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Davis, California

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Column: History is rhyming

I thought this country was effectively over being assholes to Native Americans after we finally recognized American Indians as actual humans, not just rugged peoples that liked cloth underwear, with the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act. Neglect, however, continues throughout the 21st century just as chronically as increasing rates of crime on American Indian reservations.

The amount of violence found within the country’s 310 American Indian reservations are two and a half times the national average, according to data compiled by the Justice Department. American Indian women are 10 times as likely to be murdered than are other Americans, and they are raped or sexually assaulted at a rate four times the country’s average.

These jarring statistics don’t seem to faze our judicial system, though. Where there are high rates of reservation crime, there are, by contrast, low rates of prosecutions for these offenses by United States attorneys.

The government did not pursue 65 percent of rape charges on reservations and rejected 61 percent of cases involving sexual abuse of children. Prosecutors’ main reason for turning down these investigations is a lack of admissible evidence.

Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Well, I can say for a fact that America is presently using its thesaurus to write a limerick we’ve already heard.

John Gast’s now-famous painting “American progress” pictorially represents the United States’ westward expansion in the late 19th century. Its foreground is a large, female angel concealing the horrific background that is Native Americans and animals fleeing in terror of settlers. This allegorical representation of modernizing the new west is meant to explain that not only was expansion wise (the angel holds a school book and strings along a telegraph), but also apparent (manifest) and inevitable (destiny).

The theme of the time period seemed to be that Native Americans were merely collateral damage to the greater story of American history. So if the price America had to pay for progress then was human life, is that not the same cost we face today? And if so, what does this country hope to gain from now neglecting, not just abusing, Native Americans?

 When our government gets the finger, it tends to point the finger right back at some piece of legislation it passed. “See, look!” it says, tugging at the accuser’s pant leg. “Congress approved the Trial Law and Order Act in 2010. Surely the tribal law enforcement systems will start working soon enough!”

The same scene played out in 1887 when President Cleveland gestured to the Dawes Act. His seemingly generous offer to divide American Indian tribal land into allotments for individual Native Americans actually allowed non-Indians and railroad developers to scoop up acres for pennies on the dollar. Where Native Americans owned 138 million acres in 1887, they claimed 48 million in 1934.

These blame games will lead, and have led, to a human knot of tied tongues and tangled, bloodied hands.

Our country has issues with the War on Terror lasting seven years. Let’s just take a moment to think about the American Indian Wars between 1622-1923. I don’t even pay taxes yet, but I cannot imagine helping finance a 301-year war.

I do, however, concede that if I were an American living in the 19th century, I too would have been threatened. But I do not understand what 21st century Americans, and especially our judicial members, are so afraid of today. American Indians’ 2.3 percent stake, 55.7 million acres, of U.S. land? Their disgustingly harsh reservation laws?

If that’s the case, listen up, prosecutors. You should manage comfortably with 97.7 percent of this country’s area. (Otherwise, I hear we’re working on colonizing the extraterrestrial world.) And you should be able to fall fast asleep at night knowing our laws are much more lenient than Native Americans’, if only because public officials are intimidated by a group that once terrified our ancestors.

Suck it up and please do your job.

If you think CHELSEA MEHRA knows a thing or two about history, contact her at cmehra@ucdavis.edu so she can forward your thoughts to her TA.

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