Like most Americans I spent last weekend trying to process the events of the previous week. A week which saw the tragedies of #AltonSterling, #PhilandoCastile and #DallasPolice. Throughout the country there were #BlackLivesMatter protests, prayer gatherings, candlelight vigils and healing events between police departments and the communities they serve. Most gatherings were peaceful, although a few became violent. And everywhere emotions ran high.
But as a Native man, I wasn't sure where to go.
As a native man, and since moving to Washington DC, I have come to understand more about President Lincoln than some people would ever care to know.
In December of 1862, Abraham Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. After more than a month of military conflict between the Dakota people, American Settlers and the US Military regarding the failure of the United States to meet its treaty obligations, several hundred Dakota warriors surrendered themselves. They were each tried in military courts and 303 were condemned to death. Because these were military trials, the executions had to be ordered by the President.
303 deaths seemed too genocidal for Abraham Lincoln. So he modified the criteria of what charges warranted a death sentence. Under his new criteria, only 2 were sentenced to die. That small number seemed too lenient and would most likely lead to an uprising by the white settlers in the area. So, once again, he changed the criteria. Ultimately 38 Dakota men were sentenced to death. It is important to note that President Lincoln did not order retrials, even though the initial trials could easily have been seen as a sham, but instead he merely changed the criteria (twice) of what charges warranted a death sentence.
So the day after Christmas 1862, several thousand white American settlers gathered on the streets of Mankato as spectators to the largest mass execution in the history of our nation—ordered by a President who was not primarily concerned with justice, but with appeasing his political base and keeping the peace among the white settlers in his Union.
But I also knew he was the President who freed the slaves. And, even today, he gives hope to the African American community throughout our country. Doesn't he?
Last winter, on Martin Luther King Jr. day I decided to visit the Lincoln Memorial. I was new to DC and liked that I could go to such historic monuments on a whim. I took some pictures of Lincoln’s statue and walked around the memorial. I saw that at the base of the memorial there is a small museum. I walked in and found that it contained writings and thoughts regarding the legacy of our 16th President. On one wall was a series of his quotes and words regarding the Union. And in the middle of that wall, etched in stone, I found his following words.
My paramount object
in this struggle
is to save the Union,
and it is not to save
or destroy slavery.
If I could save the Union
without freeing any slave,
I would do it;
and if I could save it
by freeing all the slaves
I would do it;
and if I could save it
by freeing some
and leaving others alone
I would also do that."
I could not believe my eyes. Right there at the Lincoln Memorial, the same memorial where in 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream” speech, the same memorial where in 1939 an African American singer named Marian Anderson challenged segregation and performed in front of 70,000 people, the same memorial where our nation gathers to seek healing and fight for civil rights, and one of the few memorials that allows people of color to feel acknowledged and included. That memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, has a plaque hanging on the wall which literally states, according to Abraham Lincoln, Black Lives Don't Matter.
If we are ever going to experience healing and end the systemic racism of our country, we need to begin by admitting our problems and telling the truth. In virtually every instance, knowing the truth and understanding the depth of the problem is more freeing than perpetuating a myth.
It’s a sad legacy. But if you understand the Doctrine of Discovery and its influence on the foundations of our country, it is a legacy that is not at all surprising.
George Erasmus, an aboriginal leader from Canada said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”
This quote gets to the heart of our nation’s problem with race. The United States of America does not share a common memory, and therefore we struggle to have real community. The dominant white culture remembers a mythical history of discovery, expansion, opportunity and exceptionalism, while our communities of color have the lived experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow laws, boarding schools, segregation, internment camps, and mass incarceration.
There is no common memory.
So after a horrible week—a week when our nation watched the police kill 2 more black men, before our eyes...a week which erupted into protests, violence, insecurity and fear...a week which tragically included the death of 5 police officers...a week which has led Americans to seek places where conversations can be had and answers can be found...
...I went to the Lincoln Memorial and shared the story of the Dakota 38. I helped people understand that President Abraham Lincoln did not believe Natives lives mattered. And then I walked people down to the museum and showed them the quote, etched in stone for all to see, that according to the man who freed the slaves, Black lives didn’t matter either. And if he could have saved his Union any other way, he would have done it.
I attempted to debunk the myth, tell the truth and, hopefully, create a common memory.
Most people thanked me. Several people shook my hand in appreciation. And one person even gave me a hug.
Mark Charles (Navajo)