Truth Be Told

Signed copies of the book I co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah, "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" are available from my website:

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Massacre at Wounded Knee and 18 Medals of Dishonor

On Friday December 29, 2017 I came across a news article regarding Oskar Groening. Oskar was an accountant who served in the SS in Nazi Germany at Auschwitz, an extermination camp used in the genocide of Jewish people during World War II. In 2015, at the age of 93, he was found guilty of accessory to 300,000 murders for his role in providing administrative support at Auschwitz. He appealed his sentence because of both his age at the time of sentencing and, the fact that his activities came to light due to his decision to speak publicly about his service at Auschwitz in an effort to counteract and silence holocaust deniers. But, on December 29, 2017, several news agencies reported that his appeal had been denied and he would serve his 4-year jail sentence.

This story stood out to me because December 29th is also the day that approximately 200-300 Minneconjou Sioux men, women and children were slaughtered by the US Army in 1890. The event is known as the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Here is a short description of the massacre:
"From the heights above, the army's Hotchkiss guns raked the Indian teepees with grapeshot. Clouds of gun smoke filled the air as men, women and children scrambled for their lives. Many ran for a ravine next to the camp only to be cut down in a withering cross fire. When the smoke cleared and the shooting stopped, approximately 300 Sioux were dead, Big Foot among them. Twenty-five soldiers lost their lives." (Eyewitness to History)
A few items should be noted about this massacre. First the US Army was using Hotchkiss guns, and some accounts report that a total of four Hotchkiss guns were utilized at Wounded Knee. "The guns were ideal for use in rugged terrain, such as the West, since the entire weapon weighed only 362 pounds, and could be broken down into parts so that a gun and its ammunition could be transported on three mules. The gun could fire quite rapidly since it was used fixed (but separately primed) ammunition. In fact, this was the first U.S. artillery piece to utilize fixed metallic-cartridge type ammunition. (International Military Antiques)" Comparing their weapons to this, the Sioux never stood a chance.

Second, it was recorded that "many [Sioux] ran for a ravine next to the camp only to be cut down in a withering cross fire."

Most people are not aware of this, but the United States awarded 24 Medals of Honor to US soldiers for their actions throughout the Sioux Campaign of 1890, and 18 of those medals were given specifically to soldiers who participated in the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

The US Army website contains a section detailing the Medals of Honor that have been awarded throughout our country’s history, listed by war and conflict. Between 1839 and 1898, it records that a total of 425 Medals of Honor were awarded to US Soldiers who fought in the ‘Indian War Campaigns’ (but that unfortunate fact is the subject for another article at a later date). The site also records that 3 of the Medals of Honor from Wounded Knee were awarded for the following reasons:
Austin, William G. - "While the Indians were concealed in a ravine, assisted men on the skirmish line, directing their fire, etc., and using every effort to dislodge the enemy."

Gresham, John C. - "Voluntarily led a party into a ravine to dislodge Sioux Indians concealed therein. He was wounded during this action."

McMillan, Albert W. - "While engaged with Indians concealed in a ravine, he assisted the men on the skirmish line, directed their fire, encouraged them by example, and used every effort to dislodge the enemy."
So, let’s review. On December 29, 1890, the US Army surrounded an encampment of Minneconjou Sioux men, women and children. When peace talks broke down and shots were fired, the US soldiers opened fire with their full artillery, which included up to 4 Hotchkiss guns. Many of the Sioux ran for cover in a nearby ravine. And 3 US soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor for directing fire into, and dislodging the Sioux out of, the ravine, where they could be more easily exterminated by the soldiers above it.

The United States and Germany have similar histories of white supremacy and racially motivated genocide. But while Germany is working hard to deal with their shameful history of ethnic cleansing, the US has chosen to publicly honor its.

On December 29, 2017 most of the major US news agencies, including ABC, NBC, CBS, USA Today, and Fox News, reported on Oskar Groening losing his appeal in the German Courts. A search, during the same news cycle, returned almost no references, on mainstream media, to the 127th Anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

The United States of America needs a national dialogue on race, gender and class. A conversation on par with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that took place in South Africa, Rwanda and Canada. I'm calling it Truth and Conciliation, and the goal is 2021.

Because until we have such a dialogue, we will continue to be a nation that not only ignores its incredibly violent, unjust and genocidal history, but also brazenly honors and celebrates our war crimes, such as we do with 18 medals awarded to the US Soldiers who participated in the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

Mark Charles

(Updated Dec. 29, 2022 to include more accurate information re: the Hotchkiss guns in paragraph four.)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Hanging of the Dakota 38 and the Troubling Legacy of Abraham Lincoln

In the museum located at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, there is a plaque hanging on the wall which states:
"I would save the Union. 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 have stood near this plaque and watched lines of people pass by. Most simply read it and move on. Almost no one pauses or even raises an eyebrow. But when I stop them and point out that this plaque is literally stating that according to Abraham Lincoln "Black Lives Don't Matter," they look at me, turn around, read the plaque again, stare at it in disbelief, shake their heads, and then pull out their cameras to take a picture.

I then educate them on even more troubling history regarding our 16th President.

On December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, the hanging of the Dakota 38, took place, by the order of President Abraham Lincoln.

In the fall of 1862, after the United States failed to meet its treaty obligations with the Dakota people, several Dakota warriors raided an American settlement, killed 5 settlers and stole some food. This began a period of bloody conflict between some of the Dakota people, the settlers, and the US Military. After more than a month, several hundred of the Dakota warriors surrendered and the rest fled north to what is now Canada. Those who surrendered were quickly tried in military tribunals, and 303 of them were condemned to death.
"The trials of the Dakota were conducted unfairly in a variety of ways. The evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants were unrepresented in unfamiliar proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority for convening the tribunal was lacking. More fundamentally, neither the Military Commission nor the reviewing authorities recognized that they were dealing with the aftermath of a war fought with a sovereign nation and that the men who surrendered were entitled to treatment in accordance with that status." (Carol Chomsky)
Because these were military trials, the executions had to be ordered by President Abraham Lincoln.

Three hundred and three deaths seemed too genocidal for President Lincoln. But he didn't order retrials, even though it has been argued that the trials which took place were a legal sham. Instead he simply modified the criteria of what charges warranted a death sentence. Under his new criteria, only 2 of the Dakota warriors were sentenced to die. That small number seemed too lenient, and President Lincoln was concerned about an uprising by his white American settlers in that area. So for a second time, instead of ordering retrials, he merely changed the criteria of what warranted a death sentence.

Ultimately, 39 Dakota men were sentenced to die. And on December 26, 1862, by order of President Lincoln, and with nearly 4,000 white American settlers looking on, the largest mass execution in the history of the United States took place. The hanging of the Dakota 38.

Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States during an incredibly tumultuous time. Disappearing were the days when explicit forms of racism, such as the enslavement of African people and the ethnic cleansing of Native people, were socially acceptable. The country was not necessarily growing a conscience, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to continually justify the actions of 'modern' American society that were so blatantly evil and racist.

And President Lincoln was a product of his time. He did not free the slaves because he believed Black Lives Mattered. Nor did he change the criteria of what warranted a death sentence for the Dakota warriors because he believed Native Lives Mattered. As the quote hanging at the Lincoln Memorial states, he was merely trying to save the Union, an institution with foundations that were written specifically to protect white, land-owning men.

And when you are the leader of a nation whose Declaration of Independence refers to natives as "merciless Indian savages"… When you are the government official constitutionally responsible for appointing judges to a Supreme Court that uses the dehumanizing Doctrine of Discovery as a legal precedent for land titles… When you are the Commander and Chief of a military that (ultimately) awards 425 Congressional Medals of Honor for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Native peoples…  When you are the democratically elected President of a white male supremacist Union whose Constitution specifically excludes natives, and women, and counts Africans as 3/5th human… Then saving that Union comes at a cost…for people of color.

So you free the slaves but still tell your base that black lives don't matter.

You reduce a mass execution from 303 to 38 but still trample the human rights of native peoples, and thus keep clear the path for your settlers and your nation to complete its self-proclaimed Manifest Destiny.

The challenge we face as a country is that we do not understand the fundamental flaws with our foundations. We think our challenges arise from corrupt individuals who we believe trample our values, like Andrew Jackson. And we think we are justified by other individuals who we believe hold true to the values of our foundations, like Abraham Lincoln.

But the problem is not the individual, the problem is our foundations.

To this day the United States Constitution contains 51 gender specific male pronouns regarding who can run for office, who can hold office and even who is entitled to all privileges and immunities of US citizenship. To this day, we have never completely abolished slavery (the 13th Amendment merely redefines and codifies slavery under the jurisdiction of our criminal justice system). And as recently at 2005 the United States Supreme Court referenced the Doctrine of Discovery in regards to a legal question of Native American land rights.

The Unites States of America is not systemically racist and sexist in spite of our foundations. The United States of America is systemically sexist and racist because of our foundations.

We need a national dialogue on race, gender and class. A conversation on par with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that took place in South Africa, Rwanda and Canada. I'm calling it Truth and Conciliation, and the goal is 2021.

Because until we have such a dialogue, we will continue to be a nation that buries its troubling history, like the hanging of the Dakota 38. And we will continue to be a people that holds as heroes Presidents who literally stated, "Black Lives Don't Matter."

Mark Charles

Thursday, December 21, 2017

December Nineteenth - An Annual Reminder

Painting by Navajo Artist - Elmer Yazzie
This past Tuesday I tried to have a normal day. I knew it was December 19. I knew that day was the eighth anniversary of House Resolution 3326.

H.R. 3326 is the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. It was introduced by Senator Sam Brownback (Republican), passed by the US Congress and signed by President Barack Obama (Democrat) on December 19, 2009. It is a 67-page bill laying out the appropriations for the DoD for 2010.

However, unbeknownst to most people, on page 45 is sub-section 8113 which is titled "Apology to Native Peoples of the United States."

What follows is a 7-bullet point apology. This apology mentions no specific tribe, no specific treaty and no specific injustice. It basically says, "you had some nice land, our citizens didn't take it very politely. Let's just call it all of our land, and steward it together." It then ends with a disclaimer stating that nothing contained in this section is legally binding.

To date, this apology has not been announced, read or publicized by the White House or by Congress.

I learned about this apology by accident on December 19, 2011 and was appalled. How could our nation, and our leaders, bury something like this in a Department of Defense Appropriations Bill???

That day, I committed to do whatever I could to publicize this apology. And on December 19, 2012 I had the privilege of hosting a gathering of approximately 150 friends, partners and fellow citizens. We stood in front of the US Capitol and publicly read this apology.

We read several pages of the sections before the apology (to highlight how inappropriate it was to place this apology in an Defense Appropriations bill).

Jim Northrup reading the apology in Ojibwe
We had the apology translated into the languages of Navajo and Ojibwe. This was to model for Congress and the White House, that when you apologize, you not only do it publicly, but you also make EVERY effort to have the apology as accessible and understandable to the offended party as possible.

We then gave people in the audience an opportunity to react and respond to the apology. Because that's what you do when you apologize. You let the offended party speak.

I respect President Obama and Governor Brownback. Both men have gone far beyond their predecessors in reaching out to native peoples. And I had hoped and prayed, up until the last moment, that one of them would step forward to take ownership of this apology. I invited them both to attend.

But unfortunately, they both declined.

So, in their absence, after the apology was read, and the people had a chance to respond, I stepped forward, took the microphone, and encouraged our native leaders, our communities, and our people to not accept this apology.

I was not trying to be divisive, nor was I trying to shame these leaders or our nation. But I did have an understanding of the situation and an appreciation for who our audience actually was.

This event was not about me, nor was it about President Obama, Governor Brownback, or the 111th Congress. This event was about the historic relationship between indigenous peoples and our colonizers throughout the world.

That morning, in front of the US Capitol, December 19, 2012, our audience was not just the 150 people standing in front of us, nor even the people watching online. That morning our audience was the entire globe. Our audience was history.

The United States of America is a leader in this world; its words are scrutinized, and its example followed.

If Native Americans were to accept this apology, in the vague, politicized, disrespectful, and self-protecting way it was given, then we would be condoning our government’s actions and making a model of their methods. We would be communicating to indigenous peoples everywhere that we are still subservient to our colonizers, that we are not their equals, and that we should just be grateful for whatever scraps they bother to throw our way.

I could not let that message get perpetuated. I have too much respect for myself, for my elders, for my country, and even for our elected officials. So, I took a stand, and encouraged our Native peoples to not accept this apology. Not out of anger, bitterness, or resentment, but out of respect. Native peoples deserve better and our country can do better.


It is now 8 years since this apology was given, and 5 years since we publicly read it in front of the US Capitol. But not much has changed.

President Obama left office without ever publicizing it.

And President Trump...well, you know...his campaign rhetoric, environmental policies, blatant racism and sexism, and his unabashed love for Andrew Jackson, all speak for themselves.

To this day, most Americans do not know about this apology. And our nation still has not dealt with its history.

December 19th is no longer just a normal day. It is an annual reminder. A reminder to not get stuck in anger or resentment. A reminder to press on.

A reminder that there is much work to be done.

Mark Charles

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Lamenting the Lost Hope of Advent

Advent is the season of hope, the season of waiting for the coming of Christ. As Christians we believe that our hope is found in Christ, and that the church, the body of Christ, is God’s chosen instrument of revelation.

But how do you offer hope when the Church itself is the oppressor?  When the Church has committed countless violations in the name of Jesus?

About 18 months ago I had the honor of visiting an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) elder and dear friend. He was a Vietnam Veteran, an accomplished writer, and a boarding school survivor. Boarding schools were a forced assimilation tactic employed by the US Government and American Churches in their ongoing efforts to “kill the Indian to save the man.” My friend had been diagnosed with cancer and had only a few months to live. He and his wife decided that his limited days would be spent cherishing every moment and relationship. After a long journey, I arrived at his house to spend a few hours with him. In his weakened state he did not have the energy for prolonged visits, and most of our time was spent sitting on his porch, with me listening to his stories.

Over our years of friendship, I heard a trickle of his stories, but that afternoon the dam broke, and his stories came flooding out. And they were gut wrenching. Stories about how he "converted" to Christianity in the boarding school, not because he liked Jesus but because he learned that students who said, "the prayer" were given bigger portions at dinner. Stories about how the school used cigarettes to manipulate the behavior of the young native students. Stories about the suicide attempts of family members, the strict punishments by the boarding school administrators, and, worst of all, the sex education he received, in the form of statutory rape, from one of his teachers at this church-run boarding school.

I had heard stories like his before from second and third-hand sources. I had read stories like his before, of people I did not know. But that afternoon, the firsthand stories of my friend shook me.  He was not angry, nor was he bitter. But he was honest. Brutally honest. And there were no words. There was nothing I could say. He was trying to make peace with his past and was deeply wrestling with his pending death. And there was nothing I could say. He knew I was a Christian, but he was not looking for Christ. Nor did I know how to offer Christ. So, we sat there. I listened. I hugged him. And we said our good byes.  He died a few months later.

How do you offer hope when the Church itself is the oppressor? When the Church has committed unspeakable violations in the name of Jesus?

I don’t know, but I believe it begins with lament. And this Advent Season I invite the Church to join me.

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Isaiah 64:6

Mark Charles

This reflection was first published on "Keep Watch with Me - A Daily Advent Reader for Peacemakers."