Monday, May 28, 2007

Wounded Knee

Last night I watched the HBO film Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee based on the Dee Brown book of the same title. I thought that the film did a good job portraying the central dilemma facing First Nations people in both Canada and the USA during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Essentially the problem was that in the clash of cultures that took place during those years the First Nations people were not likely to gain any kind of advantage. The attitude of the dominant European culture was that the native inhabitants of the land should be assimilated into the dominant culture - or become extinct. The problem was that those First Nations people who did try to become "white men" as a result of their experiences in the "white man's" schools soon found that they lost touch with their own communities and culture and at the same time were not fully accepted into the dominant culture.

Charles, the main character in the film, has such an experience. We first encounter him at the time of the battle of the Little Big Horn. In the aftermath of this battle his father takes the path of assimilation and he, Charles, (I forget his Sioux name) is sent east to school. He returns to his people years later as a doctor but finds that corruption,bureaucracy, and indifference make it impossible for him to have a meaningful impact on behalf of his people. The film culminates with the massacre at Wounded Knee where the members of the US 7th Cavalry (Custer's unit at Little Big Horn) open fire on a mostly unarmed group of Sioux.

The story illustrates a very real tragedy. I can not imagine any alternative situation (given the culture of the 19th century) that would not have had a tragic outcome for the First Nations inhabitants of this land. There were, of course, many other outcomes that were far more tragic. It appears for example that the native inhabitants of the Caribbean islands were driven to extinction quite early in the period of European contact. The Beothuk, inhabitants of Newfoundland were also driven to extinction, mostly as a result of European contact.

The problem I have in my way of thinking is regarding what to do about this tragedy. Very real damage was done to some people. (I have already written regarding my sympathy for those students in residential schools who were the victims of sexual or physical abuse). The question is what can or should be done for the First Nations people? Is there a way for them to maintain their culture and exist in the majority society without having some measure of economic sovereignty? Will there ever come a time when the majority society does not "owe" them for what was done by our forefathers to their forefathers?

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