Victims and Villains?

Yesterday my step-granddaughter had a painful moment of disillusionment, a small meltdown, because she realized that her ancestry was that of the villains, not of the victims. She is not a Native American. She has a mind for fantasy and has been in love with Native Americans since school started. For Christmas I gave her a little treasure of Native American artifacts from my own life, a beaded baby bracelet one of my mom’s friends at the Crow Reservation made for my mom when she was pregnant with me, a little pot made by Maria Martinez, a little mother-of-pearl owl from the Zuni Pueblo.

It made me think a lot about our current world and the twist of its propaganda. There’s no way to deny that Indians were treated badly by white people. No sane person would ever argue that, but the complexity of our lives should tell us something about the complexity of lives of people in previous generations. Especially now, I think, we should be a little humble making our harsh pronouncements. I believe that to understand ourselves, the first thing we have to do is realize that human beings don’t make sense or even, always, know what they’re doing.

I don’t think it’s possible for us to “make it up” to the Indians for what white people have done to them over the years. Can’t be done. We can just go forward from here. And beating ourselves up for the actions of white people hundreds of years ago? The thing we should be doing is recognizing — with relief — that we’re not there now. There’s really nothing more patronizing and hubristic than looking down from some white promontory and saying “I’m sorry for what they did to you. I never would.”

I wanted to talk to her about raiding cultures in general, and about alliances between some tribes and whites, including that between the Crow and the American army. I wanted to try to explain how history — and human action — is never all this or all that, and the best we can do in our time is attempt to do better.

I wanted to tell my little step-granddaughter about the people who lived in Beringia for so many thousands of years and of the great mixture of peoples that have been discovered in the limited DNA we have from their living years and how traces of that DNA are European. I wanted to tell her that science hasn’t figured out completed where they did come from. I wanted to show her that there was no America as far as those people were concerned or at all 30,000 years ago. That “America” is a made up thing, a word we use to communicate an anonymous location on the globe. I wanted to tell her how, when the waters began to encroach on these ancient peoples’ homeland, they just had to move and they did. I wanted to tell her that they didn’t all come at once.

Then I wanted to tell her about my Swiss ancestors who came to America on purpose to escape some of the same treatment that would be leveled on Native Americans, attempted genocide, the imprisonment of adults and kidnapping of children for re-education so they would not grow up Mennonite. I wanted to tell her about her Canadian great-grandmother who was one of the first women in Canada to become a medical doctor. I wanted to tell her about my Irish ancestors who were loaded onto unseaworthy ships and sent off to live or die, who cared? I wanted to tell her about my Scot’s ancestor who was a prisoner of war, enslaved, set to labor in the sugar plantations in Barbados.

I wanted to tell her about the myriad peoples and cultures that crossed the Atlantic on those ships and how the clash of values existed from the beginning. I wanted to talk to her about peoples’ relentless urge to wander, move, migrate and the various incentives that set them on their way. I wanted to talk to her about the perpetual struggle in humanity between good and evil, even within each one of us.

And then, the bottom line, that we are all tenants on this planet set to contend with the vicissitudes of our time.

*—Aldo Leopold, from “The Virgin Southwest”

21 thoughts on “Victims and Villains?

  1. Martha, I’m visualizing this sweet girl and your conversation with her in my mind. As a young girl, and 1/16th Cherokee (My great-grandmother was Cherokee), I was heartbroken, angry, mortified, and any other word that could describe disgusted at how Native Americans were treated by MY people! How could they do that? Flash-forward to me sitting in the theater after seeing the premiere of “Dances with Wolves” and I was bawling! I couldn’t even get up and leave because I was crying so hard. You summed it up in your last paragraph-our vicissitudes. I went on to become a History major and I’ve soaked in what I can. And everything you shared are my thoughts. The tragedies, misfortunes, and other events that have occurred in the history of mankind continue to this day. I’m still shocked at what MY people do. And I would not do it to anyone. Bless her empathetic and caring heart. And I’m sure it will bleed for so many others and so many reasons as she ages. But to show this empathy towards members of the human race is magnificent; and sadly, unseen in many adults I know.

    • ❤ We're just weird. I got mad at Teddy this morning for ripping at his bandage. It hurt his little feelings. I've never been mad at him before and he and Bear were both staying away from me. You can't explain to a dog that you're angry because he's hurting himself. Luckily, I've been forgiven and life goes on. Once on a trip in Italy I saw a machine made in the 13th century — long before the "discovery" of America — that was a representation of their idea of Satan. It looked just like a Native American. I had an enormous epiphany at that moment of how it must have been for some of those VERY religious and superstitious witch-hunting immigrants to arrive on these shores and be met by Satan. It's so difficult and important to see the world through as many perspectives as we can, I think.

      • We are weird indeed. What an interesting machine you saw. You nailed it again~I try to view things from different lenses and perspectives too. Now if we could get Teddy, Bear, and Finley to take a peek through our lenses. 🐶❤️🤗

        • I wonder what they would think? I think most of the time Bear thinks I’m missing out. Yeah, the machine was a knife grinder, and when the man pushed the pedal to turn the stone and sharpen the knife, the Devil opened and closed his mouth and growled. I can imagine it was fun for some and scary for others. Bear would like Finn to know that she got to roll in frozen elk urine. Possibly that will mean something to Finn… 🙂 ❤

          • Too funny! This made me giggle. I’m sure Finley is always wondering about me. I shared with Finn about Bear~exactly as you wrote it. She looked at me with her beady black eyes and tilted her head side to side (this is a normal reaction). My reaction was about the same for Bear. ❤️😂

  2. Well said! One could go on and on.
    The highland clearances, the treatment of Irish peasants by British, slavery — these are some appalling issues we know of, but there have been so many others. Within countries, like the treatment of the poor, and orphan children, Jess and other “heretics.” Read her Charles Dickens.
    One Muslim general had at least one whole city slaughtered when he was marching through Europe.
    It seems our current society has developed a victim mindset. It’s the thing to be a misunderstood victim. Thank you, Clarence Darrow!

  3. There is not one part of the world that has not been baptised by blood and war nor any nation who have not been guilty of murder, rape and slavery.

    It is good and proper to study history so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. One of those mistakes is to try to hold people repsonsible for the actions of their ancestors. It is howy bloody conflicts can continue for centuries after their original cause has long been forgotten.

  4. Here in Australia we’ve just had a public holiday for Australia Day. It was once just a holiday when Australians had barbecues and went to the cricket but now it is so divisive that many choose not to acknowledge it. Many in the aboriginal community call it “Invasion Day” and say it shouldn’t be celebrated and I know many white Australians feel the same way. Others, including the Federal Government still hand out honours on that day. Maybe we need a different national day. I just don’t know anymore.

    • I’ve heard about that from my Aussie neighbor. It’s similar to the conundrum we have over Columbus Day here. My unsolicited opinion is that Columbus was attempting to do something that was all but impossible to do in a time before longitude measurement was invented. He didn’t even know where he was. But he went out and that took courage (and bravado). All those explorers did things that were pretty amazing. To me that day is more about honoring exploration but, I don’t talk about it. I think it should be dropped completely. It’s pretty hard to be a descendant from colonists. Neither you nor I did the invading or the settling or anything else. We just happen to have been born where we are. 😦

      • Well I was actually born somewhere else but I’ve lived in Australia nearly all my life so it makes me uncomfortable . I do think that we should have a national day to celebrate being a nation but actually January 26th was the landing of the First Fleet at Botany Bay, there was no nation until Federation in 1901 but nobody seems interested in celebrating Federation Day.

  5. We are a strange species. It is amazing that we have been able to adapt and not wipe ourselves off the face of the planet – yet. I had to struggle with the dichotomy of my ancestors the victims and the villains (many Jewish ancestors lost in the holocaust and then all the Germans too). There is a time and place for reparations and hundreds of years later I think that window has closed. Still we need to do better by finding a way to recognize the past and not repeating it. To give all citizens the same respect and opportunities… (I’m preaching to the choir now)

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