Guilt And The Conservative Antipathy For American Indians

American Indian

Why does it seem that so many conservatives hate American Indians? Could it be some cultural guilt projected outward? Image @LibraryOfCongress

On this Columbus Day, I asked myself why some of those whose ancestors come from Europe have so much animosity towards the people who already lived here? The Republican party and conservatives seem to have a big problem with American Indians; their lifestyle, their religion, their traditions, their culture. Just this year an American Indian girl was fined for wearing a feather in her cap. It was discovered that South Dakota was kidnapping American Indian children in an attempt to keep them from their culture. A so-called “Christian” televangelist told us to repent for our ancestors. Another “Christian” sued Oklahoma because of an American Indian image on his license plate. The Supreme Court decided that a Cherokee child’s American Indian father had no parental rights. Even a movie was attacked for depicting white men slaughtering Indians – can’t have folks see the truth, can we? Even several Republican women voted not to renew the Violence Against Women Act because it would extend protection to women on American Indian reservations.

The history of America is rooted in conquest.

When you look at the history of this country, you must look at the history of the decimation of the American Indians. When the Europeans arrived on this continent, the population of indigenous people (in North and South America and the Caribbean) was around 12 million. Of those, 5 million in North America. By the early 1900s, that number was less than 250,000. In a 500 year period, 4.75 million human beings had succumbed to the incursion of the Europeans. Those who were left lost their land, their culture, their religion, their dignity. They were relegated to reservations. Their women were sterilized and their children removed to boarding schools where everything Indian about them was forbidden. Indians were forbidden to practice their religion and to speak their native languages.

The European assumption of their superiority had a great deal to do with this genocide. The indigenous North American Indians were seen first as exotic and quaint. Then they were called “hostile” and “a nuisance” when they refused to simply step aside for the invaders. All authorities, from the Pope to Kings, not only condoned dealing harshly with the  “Indian problem,” they encouraged it. Between the introduction of new diseases (sometimes on purpose) and intentional slaughter, entire tribes were wiped out.

Kenneth C. Davis wrote about this in Don’t Know Much About History.

Hollywood has left the impression that the great Indian wars came in the Old West during the late 1800’s, a period that many think of simplistically as the “cowboy and Indian” days. But in fact that was a “mopping up” effort. By that time the Indians were nearly finished, their subjugation complete, their numbers decimated. The killing, enslavement, and land theft had begun with the arrival of the Europeans. But it may have reached its nadir when it became federal policy under President (Andrew) Jackson.

They won, so why the animosity towards the people they defeated?

The Europeans succeeded in taking whatever they wanted from the American Indians. They claimed the entire continent for themselves, deigning only to give the natives mere slivers of the land they once freely roamed. The white man won. So why is there so much rancor directed towards American Indians, their culture and history? Why do some hold such dislike for American Indians? Could it be an internalization of cultural guilt?

David C. Williams of the Indiana University School of Law and author of In Praise of Guilt, has a theory. He points out that the United States came into being only through taking the sovereignty of the American Indian tribes. This doesn’t fit with the American myth.

“The United States has always insisted that it rests on the consent of the governed. According to our national mythology, America was “born liberal,” isolated by the ocean and created by a self-governing citizenry. But in fact America’s territorial sovereignty is the result of conquest. And that reality plays out in the legal approach to reparations because American judges have to develop an account that makes the conquest seem legitimate. Otherwise, because their own power arises from conquest, they would be forced to declare themselves illegitimate.” (source)

Americans do not like guilt. We have a self-image that includes our being fair. Our exceptionalism implies that we always do the right thing. And, if we don’t, we make reparations. Like we did with slaves or the Japanese that we sent to internment camps during WWII. But the idea of our nation being founded on theft, murder and marginalization of its original inhabitants just doesn’t sit well with us.

The conquest of the American Indians was unethical.

Williams also explained why Chief Justice John Marshall, in his opinions on a trio of Indian Law cases in the early 19th century, came to the decisions he did. Marshall said that, while the doctrine of discovery did not apply, and  the conquest of the native people was “of dubious morality.”

“… the courts must nonetheless uphold the power obtained through conquest because their own sovereign authority to speak as judges is part and parcel of that power. In other words, Marshall could contest the claims of conquest as a private citizen but not as a judge, not so long as his own authority depended on the sword.” (source)

Guilt, as psychiatrists know, is often turned outward, projected onto things that cause that guilt. It can create anger, rejection and bullying. The more that guilt is turned outward, the more guilt builds up inside. Could the disdain many conservatives feel for American Indians be a projection of their guilt? Or perhaps they feel ashamed, on behalf of their ancestors, of what happened to the native population. Many fundamentalists adhere to the “sins of the father” theory… at least they apply it to others so one would assume that, deep down, they apply it to themselves. This is just a theory, mind you. I am open to others.

Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Simone, Bryan Fischer, and their Congressional groupies spew offensive remarks and support policies that directly hurt American Indians. They have no interest in including American Indians in their perfect America. They don’t like to be reminded of the history of the American Indians in this country. Well, except for one Thursday in November, when they can trot out their little American Indian decorations and pretend the conquest never happened. As long as the Indians are viewed through the filter of having helped the Pilgrims. We’d appreciate it, though, if they would expand that to include the other 364 days of the year, thank you very much.