An American Genocide

OK, maybe the title of this post is a bit drastic, but I’m not sure it’s that off base. I just finished reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It’s a history of the American West written from the perspective of the Indian. Brown explained that so much of that history has been written by those who “won” the West, he wanted to add the voices of those who “lost” it. It was an eye-opening book.

The image of the heroic cowboys fighting off the savage Indians is part of American lore. For decades, dime-store novels and then moving pictures, captured the adventurous spirit of the West. It was a time when brave pioneers charted new courses through unsettled lands. They conquered territory, established towns, and fearlessly protected their homes from unprovoked Indian attacks. It makes for a good storyline, but the real history is not quite as pretty.

Dee Brown throws open a new understanding of this period in American history. A time when we systematically destroyed a people and a culture because they had something we wanted, namely land. So in the name of manifest destiny, civilization, cultural arrogance and (unfortunately) Christianity we gradually stripped them of their lands, moved them to reservations, decimated their health and indiscriminately killed large numbers of their population. I may sound a little over the top here, but read the book. It’s hard to capture the injustice of what happened.

Yet, for me, the most heartbreaking part of the book was not the lying, manipulation, greed or conquering mindset. It was the fact that some of it was done in the name of Christianity. Many of the early participants were Christian missionaries. I sense that they genuinely wanted the natives to know Christ, but they assumed that accepting him included accepting European culture. You couldn’t be a nomadic clan of hunters/gatherers and be Christian. They were convinced that Christianity also equaled farming and civilization. It was a confusion of Christ and culture that still happens in the mission field today.

One example was Nathan C. Meeker. He became the agent for the Ute reservation in 1878. Brown writes this…

Most of Meeker’s ventures failed, and although he sought the agency position because he needed the money, he was possessed of a missionary fervor and sincerely believed that it was his duty as a member of a superior race to “elevate and enlighten” the Utes. As he phrased it, he was determined to bring them out of savagery through the pastoral stage to the barbaric, and finally to “the enlightened, scientific, and religious stage.” Meeker was confident he could accomplish all this in “five, ten, or twenty years.” In his humorless and overbearing way, Meeker set out systematically to destroy everything the Utes cherished, to make them over in his own image, as he believed he had been made in God’s image.

How did he accomplish this? Well, he didn’t. But in his attempt, he slaughtered their ponies and replaced them with a few draft horses. This forced them to take up plowing, abandon their hunting grounds and live off government rations near the agency. When this didn’t work he perpetuated the idea that Indians were savages who would never adopt the white man’s faith or practices. This ultimately lead to their removal and destruction. It also lead to his death, but that’s another story.

14 thoughts on “An American Genocide

  1. I don’t know…The winners write history.Giving voice to past injustice.People have done some evil things in the name of Christianity.Christian missionaries have wrongly insisted that a certian culture be adopted in addition to Christ.American Christianity has some sins for which we need to repent.Those are a few that come to mind.

  2. During my quiet time yesterday, it dawned on me that Christianity is a faith of complex simplicity. What I mean that it is so incredibly simple to understand. You do not have to be a genius, be comparatively insightful or even be literate. However, I have found (in the limited brain capacity that God has blessed me with) that the deeper I dig into God’s word and the more I look into His creations, the more and more complex it becomes. Moreover, it all points back to Him and His magnificence. I’m amazed that it can be both so complex and so simple and still be truth. God never ceases to amaze me.

  3. @Russ”The winners write history” – that’s why it’s important to dissent against those who are wrong”American Christianity has some sins for which we need to repent”, “Giving voice to past injustices” – are you advocating reparations?

  4. I don’t advocate reparations. Does that make me a hypocrite? I just don’t think that repentance always equals restitution. It does in some cases, but sometimes the pieces can’t be put back together. Repentance in those cases means remorse for the past and a willingness/determination not to return to that past way of life. For example, I don’t think we can ever repay the evils of slavery and prejudice, but we can work to insure that it doesn’t happen again.

  5. I’d really like to read that book! I think you’re right in saying that we often portray history from the wrong perspective and therefore we kinda have a warped idea of what really happened. Like the Roman government, I’m sure, would have a different take on the early followers of Christ,very different from the book of Acts; and the Muslims who fought in the Crusades would tell the story very differently that those who fought under the name of Christ. There are 2 sides to every story and both sides are convinced that they are right and justified in what they do. What the early settlers did in the name of Christ was a horrible misrepresentation and all that followers of Christ today can do is simply apologize for what they did (like that awesome chapter in Blue like Jazz with the confession booth) and just be aware of how history is presented so that we don’t accept everything we’re told as perfect truth. Also its up to us to change the worlds perception of Christians. because many folks still have this idea of Christians as imperialistic and violent people which couldn’t be further than Christ’s teachings. Its up to us to change that perception.

  6. @ Russ – I am finally joining the discussion. Watch out – two McCarthys on board…In my writing experience in racism, I have been blown away and humbled by the story of our Native Americans. Some would say it is an invisible race b/c we don’t really recognize they are there (except those that live near reservations). When you look at how Native Americans are portrayed in our movies, it is difficult to imagine how they must feel when we use their religious symbols for comic relief. I certainly get upset when people make fun of the cross. It sounds like an interesting book. Too bad I only read non-fiction : )

  7. @ Russ – I see that my brother is revealing my reading list to you. I picked up UnChristian about the same time as you (as well as Simple Church). Another good one is Lord, Save us from your Followers by Dan Merchant.

  8. I’ll add that to my growing stack of books waiting to be read. On the Native American thing it’s amazning to me how ignorant I was. When I was in youth ministry, we did two mission trips to the Navaho reservation in Tuba City, AZ. I wish I’d have read this book before going. It would have given me a lot more perspective and understanding. The poverty is still there, more than 100 years later, expect in Dave’s noted example (see earlier comments)

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