The American story is based around a theme of freedom -- political freedom, religious freedom, economic freedom... or so we are told in school. In truth, the United States is founded on a fascinating series of contradictions: freedom and slavery, justice and barbarism, truth and corruption. All human societies have these contradictions, since no simple list of positive traits can sum up the greatness of a given nation or country, nor should it, since it is in our complexity that we become real, dynamic, alive. In truth, the US _was_ founded on ideals of freedom, justice, and equality -- we just left some people out of the story in those early chapters, and have struggled to write them in after the fact. In addition to the matter of African slavery, the Amerindian genocide and dispossession have long needed a fuller accounting in order to turn a corner and embrace those values we all hold dear as Americans.
In the course of our growth as a country the United States signed around 200 treaties with sovereign tribes of Native Americans, at each point recognizing that sovereignty and the tribes' ability to treat with us as another government, yet every one of those treaties was broken. Full citizenship in the country was not even granted until 1922, and this after the disasters of multiple wars, expulsions from homelands, and forced assimilation. The result is a series of reservations, often on marginal lands, and an imperfect patchwork of services which leaves these areas chronically underdeveloped and impoverished. Not only that, we continue to use many such areas as dumping grounds for toxic and harmful materials, or for routing things like oil and gas, exploiting the poverty and political weakness that were created there.
We cannot erase the past, and we should not take on a sense of personal guilt over it -- in essence, what's done is done. Yes, the US perpetrated physical and cultural genocide against Native peoples, but those alive today are responsible for what we do, not for the sins of the parents. But this is why we should act to make things better, because failing to do so moves that stain from the past into the present. By keeping alive the systems of white supremacy which caused such destruction, we hitch our wagons to the same caravans of settlers who carried out so many atrocities. This is made all the more urgent since so many changes would cost so little and help so much.
A good start would be to guarantee religious and cultural freedom for the various tribes. No school should be able to force a Native American boy to cut his hair, no municipality should be able to interfere with observance of a holiday, no outside force should be allowed to dig up sacred burial grounds or archaeological sites without permission and coöperation. We should, in fact, revisit many of the treaties which imposed limits on tribal sovereignty, and allow for greater involvement in economic and environmental decision-making across the board. And we could reinforce existing tribal authority by, for example, fully funding tribal justice systems so they are able to prosecute serious crimes. It is time to abandon the paternalistic systems of power and allow the tribes to act as the sovereign nations they once were.
It is a fact that about 50% of Native American women have experienced sexual violence, and fully four-fifths have experienced some form of violence. Many of these crimes are never pursued. We need to expand and reauthorize the Violence and Against Women Act, and pass the Savanna Act (which requires the keeping of statistics on violence against Amerindian women), so that justice can be served. And we should prioritize federal funding on tribal lands for quality schools, health care, and expanded job opportunities, so that we can break the cycles of dependence and poverty that exist. As in so many areas of American life, a short-sighted refusal to invest in human development raises long-term costs and limits potential, and it would go a long way to easing the burden of history if the reservations could grow and thrive.