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As Long as the Grass is Green

Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land. An excerpt from Thomas King's latest book, The Inconvenient Indian.

As Long as the Grass is Green

Thomas King is of Cherokee, Greek, and German descent and is currently chair of American Indian...

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What do Indians want?

Great question. The problem is, it’s the wrong question to ask. While there are certainly Indians in North America, the Indians of this particular question don’t exist. The Indians of this question are “the Indian” that Canada and the United States have created for themselves. And as long as the question is asked in that way, there will never be the possibility of an answer. Better to ask what the Lubicon Cree of Alberta want or the Brantford Mohawk of Ontario or the Zuni of New Mexico or the Hupa of northern California or the Tlingit of Alaska.

But I’d just as soon forget the question entirely. There’s a better question to ask. One that will help us to understand the nature of contemporary North American Indian history. A question that we can ask of both the past and the present.

What do Whites want?

No, it’s not a trick question. And I’m not being sarcastic. Native history in North America as writ has never really been about Native people. It’s been about Whites and their needs and desires. What Native peoples wanted has never been a vital concern, has never been a political or social priority.

The Lakota didn’t want Europeans in the Black Hills, but Whites wanted the gold that was there. The Cherokee didn’t want to move from Georgia to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), but Whites wanted the land. The Cree of Quebec weren’t at all keen on vacating their homes to make way for the Great Whale project, but there’s excellent money in hydroelectric power. The California Indians did not asked to be enslaved by the Franciscans and forced to build that order’s missions.

What do Whites want?

The answer is quite simple, and it’s been in plain sight all along. Land.

Whites want land.

Sure, Whites want Indians to disappear, and they want Indians to assimilate, and they want Indians to understand that every­ thing that Whites have done was for their own good because Native people, left to their own devices, couldn’t make good decisions for themselves.

All that’s true. From a White point of view at least. But it’s a lower order of true. It’s a spur-of-the-moment true, and these ideas have changed over time. Assimilation was good in the 1950s, but bad in the 1970s. Residential schools were the answer to Indian education in the 1920s, but by the twenty-first century governments were apologizing for the abuse that Native children had suffered at the hands of Christian doctrinaires, pedophiles, and sadists. In the 1880s, the prevailing wisdom was to destroy Native cultures and languages so that Indians could find civilization. Today, the non-Native lament is that Aboriginal cultures and languages may well be on the verge of extinction. These are all important matters, but if you pay more attention to them than they deserve, you will miss the larger issue.

The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was the raison d’ etre for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, the issue that has never changed, never varied, never faltered in its resolve is the issue of land. The issue has always been land. It will always be land, until there isn’t a square foot of land left in North America that is controlled by Native people.

At the Lake Mohonk conference in October of 1886, one of the participants, Charles Cornelius Coffin Painter, who served as a lobbyist for the Indian Rights Association, pointed out the obvious, that the treaties made with Native people had been little more than expediencies. In his talk, Painter quoted General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had said that trea­ties “were never made to be kept, but to serve a present pur­pose, to settle a present difficulty in the easiest manner possible, to acquire a desired good with the least possible com­pensation, and then to be disregarded as soon as this purpose was tainted and we were strong enough to enforce a new and more profitable arrangement.”

This is the same General Sherman who philosophized that “The more Indians we kill this year, the fewer we will need to kill the next.”

Painter didn’t necessarily agree with Sherman, but he under­stood that the overall goal of removals, allotments, treaties, reservations and reserves, terminations, and relocations, was not simply to limit and control the movement of Native peoples, but more importantly to relieve them of their land base.

Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land.

Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture. Land contains the languages, the stories, and the histories of a people. It provides water, air, shelter, and food. Land participates in the ceremonies and the songs. And land is home. Not in an abstract way. The Blackfoot in Alberta live in the shadow of Ninastiko or Chief Mountain. The mountain is a special place for the Blackfoot, and friends on the reserve at Standoff have told me more than once that, as long as they can see the mountain, they know they are home.

For non-Natives, land is primarily a commodity, something that has value for what you can take from it or what you can get for it.

Helen thinks that this is a gross generalization. She believes that there are all sorts of people in Canada who have a deep attachment to land that extends beyond the family cottage on the lake, and that there are Native people who have little connection to a particular geography. I don’t disagree. Individuals can fool you, and they can surprise you. What I’m talking about here is North America’s societal attitude towards land.

General William Tecumseh Sherman: “[treaties] were never made to be kept, but to serve a present pur­pose, to settle a present difficulty in the easiest manner possible, to acquire a desired good with the least possible com­pensation, and then to be disregarded as soon as this purpose was tainted and we were strong enough to enforce a new and more profitable arrangement.”

The Alberta Tar Sands is an excellent example of a non-Native understanding of land. It is, without question, the dirtiest, most environmentally insane energy-extraction project in North America, probably in the world, but the companies that are destroying landscapes and watersheds in Alberta continue merrily along, tearing up the earth because there are billions to be made out of such corporate devastation. The public has been noticeably quiet about the matter, and neither the politicians in Alberta nor the folks in Ottawa have been willing to step in and say, “Enough,” because, in North American society, when it comes to money, there is no such thing as enough.

We all know the facts and figures. Carbon emissions from the production of one barrel of tar sands oil are eight times higher than the emissions from a conventional barrel. The production of each barrel of tar sands oil requires at least three barrels of fresh water, 90 percent of which never makes it back into the watershed. The waste water winds up in a series of enormous tailing ponds that cover some fifty square kilometres and is so poisonous that it kills on contact. It is only a matter of time before one or more of the earthen dams that hold these ponds in place collapse and the toxic sludge is dumped into the Athabasca River.

Just as disturbing are the surreal structures that have begun to appear on the Alberta landscape. Sulfur, a by-product of the bitumen-to-oil process, is being turned into large blocks and stacked in high-rise piles on the prairies because no one knows what else to do with it. Predictably, these blocks are slowly decom­posing, allowing the sulfur to leech out and spoil the ground water.

Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence, oil corporations, with the aid and abetment of government, are expanding their operations, breaking new ground, as it were, and building thousands of miles of pipeline—the Keystone Pipeline, the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the Transmountain Pipeline—that will take Alberta crude from Fort McMurray to refineries and markets in the United States (Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas) and in Canada (Kitimat and Vancouver).

I know, I know, there are organizations that have been fighting this kind of ecocide for years, but unfortunately, they constitute only a small portion of the overall population. To be sure, they have had the occasional success, but there is little chance that North America will develop a functional land ethic until it finds a way to overcome its irrational addiction to profit. Unfortunately, there are no signs that that’s going to happen any time soon.

In 1868 the Lakota and the U.S. government signed a peace treaty at Fort Laramie which guaranteed that the Black Hills would remain with the Lakota Nation, and that the Powder River Country in north­ eastern Wyoming would be closed to White settlement. However, just six years later, in 1874, an army expedition led by, of all people, George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills at French Creek, and before you could say “Fort Laramie Treaty,” White miners swarmed into the Black Hills and began digging mines, sluicing rivers, blasting away the sides of mountains with hydraulic cannons, and clear-cutting the forests in the Hills for the timber. The army was supposed to keep Whites out of the Hills. But they didn’t. A great many histories will tell you that the military was powerless to stop the flood of Whites who came to the Hills for the gold, but the truth of the matter is that the army didn’t really try.

By the spring of 1875, the situation had become untenable, and the Lakota went to Washington to try to persuade President Grant to honour the treaty that the two nations had signed. The Lakota wanted Whites out of the Black Hills. They wanted the destruc­tion of their forests and rivers stopped. They wanted the Hills left alone. Instead, the administration told the Lakota that a new treaty was needed, one in which the Lakota would have to give up all claim to the Black Hills for the princely sum of $25,000, and that the tribe would have to move to Indian Territory.

The Lakota refused to sign a new treaty. You can keep your money, they told Grant. And of the move to Indian Territory, Spotted Tail said that “If it [Indian Territory] is such a good country, you ought to send the white men now in our country there and let us alone.”

The Fort Laramie Treaty still stands as a valid agreement, and the Lakota have never given up their claim to the Hills, nor have they stopped fighting for the land’s return. So I can only imagine how they felt as they watched Six Grandfathers being turned into a national tourist attraction.

Six Grandfathers is the mountain in the Hills that became Mount Rushmore after it was renamed for a New York lawyer in 1885. From 1927 to 1941, the American sculptor Gutzon Borglum chiselled and hacked and blasted the rock face, until the granite looked remarkably like the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

The Lakota, for whom the mountain is sacred, must have been particularly pleased with the dandy new artwork.

Then in 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills had been illegally taken. The solution, however, wasn’t to return the Hills to the Lakota. Instead the court instructed that the original purchase price of $25,000 plus interest be paid to the tribe. After the long addition vvas over, the total came to over $106 million.

$106 million.

And as they had done in 1875, the Lakota refused the settlement. Money was never the issue. They wanted the Hills back. As for the money, it stays in an interest-bearing account to this day.

Alberta Tar Sands. Black Hills. So much for Helen’s spurious objection.

Oh, sure, two examples do not a treatise make, and I’m confident someone can find instances where tribes have engaged in what could be seen as dubious enterprises in the area of land husbandry. In fact, let me help you. The Navajo and the Crow have leases with companies to strip-mine coal on their respective reservations. The Cree in Quebec signed agreements that led to the damming of the Great Whale River for hydroelectric power. Tribes in the Northwest and British Columbia have parlayed their timber holdings and fishing rights into nascent economies.

Treaties, after all, were not vehicles for protecting land or even sharing land. They were vehicles for acquiring land. Almost without fail, throughout the history of North America, every time Indians signed a treaty with Whites, Indians lost land.

I would like to make the point that there is a difference between depredation and development, but I’m forced to admit that I probably couldn’t draw a line between the two clear enough for all parties to agree.

So, Helen may be right. As for me, I still find it impossible to imagine the Alberta Tar Sands ever coming out of an Aboriginal ethos.

One of the problems in any discussion about Indian land is that you also have to talk about treaties. In North American Indian history, land and treaties are so tightly intertwined that it is hardly possible to separate them. It is no coincidence then that, while the relationship that Native people have with Canada and the United States contains both historical and social aspects, the primary relationship is legal.

Remember our earlier chat about Legal Indians?

From a Native perspective, Indian land is Indian land. From a contemporary, somewhat legal North American perspective, Native land is land that belongs to the federal government and is on indefinite loan to a certain category of Native people. To say that these two views are in conflict is to state the obvious.

Indian land as Indian land was certainly the idea behind early treaties and agreements. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, new attitudes had taken over, and a treaty such as the one struck with the Yanktonai band of the Dakota at Fort Sully in 1865 stipulated, “Any amendment or modification of this treaty by the Senate of the United States shall be considered final and binding upon the said band, represented in council, as a part of this treaty, in the same manner as if it had been subsequently presented and agreed to by the chief and head-men of said band.”

One of the great phrases to come out of the treaty process is “as long as the grass is green and the waters run.” The general idea behind the phrase is not new. Charlemagne supposedly used such language in the eighth century, when he declared that “all Frisians would be fully free, the born and the unborn, so long as the wind blows from heaven and the child cries, grass grows green and flowers bloom, as far as the sun rises and the world stands.”

Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, depending on how you want to count, signed well over 400 treaties with Native tribes in North America. I haven’t read them all, but none of the ones I have read contains the phrase. So, I’ve always wondered if “as long as the grass is green and the waters run” was ever actually used in a treaty.

I know that Andrew Jackson promised the Choctaw and Cherokee that, if they left their lands east of the Mississippi and moved west of the river, “There beyond the limits of any state, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as grass grows or water runs, I am and will protect them and be their friend and father.” And I know that over a century later, in 1978, David Sohappy, Sr., a Yakama fisherman, said that he had been told bv elders that the 1855 treaty with the Yakama had come with the promise that the treaty would last so long as Mount Adams was standing and so long “as the sun rose in the east and long as the grass grows green in the spring and rivers flow.”

I’m betting that poetic constructions such as “as long as the grass is green and the waters run,” “Great White Father,” and “Red Children” were part of the performances, the speeches, and the oral promises that attended treaty negotiations and did not necessarily find their way into the official transcript. While a phrase such as “the hatchet shall be forever buried” does appear in Article 13 of the treaty the Cherokee signed in 1785, I suspect that, in general, lawyers and politicians were not comfortable with metaphors. As a rule, easily understood language is not welcome in legal documents.

Treaties, after all, were not vehicles for protecting land or even sharing land. They were vehicles for acquiring land. Almost without fail, throughout the history of North America, every time Indians signed a treaty with Whites, Indians lost land. I can’t think of a single treaty whereby Native people came away with more land than when they started. Such an idea, from a non­ Native point of view, would have been dangerously absurd.

In fact, treaties have been so successful in separating Indians from their land that I’m surprised there isn’t a national holiday to honour their good work. But we could fix that. We could, if we were so inclined, turn Columbus Day and Victoria Day into Treaty Day. After all, Columbus didn’t discover America, and Queen Victoria never set foot in Canada. Folks in the United States would get a day off in October, just as the leaves were turning colour in New England, and folks in Canada-perhaps even in Quebec­ would get a day off in May, just as most of the snow had melted. We could encourage schoolchildren in both countries to memo­rize the top ten treaties in terms of land acquisition, and turn that knowledge into a contest. Maybe get the Blackfoot to donate ten acres of reserve land along the Old Man River as first prize.


Excerpted from chapter nine of The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, published by Doubleday Canada.