Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Tragedy
Like so many geographic names, the origin of the word “Chicago” is Native American. These first Chicagoans named the area: “shikaakwa” or “Stinky Onion.” Not the most ostentatious of names, but a very accurate description of the plant life that continues to line the banks of our waterways. With a bit of francophone transliteration, the name Chicago was formed. Despite the abundance of names influenced by the languages and cultures of the First Nations, we as a country have yet to truly own up to the level of disenfranchisement required to build the Manifest Destiny that we continue to exploit to this day.
Heather Cox Richardson’s Wounded Knee takes us back to the mid- to late-1800s to explore the economic and political machinations of the government and big business’ quest to subdue the Sioux Indian tribes and open up their former lands to ‘progress.’ More specifically, the Richardson argues that origins of the Massacre of Wounded Knee lie thousands of miles to the East which at the time was in the throws of crony capitalism.
The temporary Civil War measure of high tariffs to protect the Union’s military-industrial complex, later became THE permanent pillar of the Republican party. Richardson argues logically that these taxes on imported goods helped what we might now refer to as the 1%, Eastern industrialists that headed monopolistic trusts, while hurting the purchasing power of just about everyone else. As Republicans who controlled Congress and the White House for almost the entire quarter century after the War continued to raise ever higher tarriff rates, the inconvenience turned to an onerous burden upon Western farmers who were already straddled by underwater mortgages. At same time, President Harrison (elected in 1889) made ever more obviously corrupt patronage that led to gerrymandering the Census for political gain, the expansion of the White House to house his entire extended family, and literally starving Indians on the Reservations due to ineptitude and mismanagement.
By 1890, many Republicans in the West began deserting the party in droves for the newly formed farmers’ alliances. Unlike the recent Tea Party Movement, the Alliance movement decided not to try to influence the party from within but to act as viable, separate party. In the midterm elections that year, they were very successful – capturing many state and local offices and Nader ’00-ing the Republican vote in several other key elections. As a result, the elite decided to bring back their base through the oldest trick in book: FEAR.
At this point, the book begins to lose some of its strong steam. Fear of the other (the Sioux back then, non-“family values” or alternatively “big business” today) can be a particularly effective tool for ensuring party member support. However, despite calling the military to the West under weak pretenses, there is still not a clear reason why economic realities and a poorly managed Bureau of Indian Affairs would lead to a massacre. When a clan was asked by US soldiers to disarm at Wounded Knee Creek, a small skirmish turned into an unmitigated slaughter. Unarmed Sioux women and children were chased down and shot as far away as two miles from the incident. Disgusting as it may be, it’s also worth remembering that soldiers cared very little about the victims. Cox does decently explaining the economics and East Coast politics that set the stage for this low point in American history. However, we must ask what mindset led relatively average Americans to commit these atrocities? At the core, it was a feeling of inferiority of these proud Native Americans.
One look at Peru shows that this is not idle speculation but essential to figuring out how indigenous nations will or will not be protected in the 21st century. It took nearly a hundred years before the Sioux were allowed to once again practice their religious beliefs such as the Sun Dance and other cultural traditions. Even now, the area remains one of the most depressed in the country. Will indigenous Peruvians get a better shot at their form of prosperity?
Following the roads and development of multinational gas companies into the Amazon, average Peruvians (like their Brazilian neighbors) are heading into the homelands of tribes that have rarely been contacted. The native peoples’ remoteness had been their savior preventing the tragedies and subjugation felt by American tribes over a hundred years ago. BUT, that time is over. Despite Lima’s assurances, just like Cox’s understanding of American politics, today’s Peru is following a similar, potentially devastating path – more unauthorized incursions increase the likelihood of both disease and massacres.
So what is the solution? It begins with bringing action from the words of universal human rights. These norms installed after the atrocities of the second World War are essential to empowering these groups and the international humanitarian community that fight on their behalf. Secondly, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand should join every country in the world by signing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If indigenous peoples end up being forced into this unknown world, they should at least have the international community fighting for their traditions and rights. Finally, many of the main gas companies should try harder to prevent other Peruvians from unauthorized use of their infrastructure. Two American companies with large financial stakes in a new pipeline in the region are Conduit Capital Partners and Energy Transfer Partners. Tell these companies how you feel and that you want to ensure their cooperation in responsible business in Peru.