That self-possessed sense of freedom is closer to what I want; I want to be an uncaught Indian like them.
Another remark which non-Indians often make on the subject of Indians is "Why can't they get with the program?" Anyone who talks about Indians in public will be asked that question, or variations on it; over and over: Why don't Indians forget all this tribal nonsense and become ordinary Americans like the rest of us? Why do they insist on living in the past? Why don't they accept the fact that we won and they lost? Why won't they stop, finally, being Indians and join the modern world? I have a variety of answers handy. Sometimes I say that in former days "the program" called for the eradication of Indian languages, and children in Indian boarding schools were beaten for speaking them and forced to speak English, so they would fit in; time passed, cultural fashions changed, and Hollywood made a feature film about Indians in which for the sake of authenticity the Sioux characters spoke Sioux (with English subtitles), and the movie became a hit, and lots of people decided they wanted to learn Sioux, and those who still knew the language, those who had somehow managed to avoid "the program" in the first place, were suddenly the ones in demand. Now, I think it's better not to answer the question but to ask a question in return: What program, exactly, do you have in mind?
We live in a craven time. I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated Communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, yet we are not, somehow. Americans today no longer work mostly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means that most of us make our living by being nice. And if we can't be nice, we'd better at least be neutral. In the service economy, anyone who sat where he pleased in the presence of power or who expatiated on his own greatness would soon be out the door. "Who does he think he is?" is how the dismissal is usually framed. The dream of many of us is that someday we might miraculously have enough money that we could quit being nice, and everybody would then have to be nice to us, and niceness would surround us like a warm dome. Certain speeches we would love to make accompany this dream, glorious, blistering tellings-off of those to whom we usually hold our tongue. The eleven people who actually have enough money to do that are icons to us. What we read in newsprint and see on television always reminds us how great they are, and we can't disagree. Unlike the rest of us, they can deliver those speeches with no fear. The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried with him from the plains to Washington as easily as air - freedom to be and to say, whenever, regardless of disapproval - has become a luxury most of us can't afford.
From a historical perspective, this looks a lot like where America came in. When Columbus landed, there were about eleven people in Europe who could do whatever they felt like doing. Part of the exhilaration of the age was the rumored freedom explorers like Columbus found. Suddenly imagination was given a whole continent full of people who had never heard of Charlemagne, or Pope Leo X, or quitrents, or the laws of entail, and who were doing fine. Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer whose name and the continent's would he the same, brought back news that in this land "every one is his own master." If this land new to Europeans was the setting, the lives of these untrammeled people suggested the plot: we could drop anchor in the bay, paddle up the river, wade up the creek, meet a band of Indians, and with them disappear forever into the country's deepest green. No tyranny could hold us; if Indians could live as they liked, so could we.
The popular refrain about Indians nowadays is that they and their culture were cruelly destroyed. It's a breast-beatingly comfortable idea, from the destroyers' point of view. In the nineteenth century, with white people firmly established on the continent, common wisdom had it that the Indian must eventually die out. That meant die, literally, and give way in a Darwinian sense to the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. "Adieu, red brother! You are going to join the Mastodon and the Scthysaurus," wrote humorist Bill Nye in 1891, shortly after the massacre at Wounded Knee. In the twentieth century, stories of the Indians' destruction, set mostly in the past tense, made a follow-up to this comfortable idea. From one century to the next, the destruction of the Indians was such a common theme that if they did not die out in by the sound of it they might as well have. But beyond the sphere rhetoric, the Indians as a people did not die out, awful though the suffering was. Killing people is one thing, killing them off is another. The Sand Creek Massacre, one of the bloodiest episodes on the Western frontier and a permanent scar on the history of the state of Colorado, killed at least two hundred, mostly women and children, of Chief Black Kettle's band of Southern Cheyenne in 1864. Today there are more than four thousand descendants of Sand Creek Massacre survivors; they hope for restitution and a reservation of their own. New England's Pequots, a tribe "extinct as the ancient Medes," according to Herman Melville, rebounded from a recent time when just two members were still living on the reservation and now run a gambling casino which takes in x billion dollars a year. The Mohicans, of whom we were supposed to have seen the last in the 1750s, recently prevented Wal-Mart from building a multiacre discount store on land they consider sacred in upstate New York. In 1900, there were fewer than a quarter of a million Indians in the United States. Today there are two million or more. The population of those claiming Indian descent on the census forms has been growing four times as fast as the population as a whole, making Native Americans the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country.
Copyright © 2000 by Ian Frazier
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