Last year, I witnessed something amazing. A group of Syrian refugee children was being bussed to an American town. Their bus was surrounded by angry, hateful protesters who did not want refugees in their community. Television cameras captured the terror in the children’s faces as they peered out the bus windows at the angry mob screaming at them in a language they couldn’t understand and for reasons neither they nor I could comprehend. And then, an even angrier man approached the crowd.
The lone man was armed only with righteous indignation. He was an American Indian and he yelled back at the crowd countering their anti-immigrant rants with one of his own. He shouted to the angry men and women how enraged he was that people from another country had come into his people’s land, killed the buffalo they depended on for food, murdered his people and forced the survivors from their homes onto reservations. The Indian was angry that gas stations and shopping malls now covered the sacred land where his ancestors were buried. He walked up and down the line of protesters, reflecting their own words and anger back at them. And that’s when the amazing thing happened.
Surprisingly, the angry mob when confronted by an infuriated opponent, did not turn violent. Instead, they grew silent, unable to find the words to reply. They lowered their heads as the Indian passed them, unable to look him in the eye. What had once been an angry mob dissipated. One by one, the humbled protesters broke off from the pack and slinked away. Without firing a shot or making a threat, this one man dispersed an angry mob by shaming them.
The U.S. government made more than 500 treaties with the Indian tribes that lived on American soil long before the first white man set foot on it. The federal government then proceeded to break every single treaty it had signed. The U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which was signed into law by populist President Andrew Jackson, who had gained fame as an Indian killer during the Creek War (1814). Jackson called Indians “savages” and those of mixed heritage “half-breeds.” Much of his prejudice against Indians stemmed from boyhood tales of Indian violence toward settlers in the 1770s. Under Jackson and his successor President Martin Van Buren, between 45,000 and 100,000 American Indians were forcibly relocated along the “Trail of Tears” from the Southeastern United States to an area west of the Mississippi River. Fifteen thousand died from cold and hunger along the way. The U.S. government received 100 million acres of Indian land for about $68 million.
American Indians are used to mistreatment by the government. It never seems to end. The great irony is today, as Americans gather with their families to celebrate Thanksgiving -- the holiday commemorating the Indians welcoming the white settlers to their land -- the government is once again attacking American Indians. This time, a militarized police force is firing projectiles and rubber bullets at Indians and their supporters at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota protesting the planned Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline would cut through sacred burial grounds and also threaten to contaminate the Indians’ drinking water. Reminiscent of police unleashing water hoses on blacks and civil rights protesters in 1960s Alabama, police in North Dakota are firing water cannons on Indian and non-Indian protesters, dousing them in subfreezing winter temperatures. More than a dozen have been hospitalized, many with hypothermia. Twenty-one-year-old protester Sophia Wilansky was struck and wounded by a concussion grenade and may lose her arm as a result.
More protesters are needed – both on the scene and online through social media -- not to respond to violence with violence but to use the most effective weapon there is; the weapon shown to us by that lone American Indian last year: Shame. It is a powerful force and its effect cannot be overstated.
Dee Brown, in 1970, wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an historical account of the forced displacement of, and war waged against, American Indians by the government. The bestseller was named for the 1890 massacre of the Lakota Indians at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Perhaps someone will write a sequel, Bury My Conscience at Standing Rock. In the meantime, we can turn on our televisions and watch Indians fired upon with rubber bullets and sprayed with water in freezing temperatures as they protest their burial grounds being dug up and their drinking water threatened with contamination, while the rest of us eat our turkey to celebrate the day we first took the land from the Indians. Pass the gravy, please.