There’s so much talk in my country about what it means to be “American.” For some, that means white Americans, but at some point, those people also came from elsewhere– England, Scandinavia, and beyond. But there were people long before Columbus planted his flag in the name of Spain in 1492. Long before there were colonies or states, these people roamed the land in tribes. When the government saw the opportunity to seize lands for their access to gold and natural resources. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson started the forced removal of tribes in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida, over 125,000 in all. Thousands died along the way.
I grew up hearing these stories. Markers for the Trail of Tears are not far from my home north of Atlanta, denoting the path that men, women, and children walked across the country. The Cherokee tribe’s original capital city is not far from my grandmother’s house. The then-president saw Native Americans as an imposition, a problem for white Americans. They needed to be civilized, so children were taken from their homes to be raised by non-Native families, their ceremonial practices were abandoned, and their languages erased. The tribes were set up on reservations in Montana, South Dakota, and Oklahoma where many reside today. There are also reservations further west as well.
Visiting the American West, it’s impossible not to notice the Native American (or American Indian) presence. It’s all around you, whether you realize it or not. I first visited Devils Tower-National Monument and noticed the colorful prayer flags tied to trees around the trail. A Native woman walked around. The monolith and the area around it are important to local tribes and they ask people not to climb it during the month of June, but people always do. One climber died this year. People climb anyways, just as they do at Uluru.
In the Black Hills, I paid my respects at the Crazy Horse Memorial, a still-unfinished monument, and largest in the world, by Korczak Ziolkowski. Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear approached the sculptor, who had worked with Gutzon Borglum on nearby Mount Rushmore, to memorialize the fallen leader on the side of a mountain. Crazy Horse had been killed by an American soldier under a flag of truce not long after the Native victory at Little Bighorn. Work began in 1947 and has continued since. Today, the site has the monument as well as the sculptor’s studio and home, Native artisan market, and even university programs.
I was only an hour away from Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument when I was in Sheridan, Wyoming, so I had to visit the battlefield that marked a victory for the local tribes, but one that would be short-lived. Different colored headstones marked where losses occurred on both sides, breaking up the prairie landscape. An obelisk sits where “Custer’s Last Stand” took place. The Sioux and Cheyenne were fighting to be left alone and to keep their way of life. The Crow Tribe, whose reservation surrounds the battlefield, operates Apsaalooke Tours for a deeper understanding of the battle and what led up to it.
One of my last stops of the trip was Big Horn Medicine Wheel, a remote Native American ceremonial location an hour from Sheridan that a local told me about. It starts with a two-mile hike to access it, which still had snow during the summer months. The Native American wheel was constructed with large stones in a circle with spokes along the interior. It’s unknown who built it or how long ago, but estimates are at least 300 years but could be closer to 800. Seventy-five feet in diameter, a fence now borders the perimeter so that only those practicing their ceremonies can go inside. Pieces of fabric are tied onto the fence and small animal bones are placed inside. No matter your belief system, it’s an awe-inspiring and unexplainably special place.
Even though the reservations and their people have sovereignty in the United States, the government and its interests will do as they please. Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is located on the borders of North and South Dakota, are the perfect examples of our treatment of Native Americans has continued for generations.
But the problems that Native peoples face are not unlike those in places like Canada, Australia, and even Asia. It’s important to learn about the people of the places you visit. Consider your behavior in cultural places like these and show respect.
This weekend is the 178th anniversary of the Trail of Tears, commemorated with motorcycle rides, commemorations, and events. To support the rights of Native Americans, I recommend donating to the Native American Rights Fund.
And if you’re looking for books about Native American history and others written by Native authors, here are a few recommendations, some taken from this list by the First Nations Development Institute:
- You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
- Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo
- Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen E. Ambrose
- Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle