Their powerful stories have often been lost among the pages of our history books, even though their story is our story. Rick West, Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is a member of the Cheyenne tribe of Oklahoma. He gives us a glimpse into the history of American Indian civilizations.
"It's really our own American Holocaust. We are well aware of what happened abroad during WWII, but what many people don't realize that it's precisely that kind of decimation and death [that] occurred right here." — Rick West
"When you hear it and see it, it's really unthinkable." — Oprah
Losing a Culture
Native Americans welcomed Europeans who came to America, but were then betrayed and viewed as savages by these newcomers. Rick explains, "For that reason, our culture, our arts, our status as human beings was given no credence. The consequences over time were literally crushing for American Indian civilizations."
Government Imposed Restrictions
In the 1800s, the government forced Native Americans from their fertile land onto barren reservations. Rick says these desolate places were never intended to be economically viable and became areas of intense poverty. "They wanted our cultures broken up. Breaking up our land base was one way of doing that, because of our spiritual attachment to the lands on which we live."
According to Ron McNeil, attorney and President of Sitting Bull College, the government required written permission for Native Americans to leave reservations and outlawed their religions. The government promised in treaties to protect the rights of Native Americans and provide them with food, health services and education, but Rick West says not one of these hundreds of treaties was honored.
"Civilizing" the Children
Boarding schools were established as the government's attempt to "civilize" the Native American children according to Western culture. Children as young as four years old were taken away from their families and sent hundreds of miles away for months or years at a time.
"Don't kill the man, but kill the Indian in the man. That's exactly what the boarding schools were intended to do," explains Rick West.
Native Americans were not formally recognized as U.S. Citizens until 1924. Rick explains, "The only reason [this happened] was because Indians volunteered in such remarkable numbers to defend this nation in WWI. ... Indians as a group in the United States per capita have received more military honors and have volunteered in larger numbers to defend the interests of the United States through the Armed Forces than any other group in this country."
Beginning to Heal
According to Rick West, in order for healing to occur, non-Native Americans need to acknowledge what has happened. "Only in the past half decade has the government made any effort to formally apologize. ... But what is most important is that people begin to know and understand more," explains Rick. "We need to understand not only what happened, but the great contributions that Native Americans have made to anything we call civilization or culture in this country."