The Truth About Our Origins Will Set Us All Free

Kevin Leecy

In Germany, students in grades K-12 receive mandatory instruction about the Holocaust. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission bore witness to the injustices of Apartheid. These countries took such public steps because they understand that casting light on the dark chapters of history is the only way to move beyond guilt and anger to real healing.

It is time for America to shine a light on its relationship with Indians.

For too long, only bits and pieces of the story have been told. Columbus sailing the ocean blue. The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. Spaghetti westerns and noble savages. The truth, as truth always turns out to be, is much more complicated.

When Europeans began their influx into this continent, there were tens of millions of Native people here with distinct cultures, communities and forms of governance. Europeans, and later Americans, who wanted the indigenous peoples’ lands and resources reacted in a variety of ways that included deception, outright lies and genocide.

I am not saying this to make anyone feel bad. I am saying it because it is the truth – our truth as Americans – and until we acknowledge it and find a way to deal with it, we cannot move forward as a stronger, more united country. If we want it to be in the past, then we have to get past it.

Here is a timely example of the kind of education that would help. The Vikings football game against the Washington Redskins is this weekend. For years, groups have worked hard to get sports teams to change names and mascots that are based on Indians. Opponents of name change have frequently said that calling teams things like Braves and Redskins is a compliment, a tribute to the warrior tradition of so many Indian cultures.

In fact, redskin was a term used to encourage bounty hunters to kill Indian people. An 1863 clipping from The Daily Republican in Winona announced, “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.” Some bounty hunters were paid different rates for Indian men, women and children – sort of a sliding scale based on body parts. Nathan Lamson, who shot and killed the Dakota leader Little Crow during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, was awarded a special payment of $500 in 1864 by the Minnesota Legislature for “rendering great service to the State.”

This kind of thinking continued into the twentieth century, up to and including the highest levels of government: President Teddy Roosevelt once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

Again, I don’t say these things to create bad feelings. The point is that bad feelings already exist in both the Indian and non-Indian communities – hurt, anger, guilt, confusion – and that if we are to move past them, we have to squarely face our history. Only then can we look to our future.


Kevin Leecy is Chairman of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe in northeastern Minnesota and the Chair of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.

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MarinDemSolstice's picture
I am heartbroken as I once again read the history of the treatment of the indigenous people of Turtle Island. I am told I am of Cherokee decent from the Eastern Band Smokey Mountains where generations of my European ancestors also resided and built a life in Eastern Tennessee. I consider myself the union of the oppressor and the oppressed, although I doubt my great-great grandparents saw their love for each other that way. I was raised with a dominant Euro-American upbringing with my family choosing to hide their native heritage until I became aware and attempted to follow my ancestors spiritual path. I have always contended that if the Europeans had chosen to unite with the Native peoples (like happened among many Cherokee villages, including giving refuge to African slaves) instead of conquering with manifest destiny this would be one amazing country. BUT that is not how it happened and I think most Americans are familiar with the atrocities wrought upon the Native Peoples. What they THINK of that history is where the problems have always begun and continue to cause problems. Most Americans of European decent see the conquering of this land and the actions necessary to create AMERICA including wars and participation in a religious backed manifest destiny as appropriate. I'm don't think there will be any healing or reparations until that basic thinking is confronted and addressed among those still carrying those beliefs. How to change those minds in the challenge and quite honestly I don't see how such a change will occur until a few generations holding those beliefs pass from the earth. It is going to take a wholesale generational change and I think most in my (born1953) generation are already lost. We can only continue to work and hope that more people of the new generations are open to honoring the truth that perpetuating the hatred currently gripping far too many on both sides.
HughHighorse's picture
ever wonder how the Scandinavians feel about "vikings" or the Irish & Scots about "Celtics" (who are mostly black. now that is very alarming.) Should Turkey object to "Trojans". As a Creek Elder, I know that we do not find the word Redskins objectionable, not compared to Andy Jackson on the 20 $ bill. But your title, I see very little discussion of our origins. So why that title?
rainbow's picture
This Kevin Leecy’s article is a sign amongst a number of other signs that indicate that Minnesota is coming into the forefront of the American and global movement that is shining a light on the dark chapters of colonialism, with the aim “to move beyond guilt and anger to real healing.” I [Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer] am an activist who has worked with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council in the past. Rep. Dean Urdalh recently told me that he will soon honor my request to introduce a bill to change some of Minnesota’s derogatory geographic place names, including a lake named “Redskin Lake”. Several years ago, during a meeting with Minnesota Dakota tribal leaders and Rep. Urdahl I was asked to write and present a draft Minnesota apology resolution to Urdahl. After he received my draft resolution he edited it and introduced it to the MN Legislature. It has the Doctrine of Discovery in it, mentioning the harm it has caused Indian people. Because of recent developments in MN, Urdahl informed me that we can go ahead now with more legislation to resolve these issues. After sending a link to a recent article of mine that has a statement in it about the Doctrine of Discovery to the Minnesota Council Of Churches I received a message from Kim Olstad, the Interfaith/Multi-faith Program Director at Minnesota Council of Churches. She informed me that she is involved with a Saint Paul, MN, Christian interfaith organization named SPIN and that it was going to have a fall series on the Doctrine of Discovery, called, "Disavowing the Doctrine of Discovery”. After corresponding with Kim Olstad I sent messages to, both, Archbishop John Nienstedt, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and Jason Adkins, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Catholic Council. In the messages I stated that I believed that Minnesota was coming into the forefront of this global movement and that the Church should participate in SPIN's fall series. It was not long after I sent this message that I received a reply message from Jason Adkins. We began to dialogue. I then received a message from Archbishop Nienstedt wherein he informed me that Father Erick Rutten, the Head of the Commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs would meet with me. We met and had a good dialogue session. We continue to correspond. I was told that the Archdiocese is honoring my request for it to get involved in SPIN’s fall series and to also connect with Rep. Urdahl, in order to help him get future legislation passed.