History is written by the victors.
Though true, as a person of faith, this idea has always bothered me. If history is written by the victors, then how will the stories of those who are oppressed be told? How can we fight oppression and injustices if we remain unaware of them?
These are questions I pondered on my recent week-long mission trip to the Red Lake Indian Reservation through Youth Works Missions. One night on our trip, we heard from a respected tribal leader, Keith. Among other things, Keith talked about the Sioux Uprising, an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of the eastern Sioux.
Prior to hearing Keith talk about this event, what I knew about the Sioux Uprising was limited to a program I heard recently on NPR, not anything I'd learned in school.
As I understand it, problems between the Sioux and area settlers began in the 1850s with repeated treaty violations by the United States and late or unfair annuity payments by Indian agents. This, in turn, caused increasing hunger and hardship among the Sioux. Rather than treat Natives fairly, area settlers instead insisted, “Let them eat grass.”
Then, on August 17, 1862, a Sioux hunting party killed five settlers. That night additional Sioux attacked settlements throughout the Minnesota River valley in order to try to drive whites out of the area. (Some believe they killed as many as 800 settlers that night.) Over the next several months, continued battles pit the Sioux against settlers and later, the United States Army. By December 1862, soldiers had taken captive more than a thousand Sioux, who were jailed in Minnesota. According to Keith, the United States was going to kill these Natives "because they wanted to feed their families.”
Eventually, 38 of the Sioux were hung on December 26, 1862 in the largest one-day execution in American history.
The executions were authorized by President Abraham Lincoln, who is, of course, perhaps best known for abolishing slavery.
In April 1863, the remaining Sioux were expelled from Minnesota to Nebraska and South Dakota. The United States Congress abolished their reservations.
As I heard Keith recount this piece of Native American history, I wondered why the Sioux Uprising is not covered in American history classes in high school. One of my students echoed this sentiment, questioning, “Why do we learn so much about the Civil Rights movement and hardly anything about what we did to the Native Americans?” The only thing she remembered learning about Native American history was a brief mention of the Trail of Tears.
Contrast this with the Holocaust during WWII, which we talk about often. When we do, we commonly use phrases like “Never Again” to represent the hope we have that by talking and remembering horrific events like these, we'll make it harder for history to repeat itself.
Why is the same not true of Native Americans?
Don't we have an obligation – to them and to us – to tell the stories of Native Americans, even if they feature white America (and our government) as villains?
In the process of preparing for our trip to the reservation, people consistently asked me, “Why are you going to a Native American reservation for your mission trip?”
Certainly, the reasons for this kind of trip are many.
Chief among them, however, is the fact that trips like these actually correct history.
By meeting, interacting with, and learning from those who are oppressed, students learn the stories – the pieces of our collective history – that are not told in our history books. They come face to face with injustice.
When they do, they have the choice to do something about it.
Don't get me wrong: A week of service on a Native American reservation doesn't make up for centuries of oppression.
Nevertheless, it's something.
It's an opportunity to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). It's an opportunity to practice “pure religion” by “caring for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). It's an opportunity to see ourselves through the eyes of another; To piece together bits of fragmented truth and in the process, to understand who's paid the price for our success as a people and nation.
It's an opportunity to correct history by sharing these previously untold stories with others.
When that opportunity is seized, it's the chance to learn from history and do our part to ensure the injustices of the past do not continue in the future.