Tag Archives: Native Americans

The Grandest Trickery


“Francis – Latin: Franciscus – ‘Free man,’ a man subservient to his government.”

Name Your Baby by Lareina Rule, 1963.


After a brief and heavily-publicized tour of the United States, Pope Francis returned to the Vatican last Sunday night. Amidst his hectic schedule, frequent baby-kissing and the usual slew of parades, complete with Miss America-type waves, Francis became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the first to hold mass at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The media and Catholic faithful couldn’t get enough of it. I’d had enough the moment he stepped foot on U.S. soil.

In a way, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was returning home; since he’s the first pope from the Americas and the first outside of Europe. But he’s of Italian extraction, and his hometown of Buenos Aires is more European than Latin American. So, he’s not that different from his predecessors. You know what would be different? If the Church had selected a full-blooded Indian who was raised dirt-poor in the mountains of México; perhaps even a man who had been married to a woman and then widowed or (better yet) divorced; maybe someone with a criminal background, like burglary or auto theft. But that would make him too imperfect. I can’t see someone with that many scars rising to the lead one of the most self-righteous institutions the world has ever seen.

I’m not concerned with perfection. No such quality exists in humans. Most everyone in America, from President Obama down to the latest illegal immigrant across the U.S.-México border, was smitten with Francis. As a recovered Catholic, I could see right through the velvet and silk menagerie of angelic verbiage and outstretched hand. Yes, Francis may sound different; offering juicy tidbits of progressive ideology by saying, for example, it’s improper to judge gays and lesbians and criticizing the growing wealth divide. But he’s still head of one of the most powerful and affluent entities on Earth; an empire with an estimated net fortune up to $750 billion. As a former altar boy at a Dallas Catholic church, I wonder now if any priest or nun thought of molesting me; knowing how shy and obedient I was during my childhood. Francis has convinced many people to return to the Catholic Church. I left the Church years ago for one primary reason: its mistreatment of women. And I’ll stay away. I’ve always had a tendency to hold grudges, but this goes beyond personal feelings.


Women’s Work

Of the world’s estimated 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, women comprise more than half, which corresponds to the world’s overall population; that is, women make up more than 50%. Yet, unlike most of the planet, certainly unlike developed nations, the Church is far behind in how it views women and their “place” in society. Women actually make the Church function; they’re the ones who teach the kids, sweep the floors, cook the meals, do the laundry, carry the water and so forth. Meanwhile, their male counterparts (term used loosely) don all those chic designer gowns and issue judgmental pronouncements on human behavior. In medieval times, for example, the Church condemned as heretics any medical practitioner who sought to ease the pains of pregnancy and birth for women. Such agonies, the Church declared, are the price all women must pay for Eve’s trickery in the ethereal “Garden of Eden.” You know the story: the one where the wicked female shoved an apple, or some type of fruit, down Adam’s throat; thus making him and all of humanity a victim of feminine wiles. Even now, the Church refuses to grant the role of priesthood to women. It was hell – almost literally – for them to allow alter girls. But, aside from the convent and church secretaries, there aren’t too many formal positions for women in Roman Catholicism. The Church still won’t even sanction birth control.


Native Americans

In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized the first Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwa. It was a unique moment in the Church’s history. Native Americans have a contentious relationship with Roman Catholicism and all of Christianity. That came to the forefront recently when the Church announced that Francis would canonize Spanish missionary Junipero Serra. Canonization is exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church; a lengthy and exhaustive process a deceased individual undergoes before achieving sainthood. Sainthood is that coveted status in the Church where people are proclaimed to be as God-like as humanly possible. Someone has to do a great deal in the name of the Church (and God) just to be considered for canonization. It’s sort of like the U.S. Medal of Honor, except the Church doesn’t acknowledge the recipient may have killed some folks along the way. More importantly, Medal of Honor recipients don’t try to convince people they’re above humanity.

In the 18th century, Serra established one of the first Christian missions in what is now the state of California. I’ve always proudly announced that Spaniards were the first Europeans to colonize the American Southwest; building entire communities. But I’m just as quick to acknowledge the other side of the epic tale: the indigenous peoples of the same region often fell victim to the violence and oppression Europeans brought in their hunger for land and precious metals. When Spain’s Queen Isabella, who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyages and who’s also one of my direct ancestors, learned that her minions were torturing and killing the Indians, she ordered them to stop – which they did. She then ordered them to begin trying to convert the Indians to Christianity – which they did. Then Isabella died, and the slaughter continued. The brutality was almost as bad as that imposed by British and French royalty who had no problems killing those people who either didn’t catch the flu and died or dropped to their knees and started praying to Jesus. In America’s infancy, many White Christians held a concept called “Manifest Destiny.” Some still do.

Francis proclaimed Serra “one of the founding fathers of the United States” and praised his willingness to abandon the comforts of his native Spain to spread Christianity in the Americas. Absent in the virtual deification is the fact that Serra was a tool in a brutal colonial system that killed thousands of Native Americans and subjugated thousands of others who didn’t perish. In August, the California state senate voted to replace a statue of Serra with one of a truly heroic figure: the late astronaut Sally Ride, a California native who was the first American woman in space. You know that had to piss off the Vatican elite. A woman given higher status than a male missionary?! How dare they!

Naturally Francis didn’t address the Native American holocaust; the longest-lasting and most far-reaching genocide in human history. Instead, he said that, when it comes to Christian missionaries, we must “examine their strengths and, above all, their weaknesses and shortcomings.” In other words: we don’t give a shit how you people feel.


The Pedophile Scandal

In June of 1985, American Roman Catholic bishops held their annual conference in Colorado. There, they were presented with a report entitled “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner.” Labeled “confidential,” the massive document was prepared just as the church was dealing with the case of Gilbert J. Gauthe, a priest in Lafayette, Louisiana who had been convicted of child molestation. While we now know the pedophile priest scandal stretches back for decades, the Gauthe case is where the madness first came to light. Revelations about what the Church knew and when shocked and horrified the Catholic faithful. That the Church tried to cover up the scandal by spiriting its gallery of child rapists from one diocese to another – a sort of ecumenical Witness Protection Program – initially seems unimaginable. But, with its vast financial resources and entrenched role as a global powerhouse, I’m not the least bit surprised. Like any international conglomerate, the Church didn’t want to concede it was wrong; opting instead, to pay out millions to keep the loudmouths quiet.

There’s no amount of money that can make up for the pedophile scourge. The damage has been done. This is not a 1950s-era TV show where mom dents the car, and the kids stumble around trying to keep dad from finding out. Francis grudgingly acknowledged the pedophile conundrum during his visit to the U.S. by meeting privately with a handful of victims and proclaiming that “God weeps” at the sexual abuse of children. I guess God weeps when old fuckers like Francis couch their disdain for talking about it publicly by using such generalized terminology. I say this because Francis also praised American bishops for how they confronted the scandal and told priests he felt their pain. For the record, the Roman Catholic Church never confronted this scandal, until U.S. law enforcement got involved. And the priests certainly aren’t the ones who endured any pain – unless it was pain from handcuffs that were too tight or soreness from sitting in a chair for hours, while giving a deposition. But I don’t feel that qualifies.

In the myriad dreams my writer’s psyche produces, the disintegration of the Roman Catholic Church is one of the grandest. But it’s still a dream. We’re talking about an institution nearly two millennia years of age. It’s the foundation of all Christianity – something evangelicals are loathe to admit. It’s not going away anytime soon, unless a comet strikes the Earth or every super volcano on the planet erupts simultaneously. With his soft voice and impish smile, Francis may have convinced a number of people he’s a pope unlike any other; a man wanting to bring the Church into the modern age. After all, he has a Twitter account!

Social media savvy or not, I see the same ruse. I see the same hypocrisy. I see the same figurehead. I see the same wicked entity. It just won’t change for the better. It can’t. It’s deceived too many souls.


Image courtesy J. Belmont.


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Food for the Soul

Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz poses for a picture in front of an altar he built using corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12.

Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz poses for a picture in front of an altar he built using corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12.

As Pope Francis returns to his native South America for the first time since becoming head of the Roman Catholic Church, Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz is ready with an edible altar. Composed primarily of thousands of ears of corn and pumpkins, Ruiz’s giant art piece conveys the mixed Indian and Spanish heritage of Latin America. It’s no accident he chose corn and pumpkins: both are indigenous to the Americas. Probably originating from an archaic plant called teosinte, corn was first cultivated in what is now central México as far back as 5,600 years ago. It migrated into North America around A.D. 200 and remains a staple of the Indian people’s diet. Seeds related to pumpkins found in México have been dated to 7000 B.C.

Ruiz’s altar is 131 feet (40 meters) wide and 45 feet (14 meters) high. I don’t know if its presence had an impact on Francis. After arriving in nearby Bolivia last week, the Pontiff did something no other pope – or any well-known Christian leader – has done. He acknowledged the Church’s role in both decimating the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and subjugating the survivors.

“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” he said.

I don’t anticipate we’ll hear anything similar from the Church of England or U.S. evangelical Christian leaders in our lifetime. Those clowns never want to admit they’ve done something bad, especially if no White people got hurt. But it’s a nice gesture on Francis’ part.

Corn and pumpkins survived the European conquest of the Americas and – despite what U.S. history school books say – so did the native peoples. On that note, let’s eat!


Detail of an altar, made of corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12 during his visit to Paraguay, in Asuncion

Detail of an altar, made of corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass during his visit to Paraguay, in Asuncion

Workers put the finishing touches to an altar, made of corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12 during his visit to Paraguay, in Asuncion


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Seattle Goes Native


Seattle, Washington has become the latest city in the United States to rename Columbus Day “Indigenous Peoples Day.” On October 6, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to celebrate the nation’s indigenous inhabitants instead of the Italian-born adventurer who didn’t know where he’d actually landed. Columbus Day has always been a point of contention for Native Americans. Saying that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America is akin to stating that Galileo “discovered” the moon. Many Americans of European extraction believe that Columbus technically opened the door for a new society. Most Indians feel it was the start of the world’s greatest and longest-lasting holocaust; the effects of which are still being felt today throughout the Western Hemisphere.

In 1992, celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage met with strong blowback from indigenous groups. A parade in Denver, for example, was canceled that year for fear that protests would turn violent. Some have, given the hostilities that exist; due, in no small part, to the racist ideologies of some White Americans, as well as the arrogance of some Italians. It’s odd because Columbus couldn’t get financial backing from his own people. In the 15th century, Italy was actually a collection of city-states that wouldn’t jell into a single nation until the 1860s. Even now, some people may refer to themselves as Sicilian, instead of Italian, which is like saying the sky is azure, not blue. Columbus turned to Spain and Queen Isabella I. He had wanted to find a western route to India to gain an advantage in the lucrative spice trade. It’s difficult to imagine now, but spices were as precious as gold and silver at the time.

I’ve always felt Native Americans should have their own holiday. I don’t see the point in revising Columbus Day; let the Italians have their holiday, if they want. All the renaming won’t change history. We simply can’t go back and make everything all better again. It’s happened, and we need to continue moving forward, while still acknowledging the past. We’re all part of the human race, so ethnic divisions serve no real purpose. Some day, I hope, everyone else will realize that.


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Native Americans and Northern Europeans More Closely Related Than Previously Thought


I know this will send the folks at FOX News and in the Republican Party into epileptic fits, but research published last month in Genetics, the journal of the Genetics Society of America, shows that people of Northern European and Native American ancestry are closely related.  In fact, very closely related.

Using genetic analyses, scientists have discovered that Northern Europeans descend from a mixture of two different ancestral populations, and one of these populations is related to Native Americans.  The revelation helps to provide some explanation for genetic similarities between what would otherwise be divergent groups.

“There is a genetic link between the paleolithic population of Europe and modern Native Americans,” says Nick Patterson, co-author of the report.  “The evidence is that the population that crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia into the Americas more than 15,000 years ago was likely related to the ancient population of Europe.”

Patterson worked with David Reich, Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics, and other colleagues to study DNA diversity and found that one of these ancestral groups was the first farming population of Europe.  Their DNA survives in Sardinians, people of the Basque Country and perhaps the Druze population of the Middle East.  The other ancestral population probably comprised the initial hunter-gatherers of Europe.  These two populations were considerably different when they met, but today the hunter-gathering ancestral populations of Europe appear to have its closest affinity to people in far Northeastern Siberia and Native Americans.

Scientists have long since theorized that people traversed eastward out of Siberia into North America during the Great Ice Age.  Initially, some placed the migration between 15,000 and 11,000 B.C., while others push it back to 25,000 B.C.  Oddly, though, Dr. Ron Janke, a professor of geography at Valparaiso University in Indiana, presented a theory in 2008 that the first peoples in the Americas actually came from Europe.  Considering that the Human Genome Project pretty much proves that we’re all related as a people, no one should be too surprised by these revelations.  Regardless, as someone of mixed European and Indian ancestry, I feel I’ve been vindicated!

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A Different View of Thanks


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November Is National American Indian Heritage Month

Since 1990, November has been marked as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”  Efforts to set aside at least a day to honor America’s indigenous peoples go back to 1915, when Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfoot nation, rode horseback from state to state calling for a day to honor Native Americans.  The first “American Indian Day” was declared on the second Saturday in May 1916 by the governor of New York.  Several states celebrate the fourth Friday in September.  In Illinois, legislators enacted “American Indian Day” in 1919.  Presently, several states have designated Columbus Day as Native American Day, but it continues to be a day observed without any recognition as a national legal holiday.  It’s way past time for that to change.  Meanwhile, please check out the “Native American Heritage Month” site for local activities.

Image courtesy “White Wolf Pack.”

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In Memoriam – Russell Means, 1939 – 2012

Russell Means, a long-time activist for Native American rights, died this morning, October 22, at his ranch in Porcupine, South Dakota.  He was 72.  Means was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on November 10, 1939.  In 1942, his family moved to the San Francisco area.

Means is best known for his life-long efforts to bring attention to the plight of Indigenous Americans.  In 1970, he became the first national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a civil rights group founded in Minneapolis in 1968.  The United States had been mostly oblivious to the dire circumstances in which most Native Americans lived.  Even now, for example, Pine Ridge remains one of the most impoverished communities in the country.

Perhaps Means’ most controversial act was a 71-day standoff against federal agents at Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge.  Wounded Knee is the site of one of the worst massacres in Native American history: the slaughter of some 350 Sioux Indians on December 29, 1890.  As a protest against the deplorable living conditions of Pine Ridge’s residents, Means led a contingent of more than 200 fellow Indians to overthrow the reservation’s leadership.  The incident, which began on February 27, 1973, drew in the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI and thousands of law enforcements officials.  Both sides were heavily armed and fired upon one another; killing 2 of the protestors and paralyzing one of the law enforcement agents.  After 71 days, Means and the other protestors surrendered.  The government charged them with assault and conspiracy, but dropped the indictments the following year.

Means continued his activism, marching on Washington, D.C., in 1978 to protest anti-Indian legislation, including the forced sterilization of Indian women.  Called the “Longest Walk,” Means led hundreds of people from San Francisco to Washington, the largest protest at the time.  Immediately afterwards, the House of Representatives passed a resolution stating that national policy was to protect the rights of Indians; to believe, express and exercise their traditional religions, including but not limited to access to sites; use and possession of sacred objects; and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

Means highlighted the negativity associated with many sports team Indian mascots.  He joined a $9 million lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians baseball team for its “Chief Wahoo” mascot, calling it racist and derogatory.  In 1983, Cleveland settled out of court for a mere $35,000.  Means sought the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president in the 1988 presidential campaign, but lost to Rep. Ron Paul.  Means retired from AIM in 1988 and, four years later, began a new career as an actor when he was cast in “The Last of the Mohicans.”  He also appeared in “Natural Born Killers,” as the “Old Indian,” starred as “Sitting Bull” in the CBS mini-series “Buffalo Girls,” and provided voice talent for Disney’s animated film “Pocahontas.”

Means never gave up his mission to emphasize the struggles of Native Americans and even point out disparities in traditional American history.  In 1992, he stopped a scheduled Columbus Day parade in Denver, which had been meant to celebrate Columbus’ “discovery of America.”  Means and his constituents demanded the holiday be renamed “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

Like most people who lead a public life, Means became introspective in his later years.  “No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewelry,” Means said about AIM.  And there were dozens, if not hundreds, of athletic teams “that in essence were insulting us, from grade schools to college.  That’s all changed.”  In his autobiography, “Where White Men Fear to Tread,” he admitted his fragilities – especially his battles with alcoholism, a common scourge among Native Americans – but also accentuated his successes.

In August 2011, Means announced that he had inoperable throat cancer and told the Associated Press that he would forgo standard medical treatment in favor of traditional Indian remedies.  Oglala Sioux spokeswoman Donna Saloman said wake services for Means will be held Wednesday on Pine Ridge and that his ashes will be spread in the Black Hills on Thursday.


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Kateri Tekakwitha – First Native American Catholic Saint

In a historic move, Pope Benedict XVI canonized the first Indigenous American into sainthood on Saturday, October 20.  Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father in what is now central New York State.  She was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church at age 20.  After being rejected by her family, she moved to a Jesuit mission near Montreal, Canada, where she taught children until her death four years later.

American Indians have been appealing for Kateri to be canonized for more than a century.  She was given the special status of venerable in 1942, the first step towards sainthood, and was beatified in 1980.

A person must be deceased for at least 5 years, even before he or she can be considered for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.  Afterwards, there are 4 steps in the process.

  1. When the subject arises that a person should be considered for Sainthood, a Bishop is placed in charge of the initial investigation of that person’s life.  If it is determined that the candidate is deemed worthy of further consideration, the Vatican grants a “Nihil Obstat,” a Latin phrase meaning “nothing hinders.”  Henceforth, the candidate is called a “Servant of God.”
  2. The Church Official, a Postulator, who coordinates the process and serves as an advocate, must prove that the candidate lived heroic virtues.  This is achieved through the collection of documents and testimonies that are collected and presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.  When a candidate is approved, he/she earns the title of “Venerable.”
  3. To be beatified and recognized as a “Blessed,” one miracle acquired through the candidate’s intercession is required in addition to recognition of heroic virtue (or martyrdom in the case of a martyr).
  4. Canonization requires a second miracle after beatification, though a Pope may waive these requirements.  (A miracle is not required prior to a martyr’s beatification, but one is required before his/her canonization.)  Once this second miracle has been received through the candidate’s intercession, the Pope declares the person a “Saint.”

More than 700 Native Americans, many in full regalia, took part in the ceremony in St. Peter’s Square honoring the woman known as the “Lily of the Mohawks.”  A choir singing an Indian hymn was among the participants.  At a Mass on Monday, the 22nd, inside St. Peter’s Basilica, Native Americans will conduct a “smudge” ceremony by burning sage, according to an American church official.

Among those in attendance was a delegation from the Archdiocese of Seattle that included Jake Finkbonner, a 12-year-old boy whose recovery six years ago from necrotizing fasciitis, a rare flesh-eating disease, was accorded the status of a miracle by the church.

His survival was anything but certain when his parish and Native Americans around the U.S. and Canada began praying to Kateri.  His recovery was the key in the decision to canonize Kateri, said the Rev. Wayne Paysse, executive director of the bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.

Finkbonner’s family, who are members of the Lummi tribe, live in Bellingham, Washington.

Anyone who knows me personally, or follows this blog, is fully aware of my harsh views of the Roman Catholic Church.  The Church’s relationship with the Western Hemisphere’s native peoples is written in blood.  It’s the longest and most widespread chronicle of genocide in world history.  Of course, that’s pretty much the case with any branch of Christianity.  Early Spanish conquerors viewed Indigenous Americans with contempt and tried to destroy them.  Spain’s Queen Isabella I put a stop to the bloodshed, however, demanding that her representatives in what are now México and the United States baptize the Indians into Roman Catholicism.  Many Indians conceded; more I think as a matter of survival than acceptance of the strange, new religion.  Nothing can ever compensate for such brutality.  But, the canonization of Kateri is still a measure of goodwill.

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Columbus Day – Whatever!

The Christopher Columbus monument in Barcelona, Spain

Today is Columbus Day in the United States where narrow-minded Americans perpetuate the myth that Christopher Columbus discovered this country.  It remains a popular fallacy despite obvious proof that the Western Hemisphere was not devoid of humans when Columbus and his fellow seafarers arrived.  As someone who is part Indian (Mexican), this is a particularly vexing situation.  But, as someone who is also Caucasian (Spaniard and German), I know I can be critical.  For one thing, historical references can’t confirm exactly where Columbus landed.  Some say present-day Hispaniola; others state Cuba.  But, it’s pretty well understood that he didn’t make it to the American mainland.

We also have to understand some other facts that slip by the history texts, which have always had a Euro-Christian slant.  Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus as one of their own.  Evidence has surfaced in recent years, however, that the intrepid explorer was not actually a humble Italian weaver, but a Polish immigrant.  Manuel Rosa, a professor at Duke University, claims that Columbus was the son of Vladislav III, an exiled king from Poland.

More importantly, though, Columbus had to seek help from Spain to finance his voyage.  In the late 15th century, Italy was not actually a country, but a collection of city-states; fractured and in constant conflict.  Apparently, no member of Italian royalty saw the value in Columbus’ grand scheme.  Thus, he turned to Spain and received approval from Queen Isabella – one of my paternal ancestors.

Another myth is that Columbus had deliberately set out to discover the Americas, or traveled as a result of some divinely inspired vision.  In reality, he wanted to find a westward route to India’s east coast and thus gain an advantage in the lucrative spice trade.  Spices were as valuable as gold and silver at the time.  Columbus believed Asia was where the Americas are and initially thought he’d arrived somewhere off the coast of China.  Then, he thought he’d actually made it to India and thus, called the Taíno peoples of the Caribbean “Indians.”

Yet another major fact that goes unreported is that Columbus was not the first European to arrive in the Western Hemisphere.  As Jared Diamond points out in his seminal book Collapse How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, scientists now realize that Norse Vikings arrived in North America nearly 500 years earlier.  In the 1960’s, archaeologists unearthed remnants of a village in present-day Newfoundland known as “L’Anse Aux Meadows.”  Norse literature also points to a land the Vikings called “Vinland.”  The Norse had begun their march across the North Atlantic around A.D. 800; first populating the Orkney, Shetland and Faeroe islands, then moving onto Iceland and Greenland.  There’s even some evidence that they’d made as far down North America’s eastern coastline as present-day Florida.  But, that remains to be proven.  By the time they landed in Newfoundland, however, they’d depleted much of their own energy and resources; thus any permanent settlement was unlikely.

But, here’s something even more important: people first arrived in the Americas between 15,000 and 25,000 years ago, if not sooner.  They’d branched out across the entire Western Hemisphere, even reaching the southernmost tip of South America, long before Columbus started thinking about his trip.  They built complex, intricate and highly-advanced societies – without firearms and without horses or cattle – and lived as best they could for all those millennia.

I’ve seen colorful illustrations of European men adorned in velvet and silk arriving on virgin American shores; their majestic ships moored in the distant background, carrying oversized crucifixes to which the scantily-clad Indians responded by dropping to their knees in automatic subjugation.  But, it’s just not true.  Columbus’ venture was a matter of commerce, not faith.  The concept of spreading Christianity came later, as Spaniards began settling into México and then, as the English and the French began moving westward across North America.  Some Indians allowed themselves to be converted to Christianity; more as a matter of survival, though, than some sort of mystical divine intervention.  Others, however, strongly resisted and were subsequently beaten down by White settlers who used their religiosity more as a tool of oppression than benevolence.

Investigations into the history of the Americas are ongoing, but in recent years, research has gradually proven the Siberian migration hypothesis to be true.  One study found “a unique genetic mutation” that exists only in both the indigenous peoples of Siberia and Native Americans.  Other recent data suggests that Japanese seafarers made it to South America’s Pacific coast around 3000 B.C.  Scientists have found similarities in pottery among Japan’s Jomon culture and coastal Ecuadorian Indians.  They also noticed that “the nautical capability of Chinese sea-going rafts” were identical to those of indigenous Peruvian and Ecuadorian peoples.  Moreover, archaeologists have found early specimens of the peanut – which is native to South America – in China.  That humans populated just about every corner of the Western Hemisphere is testament to overall human ingenuity and determination.  That they – we – have survived 500 years of disease, exploitation and genocide is even more impressive.

None of this is historical revisionism, as some staid elitists might claim.  The facts are now coming forward and being revealed, whether the old-timers like it or not.  It’s a mixed heritage.  I’m glad, for the most part, that Europeans made it over here.  But, what they did to the indigenous peoples cannot be underestimated or dismissed.  While nothing can be done about it now, it’s futile to ignore historical facts – even if it puts a damper on all those Columbus Day picnics and yard sales at Wal-Mart.


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Crossroads of Development

From left, Tricia Bear Eagle, Helen Red Feather, Rudell Bear Shirt and Edward Jealous of Him, wait for tourists near the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at a self-made visitor’s center.

The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is one of the most impoverished communities in the nation.  Unemployment hovers around 80%, and most residents subsist on government handouts.  Home to the Oglala Sioux, Pine Ridge sits near Mount Rushmore and the Dakota Badlands; both prime tourist destinations.  Most visitors, however, simply bypass Pine Ridge.  There are no hotels, museums, gift shops or restaurants; there aren’t even many public restrooms.

The 2.7 million-acre reservation, however, is ripe for development, and tourism could dramatically alter the economic future for the Oglala Sioux.  But, like most Native Americans, the Sioux are suspicious of outsiders.  Their land is sacred, and – after years of broken treaties and experiencing painfully racist marginalization – they’re naturally reluctant about the prospect of other people arriving with promises of financial security.  It’s not difficult to understand why.

“When you take a community of people where at one point our language was outlawed and parts of our culture were outlawed, it’s hard for us to, I guess, open up to the idea of sharing that in a way to make money off of it,” said Nick Tilsen, executive director of Thunder Valley, a nonprofit on Pine Ridge set up to keep traditional Lakota culture alive among young people.

Other Indian nations have opened their land to tourism and development.  The Navajo in the Southwest, for example, welcomes some 600,000 visitors annually who spent $113 million in 2011 alone.  In Oklahoma, nearly 45,000 people visited the Cherokee Nation’s Heritage Center museum last year.

But, the Oglala Sioux have just one tribally run casino-and-hotel complex, the Prairie Wind, on the western side of the reservation.  They recently opened a smaller casino in Martin, a town near the reservation’s eastern edge.

The community, Tilsen said, is not “totally against” development.  “I think we’re at the stage of, ‘What parts do we want to protect and what parts are we willing to share and what does that look like?’”

Pine Ridge is the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where more than 250 adults and children were killed by the 7th Cavalry in 1890.  Many residents, especially community elders, simply feel the area shouldn’t be turned into a tourist attraction with a museum.  Such development would be disrespectful to the dead in their view.

A museum commemorating the massacre was ransacked and its contents lost in 1972.  Another museum dedicated to the massacre draws thousands of people annually, but it’s 100 miles north of the reservation in Wall, South Dakota.  The tribal and federal governments are the two biggest employers, but many residents travel outside to find work or sell hand-made goods and trinkets for a few dollars.  In June, the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux reached a new agreement that calls for creation of the nation’s first tribal national park at Badlands National Park – an endeavor that might also attract tourists and jobs.  Congress still must approve the idea.

But, the Oglala Sioux have relied too much on the federal government anyway with housing and food subsidies.  They could allow outside investment, but still retain control over any development on the reservation.  They don’t have to relinquish absolute authority to the federal or even state governments.  Establishing a museum and library highlighting the Wounded Knee Massacre wouldn’t be disrespectful, if the Oglala Sioux managed them.  I feel it would have just the opposite effect – it would make people aware of exactly what happened that winter day in 1890.  Tribal residents could tell the real story and not the John Wayne-style version that most Americans see and read about.  They have to do more for their children’s future than just selling pretty baskets and wind chimes on the side of the road.  They have to take their lives back from the clutches of a bitter history.

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