Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

History without Reservations: Unpicking the Myths about Native Americans

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

History without Reservations: Unpicking the Myths about Native Americans

Article excerpt


In the summer of 1989--the year of the Hillsborough disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the protests in Tiananmen Square--the New York Times ran a short article about William F Cody. "Buffalo Bill's medal restored" was the headline. Long before Cody became the best-known showman of the 19th century, he had served as a scout during the "Indian Wars" that racked the Great Plains in the years after the American Civil War. In 1872, for his service, he was awarded the Medal of Honour, the US military's highest award. According to the newspaper, he received it "for valour after leading a cavalry charge against a group of Sioux. He killed two, recovered several horses, and pursued the retreating Indians."

Then, in 1917, the award was revoked. It is easy to imagine in the 21st century that this might have been because, in the intervening decades, attitudes to killing people who were defending the land on which they had lived long before Europeans had ever dreamed of a place called America had changed. This, however, was not the case. The trouble was that Cody, as a scout, was considered to be a civilian and so technically was not entitled to receive the medal.

His family campaigned down the years to have it returned, and so it was, in 1989. Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming said that the decision had finally set "the record straight". He was glad that the US army had accepted that Cody "clearly deserves our nation's highest honour".

That remark ran without comment. Perhaps things have changed over the past three decades, or perhaps they haven't. Only a few months ago, Hillary Clinton found herself in hot water when she told CNN that she could handle Donald Trump, thanks very much. "I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave and how they speak," she said.

The phrase "off the reservation" has its roots in the forced relocation of Native American people from the early 19th century onwards. As J C H King writes in Blood and Land, the Indian Removal Act, passed by Congress in 1830 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, led to "land purchases under duress, forced removals and war, collectively known as Nunna daul Tsuny, literally the 'Trail where they cried', now the 'Trail of Tears', for the removal of the Cherokees, of whom alone between 4,000 and 8,000 people died".

Clinton was forced to row back and her political director acknowledged that the phrase had "some very offensive roots". It is hard to imagine her using a phrase similarly offensive to African Americans or Latinos.

Americans have finally begun to acknowledge fully the dreadful and enduring legacy of African-American slavery: to say out loud, at least, that President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed the slaves, was not an act of magic, cleansing the land of evil. Yet it seems that the history of Native American and First Nation people--in Canada, too--has been more difficult to accept.

One of the many striking passages in Blood and Land is King's plain-spoken discussion of the way in which the discredited science of eugenics seemed to keep a firm grip on government policy towards native populations long into the 20th century. "Between 1970 and 1976," he writes, "some 25-50 Per cent of Indian women were sterilised, a total of 25,000 by the end of 1976." Read that sentence again: its simplicity is shocking. Similar programmes existed in Canada. "What is remarkable about these termination and sterilisation programmes," King continues, "is that they were instituted a little before but principally during the era of the civil rights movement: that is, as African America successfully fought ancient measures, new federal measures of dispossession, of land and body, were being imposed on Indian people."

King, who spent nearly 40 years at the British Museum and is now the inaugural Von Hugel Fellow at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, uses different terms for his subjects at different times. …

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