Everything the Kiowas had came from the buffalo.… Most of all, the buffalo was part of the Kiowa religion. A white buffalo calf must be sacrificed in the Sun Dance. The priests used parts of the buffalo to make their prayers when they healed people or when they sang to the powers above. So, when the white men wanted to build railroads, or when they wanted to farm or raise cattle, the buffalo still protected the Kiowas. They tore up the railroad tracks and the gardens. They chased the cattle off the ranges. The buffalo loved their people as much as the Kiowas loved them. There was war between the buffalo and the white men. The white men built forts in the Kiowa country, and the woolly-headed buffalo soldiers shot the buffalo as fast as they could, but the buffalo kept coming on, coming on, even into the post cemetery at Fort Sill. Soldiers were not enough to hold them back. Then the white men hired hunters to do nothing but kill the buffalo. Up and down the plains those men ranged, shooting sometimes as many as a hundred buffalo a day. Behind them came the skinners with their wagons. They piled the hides and bones into the wagons until they were full, and then took their loads to the new railroad stations that were being built, to be shipped east to the market. Sometimes there would be a pile of bones as high as a man, stretching a mile along the railroad track. The buffalo saw that their day was over. They could protect their people no longer.
During the Pequot War, Connecticut and Massachusetts colonial officials had offered bounties initially for the heads of murdered Indigenous people and later for only their scalps, which were more portable in large numbers. But scalp hunting became routine only in the mid-1670s, following an incident on the northern frontier of the Massachusetts colony. The practice began in earnest in 1697 when settler Hannah Dustin, having murdered ten of her Abenaki captors in a nighttime escape, presented their ten scalps to the Massachusetts General Assembly and was rewarded with bounties for two men, two women, and six children.24 Dustin soon became a folk hero among New England settlers. Scalp hunting became a lucrative commercial practice. The settler authorities had hit upon a way to encourage settlers to take off on their own or with a few others to gather scalps, at random, for the reward money. “In the process,” John Grenier points out, “they established the large-scale privatization of war within American frontier communities.”25 Although the colonial government in time raised the bounty for adult male scalps, lowered that for adult females, and eliminated that for Indigenous children under ten, the age and gender of victims were not easily distinguished by their scalps nor checked carefully. What is more, the scalp hunter could take the children captive and sell them into slavery. These practices erased any remaining distinction between Indigenous combatants and noncombatants and introduced a market for Indigenous slaves. Bounties for Indigenous scalps were honored even in absence of war. Scalps and Indigenous children became means of exchange, currency, and this development may even have created a black market. Scalp hunting was not only a profitable privatized enterprise but also a means to eradicate or subjugate the Indigenous population of the Anglo-American Atlantic seaboard.26 The settlers gave a name to the mutilated and bloody corpses they left in the wake of scalp-hunts: redskins.
In the United States the legacy of settler colonialism can be seen in the endless wars of aggression and occupations; the trillions spent on war machinery, military bases, and personnel instead of social services and quality public education; the gross profits of corporations, each of which has greater resources and funds than more than half the countries in the world yet pay minimal taxes and provide few jobs for US citizens; the repression of generation after generation of activists who seek to change the system; the incarceration of the poor, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans; the individualism, carefully inculcated, that on the one hand produces self-blame for personal failure and on the other exalts ruthless dog-eat-dog competition for possible success, even though it rarely results; and high rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, sexual violence against women and children, homelessness, dropping out of school, and gun violence.
Parallel to the idea of the US Constitution as covenant, politicians, journalists, teachers, and even professional historians chant like a mantra that the United States is a “nation of immigrants.” From its beginning, the United States has welcomed—indeed, often solicited, even bribed—immigrants to repopulate conquered territories “cleansed” of their Indigenous inhabitants. From the mid-nineteenth century, immigrants were recruited to work mines, raze forests, construct canals and railroads, and labor in sweatshops, factories, and commercial farm fields. In the late twentieth century, technical and medical workers were recruited. The requirements for their formal citizenship were simple: adhere to the sacred covenant through taking the Citizenship Oath, pledging loyalty to the flag, and regarding those outside the covenant as enemies or potential enemies of the exceptional country that has adopted them, often after they escaped hunger, war, or repression, which in turn were often caused by US militarism or economic sanctions. Yet no matter how much immigrants might strive to prove themselves to be as hardworking and patriotic as descendants of the original settlers, and despite the rhetoric of E pluribus unum, they are suspect. The old stock against which they are judged inferior includes not only those who fought in the fifteen-year war for independence from Britain but also, and perhaps more important, those who fought and shed (Indian) blood, before and after independence, in order to acquire the land. These are the descendants of English Pilgrims, Scots, Scots-Irish, and Huguenot French—Calvinists all—who took the land bequeathed to them in the sacred covenant that predated the creation of the independent United States. These were the settlers who fought their way over the Appalachians into the fertile Ohio Valley region, and it is they who claimed blood sacrifice for their country. Immigrants, to be accepted, must prove their fidelity to the covenant and what it stands for.
In focusing on “cultural change” and “conflict between cultures,” these studies avoid fundamental questions about the formation of the United States and its implications for the present and future. This approach to history allows one to safely put aside present responsibility for continued harm done by that past and the questions of reparations, restitution, and reordering society.9 Multiculturalism became the cutting edge of post-civil-rights-movement US history revisionism. For this scheme to work—and affirm US historical progress—Indigenous nations and communities had to be left out of the picture. As territorially and treaty-based peoples in North America, they did not fit the grid of multiculturalism but were included by transforming them into an inchoate oppressed racial group, while colonized Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans were dissolved into another such group, variously called “Hispanic” or “Latino.” The multicultural approach emphasized the “contributions” of individuals from oppressed groups to the country’s assumed greatness. Indigenous peoples were thus credited with corn, beans, buckskin, log cabins, parkas, maple syrup, canoes, hundreds of place names, Thanksgiving, and even the concepts of democracy and federalism. But this idea of the gift-giving Indian helping to establish and enrich the development of the United States is an insidious smoke screen meant to obscure the fact that the very existence of the country is a result of the looting of an entire continent and its resources. The fundamental unresolved issues of Indigenous lands, treaties, and sovereignty could not but scuttle the premises of multiculturalism.
Hanging a banner from the front of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building that proclaimed it to be the “Native American Embassy,” hundreds of protesters hailing from seventy-five Indigenous nations entered the building to sit in. BIA personnel, at the time largely non-Indigenous, fled, and the capitol police chain-locked the doors announcing that the Indigenous protesters were illegally occupying the building. The protesters stayed for six days, enough time for them to read damning federal documents that revealed gross mismanagement of the federal trust responsibility, which they boxed up and took with them. The Trail of Broken Treaties solidified Indigenous alliances, and the “20-Point Position Paper,”14 the work mainly of Hank Adams, provided a template for the affinity of hundreds of Native organizations. Five years later, in 1977, the document would be presented to the United Nations, forming the basis for the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In August 1917, white, Black, and Muskogee tenant farmers and sharecroppers in several eastern and southern Oklahoma counties took up arms to stop conscription, with a larger stated goal of overthrowing the US government to establish a socialist commonwealth. These more radically minded grassroots socialists had organized their own Working Class Union (WCU), with Anglo-American, African American, and Indigenous Muskogee farmers forming a kind of rainbow alliance. Their plan was to march to Washington, DC, motivating millions of working people to arm themselves and to join them along the way. After a day of dynamiting oil pipelines and bridges in southeastern Oklahoma, the men and their families created a liberated zone where they ate, sang hymns, and rested. By the following day, heavily armed posses supported by police and militias stopped the revolt, which became known as the Green Corn Rebellion.
The consequences of this amassing of fortunes were first felt in the catastrophe experienced by small farmers in Europe and England. The peasants became impoverished, dependent workers crowded into city slums. For the first time in human history, the majority of Europeans depended for their livelihood on a small wealthy minority, a phenomenon that capitalist-based colonialism would spread worldwide. The symbol of this new development, indeed its currency, was gold. Gold fever drove colonizing ventures, organized at first in pursuit of the metal in its raw form. Later the pursuit of gold became more sophisticated, with planters and merchants establishing whatever conditions were necessary to hoard as much gold as possible. Thus was born an ideology: the belief in the inherent value of gold despite its relative uselessness in reality. Investors, monarchies, and parliamentarians devised methods to control the processes of wealth accumulation and the power that came with it, but the ideology behind gold fever mobilized settlers to cross the Atlantic to an unknown fate. Subjugating entire societies and civilizations, enslaving whole countries, and slaughtering people village by village did not seem too high a price to pay, nor did it appear inhumane. The systems of colonization were modern and rational, but its ideological basis was madness.