Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Speaking of Geronimo

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, many Native American communities lost the land base that had made self-sufficiency possible. In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, which dictated that reservation land had to be divided into individual plots and allotted to Indians as private property and whatever land remained after the allotment process would be made available to white settlers. Native people were nearly universally opposed to allotment. Most Native people then and now believe that land cannot be owned as property. It is to them like dividing the sky into plots and owning those, an impossibility. But white people be tripping, as you know, and they could not understand other people’s view of the world as legitimate. But in this case what white people thought should not have mattered because Native people had legal documents, treaties, to ensure that their view of the land would be recognized on lands they held.

White people have now mostly forgotten that treaties are legally binding documents that the United States entered into with tribal nations. England first, then the United States, recognized that the land belonged “from time immemorial,” as the legal language puts it, to the Native inhabitants. Thus in order to gain possession of the land, these governments negotiated with tribes in order to extinguish Native title. That is, tribal nations ceded land (what is now the continental territory that comprises the U.S.) but reserved for themselves some territory and rights that were spelled out in the treaties. So for all the territory they gave up, tribal nations reserved the right to have their remaining lands administered in trust by the federal government. The government agreed IN FUCKING WRITING WITH SIGNATURES AND EVERYTHING to hold Native lands in common and for the benefit of Native peoples. So when Indians objected to allotment, arguing rightly that allotment would deprive communities of the resources that had always sustained them, that should have been the end of it. The Indians were not counting on vague promises made by white people (fuck that noise, Indians thought), they were depending on documents that Presidents themselves had signed in solemn rituals. But by passing allotment, then enforcing it, the federal government went back on its legal obligations, not to say its moral ones, evil motherfuckers. Congress declared it had plenary power over Native lands and thus could renege on the very contracts it had made. Of course it wasn’t phrased that way. Congress argued that it was trying to "help the Indian.” By turning Natives into property owners, the argument went, they would magically give up their culture, their history, their communities, and turn into permanently tanned white people.

Allotment had the result that white people who pushed for it really envisioned: Indians lost 90 million of the 140 million acres they held prior to the passing of the Dawes Act. The loss of this land did not turn Indians into thriving white-ish people. What it did was impoverish Native communities and turn Indians into dependent people. The endemic poverty found on reservations today is the legacy of allotment.

But how many non-Indians think of this history today? How many non-Indians think of Native people in specifically historical ways? If non-Indians think about Native people it is usually as a symbol of something, a symbol they, non-Indians, can identify with. I hear the song “Geronimo” on the radio and wonder what it means for its audience. The song evokes Native history as a kind of thrilling heroic resistance, as valor in the face of impossible odds, as boldness. I’ve argued here before that it is very difficult for popular music to represent history, but as this song illustrates it is quite easy for pop music to obscure it.