Forty years ago, 200 members of the American Indian Movement took over the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The group was protesting the federal government’s failure to honor various treaties with native tribes. The location was symbolic. In 1890, as many as 300 Lakota Indians were killed at Wounded Knee by the U.S. Army. The standoff lasted 73 days, and claimed three lives.
A new book from the Michigan State University Press recounts that incident and other moments in the history of America’s relationship with its native people. Winona LaDuke is the author of “The Militarization of Indian Country” and a member of the Anishinaabe nation. She spoke with WKAR’s Kevin Lavery about how native tribes were originally categorized under the law.
WINONA LaDUKE: Historically, American Indian people were classified in the Department of War. We moved to the Department of the Interior in the last century. But just prior to that, we were in the Department of War. Having said that, we ended up in a situation where there’s a lot of military bases near Indian reservations from the Indian wars. So, to the extent that the United States’ military is a large landowner with a huge impact on the ecology and social and economics of a region, there’s a significant impact on the native community.
KEVIN LAVERY: Our military is laden with references to native Americans: we have Tomahawk missiles, Blackhawk helicopters, Apache helicopters. But it would seem that these names are not an attempt to honor native people, but do they instead perpetuate a negative stereotype? A warrior mentality that perhaps is not true?
LaDUKE: Well, they do in many ways. But perhaps the most interesting and most recent case was when Osama bin Laden was assassinated by the U.S. military. It was called “Operation Geronimo, Enemy Killed in Action.” It was very much opposed by the native community, when people found out that someone who is revered in the native community – Geronimo – is what they used in this last couple of years ago as the name for Osama bin Laden as a code name in the military. It’s not an honor. It’s not an honor at all.
Native people in the United States have the highest rate of enlistment in the military of any population, and we also have the highest rate of living veterans. And because of that, the U.S. military’s impact in Indian Country is very significant. But also, I feel like there’s a measure of respect that’s due to native people, and that is not reflected when someone uses terminology that kind of re-manufactures the Indian Wars in this new millennium.
LAVERY: The publication of your book is very timely. The state of Michigan recently has filed a complaint against the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Office to put an end to the use of American Indian names, mascots, different types of imagery in our school districts. The argument the state makes is that using these names and images creates “an unequal learning environment” that violates federal civil rights law. Have you found that to be true?
LaDUKE: Oh, that’s really interesting. I did not know the state of Michigan has done that; I applaud the state of Michigan for that action. A lot of studies have been done on the impact of mascots on native students, and they’re not positive. If people care about American history or present civics, you don’t learn about native people by calling them “redskins,” or calling them “fighting Sioux” out of North Dakota. So I’m really proud the state of Michigan has taken that.
LAVERY: In your book, you mention Ira Hayes. He was a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. He fought at Iwo Jima; in fact, he was one of the six men in that famous photograph of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Ira Hayes was a member of the Pima tribe in Arizona. As the war was ending, he was taken out of combat and put into a war bond campaign that you could argue exploited him. He suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and became an alcoholic, and he died at age 32 about ten years after the war ended.
It’s interesting that when you look at the photograph, he is the one on the far left side, the one who just can’t quite reach the flagpole; he can almost touch the flag, but can’t. Do you see a metaphor there?
LaDUKE: I do. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it’s true. We’re at the front lines of the military and yet when we come home things are not so good. A good portion of those who serve in the military and a good portion certainly of those who serve from Indian Country, at the time I wrote this, and to a certain extent now…they came back and they were treated as second-class citizens indeed. So it is an ironic story.