Native Americans: the Sioux Pursuit of Happiness
Although the Declaration of Independence is commonly held to be one of the most important documents ever written in history, the ramifications of this document and the other documents of the American Revolution which heralded an unprecedented birth of democracy and a Constitutional government are not as cut and dried as the popular perception of history may allow. Most strikingly, both the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution failed to address the issue of slavery in the colonies and in the future nation of America. This glaringly paradoxical omission in the beginning documents of America was to carry serious repercussions during America’s years of expansion and Westward building. Those not protected by the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, such as African Americans and Native Americans, found themselves not in a land of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but in a foreboding land of aggression, racism, and social hierarchy.
That the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the American constitution avoided making any definitive proclamation regarding the institution of slavery is generally regarded to have been facilitated by the infamous “Three-fifths Compromise,” which is acknowledged by most constitutional scholars as one of the most significant aspects of the constitutional convention and the ultimate implementation of the American form of representational democracy. The “Three-fifths Compromise,” while only indirectly related to the issue of slavery on the surface, actually had its roots in the economic and political interests of geographical regions of the United States, namely the agrarian South and the industrial North. The South, which held less populated states, also included a large number of slaves; under the “Three-fifths Compromise,” slaves were to be counted, not an entire populace, but in three-fifths of their true numbers: “The compromise reached was to count only three-fifths of the number of slaves (referred to euphemistically as “other Persons”) for representation and taxation,” (Hoar, 2005, p. 42)
The Sioux Tribes have suffered, historically, the same types of prejudices and injustices as Native American groups as a whole; however, certain historical events, such as the Sioux Uprising and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, as well as more recent events such as the Sioux occupation of Alcatraz Island serve to illustrate the degree to which Native Americans have been discriminated against and abysmally treated by white Americans for centuries. Racial discrimination against the Sioux tribes is endemic to American history, just as it extends to pre-colonial America during the era of the Spanish Conquest, when the wholesale butchering and oppression of Native Americans began. “The insufferable smugness and complacency of the white man finds its ultimate expression in the words of Charles A. Bryant, […] since the Indian did not obey the divine injunction to subdue the earth, he was “in the wrongful possession of a continent required by the superior right of the white man” (Meyer, 1993, p. 116).
The crisis of social and racial injustice against Native Americans, and with them, the Sioux Tribes has persisted on into the present day. As recently as the 1990’s, Native American Tribes protested the exploitative use of Native images and names for commercial products and sports teams. In the 1980’s, Native Americans protested the excessive fishing and lumber-harvesting of Native lands, often on sacred grounds. However, these seemingly innocuous activities are a poor indication of the historical discrimination and brutality with which the Sioux Tribes have been historically faced. Avenues of discrimination extend (but are not limited to): Legal Discrimination, Economic Discrimination, Educational Discrimination, Criminal Justice Discrimination, and Medical Discrimination. By denying Sioux tribes of equal access to these important social institutions and services, the racial discrimination against native people strikes out against them at every Native meaningful social level, creating a wasteland of social opportunity that, in turn, reinforces the basis of discrimination and prejudices held against Sioux and other Native peoples in the first place.
Examples of legal discrimination include treaties and laws, meant to deceive of deny Native Americans their rights rather than preserve them. “Between 1785 and 1866, over 400 treaties were made with the Indians, and it is fairly well-known that every one of them were broken” (Dakota Blues, 2006). Typically, a treaty would be made with the Sioux to grant them land-rights which were then overturned by another act of government or the treaties simply were not enforced by the American government. Other instances of institutionalized legal discrimination include: “The Major Crimes Act (1885). This extended U.S. law enforcement jurisdiction into Indian territories, effectively breaking all treaties that guaranteed they could have responsibility for law enforcement themselves” (Dakota Blues,2006) as well as the “The Indian Citizenship Act (1924). This conferred U.S. citizenship on all Indians who wanted it and would renounce their claims to tribal identity” (Dakota Blues,2006) and the “Relocation Act (1956). This qualified Indians for job training if they moved off the reservation to urban areas” (Dakota Blues, 2006).
In addition, tribal lands have been co-opted, federally, and many native Americans of Sioux descent have been forced to seek government employment at a diminished rate of pay: “Some 60% of all Native Americans work for the government in some capacity via […] business-lease subsidy arrangements[…] The average income is about 66% of that for whites, the lowest per capita income of any population group in the U.S.” (Dakota Blues,2006). Unemployment and poverty are rampant on Sioux reservations: “most reservation dwellings are huts, shacks, or cabins. Native Native Americans tend to have lower-quality housing than whites” (Dakota Blues,2006). Several studies on homelessness have found a disproportionate number of Native Americans.
The criminal justice system perpetuates likewise disparities. “Most police and court districts take in a part of the reservations, but there may be civil authorities or reservation laws which don’t make the “bust” legal. Conflicts may erupt between Native Americans and other citizens over the issues of fishing rights and trespass/suspected looting of sacred burial ground” (Dakota Blues,2006) Additionally, a higher percentage per capita of Native Americans are imprisoned in America: “Native Americans comprise about 5% of the prison population, an over-representation for a group that only makes up less than 1% of the U.S. population” (Dakota Blues, 2006).
These types of prejudices and discrimination have roots in the perception of Native Americans as less-than-human; these prejudices have arisen out of historical events and are largely the consequence of one race displacing another from its lands, beliefs, religious convictions, social structure, myths, and culture. Nowhere is this blatant mistreatment and prejudice against the Sioux Tribes more obvious than in the case of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, where Sioux innocents were slaughtered by white cavalry. The US Cavalry “ gunned down 300 Indian men, women, and children for participating in a Ghost Dance, the purpose of which is to enter a world inhabited only by Indians”(Dakota Blues, 2006); this act of atrocity was aimed at every level of Native American society and manifests the endemic white racism and brutality in microcosm. “For three days, they were left to lie where they had fallen while a winter blizzard swept over them. A burial party was sent to the scene on New Year’s Day, 1891. […] Four babies were discovered still alive, wrapped in their dead mothers’ shawls. Most of the other children were dead” (Dakota Blues, 2006). The massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee is an obvious example of brutality and injustice; however, as recounted in the above remarks, prejudice and discrimination against the Sioux tribes persist is subtler but no less damaging forms to this day.
Meyer, Roy W. (1993). History of the Santee Sioux United States Indian Policy on Trial. Revised
ed. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Anonymous, (2006). Dakota Blues: The History f the Great Sioux Nation, 9-25-06, http://www.
dakotablues.nl ; accessed 1-25-09
Hoar, W. P. (2005, June 27). “Three-Fifths of a Man”. The New American, 21, 42.