GREY MATTERS

Katie Couric and Nancy Pelosi want Confederate statues and monuments to be toppled and removed. The rationalization given is they were “enemies” of the United States. But celebrities and politicians are not historians. They don’t know where the bodies are buried. However, historians do. Real history is messy.

In 1830, Democratic President Andrew Jackson ordered the removal of Native Americans from the eastern U.S. and banished them to lands west of the Mississippi River in the infamous Trail of Tears. Then in 1862, Republican President Abraham Lincoln completed the ethnic cleansing process by signing the Homestead Act giving white Americans 270,000.000 acres of Native American land (Native Americans were prohibited by law from being U.S. citizens, so they had no rights to their ancestral lands.) As far as Native Americans are concerned, our two political parties are two sides of the same coin.

Lincoln ordered that the Natives be rounded up by the Union Army and confined into reservations. Both the U.S. government and the Native Americans knew the reservations were not self-sufficient for survival so Lincoln appointed political cronies to administer the needed provisions. But “unexpectedly” these Union agents would hoard the goods then sell them to white settlers thereby enriching themselves. Surprise, surprise.

When one of their chiefs, Little Crow, complained that the confined children were starving, one agent’s response in a letter was “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.” The natives rebelled. Lincoln sent in the Union Army, suppressed them and ordered that their 38 chiefs all be hung by the necks until dead on a single scaffold platform in Mankato, Minnesota. It is still to this day, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. A contemporary record of that hanging titled “An Interesting Account from our Special Correspondent” was written by a New York Times reporter who visited the condemned. “Each pair had been firmly chained to the floor, their locomotion being entirely obstructed. It was a sad and sickening sight, to see that group of miserable, dirty savages, chained to the floor.” He then goes on to describe the gallows. “The instrument upon which the extreme sentence of the law was to be performed was constructed in a very simple yet most ingenious manner.” The reporter continues on for several paragraphs of wide-eyed admiration and gushing compliments for the design and construction of such an efficient death machine capable of murdering all 38 Natives simultaneously. “Standing round the platform, they formed a square, and each one was under the fatal noose. The poor wretches made such frantic efforts to grasp each other’s hands, that it was agony to behold them. Each one shouted out his name, that his comrades might know he was there.” I will dispense with the gory details of the mass execution itself which follows in the Times’ reporter’s article.

Following the mass hanging, some of the Native Americans were skinned and small boxes containing their skin were sold throughout Minnesota. Dr. William Wassel Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame received the body of Maȟpiya Akan Nažiŋ in Le Sueur, Minnesota where he dissected it in the presence of medical colleagues. Afterward, he had the skeleton cleaned, dried and varnished. Dr. Mayo kept it in an iron kettle in his home office. After the state-sanctioned murders, to prevent any further rebellion, Lincoln ordered the Union troops to expel all Native Americans from Minnesota which resulted in a death march for most.

The rationalization given for the removal of Confederate statues and monuments — even if the Confederate owned no slaves — as opposed to slaveowners such as Andrew Jackson is whether they were according to Nancy Pelosi, “enemies of the United States.” The discommode in this argument is that Native Americans were until recently always considered by successive U.S. Presidents and Congress to be “enemies” of the United States — even more so than Confederates. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was set up by Congress not as part of the State Department but as part of the War Department. When Lincoln declared “with malice toward none, with charity for all” he was referring to Confederates — not Native Americans.

When the National Park Service in 1996 proposed a separate monument at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument to honor the Native Americans who died there to sit aside the already existing monument to the U.S. soldiers who died alongside General George Armstrong Custer, Bill Wells of Malibu, California, publisher of the quarterly Custer/Little Bighorn Battlefield Advocate wrote “I don’t think a monument is going to be built for the Mexicans killed at the Alamo. Why should we build a monument to the enemy of the United States government at Little Bighorn?” Tracy Potter, the director of Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota where Custer was stationed, agrees with Wells that no monument to Native Americans should be built because Custer “killed Indians, and he also helped free the slaves.”

Which brings us to the present. Hollywood’s version of the Holocaust of Native Americans — referred to as the Indian Wars — centers on two Big Lies. First, marauding Indians attacking peaceful white settlers. The truth being that Native Americans were fighting for their existential survival against the U.S. Army and most especially the 9th and 10th Cavalries. Second, the white cavalry saved the day for settlers.

The truth being the white cavalry was not white at all but actually Black soldiers. In 1866, Union General Philip Sheridan, who infamously said “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” was authorized to raise cavalry regiments and infantries of African Americans to serve in the West. Those soldiers were called Buffalo Soldiers by the Native Americans because Natives thought their hair resembled buffalo pelts. Recently, those soldiers have received much more attention and glory because of their inclusion in Black history museums, Black history classes, statues and monuments, not to mention state motor vehicle license plates and U.S. postage stamps.

Steve Melendez, president of the American Indian Genocide Museum points out that there was no draft at the time and Blacks who joined the 9th and 10th Cavalries did so voluntarily and knew full well what their mission was: to hunt down and confine Native Americans onto reservations — by any means necessary. In response, Paul Matthews, founder of and chairmen of the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, defends the 9th and 10th Cavalries “You are comparing military units in the U.S. Army with a mission to protect and defend America against all Enemies both foreign and domestic to the Confederate army with a mission to destroy America.” There is that “enemy” label once again being lodged against Native Americans. But Native American historians like Melendez find considerable irony in the historic revisionism voiced by Paul Matthews. Melendez knows the history of the Buffalo soldiers is Genocide against Native Americans and discounts any defense that they were only following military orders.

Without being too graphic here, I will quote Black Power gadfly Stokely Carmichael: “My light complexion is not the result of some black male ancestor raping some white female ancestor.” Melendez rewords Carmichael. Many Blacks in America have Native American blood. This is not the result of some consensual union between Native American men and Black women. Vernon Bellecourt, leader of the American Indian Movement, writing in Indian Country Today described the Buffalo soldiers as “those marauding, murderous cavalry units.”

Here’s the tell: many Black Americans like Paul Matthews feel pride in the 9th and 10th Cavalries. Eighteen Buffalo soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor during the so-called Indian Wars. This is the highest per capita to their overall numbers in any U.S. conflict. And each of those cases was accompanied by extensive documentation. In none of these cases were the Buffalo soldiers attacked. They always did the attacking. Many Southerners feel that same pride in the Confederacy especially if they had family who fought and died in that conflict.

But if the Civil War was fought over slavery — which it was — then why did the majority of those fighting not own slaves. (In Arkansas, fewer than one in ten confederate soldiers owned a single slave). Permission to make an analogy. Women who support or fight for the right of a woman to have an abortion don’t love abortions. They are not fighting for abortion. They are fighting for the right to choose. They are fighting for the right of an individual women to have control over her own body. So too with Confederates — as barbarous and savage and inhumane as it was, slavery was a manifestation of the right of a state to have control over its own body politic.

French President Macron said “Not one statue, not one monument” will be removed because they all went to form the character of France. What American today believes that destroying Native American tribes in the name of progress and progressives was a good thing? Who believes today that we couldn’t have accommodated both? Tell the truth and shame the devil. Paul Choat Smith, the Native American Associate Curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. forwards the tolerant perspective: “That’s always essentially what you want to get to: a kind of complexity. It is not helpful to see history in black and white.”

Purity tests like toppling Confederate statues take you down a slippery slope into a rabbit hole. But why let facts get in the way of a good story, we Americans all know slave owning is a much greater human rights violation than Genocide or to paraphrase George Orwell: all humans are equal, but some humans are more equal than others.

Explorer of land and mind.