In 1492, Arawak, Taino, and Lucayan tribes of the Caribbean discovered Christopher Columbus on their shoreline. Columbus had been sponsored by Spanish Catholic monarchs to investigate potential new routes to India, which has already been colonised by European forces. Upon landing on Turtle Island (an Indigenous name for the American continent) Columbus was so adamant that he had traversed the world and landed in India that to his death he insisted upon the Native Americans being known as “Indians”.
It is impossible to offer any sort of summary for how Native American ways of life were shaken and torn by the arrival and subsequent settlement of Europeans. The years of conflict and genocide are still only at the beginning of reconciliation- many would argue they are still far from over. Since first contact, Native Americans have fought to protect our culture; for many centuries many followed the call to fight and die for their ways of life- now, our greatest fight is to live so that our cultures may too.
The Native American people’s ties to the land are forthright; whilst our relationship to nature is often romanticised and exoticized, it is becoming increasingly clear how valuable indigenous philosophy and land-knowledge is to combatting climate change. Much of the genocide against native American culture was conducted through attacks to the land and ways of living. Mt Rushmore, known in Lakota as Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe (Six Grandfathers) is a historic site of great importance to the Lakota people; Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe was transformed into a monument to the American settler’s ideology and the Lakota were forcefully removed from the territory following the discovery of gold within the land. There are many allegories for the treatment of all indigenous life -human, animal, water, land, and beyond- on the continent under colonial rule. The arc of the Bison provides a compelling insight into indigenous life, suffrage and resilience. The Bison played a pivotal role in the lives of many tribes, one that Leroy Little Bear of the Blackfoot Tribe, a professor at the university of Lethbridge, calls an “Integrated relationship”. Many tribes of the Great Plains followed the migratory patterns of the Bison, erecting their tipis as they moved with the seasons. The European settlers were aware of the power of this relationship and sought to weaponize it to end the native American way of life or their life itself. “Kill Every Buffalo You Can! Every Buffalo Dead Is an Indian Gone.” were the words of a U.S. Army colonel in 1867. Professor Little Bear leads a Bison restoration effort that aims to restore the Bison’s historic presence on tribal lands. “If you are Christian and you don’t see any crosses out there, or you don’t have your corner church…there’s no external connection, no symbolic icon notion that strengthens and nurtures those beliefs” explains Little Bear, “so it goes with the buffalo” he told The Guardian in a 2018 interview on his work.
The Bison and the mountains were not the only forms of slaughter enacted against Turtle Island. In August of 2021, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order to repeal a 157-year-old order that sought to eliminate Indigenous people from the Colorado territory. The original orders were issued by Territorial Governor John Evans in 1864 and forced Indigenous families into certain camps while calling for Coloradans to “kill and destroy” those deemed to be “hostile Indians” in exchange for money and stolen property. This act enabled the Sand Creek massacre, described by NBC news as “one of Colorado’s darkest and most fraught historic moments”. The brutal assault left more than 200 of the Arapaho and Cheyenne nation dead, of which a large number were children and elders.
“I think there’s oftentimes the general community think of American Indians as the vanishing race, the vanishing people. And I think it starts with things like this,” House, a citizen of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe told NBC news. “It gives us a place that we were important and that our lives were important.”
Genocide against the Native American people took on distinct cultural forms as the Europeans attempted to force integration and the adoption of European economic and social ideals. The 1887 Dawes Act was a symbol of European intolerance to Native American ways of life- The Dawes Act (sometimes called the Dawes Severalty Act or General Allotment Act), was passed under President Grover Cleveland and allowed the federal government to break up tribal lands.
The federal government aimed to assimilate Native Americans into European economic models through partaking in agriculture and accumulating private property. The notion of “owning” land is deeply embedded in capitalist and industrialist thinking, thus is a concept distasteful to many indigenous societies around the world. The Dawes Act divided tribal lands into individual plots, stating that only the Native Americans who accepted the division of tribal lands could become US citizens. This ended in the government stripping over 90 million acres of tribal land from Native Americans and selling that land to non-Native US citizens. Further cultural clashes became apparent through the enforcement of the Dawes Act; a federal concern for Native names, particularly surnames, was directly connected with concerns for allotments, territory, and inheritance laws. All such laws were based on European ideas of familial relationships and how private property should be passed down through notions of inheritance – thus Native Americans needed to adopted European familial structures. Native American societies did not have surnames in the western understanding, Native American names were often inspired by the persons interaction with nature and could change over their life. In 1890, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered Native names on the reservations to be changed so that each “Indian” would be given an English Christian name and retain the surname. On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Indian agent reported that:
“Now every family has a name. Every father, mother; every husband and wife and children bears the last names of these people; now property goes to his descendant.”
This onslaught of cultural and human genocide transformed what it means to be Native American; and whilst many lives and tribes have been lost, the first people of Turtle Island continue to resist the loss of our ways of life. The white-‘assimilation’ attempts of the brutal residential school system, which saw many thousands of Native children die, were resisted as young people from far reaching tribes put aside previous conflict or differences to unite under the common identity of Native. A new age of pan-Indianism brought us together under a collective identity. The globally iconic war bonnet, once owned by the Plains Natives, is now a united symbol of our strength and spirit. The dream catcher, an invention of the Ojibwe nation, now hangs in homes of Native people across the continent. On August 3, 1990, President of the United States George H. W. Bush declared the month of November as National American Indian Heritage Month. For many, our long road to civil rights and equality is still far from its end- but we are now united in our fight.
“Upon suffering beyond suffering, the Red Nation shall rise again, and it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world filled with broken promises, selfishness and separations. A world longing for light again”. – Crazy Horse, Lakota (Siox) Oglala band.