Truth Be Told

My upcoming book with Dr. Soong-Chan Rah titled "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" is now available for pre-order from InterVarsity Press.

Monday, May 27, 2019

A Native Perspective on Memorial Day

There are four US holidays that both as a US citizen and a member of the Navajo Nation, I find difficult to fully celebrate.
Veterans Cemetery on the Navajo Nation
Memorial Day is probably the most difficult of the four holidays to know what to do with. Memorial Day honors those who lost their lives fighting for the United States of America. Native people hold our veterans in very high regard. They are honored at nearly every Pow Wow, parade, council meeting and significant family gathering throughout all of Indian Country. The Choctaw Code Talkers, who fought in World War I even before natives were considered US citizens, and the Navajo Code Talkers, who fought in World War II before natives were allowed to vote in New Mexico and Arizona, were both indispensable to the Unites States of America in winning those wars.

Natives have served in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan...and the list goes on and on. On a web page honoring Native American soldiers, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian reports that at 18.6% "Native Americans served in the post-9/11 period in a higher percentage than veterans of other ethnicities." And today there are 31,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives on active duty, and there are 140,000 living American Indian and Alaska Native veterans." (Smithsonian NMAI)

My father served in the Marines. I have many relatives, on both sides of my family, who served in other branches of the armed forces, fighting in numerous wars. Members of my Navajo clans even served as Code Talkers. I honor them and am grateful for their sacrifice.

But I also know that very rarely, if ever, are all aspects of war as simple as right vs. wrong, or good vs. evil. No country is pure. No nation is perfect. The human condition is that we are all conflicted—capable of both tremendous love as well as devastating hatred. And the United States of America is no different. Our history is broken. Our past, as well as our present, is blemished.

Cemetery at Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle PA
American Indians were not even considered legally human by US Courts until 1879. It wasn't until 1924 that natives were legislated as citizens of this country. And prior to that legislation, most tribes were considered enemies of the US and inhumanely treated as obstacles to this nation's self-proclaimed Manifest Destiny. The Indian Removal Act, Indian Boarding Schools, countless massacres, the Trail of Tears, the Long Walk, the Dawes Act, etc, etc, etc. All of these events were acts of war against our people by the United States of America.

In fact, if you go to the US Army Center of Military History website and look up Medal of Honor recipients for the Indian Wars Period, you will find that 425 Medals of Honor were awarded to US soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars. Over 12% of the total 3,515 Medals of Honor awarded were given to soldiers who fought against the indigenous peoples of this land!

To fully understand the impact of the Indian Wars, it is helpful to look at maps. The first map is of the United States in 1840, one year after the first Medal of Honor was given for the Indian Wars. The second map is of the United States in 1900, two years after the last Medal of Honor was awarded in the Indian War campaigns. During the 19th century the US population ballooned from 5.3 million to 76.2 million and the native population was decimated from 600 thousand to 237 thousand.

The only appropriate words to describe this history are “ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

Which is exactly what Peter Burnett, the first Governor of California, acknowledged in his fact State of the State Address in 1851.
“That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.”
That is why Memorial Day is such a conflicting holiday.

Countries, and their leaders, tend to speak in terms of absolutes. And the US is no different. On May 29, 2017 in his Memorial Day speech honoring our country's fallen soldiers, President Trump, in an overly broad statement, implied that all of our nation's enemies are "evil" when he said, "We pay tribute to those brave souls who raced into gunfire, roared into battle, and ran into hell to face down evil."  And in a 2018 Commencement Address at the Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland President Trump went even further when he attempted to affirm and motivate the graduates by reminding them of America's past military conquests:
“Together, you are the tip of the spear, the edge of the blade, and the front of the shield defending and protecting our great country. You know, there is no mission our pilots can’t handle. There is no hill our Marines can’t take, and there is no stronghold the SEALs can’t reach. There is no sea the Navy can’t brave, and there is no storm the American sailor can’t conquer. Because you know that together, there is nothing Americans can’t do. Absolutely nothing. In recent years and even decades, too many people have forgotten that truth. They have forgotten that our ancestors trounced an empire, tamed a continent, and triumphed over the worst evils in history.”
Tamed a continent?

The maps above and the nearly 12% of the total Medals of Honor awarded by this country, do not support President Trump’s broad, glorifying statements regarding our nation's military history. According to Governor Burnett, “taming a continent” literally meant a “war of extermination” against the Nations and peoples indigenous to Turtle Island. And throughout that war, the United States of America awarded 425 Medals of Honor for the genocide of American Indians, and the ethnic cleansing of this continent.

George Erasmus, a wise leader from the Dene Nation, in a press release titled “From Truth to Reconciliation Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools” wrote "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, that originated with author Helmut Richard Niebuhr, gets to the heart of our nation's problem with race. As a country, we do not share a common memory. White Americans remember a history of discovery, expansion, exceptionalism and opportunity. And people of color, starting with (but not limited to) Natives and African Americans have the lived history of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow laws, ethnic cleansing, boarding schools, internments camps, exclusionary immigration laws, segregation, mass incarceration and racial profiling. There is no common memory, and I think pretty much everyone can agree that the sense of community in this country is markedly low.

I think it's low because we don't want the moral conflict or the social confusion. Governing is simpler when leaders can make, and citizens accept, broad assumptions and sweeping generalizations.

But our history is checkered, our past is blemished, and our sense of community sucks. This is why I long for the day when all Americans, regardless of race, are as conflicted as we are as Native Americans, and other people of color, regarding our nation’s holidays and memorials.  Perhaps, instead of endlessly arguing about how great we used to be, and when we will be great again, we can instead devote ourselves to creating a common memory, teaching our actual history, and rethinking how we celebrate, memorialize and honor our nation’s extremely broken and checkered past.

Mark Charles



May 27, 2019: This post has been updated from an article published by the author for Memorial Day 2017.

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