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Latin America Team Dispatch


What About the US? -
The "Extermination" and "Termination" of a People


"The greatest purveyor of violence on earth is my own government."
- Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967
United States citizen and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

In case any of you were beginning to think that the struggle for indigenous rights in Guatemala is a unique scenario, guess again. We've been writing a lot about the violence that has tainted Guatemala's history but what about the violence inflicted upon Native Americans by white people in our native United States?
For the past 23 years a Native American man has been held in jail for two murders in a case where even the people who prosecuted him confess they don't know who is responsible. You can help him in today's Making a Difference!

The indigenous populations of the United States have faced incredible challenges and near-annihilation over the past couple of hundred years because of European colonialism. Making up nearly 80% of the total population, Guatemala's indigenous population has maintained its majority status despite the countless violent deaths and loss of human rights. But in the United States, American Indians constitute a tiny and virtually voiceless minority. Can you imagine the United States before Spanish, French and English colonization? Indigenous North Americans had free reign of all the land and lived their lives according to ancient customs and beliefs, without any external human threats. It is unlikely that they ever could have expected what tragedies awaited them. Upon the arrival of European colonists (beginning back with the European's first knowledge of the Americas, 1492), Native American communities were torn apart as their lands were stolen in a colonial quest to settle American soil and establish a "democratic" government.

The history of indigenous struggles in the United States is marked by numerous human rights violations. Among these a few stand out as key examples:

The Indian Removal Act
In 1830, the United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act mandating the removal of all Native Americans from east of the Mississippi River to the newly established Indian Territory, located in what is present-day Oklahoma. Native Americans lost all freedom to choose where they would live and were forced to give up ancient tribal burial grounds in the places they called home.

The Gold Rush and "Indian Extermination"
Gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, California in 1848. The subsequent "Gold Rush" in 1849 (the derivation of the San Francisco '49ers football team name) and Euro-American settlement in California (home to most of the World Trek Team - when we're not trekking) reduced the California Indian population from about 120,000 in 1850 to fewer than 20,000 by 1880. What happened to all these people? Gold miners changed the environment so much that Indians could no longer maintain traditional methods for growing crops. In desperation, the Indians retaliated and caused so many problems for the gold miners, that in 1851, the governor of California adopted a policy of extermination against the Indians and many were killed. During this same year, the U.S. army established a military base on a sacred Native American site in Arizona, which sparked a pattern of violent confrontations between the U.S. and the Navajo community.

The Stealing of Communal Lands
During the 1880s, Euro-American reformers grew concerned that Indians were not improving themselves and becoming self-sufficient but were sinking into poverty and despair. The Dawes Allotment Act was passed in 1887and forced individual Indians to live on small family farms. One goal of allotment was to destroy Indian "communalism," that is, the practice of many families living together and sharing property. Communalism represented a cornerstone of indigenous life for most Indians, as is the case in Guatemala, and this was stripped away from them. Another important result? Within the first ten years of allotment, more than 80 million acres of Indian land were opened for Euro-American settlement.

Schools, and Lives, Not of their Choice
During the 1890s, the U.S. government began an aggressive campaign to "civilize" Indian people by rounding up Indian children and sending them away to boarding schools. The first step in "civilizing" the children was to cut their hair and burn their clothes and replace them with "civilian" or Euro-American style of dress. The children were forbidden to speak their Native language and were subjected to severe punishment if they violated this rule. Try to picture how miserable you might be in a place where you lost the freedom to choose your hairstyle, your clothes and most importantly, your native language. These boarding schools were a breeding ground for disease, and many Indian children died while at the schools. This policy lasted until the late 1930s when Indian children were allowed to attend day schools closer to home.

And, Finally, Termination
During the 1950s, the Native Americans were hit hard again by the U.S. government, which then adopted an official policy of "terminating" tribes. Termination involved taking away all federal support (e.g., health services and education) and closing the reservations. Frequently, tribal members were then relocated to urban areas. By 1990, more than 50% of Indians had little choice but to move to urban areas of the United States.

But none of this has occurred without American Indians fighting back to protect their rights. The 1960s, '70s and '80s were defined by numerous protests on the part of Native Americans. In 1969, a group of militant Native Americans (members of the American Indian Movement - learn more in today's Making a Difference) took over the abandoned prison island of Alcatraz for two years and brought national attention to indigenous rights violations. In response to the storm of Indian protests, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975. The Act stated that, "the Congress hereby recognizes the obligation of the United States to respond to the strong expression of the Indian people for self-determination by assuring maximum Indian participation in the direction of educational as well as other Federal services to Indian communities."

And just today (February 23rd) there was heartening news in newspapers and on the internet. "Indians Win Round in Fight on Trust Funds: Two Cabinet Secretaries are Held in Contempt". In a significant victory for Native Americans, two U.S. Cabinet officers (people very high up in the Clinton Administration) have been held in contempt of court for the first time in history. This was because they have failed to produce records of trust funds, constituting over $10 billion due to the descendants of the original Native American recipients. "I think this is the beginning of justice for the victims who have had years and years of abuse at the hands of the United States Government," said Eloise Cobell, a member of the Black Feet Nation, the chief plaintiff in the lawsuit. We can only hope that Ms. Cobell is correct.

Click here to learn about a very important way you can help support the rights of Native Americans today!

 

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