Native American Spirit Survives Through Centuries of Struggle, Strickland Says

October 25, 2004

StricklandThe Native American struggle for survival since Europeans arrived in North America has not been one of isolated conflicts but rather an intellectual, legal, and cultural battle, said University of Oregon law professor Rennard Strickland '65, who spoke at an event sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Law and the Student Legal Forum Oct. 21.

Native American mythology tells of how Indians at the beginning of time were allowed to choose between a book and a bow as their weapon of choice, said Strickland, who is of Osage and Cherokee heritage. After much consideration, the Indian chose the bow because it protected him from enemies and provided food from the hunt. The white man, according to legend, was left with the book. The power of the book only became apparent when whites arrived in North America, after which the Indian soon added the book to his resources.

"Thus the book became a primary weapon in the Native struggle for survival," he said. "Change symbolized by the shift from book to bow and bow to book is central to the life of contemporary Native America. The last 500 years almost certainly produced more change than the last 25,000 years."

The Indians' struggle for survival is too often thought of as a series of guerilla battles, he said. "We dismiss nonmilitary conflict. We ignore the battles of the book." Such intellectual battles are fought in the news, on movie sets, in courtrooms, through the arts, in Congress, and at the water cooler of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "The spirited goals of native warriors remain much the same," he said. There is "only one struggle for survival, whether fought with book or bow."

During the past 500 years the Native American population collapsed from an estimated 25 to 50 million at its height to only 250,000 in 1890-a 95 percent drop over 400 years, Strickland said. The city at the site of the Cahokia mounds in Illinois during the 15th and 16th centuries was larger than London, Paris or Rome. The Native American population has only now returned to 2 million, according to the 2000 census. The past few centuries also saw the loss of 100 million acres of Indian lands, while the whale, fish, and deer populations also suffered. This loss was acknowledged by President Lyndon Johnson, who said, "The first Americans have become the last Americans."

"In order to fully understand the [500-year] war, the campaigns and the weapons must be viewed from the perspective of the combatants themselves," Strickland said. It's a battlefield of changing struggles that include "paintbrush warriors" (artists), "medical warriors" (physicians), "briefcase warriors" (lawyers), and more. Strickland explained that each of these areas would be outlined in his in-progress book, Spirit Red.

The effects of five centuries of enforced acculturation and dominance have had a lasting impact. Strickland recalled that after 9/11, Geronimo's picture appeared in newspapers across the country as the first terrorist, although from the Indian's perspective he was defending his homeland. Soon after the start of the Iraq War, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States would hold the oil fields in trust for the benefit of the Iraqi people, which sent shudders down the spines of some Native Americans, who remembered similar promises from the U.S. government that were later broken.

Strickland said Native Americans are not constantly at war with the United States. He reminded the audience that Indians have shed their blood in greater proportions in wars throughout American history, and made significant contributions as World War II code talkers.

While there are 560 federally recognized tribes, bands, or villages of Indians, each with their own history, "all have been, in a manner, allied in a common struggle." But questions of why Indians did not collaborate against whites, for example uniting behind the leaders who defeated Custer, continue to haunt Native Americans, he said.

Several courtroom campaigns have marked the history of the Native American struggle, and Strickland recounted the story of Standing Bear, a Ponca Indian who was determined to bury his sons in their Nebraska homeland. The U.S. government had forced the Ponca tribe to move to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma after they had promised the Ponca land to the Sioux Indians. A quarter of the tribe died within less than a year after being forced south, including Standing Bear's sons. On their way to bury them in their homelands, the Poncas were arrested in Kansas. In the resulting 1879 case, the U.S. attorney argued the Indians were not people and therefore did not have rights under U.S. law. Standing Bear was secretly supported by the general who arrested him and openly by local journalists and attorneys. A sympathetic federal district judge, Elmer Dundy, ruled in Standing Bear vs. Crookthat Indians are people under the law and the United States had no standing to hold them. However, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs applied the ruling narrowly to only Standing Bear and his people, who returned home to Nebraska.

Despite the significant role of law in the Indians' struggle, Strickland said the most significant battles happen outside the courtroom. "Many of these Indian battles are about stereotypes-false conceptions or false misconceptions." Such stereotypes have a long history. He noted that one account from early European explorers tells of Indians eating "smoked unicorn," while another claimed jewels grew from female Indians' navels.

As a result of continuing misconceptions, "Indian children are struggling for their identity." The first Native American Grammy winner, Navajo flautist Raymond Nakai, faced rejection after he, band teachers from his school, and tribe members wrote Julliard on his behalf. Julliard officials wrote that although his GPA and test scores were good, he would find it difficult to survive in music school because Native Americans do not have a significant music culture. "I need to show people that my culture is important," Nakai said in response. On the flip side, in 1959 Native American artist Oscar Howe's submission to an Indian art show was rejected because it was deemed "non-Indian." Howe retorted, "Indian art can compete with any art in the world, but not as suppressed art."

"The arts are vital weapons on this shifting battlefield," Strickland said. "Art and literature, music and dance, theater and film attack the false image through beauty and majesty, satire and pathos, in real and imagined situations." He added that he has spent his life responding, or not responding, to comments that he doesn't look like an Indian. He savored the retort of Smithsonian Native American folklorist Rayna Green: "And you don't look rude, either."

Strickland said he found the current administration's focus on biological weapons ironic, in particular the attention paid to the threat of smallpox. Many more Indians died of smallpox than of warfare, he noted. Historical documents suggest it was used as a biological weapon by Europeans, and the U.S. government chose not to inoculate tribe members. "Few Indians were ever protected from smallpox epidemics," he said, at a time when all frontier soldiers were inoculated.

Even in the 20th century, the Indian Health Service involuntarily sterilized Indian women as late as the 1960s and likely into the 1980s. A General Accounting Office investigation of three of the 12 hospitals found that 3,406 women were sterilized from 1973-76. That proportionally compares to sterilizing 452,000 white women. One woman who visited a private fertility clinic hoping to conceive only then learned she had been sterilized. "Could I have a womb transplant?" she had asked. Frontier generals in the 19th century similarly instructed their troops to shoot Indian women first, to protect themselves against unborn sons.

In the early century, several tribes petitioned the government to create an Indian state. They had listened to Thomas Jefferson's suggestion that Indians follow whites' example in order to be considered their equal. They created Anglo-based legal systems and laid a foundation for statehood. The delegates met in Oklahoma in 1905 to affirm their constitution at the Sequoia Convention, but instead of fulfilling the promise of congressional representation and statehood, the U.S. government divided their land, abolished the Indian courts, and ended their governing power.

Despite this squandered turning point, Native American culture has survived near-extinction. Strickland said one of the greatest joys of his professional life was when, as the American Association of Law Schools president, he introduced Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller as the first (and still only) head of state to speak at the annual AALS address. She predicted that 500 years from now the Native American people and culture will remain strong.

Strickland echoed her sentiments. "May all our wars of the next 500 years be fought with the book and not the bow," he concluded.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights