“The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves while we watch them die.”

If you have not yet watched Aaron Huey’s TED talk, “America’s native prisoners of war,” you should probably do that before reading this post.

The quote above, taken from Huey’s speech, has taught me so much about loss, abandonment, and the legacy of systemic oppression. His description of the Native American experience describes so well the power of stigma and blame: “You are the savage,” says stigma, “you did this to yourself.” It’s the same way much of America still views inner-city neighborhoods that were abandoned by the middle class decades ago. It’s the sort of condescending lens through which the exploiter will always view the exploited. The effect can be seen in West Virginia and Louisiana, oil-rich Nigeria, and even Wounded Knee, South Dakota: #4 on Wikipedia’s List of the four poorest places in the United States. Still.

Huey continues to explain his perspective on European settlement throughout American history. “This is how we came to own these united states.” He says, “This is the legacy of Manifest Destiny. Prisoners are still born into prisoner-of-war camps long after the guards are gone. These are the bones left after the best meat has been taken.”

People are trapped by the past, he says, they cannot escape because their identity has been crushed. They cannot escape. And where would they go? While federally recognized Americans inhabit much of the fertile soil on this continent, there are still Native Americans living in the desserts, the outskirts, the badlands of our nation. He earlier describes the word Wasi’chu (lit. “taking the fat) as the word used to describe white people. This is a derogatory word, but it is not negative in a sense because it is directed at the exploiter, the “one who takes the best meat.” And so this nation continues to stretch its influence across this land, one settlement at a time.

I suppose my charge is simple: remember the past to have a context for the present. And don’t just remember Gone with the Wind; remember the stories that haven’t been packaged and sold to you. And “Give back the Black Hills,” says Huwy, “It’s not your business what they do with them.” In other words, when there is reason to believe that wrong has been done, the best time to work through the past is now.

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