November is Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month. This curious old white guy would like to share what I’ve learned about our history.
The Doctrine of Discovery justified Christian European nations in claiming new lands discovered — if the inhabitants weren’t Christian. The land, people and materials became property of the discovering nation. Non-Christians were chattel.
When Columbus “discovered” the New World, he wrote “The natives would make good slaves.” Capt. John Smith told Virginia’s indigenous people that if they did not supply the English with food, materials and labor, he would kill one native every day until they complied. Smith’s encounter with Pocahontas was first written about 20 years after he returned to England.
My hometown (Suffolk, Virginia) was first visited by whites in 1609. Capt. John Smith commanded two boats of ruffians (terrorists?) to “find” resources. They came upon the village where Suffolk is today. Smith attacked, punched holes in half their canoes, and demanded half of the natives’ corn. Four months later, he returned and took the remaining corn and dug up native burial sites, looking for gold. Ironically, our high school mascot was the Red Raiders.
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In 1622, whites in Virginia who had crossed the York River (which was forbidden in the treaty) were captured and taken prisoner by the Indians. As a move to show good faith, the Indians returned their prisoners. A celebration began. Whites enjoyed wine and gave the natives poisoned wine. As the poison took effect, whites murdered more than 130 natives.
Manifest Destiny was another God-inspired idea. God wanted America coast to coast, so the government gave whites free land (including Indian lands). Treaties meant nothing to the government. Or the settlers. Whites came by the thousands.
When the natives tried to stop people from crossing their land or settling in their territory, whites reacted with force. The U.S. Army did little to protect reservation lands.
The Army, led by Civil War General Sherman, carried out total war. Destroy their food. Destroy their resources. Kill everyone. Demand complete surrender (no bargaining).
The only good Injun is a dead Injun.
Today it’s called genocide.
Soldiers and civilians took scalps and sexual body parts as souvenirs. A scrotum coin bag was popular. Age and sex of the victim didn’t matter. Many U.S. forts are named after the white generals who led these massacres.
Every state has its stories.
Oregon pioneers reflected these views and behaviors. Land was taken away by force.
In 1852 the California legislature paid Ben Wright a bounty for every native he killed. He would ride into a native village with a white flag — then murder everyone.
Our white Christian government broke every treaty made with indigenous people. We have nothing to be proud of. Our past. Or our present.
White men spoke with forked tongues.
Some will claim that telling the truth to adults and children about our history would be harmful. It would make whites feel guilty and make indigenous people upset to be reminded of their history. It is true. But is it better if we stay stupid and uninformed?
No. Those feelings can motivate us all to right the wrongs. To acknowledge past actions. We can’t change the past. We can create a better future. For everyone.
Some countries vow to never forget.
America is battling what to remember.
Resources in the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library: “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” “Custer Died for Your Sins,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” “We had a Real Estate Problem, 1491, 1493.”
Will Reid has devoted his adult life to trying to overcome his formative years in the South. He has taught at half a dozen colleges and universities. He is retired and lives in Corvallis.