A Matter of Respect

Imagine – if you can – there are two professional sports teams, the Washington Niggers and the Houston Hebes.  And, they are meeting to play a game; football, basketball, whatever.  And, outside of the arena, large numbers of African and Jewish American citizens have gathered to protest against the teams simply because of their names.  Meanwhile, fans of both teams – many of whom may be part Black or Jewish themselves – parade into the stadium dismissing the protesters by saying things like: ‘It’s just a game.’  ‘Don’t take it so seriously.’  ‘You people are so sensitive.’

This is taking for granted, of course, that any sports team could get away with names like those in these times.  But, if you can imagine the uproar that would cause, then you can understand how Native Americans feel about the Washington Redskins football team.

The term “redskin” is as vile and demeaning as any other racial slur; one created by early English settlers to describe the native peoples, a direct reference to the latter group’s often-ruddy complexion.  Yet, the Washington Redskins insist they will not change their name and that any such attempt is just political correctness run amok.

Well, there is a stark difference between political correctness and factual correctness.  For example, it’s not politically correct to say Christopher Columbus did not discover America.  It’s factually correct.  The Western Hemisphere wasn’t virgin land, devoid of people, when Columbus arrived.  He had wanted to find a western route to India to gain an advantage in the silk and spice trades.  His own country, Italy, refused to help him; so he turned to Spain.  Spain’s Queen Isabella consented and provided him with financing, ships, and supplies.  When he made landfall, he thought he’d reached the east coast of India and thus, called the people he saw Indians.

But, if you ask the average American citizen who discovered America, Columbus’s name is almost always mentioned.  In fact, in his 1997 book The Perfect Storm, author Sebastian Junger begins one particular paragraph with the statement, “Almost as soon as the New World was discovered, Europeans were fishing it.”  And, for many years, Italian-Americans have hailed Columbus as a cultural hero who paved the way for future generations, even though Columbus wasn’t on a mission from Italy in the first place, and people didn’t begin emigrating from Italy en masse until the 1880’s.

If American history has acknowledged the presence of people here before Europeans, it has done so begrudgingly and then, viewed them as nomadic bands of Neanderthal-like beings with no true sense of community or family.  In reality, most had established large, complex societies and spent more time interacting on peaceful, social levels than they did fighting.  Yet, images of “wild Indians” or, at best, “the noble savage,” persist, both in so-called historical texts and in popular literature.

Whenever I do mention the plight of Native Americans, the most common response is, “What can be done about it now?”  Well, the simplest answer is, of course, nothing.  But, then again, nothing can ever be done about past events, can it?  But, let me take that question, ‘What can be done about it now?’, and apply it to other tragedies.

Take Pearl Harbor, for example.  Sad as it was, shouldn’t the U.S. Navy have known better than to place so many of its warships in such close proximity to one another?  Besides, what’s left of the U.S.S. Arizona is a rusting shell of a vessel that is still leaking oil.  If its hull shatters, millions of gallons of oil could pour into the ocean, creating an environmental disaster.  Shouldn’t that be a far more pressing concern than honoring a bunch of dead sailors?

What about the European holocaust of Word War II, in which over six million Jews were systematically massacred by the Nazi regime?  Notice it’s always referred to as ‘The Holocaust,’ as if no other similar genocidal event has ever occurred.  The decimation of the Western Hemisphere’s indigenous peoples was also a deliberate, concerted undertaking by Europeans, especially here in North America.  One specific example concerns Abraham Lincoln.  During the Civil War, Lincoln directed the U.S. Army to hang over a hundred Indians per day in the western states.  He then limited the number of daily hangings to twenty-eight, but only because the bodies were piling up too fast.  Yet, there are no memorials or museums in this country acknowledging those horrors.

Let me come closer in time: the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.  Only two men were responsible for that act, as far as we know; two devout Christians, two former soldiers with a passionate hate for the U.S. government.  Both were caught and one is now dead.  So, doesn’t that mean justice has already been served?  And, there’s no need for a memorial?  Ironically, Oklahoma is where many Native Americans were forcibly isolated at the end of the 19th century to live out their lives in despair and poverty.

Let me come even closer: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in which nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.  But, as horrific as it was, does this mean we’ll be reliving that nightmare every September 11 from now on, just like Pearl Harbor?  Shouldn’t our government have realized sooner that foreigners with expired visas could pose a security threat?  And, why have airlines only recently taken greater safety precautions?  Now a memorial is being erected on the site of the World Trade Center.  Some call it hallowed ground.  Hallowed ground!  They were office buildings, not homes or religious centers.  White settlers destroyed thousands of Native American communities across this continent, believing such destruction was necessary and righteous.

Why do we keep dredging up these awful memories?  Aren’t we supposed to let these things go and move forward with our lives?  Is that how we should remember these events?  Is that how we want future generations to look at them?  Like trite insults.

Well essentially, that’s how this nation regards the Native American experience.  If building memorials means resurrecting the past to do something about it, then it’s pointless.  Jorge Santayana, the Spanish novelist and poet, once warned of such ignorance by saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We are civilized and intelligent enough to acknowledge the injustices done to our native peoples without dismissing them or calling them names.  It’s not an issue of political correctness.  And, it’s not a case of being too sensitive.  It’s simply a matter of respect.

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