Ghost Dance: Five Facts about Our Vanished Nations

This week’s new Army Corps decision and a fresh lawsuit could delay the Dakota Access pipleline more than makes economic sense.

Disarmed, held in concentration camps, their children taken away, half starved, the Indigenous peoples of the West found a form of resistance that spread like wildfire in all directions from its source, thanks to a Paiute holy man, Wovoka…Pilgrims journeyed to hear his message and to receive directions on how to perform the Ghost Dance, which promised to restore the Indigenous world as it was before colonialism, making the invaders disappear and the buffalo return. ~Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Few things are more likely evoke a “fight or flight” reaction than facts. Facts make us uncomfortable. The latest issue of Scientific American features an article exploring this…uh…fact at some length (“Why People ‘Fly from Facts’”). The piece starts with a conversation that has become a cliché among members of the medical community:

“There was a scientific study that showed vaccines cause autism.”

“Actually, the researcher in that study lost his medical license, and overwhelming research since then has shown no link between vaccines and autism.”

“Well, regardless, it’s still my personal right as a parent to make decisions for my child.”

In other words, never mind the facts – individual rights, however misguided, always trump collective rights, even where the health and welfare of society is at stake.

Here are a few facts about US history from a new book about Indigenous peoples of the US written from the perspective of the losers:

Fact #1: “The total population of the hemisphere was about one hundred million at the end of the fifteenth century…. At the same time, the population of Europe…was around fifty.”

Fact #2: “There are more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous communities and nations, comprising nearly three million people in the United States [today]. These are descendants of the fifteen million original inhabitants of the land, the majority of whom were farmers who lives in towns.”

Fact #3: The Americas “discovered” by Christopher Columbus were relatively “disease-free”; the proof is in the pre-existing population density. Germs brought from Europe were a major cause of the massive die-off of Indigenous peoples who were susceptible to diseases that had once been epidemic on the other side of the Atlantic but to which the European invaders had become largely immune.

Fact #4: There are currently 310 federally recognized reservations in the United States encompassing a total land base of less than 2.3 percent of its original size.

Indigenous peoples inhabited every region of North and South America for centuries and even millennia before the arrival of the first Europeans. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the United States has a total land area of about 2.3 billion acres.

In 1881, total Indian landholding had contracted to 156 million acres. By 1934, less than a third remained (about 50 million acres), thanks to the Indian Wars and the General Allotment Act of 1887. The US Government took another 500,000 acres for military use during WWII. Still more Native American lands were seized during the postwar “termination era”.

Fact #5: The idea that “Indians” did not grow crops or till the soil or exploit Nature’s bounties is ahistorical, at best, at worst, a Big Lie invented to rationalize policies and acts that objectively fit the legal definition of genocide. As a pretext for US relocation and termination policies, it was used to validate the view that Native Americans had no moral or legal claim to the land they inhabited and no sovereign rights.

In point of fact, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas cultivated corn, beans, squash, chili peppers, potatoes, yams, tomatoes, cocoa, and pumpkins, among other food crops, as well as cotton and tobacco. Traces of corn cultivation in central Mexico date back ten thousand years. Dunbar-Ortiz notes: “Since there is no evidence of corn on any other continent prior to its post-Columbus dispersal, its development is a unique invention of the original American agriculturalists.”

The term “genocide” is most commonly applied to the Holocaust. It is a crime under international law under a United Nations convention adopted in 1948; the United States finally ratified it in 1988 – to answer the question why it would have taken forty years one has to look no further than the history of the US Indian wars.

Genocide became official policy in the 1830s during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. In 1836, US Army general Thomas S. Jesup wrote of the Seminoles: “The country can be rid of them only by exterminating them.” And here are the words of General William Tecumseh Sherman writing in 1873: “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children…during an assault, the soldiers can not pause to distinguish between male and female or even discriminate as to age.”

The Genocide Convention is not retroactive or the US Senate would never have ratified it. Moreover, the US Government has never unconditionally accepted the juridical authority of the World Court in cases involving alleged US violations of international law (the principle of “compulsory jurisdiction”).

The habit of denying what we can’t explain, admit, or justify is all-too-human, and it applies to nations as well as individuals. The moral question quickly gets tangled in a web of legal and financial issues – restitution and reparations, as well as who’s responsible in the present for crimes committed in the past. In the emotionally and politically charged realm of morality and public policy, genocide against Indigenous peoples competes with the institution of Black slavery – both represent features of the nation’s past that mock the patriotic majority’s preferred image of itself, as well as a mythologized system of constitutional democracy based on free enterprise they believe to be exceptional in world history.

Nations can’t begin to atone for past wrongs without first recognize them. It is official German policy not to deny the Holocaust – the Nazi-engineered genocide under Hitler. That doesn’t settle anything, of course, but it’s a necessary step in the right direction. By contrast, Japan has never fully accepted responsibility for the atrocities it committed against civilian populations and POWs in World War II.

Despite the facts, despite all the irrefutable, incriminating evidence that can never be expunged from the record, we tend to see ourselves – our history as a nation – as fundamentally different from Germany and Japan. Native American survivors know it’s not true. It’s high time the rest of us recognize it so we can finally begin a healing process that’s long overdue.


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