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.