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  • Writer's pictureMichael Stein

Native history blog

Welcome to the first installment of my blog. The purpose of this blog is to tell true-life stories of the original owners of the American continent while also discussing why these past events are still relevant today. With the advent of drones and iPhones it’s easy to brush aside the many influences that natives have had on our modern day culture and yet their impact can be felt in many areas of our society. From farming techniques to medicinal remedies to the union of thirteen separate colonies in early America, the natives played a vital role in all of this and much more.

There are well over five-hundred native tribes still active in America today, but ever since the Industrial Revolution they have been largely forgotten.  Over the past few decades many of us have come to visualize the surviving 'Indian' in one of two ways: the ones who live in squalor on a reservation or the ones who earn a decent living through legalized gambling on their land.  This is not only an overgeneralization but it dismisses more than one-hundred years of history, from the closure of the frontier in 1890 to the present. The recent events at Standing Rock, where over 700 people have been arrested while protesting the construction of an underground oil pipeline, has brought the ongoing struggle of the natives into sharp focus once again. In many ways the current standoff between the Sioux of North Dakota and the fossil fuel industry is a microcosm of all that occurred during the mid-nineteenth century. With the ending of the Civil War in 1865 many Americans turned their attention to the construction of the first transcontinental railway, hoping to increase trade and tourism by creating a quick, safe route for travel across the country. There was no shortage of money, labor, technology or political will; the only obstacle was the Plains Indians, who had the gall to imagine that they still owned the land of their ancestors. In order to subjugate the natives in the quickest possible way the army pressed the idea of starving them off their land. In 1868 General William T. Sherman summarized this plan to General Philip Sheridan when he wrote that the Indians will never surrender as long as there are buffalo to hunt. He added: “I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all.”

Over the next fifteen years, millions of buffalo were slaughtered. Some were killed by professional hunters, who claimed to earn more money than most politicians at the time, and many more were killed for sport by men and women firing wildly from the window of a moving railway car. It didn’t take long before the American bison, once estimated at over thirty-million, were reduced to a few hundred. For the intrepid plains warrior this represented the final nail in their coffin. Just as our society is built around cheap gas and oil, the culture of most native tribes of the time were based around a never ending supply of buffalo. For them this animal provided food, shelter, weaponry and even sacred ritual. Once the buffalo were gone even Chiefs like Sitting Bull, Quanah Parker, and Geronimo – who had vowed to fight to the death – realized that the only way to feed their people was to submit to reservation life.

In the early twenty-first century we now come full circle. From the comfort of our living rooms we view videos of modern natives, standing alongside social activists, burning their tipi’s and getting arrested in a peaceful protest against the construction of a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline that will run underneath the Missouri River. It is estimated that this “safe and modern pipeline” has already leaked five times since its inception, causing deleterious effects to people’s homes and drinking water. The protests continue, but due to many other media distractions as well as the strength of the economy, the voices go largely unheard

The parallels between our former national policy of forced relocation and mass extermination – which most of us now view as barbaric – and the current policy of lies and arrests are all too obvious and shocking. As Americans we were given the opportunity to show how we’ve changed over the past 150 years, and we failed. But one of the many great things about any democracy is that change can happen swiftly and spontaneously at any time. When millions of voices make themselves heard through protests, petitions, and especially boycotts, then even the largest multinational corporations eventually listen. None of these companies can survive without a steady stream of profit and investment, so by supporting institutions that are divesting we are able to vote for our priorities several times a day. As an ongoing process this may be the best way to create real change and make our voices heard.

While my most recent novel, Black Buffalo, focuses on a fictitious character who is teleported back in time to face the challenges of the Civil War era, most of the supporting characters are real people who fought desperate battles for their land and families. Learning of their lives and struggles motivated me to continue writing even when I felt I could never complete the project. I hope you will share this blog as I add to it monthly and touch upon topics from the first encounters between Europeans and Native Americans to the current issues of today.

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