Book Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Originally appeared in La Jicarita:

Reviewed by NICK ESTES

unknownHistory, especially Indigenous history, is still a site of struggle in academia, in public education, and in the popular national imaginary. The narrative conventions of U.S. history often create convenient niches for the so-called “Indian Wars” under the umbrella of a “history of the West.” Past atrocities safely remain in the distant past, perhaps unfortunate, but nonetheless in the past. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States derails this narrative. She contends that the genocidal history of the U.S. against Indigenous peoples was not only foundational to bring the nation into existence but required to export it as a global project in the twenty-first century. Indigenous peoples, perhaps the first and longest standing enemies of U.S. empire, remain central to this history of the U.S. and its future.

For this reason, Dunbar-Ortiz’s highly accessible An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is the Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee of our times. When Bury My Hearthit bookstores in 1970, it became a national bestseller. Mass protests against the Vietnam War drew connections to the U.S.’s genocidal and imperial past of Indian-hating and colonial massacres. In the same moment, the burgeoning Red Power movement was radically altering the landscape of Indigenous scholarship and political struggle on the domestic and international stages. It didn’t call U.S. imperialism exceptional, but rooted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Dunbar-Ortiz, a participant in both of those struggles, writes in a time when the militarization of the globe under U.S. empire in a post-9/11 world has again exposed the fallacy of U.S. democracy. Yesterday’s enemies of empire, Indians, are made anew in our present moment as the ever-looming “terrorist threat.”

To understand this, Dunbar-Ortiz asks us to reconsider the foundation of the U.S., making several claims. First, the U.S. is a colonialist settler-state, which “is not to make accusation but rather to face reality, unless Indigenous peoples are erased.” (7) The “refusal or inability” of U.S. historians to understand their own history is the source of the problem, or “the absence of the colonial framework.” (7)

Second, Indigenous resistance is over five centuries old and needs to be re-framed within a broader history of the Americas that does not result in complete annihilation and disappearance. She writes, “Surviving genocide, by whatever means, is resistance.” (xiii) This also means rethinking history from an Indigenous perspective as active participants in shaping their own histories of themselves, the land, and the formations of U.S. colonialism.

Lastly, U.S. “culture of conquest” means violence, genocide, expropriation, destruction, and dehumanization of Indigenous peoples. It is a historically rooted structure, not an event that happened in the past. Indian hating was a requirement to export colonial violence to rest of the world. “Perhaps it was inevitable,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “that the earlier wars against Indigenous peoples, if not acknowledged and repudiated, ultimately would include the world.” (12)

Piece by piece, An Indigenous Peoples’ History dismantles the U.S. national narrative, and rigorously interrogates it from an Indigenous perspective. Beginning with the origin stories of European settlers arriving in the “New World” who sought to transform the landscape into the image of the land they left, death and elimination of Indigenous peoples followed in their wake. They appropriated the existing infrastructure of trade routes and agriculture and initiated war after war of extermination to seize land and resources. Here, Dunbar-Ortiz works against the so-called “terminal narratives” to which many U.S. historians subscribe, that Indigenous population decline was mainly due to biological factors such as disease. Conveniently absent from these narratives is over three centuries of colonial warfare waged against Indigenous peoples. “Commonly referred to as the most extreme demographic disaster—framed as natural—in human history,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “it was rarely called genocide.” (40)

European ideas of property also played a crucial role in the colonization of the Americas. Peasantry dispossessed of land and livelihood, especially in British occupied Ireland, comprised the rank-and-file of newcomers who came to make a life of their own. They had little choice in the matter when faced with the alternative of starvation and death at home. With them also came soldier settlers, or Ulster-Scots, who were seasoned and violent settlers in the colonization of Northern Ireland. They also brought the practice of scalping, which they first used on the Irish, and the tools of colonization necessary for violent war making against Indigenous peoples. These Scots-Irish settlers formed the wall of colonization as both fodder for the “Indian Wars” and as militant settlers who pushed frontier boundaries. They willingly or unwillingly cleared the way for “civilization” by transforming the land into real estate. The myth was born that white European civilization was “commanded by God to go into the wilderness to build the new Israel” and “entitled to the land through their blood sacrifice.” (55)

Revered U.S. presidents from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln also washed their hands in Indigenous blood. Jackson’s genocidal Muskogee war won him his political career. As president from 1829-1837, he won support from landless, poor settlers to whom he promised land by implementing removal policies for many of the “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole) in the South. Killing and hating Indians was not only politically profitable, it was a requirement for office after Jackson.

Lincoln’s tenure was no different. Credited as the author of the 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation” and for “freeing” black slaves in the Civil War, his role as a national “hero” is irreparably stained by his treatment of Indigenous peoples. Lincoln won favor with poor white settlers, much like Jackson, with his promises of “free soil” under the 1862 Homestead Act and the Morill Act, which opened up Indigenous land in the West for settlement and “land grant universities.” (140) He also sent Union troops to violently crush the Dakota in Minnesota Territory and expel them from their homelands in 1862; 38 Dakota men were hung in a public display of force. To date, this remains the largest sanctioned mass execution in U.S. history. Lincoln was also president during the 1864 Navajo “Long Walk” where thousands of Navajo were rounded up and forced marched to an open-air concentration camp.

Successors would walk proudly in these “bloody footprints” across the land and through time. What became known as the “Indian Wars” violently opened up Indigenous land in the West to help relieve the pressures of class conflict and economic crises in the East due to industrialization. With the so-called closing of the frontier and the massacre of 300 Lakota people at Wounded Knee in 1890, almost all land in the U.S. had been divided and privatized. This was further exacerbated by the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act, which gave reservation land allotments to individual Indigenous families and then allowed the sale of “surplus” lands to settlers on the cheap. Indigenous peoples also became a lamentable footnote in the U.S. popular imaginary, as their population reached their lowest numbers. “With the ‘dead Indian,’” Dunbar-Ortiz observes, “the ‘American Century’ was born.” (161)

“The American Century” also served to continue the process of conquest of Indigenous peoples. A large number of Indigenous peoples served in the military during World War I, even though many were not U.S. citizens. In recognition of their service, citizenship was granted through the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. Many Indigenous peoples, however, protested citizenship because they had not asked for it. As part of the New Deal, perhaps the most dramatic transformations took place. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act ended allotment and allowed for tribal governments to become politically organized around a U.S.-based constitutional model. Overwhelming numbers of Indigenous peoples also served in World War II, only to return from service to be met with 1950s termination and relocation policies that promised to end federal recognition of tribes and relocate them off their reservations. Much of the Indigenous resistance to these federal policies fueled the resistance to come in the following decades.

The long history of Indigenous anti-colonial resistance, or the “culture of resistance,” from Tecumseh to Crazy Horse, remained (and still remains) in the hearts and minds of many. The post-World War II formation of the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Youth Council, and the American Indian Movement (among many other organizations) pointed to a new generation of social movements, some of which also broke onto the world stage at the United Nations. In fact, much of the twenty-point program of the 1972 “Trail of Broken Treaties” nation-wide march to Washington, D. C. served as a framework for the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But many of the achievements of the international struggle came with consequences; the 1973 73-day standoff at Wounded Knee resulted in a violent FBI crackdown. Nonetheless, the vibrant international culture of Indigenous peoples still exists and thrives today.

With these insights in mind, Dunbar-Ortiz closes the book by looking to the future. Weighing heavily on the moment in which she writes, the U.S.’s endless “war on terror” is, in many ways, a re-fashioning of the “Indian Wars” or the creation of new Indians of empire’s frontiers. Challenges to U.S. empire must then come with the understanding and appreciation of Indigenous existence and resistance, deeply embedded within this particular history. She argues that any social movement that intends to disrupt settler colonialism and empire must account for Indigenous peoples: “Indigenous peoples offer possibilities for life after empire.” (235)

But An Indigenous Peoples’ History is not another litany of white guilt. Dunbar-Ortiz invokes the late Lenape scholar Jack Forbes when she argues that although living settlers are not responsible for their ancestors’ acts of genocide, “they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past. Assuming this responsibility provides a means of survival and liberation.” (235)

This is a book that should be shared among the Indigenous and non-Indigenous reading public as well as read and taught in college and high school classes. It will serve as a reference point for many scholars and activists to come.

Advertisements

Chamberlain School Board Investigated for Civil Rights Violation

Press release from James Cadwell:

United States Department of Educations Office of Civil Rights to investigate Chamberlain School Board for Civil Rights violation.

The Chamberlain School board is being investigated for possible civil right violation. The alleged violation came about as a result of the boards denial to allow James Cadwell and Lynn Hart to formally present a letter of support from the King Center of Atlanta, Georgia for the honor song. In a email/letter dated April 8, 2014 from the superintendent of Chamberlain Schools Deb Johnson, Cadwell was told he could no longer bring up the Honor song and that she, superintendent Johnson, was informed by the board to not allow Cadwell to be put on the April 15, 2014 agenda to discuss the honor song. Ironically, the board at the very meeting Cadwell had requested to participate in to introduce the letter of support from the King Center, they, the board, modified the rules surrounding public participation and input and approved an amendment to read that subjects brought up by the public can only be discussed once. In addition they also amended their policy about length of time and now restrict the amount of time they can be discussed. It should be noted that this is direct conflict with the track record of the board. With the recent attempt by the board to build a new 13.5 million dollar multi purpose building the public has addressed this issue meeting after meeting with no opposition from the board or restriction of the amount of time spent on the discussion. It would appear that the restriction to the Native American Honor song is an attempt by the board to eliminate public input on subjects they are not in favor of. The whole idea behind public input is to help the board understand and to sway the boards decisions with the public exercising its desires.

Previously the board rejected a petition that was signed by over 200 of the staff and students of the Chamberlain Schools who were in favor of the honor song. In one of the responses to the petition board member Jay Blum made reference to hear say information, saying that he talked to a friend of a friend who said he was told by a student that he the student felt pressured in to signing the petition.

Past comments from the school board read like a horror story, President Rebecca Riemers told the public in one of the school board meetings that the issue of the honor song is dead! We will not be discussing it again. Additional comment include member Casey Hutmaker telling the public during a board meeting that “Chamberlain school is an english speaking school, we speak english here we don’t need any other language” as he made reference to the honor song. Addition comments in the same meeting found Hutmaker saying “we say the Pledge of Allegiance here that’s all we need”. Board member Dallas Thompson made reference to Crow Creek Sioux Tribe with this statement “Those people have all kinds of problems up there they need to straighten out their own issues. These kids are doing just fine until those adults got involved!”

The request for the honor song has received national support from the King Center, NAACP(National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, with additional support of South Dakotas largest newspaper both in and out of Indian country and the South Dakota Indian Education Association who moved their conference as a direct result of the honor song denial by the school board. Chamberlain Schools minority population has increased to nearly 40% in the past few years with Native American students making up over 38% of that population. In addition some of the Elementary classrooms Native American population exceeds 50%.

Most recently the Chamberlain school board accepted the resignation of the lone Minority member American Indian Marcel Felicia and replaced him with the past president Rebeca Riemers who did not run for re-election in the last election.

In a letter received by Mr. Cadwell dated September 3, 2014 the United States Department of Education office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into alleged discrimination on the basis race. The office of civil rights is responsible for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964(TitleVI),42 U.S.C 200d and it’s implementing regulation, 34 C.F.R. Part 100. Title VI prohibits recipients of Federal assistance from the Department from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.

As a recipient of federal financial assistance from the department, the district is subject to Title VI.

See also:

Chamberlain, SX: A Border Town and Its “Indian Problem”

Insanity: Chamberlain, SX and the D/Lakota Honor Song Controversy

Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible

Chamberlain, SX: A Border Town and Its “Indian Problem”

Standing in a parking lot across the street from the 2014 Chamberlain High School commencement ceremony last Sunday, singers, supporters (Native and non-Native), students, and families crowded outside the National Guard Armory to honor graduating seniors with a simple song—a song that has caused its fair share of controversy. The song itself is beautiful, as most Lakota honor songs (olowan) are. But it has attracted some of the ugliest sentiment from its biggest, vitriolic detractors—the Chamberlain school board. Many have struggled long and hard for the honor song only to be denied by the school board.

For years the script went something like this: Native and non-Native students suggest an honor song be sung at commencement to reflect the school’s ever-growing Native student body. The school board listens politely, sometimes, and most recently, impolitely. They deny the request. Parents and community members challenge them. White detractors fumble their words and reveal their ignorance, if not overt racism, trying to maintain the last vestiges of a vanishing way of life. The school board digs in and cites every excuse not to have it a part of commencement. Then it is revealed that there are deep-seated, unresolved historic and ongoing issues between a decreasing white majority and an increasing Native minority. Then, the honor song is sung outside commencement, usually from the curb across the street from the Armory.

But it’s more than just an honor song. And Chamberlain, despite its best attempts, will never live this down. It will haunt this border town in the annals of history. It will, as they say, go down in history.

There is something symbolic in the fact that it is sung from the curb, beyond the boundaries of what is considered “appropriate” celebration of educational achievements. Border towns are often divided that way, both metaphorically and geographically.

The “border” in border town functions to exclude those deemed unworthy and to include and protect those who are deemed worthy. The “border” in border town is also everywhere at once. You meet that border in everyday life when you are targeted as not belonging, when your presence is suspect and undesired. It separates the haves and have nots. It deems what is worthy knowledge and what is not; what is appropriate cultural expression and what is not; who is suspect and who is not; what is “political” and what is apolitical (as if there is a difference); and, more importantly, it divides a community along race, class, and gender boundaries. Once you transgress, you will know.

The institutions in place (education, police, business, religious, etc.) will let you know. And these boundaries are so matter-of-fact, so common sense, they become naturalized.

But the honor song supporters have respected these boundaries, these borders, much to the chagrin of their detractors. They have showed up at school board meetings to protest; followed civil protocol; and even sang the honor song across the street from the commencement ceremony out of respect for the school board’s ban. National civil rights organizations and regional newspapers even sympathize with the supporters. The South Dakota Indian Education Summit joined to the public shaming when it moved its annual conference from Chamberlain/Oacoma to Pierre.

Yet everyone still respects the boundaries and the border town still maintains its borders. The school board has even gone as far as to silence further discussion on the honor song, disallowing further public commentary. Certain individuals are singled out as trouble-makers, patsies for the problems these institutions created and the community’s silence sustains.

But the honor song controversy reveals more. The honor song problem reveals more. Substitute the word honor song with “Indian,” since it is after all a Native cultural expression. The “Indian” controversy reveals more. The “Indian” problem reveals more. “How does it feel to be a problem?” W. E. B. Dubois famously asked in 1903 on the question of race.

Exactly, how does it feel?

Growing up in Chamberlain, I asked myself that question a lot. When you transgress these boundaries, these borders, you feel it. You disrupt and upset the boundaries. You upset people’s emotions and expectations. You feel out of place. You are out of place. You are reminded, if not shown, you are out of place. You are made to feel a stranger.

Are we strangers in our own town, in our homelands?

Native presence in a border town like Chamberlain upsets the status quo. You can feel it. It fosters anxiety, distrust, and conjecture. The “Indian” problem is something Natives, non-Natives, and whites all feel.

The reaction from the school board, however, also reveals certain feelings. The sanctimony of the time-honored tradition of graduating from high school must maintain these boundaries. Tradition is historic practice after all. Transgressors who want to test this are treated like trespassers on private property.

Private property draws its own boundaries meant to include and exclude. Those who own have the right to be protected. Those who don’t own have no right. The more you own, the more rights you have.

Couple this thinking with overtly white institutions and you arrive at what legal scholar Cheryl Harris describes as “whiteness as property.” Whiteness becomes a form of property that must be defended and valorized. It seeks inclusion as well exclusion. It demarcates social boundaries. Those who trespass must be punished as if they violated property rights. Border towns such as Chamberlain are the epitome of such thinking.

So, where do we go from here? Do we cross the proverbial street and bring our song to the very institution that seeks its banishment? What if we brought the institution to the proverbial curb to reflect on the state Native people find themselves in border towns? What then?

If the population shift continues, soon Native people will find themselves in the majority. And what will they inherit? The ruins of institutions that saw them as unworthy trespassers?

I think we can do better. We know an honor song will not change the way the institutions of Chamberlain behave and act. It will not make them more moral or just. It will not make them more inclusive. It will not hold people accountable. It is merely a song and incapable of these things.

Perhaps we need to begin thinking of divesting power away from these institutions, these individuals, that continually divest us from power.

We have to think beyond seeking recognition and pats on the shoulder from institutions that are unwilling to change. This is after all more that just an honor song. It is about our future generations. It is not about just belonging to a system that sees you as unworthy.

These questions deserve answers. They are not exceptional to our current “Indian” problem—which is an age-old question. They are as old as the very day settlers came to what is now Chamberlain to dispossesses Native people of their land and livelihood. Put that way, the struggle over border towns such as Chamberlain is a struggle for life.

Shall we continue to sing from the curb?

Or shall we refuse the conditions set before us and strike anew?

Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible

NOTE: Unless cited, I use “X” in place of “Dakota” in “South Dakota” or “SD” to show respect for the Dakota people and reclaim the name from anti-Indian state governments and institutions. Dakota means “ally” and WoDakota means “peace and harmony.” Neither of these two meanings reflect the beliefs and attitudes of state governments towards Dakota people.

Chamberlain Must Go!

“The racist town of Chamberlain should be erased from the map!” Elizabeth Cook-Lynn declared to a standing-room only crowd of Natives and non-Natives who erupted into applause, cheers, and high pitched LE-LE-LE-LEs this summer at the Ite Sni symposium held at School of Mines campus. The elder Native stateswoman spoke about her life growing up in Crow Creek during the 30s, 40s, and 50s and the profound anti-Indian sentiment she experienced in the towns of Chamberlain and Oacoma. She made reference to the fact that anti-Indianism in Chamberlain has a long history and tradition; and the school board’s continued battle to fight the singing of a D/Lakota honor song at a high school commencement ceremony is testament to this tradition. So we shouldn’t be surprised. We shouldn’t be mad, angry Indians, because we should just expect Chamberlain to behave the way Chamberlain does.

What was most surprising was that everyone had a common sense about Chamberlain being a racist town, even, ironically, non-Native members of the Rapid City community! But what is Chamberlain’s historic anti-Indian common sense and why is it so productive in protecting its whiteness? Before this question can be adequately answered, we should turn to the history of Chamberlain.

Anti-Indian History

When the infamous Lewis and Clark expedition began to navigate through “hostile” Sioux territory in late September 1804, they camped on sandbars and tried to avoid the Teton Sioux nation whom the explorers described as “vilest miscreants of the savage race.” Soon the “miscreants” discovered the explorers and a tense three day stand-off took place at what is now the Big Bend of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation. Lewis and Clark did not want to pay passage for their trespassing and soon kidnapped the son of a chief to guarantee their safe travel. This transgression set the precedent of Lakota-U.S. relations in the area. The behavior of succeeding settlers in the area changed little.

After Lewis and Clark came trappers and traders that began to settle near the Whetstone Agency, which was south of present-day Oacoma. Fleeing for their lives from the murderous, total war campaign waged by Colonel Henry Sibley to round up and exterminate the refugees of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, Dakota relatives took shelter in the bluffs along the Missouri River at present-day Chamberlain. Thousands of Dakota men, women, and children were killed for scalp bounties for their participation in the 1862 uprising. Lakota relatives pitied the Dakota who fled the war and helped hide them among their camps. The place where they hid became known as Tipi Maka Oyanke, or Cave Dwellers Camp.

Chamberlain was formally founded as a railroad town in 1881 and served as the gateway for gold miners seeking fortunes in the opening of the Black Hills in 1877. Richard H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, attempted to coax the Oyate (the Great Sioux Nation) into opening up the “Great Sioux Reservation” in 1888. This became known as the Pratt Commission. Anti-Indian sentiment in “Dakota Territory” fueled indignation towards the Oyate’s refusal to capitulate with the Pratt Commission, thus the measure failed. Leaders in Dakota Territory then pressured Congress to pass a bill of force sale to open up the the “Great Sioux Reservation.”

This bill became known as the “Sioux bill” of 1888 and resulted in the forced sale of over 9 million acres of land to be opened for homesteading. Some of the land was purchased at less than a dollar an acre. Some was “given away free” to white settlers. It remains as one the largest mass, illegal dispossessions of Native land in U.S. history.

In To Have This Land, historian Philip S. Hall recounts:

Citizens throughout the territory, particularly those in the Black Hills and along the Missouri River, were overjoyed. Many held formal celebrations with bonfires, speeches and parades. Chamberlain held a grand inaugural reservation ball. Partygoers there were entertained by young [white] men dressed and painted as Indians galloping their horses through the streets and staging war dances on the corners. The citizens held a mock sitting of the Pratt Commission as an expression of their contempt for the men who had failed to open the reservation.

In 1898, the Bureau of Indian Affairs founded Chamberlain Indian School on the land that is now St. Joseph’s Indian School and was once Crow Creek trust land all the way to American Creek. That same year, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was built in Canton, SX. Many D/Lakota children and adults from the Lower Brule and Crow Creek agencies were forced to attend these institutions, which functioned to domesticate, often violently and sometimes resulting in death, young children, “sexually deviant” adults, and medicine people. What this meant, in some cases, was the lobotomization of those deemed sexually or behaviorally immoral, or those that were winkte or “talked to spirits.”  Boarding school children were violently disciplined to adhere to the moral standards of white settler society. To say these institutions served as places for just assimilation is an act of violence. These were institutions of genocide intent on stripping Native people from any semblance of themselves.

In 1909, the Chamberlain Indian School closed its doors, but the boarding school model was re-established on the former BIA school’s lands by Roman Catholic Priest Henry Hogebach. Canton Asylum remained open until 1934, taking in hundreds of Native peoples from around the U.S.—nine of ten died at the asylum. The remaining trust lands north of American Creek eventually became incorporated into Chamberlain’s jurisdiction.

In 1944, Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Act, which channeled federal dollars towards damming the Missouri River. Nine sites were designated for dams, most of which were on Sioux Indian reservations. Facing the dual threats of federal termination policy and the inundation of agency buildings in the early 1950s, Crow Creek and Lower Brule were forced to negotiate with local communities about possible sites for relocating their vital infrastructure. South X congressmen E. Y. Berry and Francis Case advocated for relocating the agencies and reservation services to Chamberlain. In response to proposed move and possibility of integrating the white community with the two tribal agencies, the Brule County Commissioners issued the following in 1951:

[The Brule County Commissioners] hereby expresses its firm belief that if such [agency] offices are moved within Brule County that as a result of such move Brule County would necessarily be forced to provide the necessaries of life for a considerable number of reservation members moving into the county, and this would place an intolerable financial burden on Brule County, South Dakota.

In 1954, the Mayor of Chamberlain Hershel V. Melcher echoed the Commissioners plea with a more threatening tone:

Lately the Indian Offices at Fort Thompson, S.D. say they want to move into Chamberlain, S.D., [and it] seems they want to come whether we like it or not. Some of the boys in the Community Club seem to favor it but the people in town are most all against it. If they come in here, it will be necessary to declare open season on Indians and Government Agents, we do not feel that we are entitled to this kind of abuse from the government and we do not intend to take it peacefully… The people of Brule County do not feel we should be saddled with a relief load for Indians, that is the job of the Federal Government, and we do not intend to let an Indian light around here at all. We do not want to live with them, we don’t want them in our schools… [W]e advise you that if it come in [sic], we will then do everything we can to get rid of it and to make them wish they were not here. We do not intend to even be gentlemen about it, this is an unjust imposition on us any way you look at it.

The City Commissioners also passed the following resolution:

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED by the City Commission of the City of Chamberlain, Brule County, South Dakota, that we are opposed to the moving of the Indian Offices from Ft. Thompson, S.D., to the City of Chamberlain, S.D., for all the above reasons and for the further reasons that [it] creates an extra police problem as to drunks and petty larceny. That we therefore strongly oppose any such move to the City of Chamberlain.

Signed: Mayor Hershel V. Melcher, Commissioner C. L. McDonald, Commissioner Frank C. Knippling, Commissioner Willard Wristen, Commissioner Gerrit Brink, and Commissioner Edward C. Martin [then Democrat Candidate for Governor of South Dakota]

Unhappy by the lack of the response, Melcher went on the offensive again:

As I advised you [Congressmen] before, we have no intention of making an Indian comfortable around here, especially an official. We have a few dollar diplomats that have been making a lot of noise and trying to get everyone they possibly could to write you people in Washington that they wanted the Indians in here but the fact is that 90% of the people are strongly opposed to it and will get much more so if this thing come in [sic]. Anybody who rents them any property will have to change his address and I would not want the insurance on his building. We do not feel that this town should be ruined by a mess like this and we do not intend to take this lying down irregardless [sic] of what some official in Washington may think.

These deep-seated anti-Indian sentiments resulted in the relocation of the agencies to Oacoma and eventually back to their respective tribes. But the incident and the culminating history was not forgotten nor lost on the D/Lakota.

Following a string of sex abuses scandals at St. Joseph’s Indian School that have come to light in recent years, a class action law suit was building against the owners of the boarding school, the Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart. Former Native students of the school came forward and testified about the physical and sexual abuse they endured from priests and staff. In 2011, Steven Smith of Chamberlain, and lawyer for Sacred Heart, wrote and submitted a “constituent bill” to the SX state legislature. The bill (HB 1104) “flew through the legislature” and set the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims to file civil suits against institutions after the age of forty. Under this law plaintiffs over age 40 may file for damages only from individual perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse. They may not, however, collect damages from institutions such as the Sacred Heart or the religious organizations that hired and supervised the alleged perpetrators. Smith told the Argus Leader in 2010 “nobody knew I was doing this.”

Many have commented on the state’s complicity to cover-up the sexual abuse of Native children at religious boarding schools. Attorney for the Native plaintiffs told the Huffington Post in 2011 that “The South Dakota legislators are on record as passing this bill to get rid of hard-to-defend Native cases.”

This historical survey is one small slice of a larger history of anti-Indian sentiment and behavior. To go into further detail would require a full-length book.

J’Accuse!

How is it that a town of about 2100 people can have so many “bad apples”? We cannot chalk up the history of the anti-Indianism in Chamberlain to a select few individuals, but it is a history that is endemic to the mentality and common sense of its institutions and white population. The recent controversies of whether or not a D/Lakota honor song appropriately reflects Chamberlain’s “tradition” represents just one instance in a long line of instances in which the vitriolic Indian hating comes to a head.

Board members Rebecca Reimer (President), Jay Blum, Casey Hutmacher, Leann Larson, Dallas Thompson, and Ted Petrak will join the ranks of Chamberlain’s 132 year history of Indian haters for voting against the honor song in May 2013. But these individuals represent an institution, which is supposed to represent the values of the populations it serves. That institution represents the standards of the town and its people.

The Chamberlain school district has caused injury, but it is not an exceptional nor isolated sentiment. It follows the tradition of Chamberlain’s Indian hating. Whenever I tell people where I was born and raised, if they’ve heard of it, their face contorts. “Really? Chamberlain?” they ask. It is personal recognition and repugnance that this small town harbors so much infamy for being racist. But racist is too polite a term.

I have written academic and informal pieces about Chamberlain in the past. As a result, I have also received threats of bodily harm from former white classmates and friends. I ask them, what are you defending? Are you defending and condoning this behavior? Or are you defending your whiteness? The last question usually ends the conversation. What I am talking about concerns whiteness and a very old school kind of racism. But it’s more than that. It is a deep-seated common sense that somehow recognizing or conceding anything to Native people will destroy the core values of Chamberlain. It is a community founded on violent colonial dispossession. Talking about that will put a target on your back and, in my case, cause threats of violence. But I refuse to be silent.

But can you refute history? Can you change it? Chamberlain and its people have yet (beside a small minority) to show themselves worthy of being neighbors and cohabiters along the Missouri. Saying that history is in the past only reproduces violence and anti-Indianism in the present. It removes it from the reality many Native people face today because of that history. It makes our stories less worthy, and thus makes us less worthy.

It is not the job of Native people to bear the unfair burden of living with this history. It is incumbent upon white settlers to learn and help undo inequalities of the present. The world is watching Chamberlain. The Oceti Sakowin is watching and waiting as well. We will continue to move forward, even if Chamberlain chooses not to.

As the school board tables the honor song for the spring 2014 graduation, let us not forget the injuries that have been done. For a just resolution to the problem Chamberlain presents, it may require a radical departure from the past. It may require white settlers and the institutions that defend whiteness to recognize themselves as perpetrators of historical and ongoing human rights violations against Native peoples. It may require understanding that white settlers are occupying and benefiting from stolen land. It may, as Waziyatawin notes, require solutions “just short of breaking camp.”

Hecutu Welo!