I turned a corner at the National Museum of the American Indian last week and found myself staring at the cherubic cheeks of Henry Knox -- George Washington's Secretary of War and one of my all-time favorite Revolutionary leaders. I've got a love a man who starts his career as a Boston bookseller and propels himself to extraordinary heights in Washington's army and then his cabinet. I've also got to love a man known for standing for his convictions.
Before my eyes even pulled back to see the context of the larger exhibit I had stumbled upon, I saw my man Knox going on record yet again to make his humanity clear. He spoke about the territorial dispute between the Muscogee Indians of my old home state of Georgia and the fledgling United States:
"The Indians being the prior occupants, possess the right of the soil," he said. "It cannot be taken from them unless by their free consent."
I stepped back to take in the bigger picture of the exhibit -- "Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations." (The exhibit opened in late September of this year and will run until 2018.)
The word "humanity" quickly escaped my mind as it is rarely ever associated with how colonists-turned-Americans treated Native people ... the people our forefathers slaughtered, uprooted and nearly reduced to extinction. I'm still not sure why we don't more often use the term "genocide" to describe what we did to American Indians. What other word is there when one group of people systematically tries to wipe another group of people off the face of the earth?
"We want nothing from you but justice," Muscogee Alexander McGillivray said in 1785. "We want our hunting grounds preserved from encroachments. They have been ours from the beginning of time."
Knox and the Washington administration at least initially tried to do the right thing so solve the land disputes with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. And by dispute I mean that Americans wanted all the land and thought that Indians should have none. We thus went to our go-to move: We signed an elaborate peace treaty between Georgia and the United States and the Muscogee Indians, celebrating the event with an elaborate signing ceremony, gifts from the President of the United States to local chiefs, great fanfare including front page stories in newspapers and maybe even handshakes all-around.
I love Article 6 and Article 7 of the 1790 Treaty With The Creeks, one of the first this country signed with American Indians: "The United States solemnly guarantee to the Creek Nation, all their lands within the limits of the United States to the westward and southward of the boundary described in the preceding article. If any citizen of the United States, or other person not being an Indian, shall attempt to settle on any of the Creek lands, such person shall forfeit the protection of the United States and the Creeks may punish him or not, as they please."
Put another way: "We'll take more of your land and stay here, you take that and stay there," the treaty essentially said, "until we want more land. Then we will just run you over again. If you don't like it, you can completely abandon your language and culture and assimilate to our ways, or we will either kill you or march you across the country until many of you drop dead."
That's essentially what happened in Georgia. The Muscogee upheld their end of the bargain while we found every way possible to dishonor the agreement. We then committed the Muscogee Nation Removal from 1827-1838, when we made some 23,000 men, women and children march 750 miles to Oklahoma. Think Congress and the President are despicable in 2014? Try 1830, when they passed The Indian Removal Act and sent American Indians along "The Trail of Tears."
I spent that day at the museum with a visiting friend of mine and his new bride Austin, both from Georgia. We ate lunch together in the museum cafeteria, which by the way is one of the very best places in all of Washington to eat lunch. The museum serves a wide variety of freshly cooked, mostly healthy and authentic cuisine representing Native American cuisine from across the country. Austin told me that her mother reached a point some years ago in which it became too morally difficult for her to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving meal. She believed that doing so flew in the face of the larger historical truth -- not the quaint little slice of it we all like to picture on that day about colonists sitting down with Indians -- of United States/Indian relations.
Austin's mom cooked up a new way to honor what the holiday means today and also pay homage to the Native People we persecuted. Gone are the turkey and trimmings, replaced by the most accurate kinds of various Indian foods she can make. Austin's family still gathers to enjoy each other's company and to give thanks for the blessings in their lives but they do so in a way that acknowledges the spirit of the people we wronged to get here. (That's just one group of people we treated shamefully, of course. There's a long list but we're talking about Thanksgiving and Native people here.)
I love Austin's mom's idea and plan to incorporate it into my own Thanksgiving this year. I won't quibble over what percentage of the meal is genuinely Native American my first time out of the box. This will take some practice and experience to master. It's the thought and effort that count.
"When you act and speak you must think of all of your relatives -- known and unknown," said modern-day Muscogee Indian Hiyvtke in 2001. "You must also remember the plants, the animals, the living things, and the ancient ones -- those who have gone before you."
I may even set an honorary place for my cherubic-cheeked friend. Henry Knox died in 1806, nearly a quarter-century before the U.S. passed The Indian Removal Act. He was a good man and I would like to honor his memory, too.
[Not already subscribing to DC Reflections? Sign up today. I would also be greatly honored if you shared this blog with friends.]