‘The United States’ Indian Wars never ended’

Down To Earth speaks to Ruth Hopkins, writer of Dakota and Lakota Sioux origin, about various issues concerning Native Americans today in the United States

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 13 August 2019

Return of Casey's scouts from the fight at Wounded Knee, 1890--91. The Wounded Knee Massacre was among the worst genocidal attacks against Native Americans in the United States. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsRecently, a movement started in the United States Congress to rescind Medals of Honour given to US Army veterans of the Wounded Knee Massacre in the 19th Century. Reportedly one of the worst episodes of genocide against Native Americans, it ended with 300 Lakota Sioux being killed. Ruth Hopkins, a Native American writer of Dakota and Lakota origin talks about the developments taking place to take back the medals as well other issues concerning Native Americans in Trump’s America. Excerpts:

As a Native American of Dakota and Lakota origin, what was your first reaction when you heard about the introduction of the ‘Remove The Stain Act’ being introduced by lawmakers?

My heart was touched. When I see people standing in courage, doing what is right and good and making the ancestors proud, regardless of the odds or the danger, my hope is renewed.

Congressman Dusty Johnson said rescinding the medals would not change history. Do you agree?

I think the fact that we cannot go back in time and change the past is a foregone conclusion. What Dusty fails to see here is, while the Act won’t alter history, it will promote healing among the descendants of those massacred at Wounded Knee, as well as those whose ancestors received the dishonourable medals for murdering unarmed women and children. Their spirits cry out to us now. We can bring people together with the power of wowicake — truth and justice. This is one way we can mend the sacred hoop that was broken on that tragic day.  

What is the current status of the legislation right now? Are you hoping it will be passed, given that the current dispensation in Washington is headed by a man who is the mirror image of past presidents like Andrew Jackson for instance?

It was introduced in the House of Representatives and referred to the House Committee on Armed Services. I hope it passes, but it faces obstructionists in the Senate.

The Wounded Knee Massacre is a watershed event for Native Americans of all nations in the current United States. Talk to me about the position it holds in the narrative of the Great Sioux Nation and especially the Lakota.

The Wounded Knee Massacre was revenge for Lakota victory at the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn). We humiliated the US by defeating their army on ‘American’ soil. It was Custer’s 7th Cavalry who ran in cowardice from our warriors there, and it was the 7th Cavalry that chased down women and children at Wounded Knee to murder them, and then posed with their bloodied and frozen corpses, carelessly flung into a mass grave.

It occurred just a few weeks after the assassination of Sitting Bull and represented the end of our time roaming our ancestral lands as a free People, and the beginning of the Reservation era. Reservations began as POW (Prisoner of War) Concentration Camps.

While the hoop was broken that day, the dream did not end, and we did not surrender. We are still demanding that our treaties be honored, and that our sacred Black Hills are not for sale. We kept our culture, language, and ceremonies. We are still a proud People.

Is the campaign to rescind these medals the next big struggle for Native American activism in the United States? Also, from occupying Alcatraz to Mt Rushmore to Wounded Knee last century to Standing Rock this decade, how would you view the trajectory of American Indian activism thus far?

The Campaign to rescind the medals is just one of many struggles that we face. The Indian Wars never ended. We face genocide every day in all its various manifestations.

I don’t view myself as an activist, nor do I call myself one. I am just a Dakota/Lakota woman of the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation), following ancestral instruction.

US Army soldiers bury dead Lakota after the massacre at Wounded Knee. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsHow do you view the condition of Native American society in the America of Donald Trump? Is it bad, worse or better? What about the condition of women, children and elders in American Indian communities?

Overall, it is worse. One of his first acts as President was to sign Executive Orders that push dirty pipelines through our treaty lands without our consent. The government shutdown last winter really hurt Reservation communities. While the federal government has never fulfilled its treaty and trust responsibilities, the Trump administration has taken the stance of Tribal termination. The danger is real.

From my point of view, Trump is not our leader. He is the head of a foreign government that we must wrangle with because they surround us, and that we have signed agreements with. When you look at it that way, you have to take a step back and ask yourself, what is his nature? He’s proven himself to be motivated by self-interest and doesn’t seem to feel obligated to abide by the laws of the United States nor the social mores expected of him while he is in Office. He cannot be trusted, and thus far, only does the bidding of the 1 per cent and to a certain extent, his base.  But his adversarial stance toward his own government does leave the door open for a few remote opportunities, like clemency for Native political prisoner, Leonard Peltier.

How alive is the idea of self-determination/sovereignty among Native Nations today?

Under the US Constitution, the federal government claims to have ‘plenary’ power over Tribes, and according the Supreme Court of the United States, Tribes are domestic dependent nations. In other words, wards. Tribal governments act within that capacity at various levels. They are in many ways, extensions of the federal government. It’s not our way. While the government does have treaty and trust responsibilities that they owe us, as long as we rely on them for funding and cater to their interests, we are not true sovereigns. We need to assert our tribal sovereignty. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

What about political representation? Elizabeth Warren, who is standing for election this year and the next, claims Native ancestry. How credible are her claims? Also, while Mexico had a Benito Juarez and Bolivia has an Evo Morales, will we ever see a Native Person in the White House someday?

Elizabeth Warren has explained that she is not Native. We do have Native representatives in Congress, however: Deb Haaland, Sharice Davids, Markwayne Mullin, and Tom Cole. There are numerous Natives in office on the state level, too. Peggy Flanagan is Native and the Lt. Governor of Minnesota.

There have been Natives in the White House, as staff. Natives have a complex relationship with the federal government. In order for one to be President, their loyalty would have to be to the United States first, rather than their Tribal Nation. The colonial government established by settlers is built on a foundation of manifest destiny, white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and violence. Traditionally, Native people are the antithesis of that. Should they assume the role under our current system, a Native President would face hard decisions where, unless they are fully assimilated, they may feel in conflict with their spirit when they are carrying out their duties. They may have to betray their ancestors. That’s not to say that it would be impossible for a Native to become President, or that it won’t happen.

If you were asked to play clairvoyant, what would you say about what the future holds for Native Americans?

We should have been wiped out. They tried to kill us all. Extermination of Natives Indigenous to these lands was government policy. But they could not, despite their best efforts. Now we have the ability to save their a***s.

For the immediate future, we will continue to grow in number, and gain visibility. We will fight for humanity and the unborn and because of our compassion, the Great Mystery will take pity on us and leave a small window open for our survival. We must change, or perish.

Western civilisation is at an end. When it falls, indigenous peoples who have learned ancestral teachings and who are willing and able to live in harmony with Earth and the Universe will survive in pockets around the globe. They may be joined with others who abandon the abject greed of their forefathers, reconnect, and embrace our ways. Life will be difficult, and many will die. Earth-friendly technology will assist us. It will take a long time for the planet to heal. But we will go on.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.