops have struck us, we throw it all behind and are glad to meet you in peace and friendship." (101) Hence, the Cheyenne have demonstrated their rights as a nation to protect their citizens and seek both war and peace as methods of protecting their interests and freedom as a state. Yet, in this process, the bully, the United States, requests and is granted a parcel of Cheyenne lands.
As the United States acted on its belief of Manifest Destiny, more disputes arose regarding the American Indian lands. When settlers came, roads, telegraph wires, and rails crossed over tribal lands. Mentioned earlier, the American Indians would attack these signs of civilization first when violations of their territory occurred. Thus destructive images of the tribal peoples were more plausible and accepted by the public. Sheridan calls his enemies, the American Indians, "savage butchers", "savage bands of cruel marauders", and then calls a particular chief, "a worn-out and worthless cypher." (169) These contemptuous images that Sheridan has for American Indians threatened the credibility and the respect necessary for consideration of the American Indian tribes as separate and sovereign nations.
Due to rising pressures from the settlers near American Indian territories, the United States government sought to protect the infrastructure of the emerging West. "You sent for us. We came here . . . . We never do the white man any harm; we don't intend to . . . . Whenever you want to go the Smoky Hill you can go . . . . When we come on the road, your young men must not shoot us." (152) The United States still did not view this as adequate terms. They no longer desired coexistence but the removal of the offending tribes. Even assimilation was rejected. "An Arapaho chief who was amused by the activities of white men . . . learned to eat meat with a knife and fork . . . ." (68) However, the local government soon tried to remove the tribes out of the area. The American Indian nations faced relocation, a violation of the freedom of movement, and the frustrations of the United States government who viewed them as rogues and savages.
Attempting to please the settlers and ameliorate the westerly traffic, the policy makers, "intended to open a road through the Powder River country regardless of the treaty." (129) In a similar tone, they recommend later, "that the government ignore the treaty of 1868 and take the land [from the Sioux.]" (428) Countless times, treaties were signed without disclosing or ensuring that the two parties were in agreement. The United States shows contempt for the American Indian nations and their freedom to forge treaties.
The tribes could not defend their territory. War was not a option because United States military superiority prevented any prolonged or potentially successful campaign. The American Indians had to submit to being put on small territories called reservations. The Kiowas did not want to give up what independence they had, but they did not have a choice. "The Kiowas could see no reason for going to Fort Cobb, giving up their arms, and living on the white man's handouts." (243) Nonetheless, they are ordered to Fort Cobb. Sheridan hunted them down and put them on an agency where, "they must draw their rations and answer roll call every three days . . . ." (262) They now see no alternative but war. "I know that war with Washington means the extinction of my people, but we are driven to it; we had rather die than live." (262). The United States would not let them coexist and further prohibits even subsistence which was a flagrant violation of the rights outlined in the World Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, their helpless nation is forced to submit and cannot protect its people. Similarly, the Apache, Eskiminzin, trapped on a reservation, said, "that his people no longer had a home and could make none because the Bluecoats were always pursuing them . . . ." (201) Their natural rights for self-determination and self-rule were trapped on the reservation, and by 1875 most of the reservation tribes were seeking better environs. Some however stay on reservations fighting "over the poor quality of rations." (277) They are no longer self-determining, and they have been pacified yet remain a foreign country for purposes of rights. By now, it is clear that the conclusion of Crazy Horse that they, "wanted to make prisoners of them on a reservation," had come true. (307) The American Indians have lost their land, work, nation, and rights as humans.
The American Indian nations were forced even with their strongest opposition, to capitulate and give up. Their countries which provided them with work, happiness, land, and basic rights were destroyed. In the end, the American Indians were worn and broken by the machinery of the United States, their rights stripped and left nationless in barren reservations.
"Does the Great Father desire us to die?" (346)
For most of them it was too late. The force was gone out of the Cheyennes. In the years since Sand Creek, doom had stalked the Beautiful People. The seed of the tribe was scattered with the wind. "We will go north at all hazards," a young warrior had said, "and if we die in battle our names will be remembered and cherished by all our people." Soon there would be no one left who could care enough to remember, no one to speak their names now that they were gone. (349)