"American Indian Issues – Truth and Reconciliation"


Students from the University of North Dakota Accounting 494 Ethics class have recently collaborated with several American Indian students to talk about social, historical and cultural issues related to American Indian people. They have worked under the guidance of Michael Hendrickson, Executive in Residence ethics instructor, and Courtney Souvannsacd, formerly American Indian Student Services Administrative Assistant.

These meetings were initiated to create dialogue about racial assumptions, the regrettable treatment of American Indian people throughout United States history, and ultimately, to discuss equitable solutions in the context of a unified campus community.

American Indians are the largest minority group with five tribal reservations in North Dakota representing just over five percent of the population. Although they are the largest minority group, conversations with American Indian students reveal that they are treated as “less than”, they feel misunderstood and that their culture and heritage are seen as unimportant. That can change.

Students have committed to write a series of articles that will be organized in a timeline of past, present and future with various topics about the truth including the Doctrine of Discovery, broken treaties, boarding schools, and denigrating stereotypes and articles about healing through achieving campus and community inclusiveness.

The approach adopted by the students mimics the Truth and Reconciliation concepts adopted in South Africa following the end of apartheid in 1990. The South African approach, which was championed by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was an endeavor to heal through remorse on the part of the perpetrators and forgiveness on the part of those victimized. Their approach taught us that true healing occurs only when there is an admission of the wrong and a corresponding forgiveness by the victim.

Like the black people in South Africa, the pain of discrimination felt by American Indians is real and occurs on our campus and in the surrounding community. In exploring the American Indian students’ stories, there are parallels in the struggle to have a voice and credibility in the face of prejudice and racism. Although sharing their stories has been difficult, it is not a cry for sympathy, but a call for understanding.

An important part of healing is that the truth be told. We are often afraid to hear the truth because the truth makes us feel like we need to do something – and maybe we do, but sometimes we just need to acknowledge the truth and start there. That is where we seem to be at this point in history - of acknowledging the truth because it has not been set forth accurately in our history books. Not one of us writing these articles was taught the truth in our schools. The teachings we received gave only limited information in a very generalized and romanticized way and excluded the American Indian perspective.

There is a disquiet for whites in learning that the land they call their property was obtained by force and deception. The means by which property was obtained was aided by the simple fact that the natives had no concept of property ownership. The native people felt that they were part of the land and not the lords of it. They moved with the waters and the grasses and the idea that the land would be exploited for personal use was a strange and unknown concept.

This project is not about being politically correct but about being relentlessly honest. It is time to set us all free because the truth can only hurt us if we keep it hidden in the dark. As the Bible says – the truth shall set you free.

This land is your land, this land is my land’ – or is it? How the Doctrine of Christian Discovery annihilated native rights

The goal here is to acknowledge the truth about our history and what really happened. The truth is important because without it we will continue to live in a cocoon of silent lies that hurts everyone.

In 1823, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the Supreme Court decision in Johnson versus McIntosh, which concluded that colonial land succession rights were superior to native rights. The bases for the superior rights of colonial succession were papal edicts and a British monarch’s order that were issued more than 300 years before the Supreme Court decision. The Court’s decision was both curious and questionable for a new country that had separated church and state and thrown off the yoke of a monarchy. Yet, those were precisely the sources that Marshall used to prohibit “legal rights” to native succession.

At issue in the case was the simple question of whether a Native American could transfer title to private property to an individual. Author and law school professor Eric Kades and others suggest that the very nature of the lawsuit is suspect since there was no actual conflict of title because the lands did not overlap one another. This suggests that the case is one of theory and not of actual fact.

Author Steve Newcomb explains the basis of the decision this way. In 1452 and 1455, Pope Nicholas V issued edicts that gave Portugal the right “…to invade, capture, vanquish and subdue…to reduce [the native peoples] to perpetual slavery…to take away their possessions and property.” Pope Alexander VI gave the same rights to Spain in 1493 following the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. In 1495, King Henry VII issued an order authorizing John Cabot to claim lands for England if the lands “discovered” were occupied by heathens and infidels and had not been claimed by other Christian nations.

Attorney Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga Nation), President and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, spoke about the Doctrine of [Christian] Discovery at the United Nations in 2011. She said, “What we have found is that the doctrine of discovery has been institutionalized in the laws and policies on national and international level(s) and lies at the roots of the violations of the indigenous people's human rights, both individual and collective."

Mark Charles, who recently spoke at the University of North Dakota, stated that Canada, Australia and New Zealand have also cited Johnson versus McIntosh to justify their taking of native lands. Fundamental to the Doctrine of Discovery is the idea that indigenous peoples are inferior. Even more fundamental is the idea that they are savages and that “civilized” people are superior. Although Johnson versus McIntosh is taught in law schools, the Doctrine is an unwritten chapter of American history. But, it is not an unwritten chapter for American Indians who began suffering the pain of the decision long before it was written. Charles also said that whites are also traumatized because they carry the intergenerational pain of the perpetrator. Michael Hendrickson, a co-author of this article, believes that Charles is right and says, “I can hardly even talk about the Sand Creek massacre which occurred in my state of Colorado without totally choking up.”

Subsequent writings about the decision and later court decisions were couched in additional curious language, including the idea that the indigenous people were not in fact nations at all and thus did not have standing with respect to the land. Henry Wheaton, the court reporter for Marshall’s court, said that the natives had lost their sovereignty when the lands were “discovered” and thus only retained a right to occupancy. How is it possible that the American Indians were not sovereign nations when treaties were negotiated with them? What was their standing in the treaties if not as a nation? In fact, if you research the treaties, the word “Nation” was repeatedly used in reference to Indian tribes.

The bottom line is that the lands were stolen and subsequent legal decisions were simply rationalizations of the European conquest. Of course, neither stealing nor conquest is a legal basis for possession and both have been outlawed in modern times, most significantly by the United Nations. The way the lands were taken needs reconciliation or as Mark Charles put it, we need “conciliation” – meaning resolution.

When we sit and look into each other’s eyes and listen to each other’s hearts, we come to a different conclusion – a conclusion that says we are all brothers and sisters and just perhaps ‘this land belongs to you and me’. The idea of reconciliation can begin with a simple concept – that the resources of Earth belong to everyone and that they ought to be used in a way that honors all life.

‘There was a big high wall that said private property but on the backside it didn’t say nothin’ – Woody Guthrie

Michael D. Hendrickson

UND Dept. of Accountancy

Executive in Residence

Links for newspapers and news outlets (citations are also included within article):

Doctrine of Discovery: http://ili.nativeweb.org/sdrm_art.html “Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice” by Steve Newcomb

Indigenous Groups Challenge Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination

Friday, 22 July 2011 05:47

By Jason Coppola, Truthout | News Analysis




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