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My Ancestors Were Not Wild

Guest Writer Edouardo Zendeias

Director, Native American Studies

Published: Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 12:01

Wild Wild West

Photo by J. Christoffersen/ The Gateway

The University of Nebraska-Omaha has selected the theme “The Wild, Wild West” for their 2013 Homecoming festivities.  I do not know the motivation or intent for selecting this theme, but I suspect that it had something to do with celebrating the accomplishments of pioneer, settler and or cowboy ancestors who immigrated to this land and “won” the west.  The obvious inference to me is that my ancestors, the UmonHon, or Omaha people, (and other indigenous nations) were wild savages in need of civilization, or if not civilized, in need of defeat in the name of God’s will (Manifest Destiny). This university bears the name of my ancestors. My ancestors were not wild, neither were they savages.

I am certainly in favor of celebrating the accomplishments of ancestors.  However, in the celebration of the accomplishments of pioneers, settlers and/or cowboys of the “West”, please do not refer to or depict my ancestors as “wild”.  I do not intend to dictate some “politically correct” agenda.  Since the University of Nebraska-Omaha is an institution of higher learning, I would like to briefly attempt to educate from the perspective of my ancestors who inhabited these lands previous to pioneers, settlers and cowboys.

The notion that my ancestors were “wild savages” has its roots in the European Doctrine of Discovery.  European “discoverers” were given permission by religious leaders to lay claim to all new lands inhabited by those that were without souls, or savages.  These savages were deemed to be less than human, and therefore not capable of owning property. They were to be treated as part of the property; something that could be discarded, sold or converted and saved.

We think of the “west” as lands located west of the Mississippi River.  This part of the country was acquired in what we know as “The Louisiana Purchase”. Who did we purchase this land from?  My ancestors were here and called a portion of this territory home.  Were they consulted or made an offer by the United States government for the purchase of “The West?” Obviously, they and other indigenous people were not consulted; we were, in the minds of the government, savages.

The United States Supreme Court validated the European Doctrine of Discovery in the case of Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823, when Chief Justice John Marshall declared my ancestors “fierce savages” who were incapable of owning land. The United States Supreme Court adopted the Doctrine of Discovery and declared my ancestors savages.  
Since that time, the United States government has implemented policies that treated my ancestors as savages in need of civilization. We have been “Removed”, “Assimilated”, “Reorganized” and “Terminated” amongst other official U.S. policies with the objective of “winning the west”.

My ancestors were not wild savages. My ancestors and others indigenous communities enjoyed societies that was rich in cultural, spiritual and governmental traditions. Most of those rich traditions were destroyed when we were “civilized” by United States government.  
The civilization process was implemented primarily by the Indian Boarding School policy.  This policy forced children as young as 4-years-old into militaristic style re-education camps where they were forbidden to speak their native languages, practice their religious beliefs and forced to cut their hair and wear military uniforms. The motto for these boarding schools was “Kill the Indian, Save the man.”  The boarding schools were successful in killing indigenous cultures, religions, languages and families.

How do U.S. courts say my ancestors were treated by the United States government?  In the case of The Omaha Tribe of Nebraska v. United States, in 1960, the court stated, “The Omaha Tribe of Nebraska has a history of kindness and helping others in their time of need.  The Omaha people have assisted the Pawnee, Ponca, Winnebago Tribes, as well as Mormon pioneers when they were in need. In return, the United States government continuously dealt with them in ways which were not fair and honorable.”

The Sioux Nation was also not treated in a fair and honorable way by the U.S. government in the taking of the Black Hills from the Sioux Nation.  In describing U.S. dealings with the Sioux Nation, the U.S. Supreme Court stated in U.S. v. Sioux Nation, 1980, that “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history….”  
My ancestors, and other indigenous people, were not treated in a fair and honorable way by the United States government. This is how the wild, wild west was actually “won”.  
In 1970, President Richard Nixon addressed Congress and stated,
“But the story of the Indian in America is something more than the record of the white man’s frequent aggression, broken agreements, intermittent remorse and prolonged failure.  It is a record also of endurance, of survival, of adaptation and creativity in the face of overwhelming obstacles.  It is a record of enormous contributions to this country-to its art and culture, to its strength and spirit, to its sense of history and its sense of purpose.”

In celebrating the theme of “The Wild, Wild West”, please remember that indigenous people were not wild savages in need of being defeated, subdued and civilized.  We were healthy and thriving societies that contributed much to the history of this nation.  My ancestors were not wild.

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