Friday, December 21, 2007

Genocide, Undocumented; Apartheid, Unacknowledged

The decimation of indigenous American Indian cultures, beginning five centuries ago, is still being whitewashed by textbooks and movies. There were many friendly and close relationships between early settlers and native peoples, but these were not the main current in their relations. U.S. history is defined by acts of genocide against native people, exacerbated by the fatal impact of new diseases spread by contact between new settlers and native Americans. Many aggressive attempts were made to reshape the Indian peoples according to European cultural models, whether under threat of death or, later, through exile to government boarding schools.

Government policies, well-documented elsewhere, guided the destruction and containment of native American cultures, culminating in the problematic status of Indian people today. Despite this historical backdrop, there has been only the most begrudging admission of any public responsibility for the damage done to native American cultures. Little public support has gone to efforts to preserve, retrieve and build upon native cultural traditions. Where affirmative steps are called for, none has been taken. Chief among the U.S. government's initiatives toward native peoples has been the reservation -- remarkably like the former South African "homelands." The current laissez-faire federal policy pretends that Native American cultures are now free to enjoy an even chance in American society, to compete for resources with dominant cultural forms and traditions. The official alternative to the reservation has been pressure to assimilate into the mainstream culture.

Through much of the time that Native American peoples have endured this cultural combat, the idea of "the Indian" has been a powerful symbol within American national culture. One usually sees Indian people portrayed as brutal and warmongering, worthy of punishment at the hands of white settlers and the U.S. government. Nevertheless, Indian influences on contemporary United States culture are extensive. In Hollywood films and western novels and "cowboy art," Indians have symbolized connectedness and sensitivity to nature (and the loss of the wilderness), highly developed skills, and individual courage. The "new age" philosophies which emerged from the 1960's depend heavily on traditional Indian knowledge; within their frameworks, Native Americans symbolize balance, inner wisdom, ordeal and transcendent experience, and natural dignity. Recently, Native American activists have done much to revitalize their cultural traditions. Assimilationism has lost some of the attraction it had in the past. But history cannot be undone.

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