Black Kettle. Red Cloud. Sitting Bull. These Native American tribal leaders have been my company for the past few weeks as I have been reading Dee Brown’s seminal book (no pun intended) Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.
While this account is not light reading, it is enlightening. Enlightening not just to the hidden history of the way the West was truly won, but even more so to the insidious nature of racism.
I found myself reading about the gross injustices committed against a multitude of Native American tribes just days after the Philando Castile verdict. Clearly, racism is not a problem of a past century or a premature way of thinking chased away by the advancement of science.
With tears in my eyes and disgust in my heart, I read and reread the story of Black Kettle and his Cheyenne people.
Black Kettle and Lean Bear, another Cheyenne chief, had taken a trip to Washington meet the Great Father of the white man. “President Lincoln gave them medals to wear on their breasts, and Colonel Greenwood presented Black Kettle with a United States flag, a huge garrison flag with white stars for the thirty-four states bigger than glittering stars in the sky on a clear night. Colonel Greenwood had told him that as long as that flag flew above him no soldiers would ever fire upon him. Black Kettle was very proud of his flag and when in permanent camp, always mounted it on a pole above his tepee.”
Many years and honest attempts at keeping shifting and shady peace treaties later, Black Kettle and his diminishing people were camped at Sand Creek, with his tent at the center of the village. “So confident were the Indians of absolute safety, they kept no night watch except of the pony herd which was corralled below the creek. The first warning they had of an attack was about sunrise- the drumming of hooves on the sand flats.”
According to George Bent, a white man who had become an honorary Cheyenne, “From down the creek, a large body of troops was advancing at a rapid trot….men, women and children, rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at the sight of the troops…I looked toward the chief’s lodge and saw that Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole with the flag fluttering in the gray light of the winter dawn. I heard him call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them; then the troops fired from two sides of the camp.”
To spare you the gruesome details, the horrific situation which followed, known as the Sand Creek Massacre, took the lives of 105 Indian women and children and 28 men.
According to Brown, “In a public speech made in Denver not long before this massacre, Colonel Chivington advocated the killing and scalping of all Indians, including infants, saying “Nits make lice!”
Racist actions are bred from racist thoughts which begin in our very broken human hearts. As easy as it would be to point fingers and call those people racists, we must take an even more radical approach to dealing with racism.
In the words of Solzhenitsyn, one personally familiar with evil, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Racism is a radical heart issue, one that begins at the root of every human heart. As such, it must be dealt with radically, not only on the surface.
There are two different ways to weed my garden, as my children can tell you. The quick, painless way to weed is to pull the leaves off the intrusive guests that push their way through the gravel outside our garden. With little effort, the garden looks well kept…until the next week.
The second more painful yet more lasting option is to bloody one’s knuckles twisting, pulling and yanking at the deep root systems whose lengths far the exceed the visible problem.
When addressing racism, I must begin in my heart, recognizing that the capacity to judge and mistreat others is indeed my problem. As much as I rightly want to rightly call Colonel Chivington and his miserable remarks evil, the gospel tells me that I must call my own evil what it is before God.
From Racism to Redemption
Racism: a certain road from pride
Potent. Present. Palpable
In every human heart,
Must be suffocated,
Lest it rip lives apart.
Repent. Resist. Run from
This evil in every form,
Lest we be engulfed
In its hatred storm.
Marches. Pamphlets. Protests
Help but cannot cure.
Rooting out racism
Holy. Human. Hope.
He is full of grace of truth.
Jesus, slain on a cross,
Halts a tooth for a tooth.
Redemption: a road from death
to borrowed breath.