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Home / Articles / Your Voice / Native American History Month Means Accepting Ugly History

Native American History Month Means Accepting Ugly History

Native advocate says honoring our Indigenous and First Nations communities this month should include acknowledging the truth of how they've been treated

  • By Ruth Jewell
  • Nov 09, 2022
Native American History Month Means Accepting Ugly History

A study by Andre Rosay, Ph.D., at the University of Alaska, found that 84 percent of women and 82 percent of men who are American Indians and Alaska Natives have experienced some form of violence, that female victims are more likely to need services but less likely to have access to those services and that most Native victims have experienced at least one act of violence by a non-Indian perpetrator. (DOJ)

Domestic violence knows no boundaries regardless of social or economic status, but it particularly impacts Native and Indigenous people to a greater degree than non-Natives as Dr. Rosay describes.

From the first contact of Europeans, the lives of First Nations people have historically been one of violence. Attempts to remove Indigenous people from the 1830s to the 1850s through displacement by the U.S. government were guided by the policies of then-President Andrew Jackson in what became known as the “Trail of Tears.” The forced mass removal of Indigenous people from the East coast to barren lands of the west, which began in Georgia at that time, was for the purpose of “ethnic cleansing” and served only to show the endurance and determination to survive of those who continue today to inhabit the lands today. Despite attempts at forced religion, displacement, poverty, indignities suffered because of skin color and way of life, and broken treaties that were only lip service and never intended to be honored, the Indigenous people remained.

There are many examples throughout U.S. history of violence against Indigenous people by their own government.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized President Jackson to negotiate with southern Native American tribes for their removal to federal territory west of the Mississippi River in exchange for white settlement of their ancestral lands. Meanwhile, Native children were taken from their homelands to assimilate them into the European culture in residential schools. Both of these were failed attempts to eradicate the entire population existing on this continent. From the desire to possess the lands and waters of an entire nation of people who inhabited that land for thousands of years came nothing but a history of death and destruction to a population who offered a helping hand to newcomers who knew nothing about the hardships they would endure living in a harsh environment.

Despite attempts at the genocide of the descendants of those Indigenous people—many through residential schools started by Richard Carlisle in Carlisle in 1868 in which thousands of children were removed from their homes and died at the hands of the priests and nuns—many descendants still survived. Evidence of the impact of these acts remain today as more and more mass graves are uncovered at the sites of these former schools.

Concurrently, there is a growing number of missing and murdered women in what we call Indian Country, both in America and Canada.

Poverty, geographic isolation, lack of jurisdiction, lack of resources and a failure to address the issues by those who have the ability to do so are a few of the challenges and barriers that create the disparity in services to Native victims. Not holding offenders of crimes against Native victims accountable also increases the startling numbers to an unimaginable number.

The lack of law enforcement personnel, the inability to reach victims in a timely manner due to isolation, limited healthcare facilities and personnel, and a lack of sufficient funding also contribute to the growing number of fatalities.

Not only Native people, but also their homelands, have been infringed on in this country. The refusal to recognize treaties that Indigenous people believed were honest is being challenged by many of the Tribal Nations today, and justly so. The destruction of sacred areas by greedy corporations seeking earthbound riches all across the US is being heavily protested due to the negative impact not only on ancestral burial grounds but also on the environment of both human and animal life. The most recent example of such destruction may be the Keystone pipeline protest at Standing Rock Reservation which straddles North and South Dakota. Developers planned to lay pipelines across Native sacred burial grounds resulting in environmental damage to both land and water.

Protests went on for more than 10 years and included over 4,000 U.S. veterans under the name Veterans Stand who camped at Standing Rock, along with members of the Sioux Tribe and hundreds of others. The Canadian company TC Energy officially canceled the project in June 2021.

We cannot and must not celebrate Native American History Month without looking at how today’s violence against Native and Indigenous people is not historical at all but in fact, a current condition that needs and deserves to be addressed to the equitable degree as non-Native people receive.

While things have improved in certain areas, such as greater inclusion of Native representation in the Violence Against Women Act, many broken links remain. The lack of culture-specific training to law enforcement, judges, healthcare personnel and all others who are expected to respond to domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, teen dating abuse and sex trafficking creates an open opportunity for abusers to act with impunity.

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DOMESTIC VIOLENCE is NOT an INDIGENOUS or NATIVE TRADITION. Intimate partner violence was brought to this continent with the Europeans’ patriarchal society system that was built on power and control of men over women. It has created a belief by some that the matriarchal family system where women are sacred was flawed. Instead, it allowed domestic violence, rape, murder and gender-based violence to become an epidemic in America, but more specifically in Indigenous societies as Dr. Rosay found in his research.

As we look at celebrating any culture with a month of recognition, let's also recognize how we have treated those cultures historically and continue to treat them today. If we must celebrate, then let’s celebrate their survival despite the ugly history.

This article is part of #YourVoice, an ongoing column published on this website by individual contributors in their own personal capacity and that involves the opinions, recollections and/or information provided by such contributors, and which does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this website. Ruth Jewell is a citizen of the Penobscot Tribe, an experienced leader in both the for-profit and the non-profit Native and Non-Native workforce regarding victims of crime with a focus on the justice system, a national trainer and presenter, and a contributor to the editorial advisory group