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A Trail Of Tears – Native American History Resonates For An Irish Audience

One of the leading online publications for news on the indigenous communities of the United Sates and Canada is the thirty-year old Indian Country Today. With its wide and varied reporting on all aspects of Native American life, culture and politics it has provided a real insight into how the aboriginal peoples of North America view themselves and has always been an interesting (and at times thought-provoking) read. This week it carries an article by Lindsey Catherine Cornum, a Navajo-Irish writer and scholar, on the anniversary of the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, when US troops murdered at least a 150 Lakota Sioux men, women and children in their custody (and perhaps as many as 350). It has more than a few resonances for the many people in Ireland who identify with our indigenous language and culture and the difficulties and prejudices we face in expressing that identity.

“Most of the time I don’t say, “Hi my name is Lindsey, and I’m an Indian.” I would feel false, insincere and presumptuous. That is why I identify as mixed-blood and qualify my Navajo with an Irish. But today is different. On this day in 1890 three hundred and fifty men, women and children were killed at Wounded Knee after being completely unarmed by American troops looking to capture the sickly Chief Big Foot as he lay on his death bed.

It was not the first time Indians were massacred and it wasn’t the last. Today the battle continues, sometimes bloody sometimes not. For a long time I didn’t even recognize myself as a part of that battle. I was in a state of surrender. But not today.

Hi my name is Lindsey, and I am an Indian.

They [the US government and nation] have tried to make me deny that. They have tried to silence my heritage. They have tried to take the land from my tribe and  take my tribe from me. They have tried to kill off the Indian inside for something more suitable. But not today.

I may be Indian, but I am not Sioux. I’ve never been to Pine Ridge. I’ve never seen a plain. I don’t know how to ride a horse, in fact they kind of scare me. But on this day I stand with the Sioux as a comrade and a relative.

I don’t know the day or the place but I can always remember the thought, in fact the series of thoughts, that secured my Native identity. I remember traversing the past, tracing back the lines of my family and fully realizing for the first time that I had ancestors who had lived for generations on this continent before any settlers. I then began to walk back to the present day. I knew that more painfully than I would ever experience they had witnessed the theft of land, language, clan members, tribal members, everything they held dear. I used to think of all this pain, all this loss as a sort of curse, the curse of a colonized people. Performing this act of time travel today, I know in a different context, it could just as easily have been my ancestors shot down, slaughtered and mutilated by the 7th cavalry regiment without warning or reason. Indeed, every tribe, every Native person, has their Wounded Knee moment, the time when they told you were dead or tried to make it so.

As a non-traditional mixed-blood who grew up in the suburbs, I often feel guilty, even ashamed, that I can’t live up physically or culturally to the model of an ideal Indian. I know in my mind that it’s not my fault. I didn’t give up my culture, my language, my people. They were taken from me. It may be my duty to struggle to regain these things but it is not my duty to feel bad that I was not born with the a legible and uncomplicated identity. Over the years I have accepted myself not as a traditional Indian, no, but as an Indian whose identity is founded in the struggle of all indigenous people for what is rightly theirs: their lands and lives.”

The full article (which also features on Cornum’s excellent blog) is well worth reading, with points that will seem all too familiar to an Irish readership.

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