Obama Doesn’t Understand American Indian History

Peter d’Errico

President Obama doesn’t understand America’s history with Indigenous Peoples. A careful reading of his recent conversation with author Marilynne Robinson on September 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa, shows he has serious misconceptions.

In the midst of the conversation, Robinson referred to hearing people in America saying, “The system is failing.” Obama responded: “That’s part of what makes America wonderful, is we always had this nagging dissatisfaction that spurs us on. That’s how we ended up going west, that’s how we—’I’m tired of all these people back east; if I go west, there’s going to be my own land and I’m not going to have to put up with this nonsense, and I’m going to start my own thing, and I’ve got my homestead.'”

That’s pretty amazing. President Obama, so attuned to the “fault line of race,” has it in his head that the Indian wars resulted from dissatisfied non-Indians, who, in order to feel better about their lives, “went west”!

I guess the same explanation might apply all the way back: The Puritans were dissatisfied with their lot in England and Holland, so they went west to Massachusetts, and rounded up the Indians into “praying town” reservations. Other colonizers found their “own land” named “Virginia,” where they became rich from tobacco plantations worked by indentured servants and slaves.

And so on back even further: The conquistadors, “tired of all those people” back in Spain, went west to the “new world” and made it their “own land,” and made the Indigenous peoples their “own slaves.”

Obama managed to skip over these gory details to get to his conclusion that “we” solved our “nagging dissatisfaction” and became a “wonderful” country. Who was “we”? It certainly didn’t include the Indians. They were in “our” way.

Obama’s conversation with Robinson focused on Christianity. He opened by saying to her, “You just have completed a series of essays that are not fiction, and I had a chance to read one of them about the role that fear may be playing in our politics and our democracy and our culture. And you looked at it through the prism of Christianity and sort of the Protestant traditions that helped shape us.”

He went on, “You’ve struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an ‘us versus them.'” Then he asked, “when you are thinking about American democracy or, for that matter, Christianity in your writings, how much does that issue of ‘the other’ come up and how do you think about that?”

Robinson responded, “They’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know. But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—’Love thy neighbor as thyself.'”

Robinson’s initial response was typical for a religious apologist: a person doing bad things “isn’t really religious.” Neither Robinson nor Obama elaborated on the “us versus them” that “happened over and over again in the history of Christianity.” We know, however, that Christianity produced a virulent form of “us versus them” that still continues, in the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, which the papacy promulgated and “Christian powers”—including the United States—implemented, to “vanquish and subdue” all pagans, heathens, and infidels.

Which brings us back to the “fault line” of race. Black slavery had at its origins the same papal bulls that authorized Christian Discovery. Christianity promoted and justified slavery and land theft, in the name of making the whole world our “own land.” “Our” meaning the Christian invaders.

Having ignored or forgotten (or never knew?) this history, Obama went on to tell Robinson that it’s a good thing to forget history, at least where remembering causes bloodshed: “America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff.”

A moment later, the president backtracked, saying we need to remember history in order to resolve ongoing problems: “If, in fact, you don’t know much about the evolution of slavery and the civil rights movement and the Civil War and the postwar amendments, then the arguments that are being had now about how our criminal justice system interacts with African-Americans seem pretty foreign. It’s like, what are the issues here?”

In short, Obama wants people in the Middle East to forget their histories, their historical wrongs and arguments. On the other hand, he wants Americans to remember the wrongs done to Black people and the arguments about civil rights. Can he have it both ways?

In December 2009, Obama signed the “Native American Apology Resolution”—a few words tucked into the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act that “urges the President to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land.” The signing itself was closed to the press. Maybe word was supposed to leak out somehow.

In June 2014, before he visited the Standing Rock Sioux, Obama wrote a column in Indian Country Today. He said, “The history of the United States and tribal nations is filled with broken promises. But I believe that during my Administration, we’ve turned a corner together.”

The “corner” was a reference to the list of jobs, education, health, and other programs he enumerated. Obama concluded his list with the statement, “We’re writing a new chapter in our history—one in which agreements are upheld, tribal sovereignty is respected, and every American Indian and Alaskan Native who works hard has the chance to get ahead.”

The Washington Post reported the Standing Rock visit under the headline, “As Obama makes rare presidential visit to Indian reservation, past U.S. betrayals loom.”

The deepest, most subtle betrayal of Indians was reflected in the final sentence of Obama’s op-ed, where he parroted familiar rhetoric: “That’s the promise of the American Dream. And that’s what I’m working for every day—in every village, every city, every reservation—for every single American.”

But “reservation” means something else and more than “village” or “city.” Trying to squeeze Indians into the American Dream doesn’t “turn a corner” nor “write a new chapter” in American history. It continues the old chapters of assimilation and termination, even if it provides jobs.

The American Indian Movement struggled against assimilation and termination. It pursued an Indian Dream. The Black civil rights movement sought equality within the American Dream. Obama has found his piece of the American Dream. He doesn’t get the Indian Dream.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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