Last week, the New York Times published an in-depth piece (paywall) on the excessive use of force at New York’s Attica prison, stemming in large part from a history of violence and a prison riot that left 43 people dead in 1971. Tucked away in the story was this sentence, highlighting a telling American attitude toward a huge part of our history:
“The state commission that investigated the September 1971 uprising memorably described it as the bloodiest single encounter, Indian massacres aside, between Americans since the Civil War.”
The state report (pdf, pg. 6) originally phrased it this way:
“With the exception of the Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”
The wording there, the relegation of Native Americans to a footnote in US history and secondary to the Civil War, reflects the attitudes of Americans toward Native Americans. Missing from the advanced US history curricula are the full stories of Native American oppression in the US. Those attitudes of apathy persist today, from a football team’s refusal to change its name to the police shootings of Native Americans that gain barely any media attention, compared to the shootings of black men in the last year.
The pattern of American oppression of Native Americans began with the millions killed when Europeans colonized the Americas, continued with state-sanctioned displacement, and stretched into the wars against American Indians throughout the 1800s. Before, during, and after the Civil War—Americans were still oppressing, marginalizing, stealing land from, and killing Native Americans. The last of those massacres was in 1890, at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, when at least 200 Lakota people were killed.
Here is one account from a survivor of the Wounded Knee massacre, as told to the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs the year after the massacre (via PBS). Someone named American Horse told the commissioner, according to PBS:
“There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce, and the women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched. Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed. All the Indians fled in these three directions, and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there.”
In 1973, Native American activists occupied Wounded Knee, leading to a 71-day standoff with the US military that resulted in two deaths. That year was probably the last time Native American grievances received widespread national attention. At the 1973 Oscars, Marlon Brando sent a Native American actress to decline his Academy Award out of protest against treatment of Native Americans both onscreen and by the government:
They were still protesting (paywall) mistreatment and broken treaties, 83 years later.