Monday, November 11, 2013

A November 11th meditation, 2013

If you had been alive in the United States during the years 1868 to 1876, would you have uncritically "supported the troops" who were providing the force of arms that backed up the policy of stealing the land of the American Indians such as the Lakota Sioux and deliberately destroying their way of life, so that others could take what they wanted from them (which turned out to be basically everything)?

Would you have given up your seats in the first-class section of the train and given them to the troops coming back from the "Indian campaigns," the way people today give up their seats in the first-class sections of airplanes for members of the US military?

Would you have reflexively said, "Thank you for your service" whenever you met someone who had participated in those campaigns?

In 1868, representatives of the US government (namely General Sherman, General Harney, General Terry, General Augur, and others) signed a treaty with the Lakota Sioux acknowledging the right of the Sioux to all the territory from "the east bank of the Missouri river where the 46th parallel of north latitude crosses the same, thence along low-water mark down said east bank to a point opposite where the northern line of the State of Nebraska strikes the river, thence west across said river, and along the northern line of Nebraska to the 104th degree of longitude west from Greenwich, thence north on said meridian to a point where the 46th parallel of north latitude intercepts the same, thence due east along said parallel to the place of beginning," which basically included all of what is now delineated as the state of "South Dakota" located to the west of the Missouri River.*

The treaty stipulated that the country named would be "set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians" and, further, that "the United States now solemnly agrees that no persons, except those herein designated and authorized so to do, and except such officers, agents, and employees of the government as may be authorized to enter upon Indian reservations in discharge of duties enjoined by law, shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article, or in such territory as may be added to this reservation for the use of said Indians."  This treaty was ratified by the US Senate.

In spite of this treaty, however, in 1874 an army unit under General Custer went into the Black Hills (sacred to the Lakota and called Pa Sapa in their language, and within the area off limits as described in the above treaty) to confirm the presence of gold there, after which prospectors began to pour into the region, demanding military protection by the US Army from the Sioux.

There followed negotiations in which the US government tried to buy back the Black Hills, but the Lakota declined.  So, the US government decided to declare war on the Sioux, after which they "began to look around" for an excuse to justify going to war, according to Stephen Ambrose in Crazy Horse and Custer, who cites former Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs George Washington Manypenny (1808-1892).  On page 396 of that book, Ambrose writes: "After making the decision to declare war (according to George Manypenny, a former commissioner of Indian affairs), the government then began to look around for a causus belli."  They found one in a report of a raid by the Sioux agains the neighboring Crow: "Although such raids had been going on since time out of mind, the government announced with a straight face that it was reluctantly making war on the wild Sioux in order to protect the Crows" (396).

In other words, the United States was involved in a grave injustice, one which would lead to the death and misery of an entire nation of people, and the soldiers who engaged in backing up that policy by force were also involved in a grave injustice.  The attitude of the military leaders can be seen in a letter from General Sherman, a lead signatory of the treaty which had been signed in April of 1868, to General Sheridan, written in October of 1868, just a few months after he signed the treaty, in which Sherman said: 
Go ahead in your own way and I will back you with my whole authority.  If it results in the utter annihilation of these Indians, it is but the result of what they have been warned of again and again.  [. . .] I will do nothing and say nothing to restrain our troops from doing what they deem proper on the spot, and will allow no mere vague general charges of cruelty and inhumanity to tie their hands, but will use all the powers confided to me to the end that these Indians, the enemies of our race and our civilization, shall not again be able to begin or carry out their barbarous warfare on any kind of pretext they may choose to allege.  Cited in Ambrose, 303.
These are hideous statements and hideous sentiments.  While not everyone under Sherman's command may have harbored sentiments as odious and inhuman as those expressed in this letter from Sherman to Sheridan, the fact is that every single one of the soldiers in that campaign, and in many others like it which took place against other tribes throughout the American west as the United States expanded into territory that it wanted to take away from the people who had lived there for hundreds or thousands of years before them, was involved in a completely unjust and immoral violation of natural law.  By extension, so was the public that provided support to the government that was carrying out these acts.

What would have been the proper thing to do if one were in the military of the US at that time?  It would have been to renounce participation in such an immoral and unjust action and to tender one's resignation.  Likewise, the proper response of the public should have been outrage at this shameful and illegal use of deadly force to steal the country of the American Indians and destroy their way of life.  

Every individual aware of what was going on should have registered this outrage in the strongest terms possible, should have attempted to explain what was going on to others, should have removed their approval and support from the government that was perpetrating this atrocity until the situation was rectified, and should have encouraged others to remove their approval and support from that government as well.

Instead of providing automatic and reflexive words and displays of approval and encouragement to the individuals in the military who were under the command of men such as Sherman, citizens should have clearly and plainly told them that what they were doing was utterly wrong, and helped them to understand why it was wrong, and why the only proper course of action was the immediate renunciation of any support or participation in the ongoing criminal violence.

It was absolutely justified for the Lakota Sioux to resist with force of arms the unjust incursions of the US Army, even though their resistance was ultimately doomed to failure.  In 1876, led by Tatanka-Iyotanka (Sitting Bull, pictured above) and Tashunka-Witko (Crazy Horse, whose stated policy was never to be photographed and of whom no undisputed photograph exists), warriors of the Lakota and other allied tribes completely annihilated a force of the US 7th Cavalry led by General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In exhorting his people to continue their free way of life rather than consent to being made into slaves who were bound to obey the dictates of others, Sitting Bull said:
I don't want to have anything to do with people who make one carry water on the shoulders and haul manure.  The whites may get me at last, but I will have good times till then.  You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hardtack, and a little sugar and coffee.  17.
In explaining the difference between those who believe they have the right to tell others what to do (and enforce those orders with violence, even to the point of killing), Crazy Horse's fellow Oglala warrior He Dog (pictured below) related these words of Crazy Horse:
I said, 'Does this mean that you will be my enemy if I move across the creek?'  Crazy Horse laughed in my face.  He said, 'I am no white man!  They are the only people who make rules for other people, that say, "If you stay on one side of this line it is peace, but if you go on the other side I will kill you all."  I don't hold with deadlines.  There is plenty of room; camp where you please.' xv.
Both leaders in these admirable quotations are expressing disgust at those who enslave others, or enslave themselves.  They were willing to fight against the violation of natural law that was being perpetrated against them and their people.  That is admirable; to fight on the side that is violating natural law is despicable.

Ultimately, however, there was no way that the Lakota could militarily resist the overwhelming numbers that the US government could muster, nor the wholesale destruction of the buffalo herds on which their traditional way of life depended.  The only thing that could have stopped the US government from pursuing its unjust policy would have been widespread outrage and removal of support from the people on whom the US government relied for its existence, and on whose sons it relied for its military.

That widespread outrage and removal of support never happened.  Every human being today should carefully consider this fact, and commit to memory the quotations of the two Lakota leaders cited above, and the view of mankind and the natural rights of every living soul expressed in those words from the past.

* the size of the portion of country ceded by the US to the Sioux including the entire state of South Dakota to the west of the Missouri River can be seen on any map of the US; the "104th degree of longitude west" describes the western north-south running boundary of modern South Dakota, and the "46th parallel of north latitude" describes the northern east-west running boundary of modern South Dakota.