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In 2009, when President Barack Obama signed H.J. Resolution 40 into law, I’m sure all intentions were pure. To me, though, as a woman who grew up on Standing Rock Nation, with a lifetime experiencing what it actually means to be Native American, I was frankly underwhelmed. One day on the calendar doesn’t reverse the losses my people have suffered in the name of European colonialism. It’s irreverent, at best, to acknowledge the near genocide of a race of people with one annual day of remembrance.
Academic scholars have long debated the pre-Columbus population of Indigenous peoples in America. Some argue our population was around 10 million, while later studies estimate our numbers north of 100 million. What we know to be the absolute truth is that the vast majority of our populace disappeared after Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain in 1492 and landed in San Salvador.
When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he was discovered by the Natives from the Taino, Lucayan and Arawak nations. When they found Columbus and his crew of men, they had no idea that they were vastly different from other tribesmen they warred with at the time. They saw only beleaguered sailors who were hungry and in need of assistance.
Columbus, though, took note of the gold ornamental earrings his saviors wore and had the full measure of the poor souls who had come upon him and his crew. In his journal entry for October 12, 1492, he wrote:
“They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”
And thus our first contact with Europeans marked the beginning of the end for many of our Indigenous nations across the Americas.
The oncoming waves of conquerors to follow proudly sailed under the banner of Christianity, but willingly eschewed basic Christian theology under the guise that we, as a people, weren’t worthy of being considered human beings. Therefore, we could be subjected to the same principles as animals — specifically, we could be owned.
Slavery was not a new notion, but as a practice it was, and still is, detested by the majority of tribal nations on these lands. When my people captured someone, we either traded them back to their people for items we valued, or we adopted and/or married them into our tribe.
Once a member of our tribe, you were always considered a member and extended all rights and benefits (unless you committed the one sin that could bring you exile, which was murder). If, later on, you decided you wanted to leave, you were allowed to do so of your own free will. We believed that no one could or should own another human being.
It then turned out that this European ideal of ownership over living beings was not limited to just “animals,” but also over Mother Earth. This was also foreign to our people. We had no inkling that this virtually untouched land — which provided so much bounty for us — could actually be owned by someone and subjugated to their rule and dominion. We had no clue that its resources could be greedily coveted. We believed in only taking what we needed, because we were taught that if we took care of our mother, she would always take care of us.
Fast forward: today, the raping and pillaging of these lands that the conquistadors brought has resulted in devastation that will take millions of years for our mother to heal from, just as the scars on our people may never heal at all.
As the colonizers advanced in the United States, tribal nations here began to see that the only way to protect ourselves was to commit to this notion of ownership, so we tried to preserve what we could by making treaties with the U.S. government. We believed that a man’s word was his bond. Article 6, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution even contains the following words: “… all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.”
And yet, every treaty we made with the government was eventually broken. We fought for ourselves and for the Earth until they rounded us up like cattle and put us in prisoner of war camps that they called reservations. Granted, we did have war with one another. Our wars, though, were like child’s play compared to what these voyagers brought and wrought with theirs. Where colonizers fought to kill, we fought mainly just to fight.
For example, rather than creating an actual body count, the people of my tribe counted coups on their enemies. The bravery and courage of a warrior was measured by the number of times he counted coups. Counting coups meant using your wits and prowess to get into close contact with your enemy — but not kill them. It could be touching your enemy’s head while he slept, or stealing his most valued horses tied up beside his thipi.
We also believed that women and children were off limits because of how sacred, or wakhan, they were. Women were considered sacred as the facilitators of life, the gateway between our world and the spirit world. Once a woman gave birth, we believed that she had one foot in each world, and would walk that precarious balance until the end when both feet were in the spirit world.
Children were sacred because they were beings from the spirit world. Our word for child, wakhanyeja, reflects that. Imagine our horror when we saw that our conquerors did not hold to that same reverence for the sacredness of life — neither its beginnings nor its facilitators.
Murderous warfare was not the only genocidal tactic that the foreigners brought. Our subjugators were also the harbingers of the first well-documented campaign of biological warfare since biblical times. When they landed on our coasts, they brought with them diseases we’d never encountered before. These exotic and deadly illnesses, like smallpox, malaria and typhus ended life not only for Indigenous individuals, but entire tribal nations.
Of course, our people had suffered from sickness before, but we had no immunity to these ailments and no experience on how to deal with them. We were hit with wave after wave of these epidemics. We suffered death after death of our loved ones from silent killers that we could not see.
By the 19th century, where millions of Native people once lived, there were only 250,000 American Indigenous people left. Researchers have dubbed it the “great dying.” Death on such a large scale changed the ecosystem of Mother Earth, causing temporary worldwide cooling and climate changes that still reverberate to this day. Purposeful genocide, pestilence and slavery worked in tandem to nearly annihilate a whole populace — and wound the Mother from which we came.
Despite all of the above, as we gather together this holiday season, I have some hope. I’ve seen through my work that we can come together, build bridges, make change for the better — in our communities and in the world we share. This October and November, Standing Rock Nation teamed up with the Lakota People’s Law Project to make a quarter million calls to Native and swing state voters concerned with protecting Mother Earth. We then saw that tribal voters, like Black voters, had an outsized effect on the future of the United States.
No matter our future, we can’t forget the lessons of the past. We must remember that this great nation was built upon the blood and bones of my ancestors. We’ve come back from the brink of eradication, and we — the first people of this nation — were also the last to be considered American. So while it’s a step in the right direction that our government has designated a day in our honor, it’s, quite frankly, not enough. We have much more work to do.
About the Author
Honorata Defender lives on her ancestral land on Standing Rock Nation, where she hunts to provide for her community and serves as a journalist, first responder, and organizer for the Lakota People’s Law Project.