Posted by: David Offutt | September 18, 2017

Constitution and Citizenship Day: Our Native Americans

David Offutt at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana (1980) – There are markers like this one scattered over the park indicating where the participants were at different times of the battle.

 

September 17 was Constitution and Citizenship Day. As I have written in past years, it usually comes and goes without most people knowing about it. How we treat everyone within our society is a way we judge the success and evolution of the ideals within the Constitution of the United States, which was signed on that day in 1787 (230 years ago). It was not DOA (Dead on Arrival) as senators like Florida’s Marco Rubio have insisted. It was intended as, and has been, a living, breathing document that has incrementally been incorporating more and more of our citizens and residents under its ideals, even those we used to call American Indians.

 

On preserving our admittedly shady history with the Native Americans, there are numerous protected, replicated, or restored cultural and battlefield sites from coast to coast that can be visited. However, I have selected two to feature here: The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana and the Fort Buford State Historic Site in North Dakota.

 

We can’t escape the fact that our nation was founded on two dark, original sins: slavery and the conquest and removal of the Native Americans. The crime committed by those who lived here first was, of course, that they were simply in the way. Our westward expansion was at their expense.

 

Portrait of George Washington (1789) by Christian Gullager: (Located in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass. – The president sat for this portrait for 2 hours while on an official visit to Boston; it was considered by Bostonians to be the best likeness of the great man up to that time. – When it came to treaties with the Indians, it seems that Mr. Washington could indeed tell a lie. [Photo by David Offutt, 2017]

For most of my teaching career, I taught honors U.S. history in public and college prep private schools. I always began by populating the future continental United States with the different “Indian” cultures that were already here before the Spanish, French, and English arrived. I’ll never forget the time in eastern Arkansas at Wynne High School when the principal asked me, “Are you teaching about Indians in your honors class?” – implying that I shouldn’t be doing that. At first I thought he was kidding, but it turned out that the department head had been complaining that I wasn’t teaching the course as she had taught it in previous years. I continued to teach the students as I always had.

 

Our Constitution gives the executive branch the power to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. George Washington took that literally and appeared on the floor of the Senate to determine what the senators wanted in the Indian treaties that were in the works. He got the silent treatment and swore never to do that again. Since then, presidents have made treaties in advance and then sent them to the Senate for advice and consent. Unfortunately, it seems that Indian treaties were made to be broken. We were “Indian givers.” Whatever we gave them, we eventually took back.

 

I selected the Little Bighorn Battlefield because it was the site of one of the few tactical victories the Native Americans had. When I was there in 1980, the park rangers presented the conflict as a struggle between two cultures, which was appropriate. One culture was respectful of nature, and the other wanted to conquer it. Gold had been discovered in the Black Hills, which was sacred “Indian” ground and was supposed to be off limits to settlers and prospectors. Greed almost always trumps all, so the U.S. Army supported the prospectors. In 1876 George Armstrong Custer got his 7th Cavalry surrounded by seemingly all the Indians in the world near the Little Bighorn River. The national battlefield preserves the locations of the participants at various times.

 

The Standing Rock Sioux gained another tactical victory 140 years later. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was supposed to cross the Missouri River just north of Bismarck, ND. Fearing the probability that its water supply would eventually be contaminated, the city got the pipeline location moved to the south of the city and to the north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. That way, any oil spill would primarily impact Native Americans, and, historically, concern for their welfare has never been a high priority.

 

Faced with protests from environmentalists and thousands of Native Americans who gathered to block the construction, and faced with his own record of fighting global warming and promoting clean energy, President Barack Obama stopped the building of the pipeline in 2016.

 

David Offutt at the Fort Buford State Historic Site in North Dakota (1985): Sitting Bull surrendered here in 1881, effectively ending the Indian Wars in the U.S.

 

I chose Fort Buford because this is where Sitting Bull and some 200 “hostile” stragglers surrendered in 1881 and effectively ended the Indian Wars in the United States. Crazy Horse’s annihilation of Custer’s 7th Cavalry ultimately didn’t help the cause of the Native Americans. The warrior Crazy Horse and medicine man Sitting Bull didn’t hold any ground to defend, and the American public was aroused to support retribution for the “atrocity” at Little Bighorn by an “abominable” enemy.

 

Even Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce in the Northwest was imprisoned at Fort Buford for a time after he tired of being chased by the U.S. Cavalry. He surrendered in 1877. It’s in a desolate area that was actually suitable for nomadic Indians who followed the buffalo until Gen. Philip Sheridan pointed out that if you exterminate the buffalo, you can also exterminate the Indian. Not much remains of the old fort, but the better preserved Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site is nearby.

 

David Offutt and General Philip Sheridan in Washington, DC (2015) – This is considered one of the best equestrian statues ever made because it looks good from every angle. Sheridan is the one who said, “The only good Indian I ever saw was dead.” However, his reputation was made as a skillful Union cavalry officer during the Civil War.

 

Just as Little Bighorn was all for naught, so too was the victory against DAPL. President Donald Trump was already known as a sympathizer of white supremacists (even before Charlottesville), a hater of Obama, a lover of fossil fuels, an opponent of the environment, and a denier of climate change. He found it very easy to overturn Obama’s executive order and allow the pipeline to jeopardize the land of the Sioux and the rest of the planet. Would he have done it if the pipeline still threatened the mostly white population of North Dakota’s capital city?

 

The Crawford brothers (Robert on the left and Johnny) in “Indian Paint” (1964). At least Jay Silverhills, a true Native American, played their father in this tale of Indian life on the plains.

 

Today, possibly the most noticeable advance in the treatment of our Native Americans can be seen on television and in the movies. Ever since Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, we’ve come to expect Native Americans to play Native Americans in our films.

 

I grew up watching Burt Lancaster play “Jim Thorpe,” the Olympic champion; Jeff Chandler play Cochise in “Broken Arrow”; Rock Hudson play “Taza, Son of Cochise”; Victor Jory play Injun Joe in  “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”; Tony Curtis play Ira Hayes, one of the Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, in “The Outsider”;  and Johnny Crawford (Emmy-nominee as Mark on TV’s “The Rifleman”) and his older brother Robert (Emmy-nominee for “Child of Our Time” on Playhouse 90) play Indian youths in “Indian Paint.”

 

David Offutt at the Iwo Jima U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington Cemetery across from Washington, DC, in Virginia (2015) – Two Marines are raising flags to fly over the monument; each flag will be sent to any eligible person who requests such a flag. Ira Hayes is one of the Marines depicted in the statue. Sadly, while intoxicated, he died of exposure to cold and alcohol poisoning on his Pima reservation in 1955.

 

Charles Bronson, Chuck Connors, Sal Mineo, Michael Landon, and many other non-Native Americans also played Indians in our films and on TV. The idea was to increase viewers and box office receipts by using popular or known actors. However, is there any one of us today who would consider it acceptable not to use a true Native American in those roles in future films?

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. I enjoyed this essay, David. I have always had a soft spot for Native Americans.

    Of course, you could not resist inserting a partisan slant: “… faced with his own record of fighting global warming and promoting clean energy, President Barack Obama stopped the building of the pipeline”

    Har har har. Are your referring to the same Obama who said “First of all, we are drilling. Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s a fact. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating oil rigs to a record high. I want everybody to listen to that — we have more oil rigs operating now than ever.” ?????

    The same Obama who let British Petroleum get away with murder ?????

    Meanwhile, the real reason Obama reluctantly nixxed that particular pipeline was because oil prices had fallen and other pipelines had been built to carry the oil, not to mention rail cars that are far more dangerous than a pipeline. The “Canadian Obama,” Justin Trudeau — handsome, smooth talking, socially liberal, but conservative on all issues that actually matter — has approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline to carry oil sands to a port in BC.

    To your list of non-native actors we can include “Iron Eyes” Cody, the star of the famous 1970’s “Keep America Beautiful” TV add narrated by William Conrad. Iron Eyes went to his grave insisting that he was native, but he was born Espera Oscar de Corti to an Italian father and a Sicilian mother. You just can’t believe in anything these days. ;-)

  2. I always enjoy the history. I never took much history. I hope they will publish it. Thanks

    Sent from my iPad

    >


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