Today marks the 130th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee where 20 U.S. troopers received the medal of honor for the slaughter of over 250 unarmed men, women, and children. To put history in context, this atrocity still holds active consequences today in the gold mines still operating in the Paha Sapa (Black Hills). In fact, if you’re feeling up to it, you can join the thousands of others who have stolen from indigenous lands and pan for gold yourself.
This got me thinking and writing, and I came across some realizations I wanted to talk about. First, that the use of precise language is important in how we teach history. The second is that the use of the word perspective is a terrible argument in defense of atrocious behaviors and quickly falls apart when used in today’s context. The Third is that treaties matter, no matter how old they are, and to say otherwise is nonsense.
Precision Language in Social Studies
The Massacre at Wounded Knee was not an isolated incident. It was preceded when the U.S. broke the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie when white buffalo poachers and squatters looking for gold encroached on native land. This then lead to the Sand Creek Massacre where U.S. soldiers and volunteer militia killed an estimated 500 Cheyanne and Arapaho men, women, and children.
Typically, when you read about westward expansion in American history, you read about the brave settlers who left all they knew to a new land filled with treacherous animals and dangers abound. However, settler is the incorrect word for this action. The correct, legal definition is squatter. If I go to your property and sleep under your shed, that is not only trespassing, but it’s also known as squatting. It seems absurd when written that way, but yet we give those old gold seeking squatters a pass and call them settlers. In the same way, we also give our poaching grand pappies a pass by calling them hunters as they killed the buffalo to near extinction to make way for the encroaching whites.
Word choice is not the only means of changing the way history is perceived, we can also stop using the passive grammatical voice. Instead of saying that treaties were broken, say that the U.S. broke the treaty. The same goes for any other event, especially murder and massacre.
People often give a false balance to history in order to remain in mental harmony with what they were taught and believe. It’s hard to come to grips with the idea of holding people who are long dead accountable for their actions. It’s easy to say it was their perspective. But then what does that say about the people who this very day ignore human rights? What does it say of those who ignore the rights of the LGBTQ community and call transsexualism a mental disorder?
It’s ironic how perspective as justification disappears from discourse the closer we get to the present. For example, lynchings may have been acceptable from the perspective of white southerners, but we would not say today that those lynchings were justified. You wouldn’t say that the perspective of non Japanese US citizens justified the internment of Japanese Americans for the duration of WWII. And yet, we do use perspective to justify atrocities like slavery and massacres. We defend the actions of the offending party by saying “from their perspective…” even though there were just as many people on the opposite end. We don’t even mention the perspective of the victims or other parties who opposed such crimes. Weird how that works.
In the first paragraph, I stated that mining for gold in the Paha Sapa is theft. I stand by that argument. The Constitution, backed by the Supreme Court, is clear that treaties are the supreme law of the land. The mining operations of non Native Americans, without the express permission of the tribes is a direct violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. By allowing this action, the US government further violated the treaty through refusal of enforcement. The continued mining operations today, justified by the fact that the original violation occurred so far in the past is not only irrelevant, by that argument the US Constitution would also be irrelevant, but also immoral. Would you dismiss a case of rape as unimportant simply because it happened “in the past”?