“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
The greatest tragedy of colonialism is arguably not its death toll, but the cultural disintegration of its survivors. After centuries of persecution and systemic murder, what’s left of the Native population are pockets of communities struggling to reconcile history with their surroundings, struggling to retain identities that have been largely shattered or made obsolete.
An estimated 80-90% of Native Americans were wiped out after the arrival of Europeans. Population estimates at the time weren’t scientific, but conservative numbers put North American Natives at around 8 million when John Cabot first landed. That estimate soars to 145 million depending on whom you ask. Whatever the true number, only 5.2 million of their ancestors are alive today.
Although the physical act of genocide ended long ago, delusive efforts disguised as “service” operate as a continued assault on Native welfare. Unduly removing children from their homes, stripping them of their identity, family and history are all acts of cultural extermination. The tactics have changed but the racism hasn’t. Why resort to violence when you achieve the same means in a more “civilized” way? What bullets and disease didn’t destroy, conquerors will try to extinguish through cultivation, incrementally and with each new generation pouring a little bleach into the bloodstream.
Beginning with boarding schools in the 1800’s, the “Indian Problem” was handled tactically: forced kerosene baths, head shaving and the prohibition of children speaking their native tongues. Billy Wright, a Patwin Indian, was sent to one such boarding school in 1945. He recalled being forbidden to express any aspect of his culture and losing not only his language, but his real name.
“I remember coming home and my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her and I said, ‘Grandma, I don’t understand you.’”
Boarding schools have been replaced by white, middle class families. Outright hostility has been cloaked in altruism and compassion, not of the individuals at the other end of adoption, but of the government which encourages it. South Dakota is the most glaring example, but the practice of displacement occurs nationwide.
“There are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them.” – N.K. Jemisin
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