Welcome to the
NATIVE AMERICAN HOLOCAUST MUSEUM:
The greatest and most horific Holocaust in recorded history.
Forgiveness in the Age of Forgetfulness
by Michael J. Rutledge
©1995 Michael J. Rutledge, All Rights Reserved.
[I] witnessed the execution of the most brutal order in the history of American warfare.
I saw the helpless Cherokee arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into ... wagons and start toward the west.
One can never forget the sadness and solemnity of that morning. Chief John Ross led in prayer and when the bugle sounded and the wagons started rolling many of the children rose to their feet and waved their little hands good-bye to their mountain homes, knowing they were leaving them forever.
John G. Barnett, Former Army Private on his Eightieth Birthday, December 11, 1890
Table of Contents
Forgiveness in the Age of Forgetfulness
by Michael J. Rutledge
©1995 Michael J. Rutledge, All Rights Reserved
My grandfather Mammedaty was given a horse; he was given a fine black horse in Oklahoma. This was some years ago, before I was born. And yet it is an important event to me and to my understanding of an Indian heritage. . . . It is a memory that persists in the blood, and there only.1
I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's;
I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.2
If I had known Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him at the Horseshoe. 3
At least twice a week I conducted legal business in the Jackson County Courthouse, in Kansas City, Missouri. Jackson County is named for Andrew Jackson and a bronze memorial statue of him astride a proud steed lies before the courthouse steps so that I crossed its path when I entered the courthouse.
Surrounded by attractively arranged flowers in the spring and summer, Jackson's monument is a point of beauty and civic pride for those conducting legal business in the courthouse. Yet, each time I passed by Jackson's monument, I spat upon it with contempt. It was a small gesture, but one filled with personal meaning.
Andrew Jackson is the Hitler of my people. What makes him doubly hated by the Cherokee is that our people helped him win the battle against the Creeks that raised him to national prominence. He was quick to forget us; for our pains, he rewarded us with the Trail of Tears. 4
From the earliest time I can remember, my grandmother and mother told me of the Trail of Tears. The story is not a fairy tale, with a happy ending. It was not told to comfort me or to teach me a moral truth. I was told so that I would not forget. I was told because it is my history, the history of my family, a story of treachery and survival.
I do not know when the memory first started; it always was. My memory is something I have never spoken about or shared with others, even my family. Some might believe it is the result of an overactive imagination. Some might believe I internalized the story from the many times I heard it. I know it is a gift. From whom I do not know. The memory simply is and always will be.
Survival = Anger Imagination.
Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.5
As American Indians, we are often told to forget what happened in the past. It is time to get on with things as they are, we are informed. To be honest, when people tell me to forget the past, I usually think it a singular example of ignorance and pomposity on their part and dismiss them and their request from my thoughts. I realize non-Indians are talking about what is merely history to them. I know they do not know about my blood-memory, much less understand it.
Something has caused me to revisit this question, however. Reading Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower returned me to the question of forgiveness. Not far from forgiveness lay the question of forgetting. Forgetting and Forgiveness are not the same thing. I began to devote some thought to just what Americans were asking us to do, when they request us to forget the atrocities of the past.
Where Wiesenthal was a direct victim of the Nazi atrocities, I was not on the Trail of Tears, although it is with me each day. Where Wiesenthal was asked forgiveness by someone who actively participated in killing Jews, I am being asked to forget by the descendants of the murderers of my people.
Yet, the similarity of our situations are striking. Wiesenthal comments that even two years after the world discovered the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, Jews were encouraged to forget what happened. Even in 1946, the atrocities of the Nazis had overwhelmed the world as evidence was uncovered. "But ere long priests, philanthropists and philosophers implored the world to forgive the Nazis. . . . [They] found compassion for the murderers of innocent millions."6 In the face of the horrible truth, the world could not force itself to confront reality, so it attempted to forget it; to create a more pleasant fiction. It is remarkable that in only two years time, no German ever knew a Nazi.
Wiesenthal was asked by a young, dying Nazi SS officer to forgive him for a horrendous, bestial act against Jews. Wiesenthal listened to the man's confession, but said nothing to assuage the guilt of the dying SS officer. Instead, he left the room without saying a word. Wiesenthal's decision to not forgive troubled him thereafter. Several years after World War II ended, Wiesenthal looked up the SS officer's mother in Stuttgart.
Wiesenthal did not tell the SS officer's mother the truth of how he had come to know her son, Karl. Like any proud mother, she bragged about Karl to Simon. He was a "good boy." She told him of her husband who opposed the fascist regime. Many clues were available for Karl's mother, yet she remained in complicitous ignorance of what was going on around her. When at last she finds out Simon is Jewish, she quickly disavows responsibility for what happened. "In this district we always lived with the Jews in a very peaceful fashion. We are not responsible for their fate," she says.7 Wiesental responds:
Yes, that is what they all say now. And I can well believe it of you, but there are others from whom I won't take it. The question of Germany's guilt may never be settled. But one thing is certain: no German can shrug off the responsibility. Even if he has no personal guilt, he must share the shame of it. As a member of a guilty nation he cannot simply walk away like a passenger leaving a tramcar, whenever he chooses. It is the duty of Germans to find out who was guilty. And the non-guilty must dissociate themselves publicly from the guilty.8
Karl's mother expresses her disbelief at the stories that are surfacing about the slaughter of the Jews. In the end, she finally says, "I can well believe what people said -- so many dreadful things happened. But one thing is certain, Karl never did any wrong. He was always a decent young man."9 Wiesenthal left her with her image of her son intact.
Should I leave Americans' mistaken sense of history intact? Should they be allowed to forget the past; to disavow responsibility for the actions of their forefathers? Despite my previous response to the question, I now believe it is a question that deserves consideration. Just what does this request to forget the past mean? Am I wrong for not forgiving Americans? Do they deserve forgiveness? Can I really forget this blood memory?
Wiesenthal felt that "[t]he crux of the matter is . . . the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision."10
As we shall see, Indians do not forget so easily. I believe that both forgiveness and the act of forgetting (by request) are acts of volition. The question I face is very different from the one that confronted Wiesenthal. Still, if I am to either forget or forgive, it is a decision I must make.
How horrible it is to have so many people killed!
And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!11
This is what I remember. It is the bits and pieces of the memories of a young boy, full of feelings and observations, but without complete comprehension. The boy is my great-great-grandfather, Samuel Cloud. The memory is from his vantage point, so I will share it with you in the same way.
It is Spring. The leaves are on the trees. I am playing with my friends when white men in uniforms ride up to our home. My mother calls me. I can tell by her voice that something is wrong. Some of the men ride off. My mother tells me to gather my things, but the men don't allow us time to get anything. They enter our home and begin knocking over pottery and looking into everything. My mother and I are taken by several men to where their horses are and are held there at gun point. The men who rode off return with my father, Elijah. They have taken his rifle and he is walking toward us.
I can feel his anger and frustration. There is nothing he can do. From my mother I feel fear. I am filled with fear, too. What is going on? I was just playing, but now my family and my friends' families are gathered together and told to walk at the point of a bayonet.
We walk a long ways. My mother does not let me get far from her. My father is walking by the other men, talking in low, angry tones. The soldiers look weary, as though they'd rather be anywhere else but here.
They lead us to a stockade. They herd us into this pen like we are cattle. No one was given time to gather any possessions. The nights are still cold in the mountains and we do not have enough blankets to go around. My mother holds me at night to keep me warm. That is the only time I feel safe. I feel her pull me to her tightly. I feel her warm breath in my hair. I feel her softness as I fall asleep at night.
As the days pass, more and more of our people are herded into the stockade. I see other members of my clan. We children try to play, but the elders around us are anxious and we do not know what to think. I often sit and watch the others around me. I observe the guards. I try not to think about my hunger. I am cold.
Several months have passed and still we are in the stockades. My father looks tired. He talks with the other men, but no one seems to know what to do or what is going to happen. We hear that white men have moved into our homes and are farming our fields. What will happen to us? We are to march west to join the Western Cherokees. I don't want to leave these mountains.
My mother, my aunts and uncles take me aside one day. "Your father died last night," they tell me. My mother and my father's clan members are crying, but I do not understand what this means. I saw him yesterday. He was sick, but still alive. It doesn't seem real. Nothing seems real. I don't know what any of this means. It seems like yesterday, I was playing with my friends.
It is now Fall. It seems like forever since I was clean. The stockade is nothing but mud. In the morning it is stiff with frost. By mid-afternoon, it is soft and we are all covered in it. The soldiers suddenly tell us we are to follow them. We are led out of the stockade. The guards all have guns and are watching us closely. We walk. My mother keeps me close to her. I am allowed to walk with my uncle or an aunt, occasionally.
We walk across the frozen earth. Nothing seems right anymore. The cold seeps through my clothes. I wish I had my blanket. I remember last winter I had a blanket, when I was warm. I don't feel like I'll ever be warm again. I remember my father's smile. It seems like so long ago.
We walked for many days. I don't know how long it has been since we left our home, but the mountains are behind us. Each day, we start walking a little later. They bury the dead in shallow graves, because the ground is frozen. As we walk past white towns, the whites come out to watch us pass. No words are spoken to them. No words are said to us. Still, I wish they would stop staring. I wish it were them walking in this misery and I were watching them. It is because of them that we are walking. I don't understand why, but I know that much. They made us leave our homes. They made us walk to this new place we are heading in the middle of winter. I do not like these people. Still, they stare at me as I walk past.
We come to a big river, bigger than I have ever seen before. It is flowing with ice. The soldiers are not happy. We set up camp and wait. We are all cold and the snow and ice seem to hound us, claiming our people one by one. North is the color of blue, defeat and trouble. From there a chill wind blows for us as we wait by a frozen river. We wait to die.
My mother is coughing now. She looks worn. Her hands and face are burning hot. My aunts and uncles try to take care of me, so she can get better. I don't want to leave her alone. I just want to sit with her. I want her to stroke my hair, like she used to do. My aunts try to get me to sleep by them, but at night, I creep to her side. She coughs and it wracks her whole body. When she feels me by her side, she opens her blanket and lets me in. I nestle against her feverish body. I can make it another day, I know, because she is here.
When I went to sleep last night, my mother was hot and coughing worse than usual. When I woke up, she was cold. I tried to wake her up, but she lay there. The soft warmth she once was, she is no more. I kept touching her, as hot tears stream down my face. She couldn't leave me. She wouldn't leave me.
I hear myself call her name, softly, then louder. She does not answer. My aunt and uncle come over to me to see what is wrong. My aunt looks at my mother. My uncle pulls me from her. My aunt begins to wail. I will never forget that wail. I did not understand when my father died. My mother's death I do not understand, but I suddenly know that I am alone. My clan will take care of me, but I will be forever denied her warmth, the soft fingers in my hair, her gentle breath as we slept. I am alone. I want to cry. I want to scream in rage. I can do nothing.
We bury her in a shallow grave by the road. I will never forget that lonesome hill of stone that is her final bed, as it fades from my sight. I tread softly by my uncle, my hand in his. I walk with my head turned, watching that small hill as it fades from my sight. The soldiers make us continue walking. My uncle talks to me, trying to comfort me. I walk in loneliness.
I know what it is to hate. I hate those white soldiers who took us from our home. I hate the soldiers who make us keep walking through the snow and ice toward this new home that none of us ever wanted. I hate the people who killed my father and mother.
I hate the white people who lined the roads in their woolen clothes that kept them warm, watching us pass. None of those white people are here to say they are sorry that I am alone. None of them care about me or my people. All they ever saw was the color of our skin. All I see is the color of theirs and I hate them.
[M]urder is murder, whether committed by the villian in the dark, or by uniformed men stepping to the strains of martial music. Murder is murder and somebody must answer, somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the Summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the four thousand silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of . . . wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory.12
According to the family tale, my great-great grandfather turned nine on the Trail of Tears. In my memory, he seems much younger. He was alone when he got to the new Cherokee Nation and was placed in an orphanage. I do not have a memory as to what happened to the rest of his clan who should have cared for him, but I assume they too died on the Trail.
This memory persists through the years. I can move around in the memory and look at different things. I cannot see the faces of Samuel's parents or specific people. When I look at their faces, something like a cataract prevents me from seeing their features. Yet I can feel Samuel's feelings for them. I can feel his mother's body, my great-great-great-grandmother as he falls to sleep next to her. I can feel her love.
As I walk down that road in his body, with people as far as I can see before me and as far as I can see behind me, I feel confusion at what is occurring. When the whites gather alongside the road to watch the Cherokee death march, I can feel their lack of caring about what is occurring. They are there for the entertainment value alone. Like Jane Austen, they talk benignly about how sad it is that some Indian died last night; they see the graves along the roadside. How nice for them that they care for none of us, dead or alive.
My memory is vivid, but it is the memory of a child. I see snippets of things here and there. But they are things Samuel was determined never to forget. I feel most palpably his loneliness. I think it is something that never left him throughout his life.
I still feel his hatred of those who caused the deaths of his parents and clanmembers. It is a childish hatred. It is a valid hatred. Samuel understands there is an imbalance created by the actions of those whites who set him and his family on that trail. He wants the debt paid. It is something I cannot forget. It is something I will not forget. The memory is in my blood.
The reservation doesn't sing anymore but the songs still hang in the air. Every molecule waits for a drumbeat; every element dreams lyrics. Today I am walking between water, two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen, and the energy expelled is named Forgiveness.13
I understand that non-Indian Americans desire that we forget the past. Still, this is a broad request. The request implies that all Indians forget all the atrocities. It is important to clarify the issue of standing, for I do not believe I have the right to forget or forgive for the entire Cherokee Nation, much less for all Indians. I am not empowered by my nation to do that. The offense at hand was committed by one nation on another. While I am not empowered to forgive for the entire Cherokee nation, I think this moral examination will still be worthy of my people to consider in their own individual considerations of this same question.
The analysis of this question, then, is limited to me, individually. While Americans might prefer to have all Indians forget all the wrongs, such wide-scale forgetfulness simply is not possible. Such a request may be fulfillable only one Indian at a time. Still, I believe my personal quest will reveal a path should Americans desire to seek true forgiveness from all Indian nations.
The memory is one I experience. The moral hatred, although originally felt by my ancestor is one I continue to feel. This moral hatred I feel is different from that felt by my ancestor. I do not seek to forget his hatred; it is his alone. To forget or to forgive must be an act of volition on my part. I do not have standing to forget or to forgive the greater wrong of the Trail of Tears, but only the moral hatred that I feel.
Precisely what is desired from me? Webster's Dictionary defines "forget" in three ways:
- 1) To lose remembrance of;
- 2) To treat with inattention or disregard; or
- 3) To disregard intentionally; to overlook.14
The precise meaning of the American request is ambiguous, so let us consider the permutations. I do not think Americans are asking me to lose the memory of the past when asking me to forget. As my memory shows, it is probably impossible to try to do, anyway. The next definition of forgetfulness seems closer, but doesn't quite fit. Although it evokes a sense of the volition involved in the process, it is not being done at the request of another. The third definition seems the best fit of the three for this situation. As I already noted, to grant the American request requires an act of volition on my part. This definition implies a request, as well as the need for my volition in the matter. I believe the American request to be one that asks American Indians to intentionally disregard or to overlook the past.15
To forget is to intentionally overlook something more or less inconsequential. It costs me little to forget a wine stain on the carpet. Indeed, it provides me an opportunity to look magnanimous without losing much morally or personally. It is merely a question of a possession and monetary damage. This I can forget.
The Trail of Tears is no wine stain on the carpet, however. It was a knowing, morally wrong act that goes far beyond something so simple to overlook. The moral element seems so compelling to me that mere forgetting is either impossible or ineffective.
I think, instead, that what is really necessary to grant the American request is forgiveness. Americans might be content with mere forgetfulness, but that is neither possible, nor would it solve the American problem. I believe the moral nature of the wrong compels one to look to forgiveness, rather than forgetfulness as a solution to this problem.
Jean Hampton, in one of her essays in Forgiveness and Mercy,16 tells of a wife whose father-in-law comes for a visit. During his visit, he causes the wife pain by blaming her for every perceived fault in the house and family. The father-in-law's beliefs are wrong. He causes her pain by continually making it known that he believes it is her fault. The husband asks his wife to "forgive" his father, to maintain peace in the family. The problem according to Hampton, is that if the wife does so, she condones the father-in-law's behavior. Condonation is "telling oneself the lie that the immoral action is not immoral after all."17
This is what the request to forget the past is asking of me. I must accept, without moral protest, an immoral act, first by telling myself that the act was not wrong, and secondly, by forswearing the anger and resentment I feel resulting from the act.18 This is to say that the act was never wrong. If the wrongful action continues in some way, I become an "enabler" to that immoral behavior. I effectively must tell myself that I deserve that treatment.
I am not prepared to forget my anger and resentment from the Trail of Tears. I refuse to condone such an action. I cannot resolve the moral turmoil by simply ignoring it and pretending it does not exist. While this might work in the familial setting, this does not translate to the level of atrocious acts, such as the Trail of Tears. No relationship is worth self-inflicted degradation just to "get along." Forgetting the past, then, is not a viable option for me. Let us turn to forgiveness.
Webster's defines "forgive" as:
- 1) To cease to feel resentment against an offender or to pardon;
- 2) a: To give up resentment of or claim to requital for something;
- b: To grant relief from payment of a debt.19
It is interesting that the first two definitions require no request for forgiveness by the actor. These are definitions designed to allow me to help myself past harmful feelings that are self-destructive.
If I hate the man who scratched my new car purposefully, I may find my resentment and anger take control of me. I may begin to plot ways of getting revenge. The anger and resentment become irrational at this point. I posit that to forgive at this point is to restore one's self, rather than to assuage the guilt of another. The action of the man who would callously scratch my new car on purpose, does not rise to the level of atrocious behavior that warrants such a response of irrational hatred on my part. It is better that I forgive him by giving up my resentment or by ceasing to feel resentment towards him to preserve my own sanity. Why let the bastard have the satisfaction of driving me insane, after all.
This kind of act differs from the kind I face. A Jew, fresh from the concentration camp, is justified in her extreme hatred against Hitler and his regime which have committed so many immoral acts against her and her people. While we might grow weary of her rehashing the grim details at each cocktail party, we do not find her hatred irrational. Her level of hatred is justified as compared to the level of immoral acts committed against her. We quantify the amount and relative depravity of immoral acts against which we balance an equal amount of hatred, which we believe is justifiable.
To forgive is to do more than merely overlook something. It is to intentionally resolve the moral turmoil created by the act and the actor. It often requires that the perpetrator of the immoral act obtain forgiveness by asking for it. This request for forgiveness is often measured against the contrition of the perpetrator, my perception of his sincerity, and the relative value placed on the immoral act, as described above.
Here, the moral turmoil created by the Trail of Tears does not hamper my functioning. I do not dwell on the harm, nor do I blame every white person for this atrocious act. We shall see later that it is a collective debt owed not by individuals, but by the United States, under Cherokee traditional law. Indeed, I do not even believe my propensity to spit on statues of Andrew Jackson is irrational.20 Once explained, no one has ever accused me of being irrational about Andrew Jackson. To the contrary, people seem to agree that the level of atrocities committed by the man deserve my acts of disrespect. This situation does not appear to be one in which I should seek to preserve myself by forgiving without the actor seeking forgiveness.
This is also supported by the fact Americans, in fact, do ask American Indians to forget the past, tilting the balance in favor of the last definition. The first two definitions do not imply a request has been made to forgive. The last definition necessarily implies that a request has been made, or at least that something has caused us to consider forgiveness. In the end, the definition that fits best is the last one: to grant relief from payment of a debt. I will return to this thought when I examine the Cherokee system of forgiveness.
In the end, forgetting is not an option I can consider, as it involves the condoning of the very acts I find morally wrong. Instead, I believe forgiveness is the appropriate vehicle to accomplish what Americans request. It seems important to see if what I am willing to consider corresponds to what Americans want.
Somebody forgot the charcoal; blame the BIA.21
The American request for Indians to forget what happened in the past is ambiguous. Precisely what is being asked of us? Are we asked to forget only? Is it a polite request for forgiveness, instead?
I am reminded of a saying that if a person were forced to see himself in a mirror that reflected the truth of how bad he was, he would kill himself or go insane. Perhaps it is some form of psychological self-preservation that drives humans to try to forget the unpleasant things we do.
When Indians bring up the atrocities, Americans are forced to see themselves as they truly are. It is not the pleasant picture they thought it was. It is a trait we all share that when we look at ourselves in the mirror, that we "forget" to look at the parts of ourselves we dislike the most. We see ourselves as we want to be seen. Atrocities are like the large black wart on one's nose that is difficult to overlook, now that it is brought to one's attention. One wishes the wart had never been called to one's attention, but it is hard now not to see it.
For Americans to desire simple forgetfulness does not seem to bring any resolution to the American problem. It must be problematic at some level or a solution would not be solicited. Certainly, there is a strain of what is called "liberal white guilt" which some Americans claim causes them to feel pangs of remorse when confronted with American atrocities against Indians. For these Americans, the request seems to be one of forgiveness, for they seem to seek atonement for the past actions of their ancestors. I am not convinced that this is the request that is being made by the majority of Americans, however.
In mulling over exactly what "forgetting" entails, I asked several Caucasian friends what they thought the request meant. The most pervasive response was a feeling that Indians, like other minority groups, had a victim mentality. These non-Indians felt that Indians used the past atrocities to elicit white guilt. They also felt that Indians went out of their way to make situations appear to be victimizing, when they were not. The examples they used were based on individuals who claim white racism is the root of all their problems, no matter how unlikely the connection.
While they were speaking, I found myself picturing Indian friends who do exactly that. I must admit that there are people within the Indian community who are only too willing to blame the stale bread on the white man, rather than admitting they forgot to close the wrapper. This is, of course, an exaggeration, but any Indian and many non-Indians know of those who make claims of racism too quickly. These Americans would like Indians to cease seeing themselves as victims. They feel Indians "cry wolf" too many times.
This view assumes, of course, that the claims are not valid. It may itself be somewhat motivated by elemental racism that blinds the majority to the wrongs they commit on the minority. It certainly contains the belief that the past atrocities have not continued into the present. It is the linear belief in time: the past is behind us.
In any case, I am not attempting to elicit white guilt with my memory, or my feelings. I am not placing an unrelated problem on white shoulders. Rather, I am placing responsibility for the Trail of Tears on the shoulders of the party which caused it: the United States. The belief of Americans that they are not personally responsible is not persuasive. They enjoy the fruits of the immoral acts. They are in fact, free-riders on the train of immorality whose track was laid by their ancestors. In any case, white guilt is useless to me. It does nothing substantive toward resolving the problem being examined here. If I remind non-Indians of the Trail of Tears, it is not to oblige them to apologize to me; rather it is because it still seeks final resolution.
Still, this does not solve the question of what "forgetting" entails. We are somewhat closer to the answer. For some Americans, the need for absolution of white guilt drives the request, meaning forgiveness.
For many, indeed most, Americans, I believe the request to forget is based on some desire for Indians to accept the history as it is written as true, giving up our claims that contradict it, in effect condoning the atrocious acts. For some, I believe that non-Indians would like us to forget to allow a resumption of relationship as U.S. citizens. I think that it is a combination of the two choices, to accept non-Indian history as valid and to forget the past to "resume" our place as citizens of the United States, that is the majority viewpoint of Americans when they ask us to forget the past. President Ronald Reagan expressed this viewpoint well, when he responded to a question about American Indians, on a trip to the Soviet Union.
"Maybe we've made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored their wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have said, 'No, come join us, be citizens along with the rest of us.'"22
The problem of this is that it refuses to accept what Indians may want as a valid choice. Americans, with no small amount of arrogance, assume we want to become citizens like them. Perhaps it is a misguided belief in "equality" that drives this viewpoint. It is a perception that the American way of life is a better way of life. Americans cannot conceive that we would not want to forget the past and join them in their "great society."
Forgetting is an essential part of the American psyche, in part, because so many cultures combining here demanded that everyone forget some part of their past to create a homogenous society. While other groups voluntarily came to America, Native Americans (and African-Americans) did not.
Where immigrants to this country chose to forsake their former countries and chose to embrace a new culture, we never did. We do not wish to do so now. Americans do not understand that this request to forget, much as their ancestors "forgot" the old world is a request for us to give up our cultures.
Proponents of the "forget" philosophy would be quick to point out the multiculturalism alive and well among non-Indians in America. Certainly the Irish descendants celebrate their Irishness on St. Patrick's Day. Hispanics keep their culture alive and well. Even Asian-Americans keep aspects of their culture alive in America. That is the point, however. All that is kept alive are aspects of the mother culture modified to a new dynamic in America. Should one wish to see the real culture, one may return to the motherland to find that culture.
We do not have that luxury. This is our motherland. If we do not keep our cultures alive and intact, the cultures will literally cease to exist. This is a heavy price to ask us to pay. Indeed, the entire cost seems to fall on us. While Americans perceive the cost as minimal, they fail to recognize the true cost of their request.
Still, the American dream of equality is nothing new to Indians. The Cherokees, when still in our ancestral homelands in the Southeast, contemplated becoming a state of the Union. We bought into the American belief that there was something wrong with our society and religion. Within forty years, we went from a pre-Columbian state to a nation that had a written constitution. Our people could read and write Cherokee with a literacy rate exceeding that of the United States. We became a largely Christian nation. We established farms and plantations in the American fashion. We reordered the role of women in our society to comport with the sexist American model. We established written laws and a judicial system. We became a state in every sense of the word.
Despite all our "advancements," Americans could never see us as equals. It was not just the Southerners who surrounded us. Even the most cordial Northerner could not accept us as an equal state or an equal people. In the end, despite winning our Supreme Court case,23 we were forcibly removed from the South and moved to what is now Oklahoma. The Cherokee never asked to be a state again. We learned at great sacrifice to ourselves that American equality was not true equality and that we would never be accepted as equals.
Americans must come to understand that their desire that we accept the past as behind us and join them in common citizenship is probably impossible. The reminders of how American equality is really inequality for us are presented to us every day. The U.S. Supreme Court is always quick to remind us that we are inferior in their eyes. The past lessons were learned with bitterness. We are unable to simply forget such cruel lessons in inequality. To be Indian is to accept the reality of never being accepted as equal.24
Andy Rooney, the curmudgeon of television's "60 Minutes", once spoke about how the American Indian contributed nothing to the world's culture. We had not contributed to the arts, the music world, or in any other tangible way that he could perceive. The most that he could attribute to us was our "knack" of living ecologically. This judgment is, of course, false. Books have been written about our contributions to the world culture. The problem is that our art and songs have never been accorded equal footing with the art of the western world. It is the world's persistent notion of inequality that plagues us. We are the Rodney Dangerfield of the races. The treatment continues, so it only makes it harder to forgive. I cannot forgive you for punching me until you stop.
Forgiveness may require Americans to confront this uncomely aspect of their past and present treatment of us, require that they cease the unequal treatment, and ask us for forgiveness before progress can be made.
Americans want to know why American Indians do not forget the past. To be American is to know the bliss of forgetfulness. "I was not there, I have no responsibility," is the attitude of Americans who will express some polite regret at the lesser of the evils committed on Native Americans. These same people look embarrassed and duck out the nearest exit if a Native American mentions one of the many campaigns of genocide that are all our heritage.
Were the tribes in California and Arizona hunted for bounties paid by territorial and state governments? One would never know it in America. Were the Lakota killed for practicing their religion at Wounded Knee? That is harder to deny, for photographs exist of the carnage, but even here Americans somehow manage to insulate themselves from the severity of the crime. Some generous souls will admit responsibility in the abstract for American atrocities against Indians, but even they dare not look at the carnage of American history squarely in the face.
Some less-generous souls will quickly point to Indian atrocities against non-Indians as vindicating the actions of the Americans. That is not the question here, however. Indeed, some American actions were justified against Indians. To that I will readily admit, so long as Americans admit some Indian atrocities against whites were equally justified.
Instead, I am focusing on the unjustified actions of white Americans against the Indians. The Trail of Tears, however one approaches the problem, is unjustifiable. The justification given was to clear land for settlers, but the method employed was cruel and unnecessary.
There was no reason to herd the Cherokee into pens and force them to march across the frozen lands in the dead of winter without enough blankets and food. There was no reason to shoot the Lakota at Wounded Knee; it was propelled by fear and ignorance. Both are examples out of many in which Americans committed atrocities when it was not necessary to do so. Clearly more humane options existed, but in these situations, Americans chose to do the wrong thing.
The actions which we Indians are asked to forget are never those that can be justified, but those for which Americans have no easy answer. It is precisely when Wounded Knee or Sand Creek is mentioned that we are asked to forget. I have never been asked to forget the Cherokees who were killed in the Revolutionary War. Nor do I harbor moral hatred at those deaths. Clearly, those types of events are not what create moral hatred. Rather it is the unjustified atrocities that Americans would prefer to forget which created the moral hatred we Indians feel.
The history of the conflict between Europeans and Indians is fraught with examples of various ways to steal Indian land. While the American treatment of my own people provides perfect examples of the creative and changing ways in which Americans stole our land, I do not hate the non-Indian Oklahomans who stole my grandmother's land, nor even the Georgians who pushed us out of our homeland. To hate over the title to some possession, even that of our homeland, seems petty to me. To be sure, I resent the act of stealing the land. Indeed, my resentment may be justified. Some may believe it to be petty for me to resent this, but it is a fault with which I am willing to live. I think problems of ownership of real estate can yet be fixed, so I will not include them in my forgiveness. At this point, I am unwilling to give up those claims.
Americans probably would prefer that we forget the land fraud, as well as the atrocities. This cannot be entertained seriously, though. I have never met an American who, cheated in a real estate deal, was willing to forget it. Hell hath no fury like an American swindled in real estate. If Americans are unwilling to forget their personal land swindles, then it cannot be a serious request that they should ask us to forget our nation's land swindles. International law, too, provides many examples of the long memories of nations in border disputes. We should not be asked to do what no one else can do.
The moral resentment over the land swindles differ from the moral hatred resulting from the carnage and bestiality against our forefathers. There can always be a solution to land disputes. In contrast, there is no way to repair the dead mother, father, or child by payment or return of property.
Therefore, the actions for which forgetfulness or forgiveness is desired, or at least is being entertained here, are those that were unjustified and which involved the killing of Indians or other actions so morally wrong that there is no solution but to ask for forgiveness. I will refer to these actions as atrocities.
Just before the barbeque, Victor pushed the piano halfway across the reservation, up against a pine tree, flexed his muscles, cracked his knuckles, sat down at the keys and pounded out the Béla Bartók. In the long silence after Victor finished his piece, after the beautiful dissonance and implied survival, the Spokane Indians wept, stunned by this strange and familiar music.
"Well," Lester Falls-Apart said. "It ain't Hank Williams, but I know what it means."
Then Nadine said, "You can tell so much about a family by whether their piano is in or out of tune."25
I recall being the only one in my high school history class to take on the inaccurate text of the removal of my tribe from the southeast to Indian Territory. To the non-Indian, I should have been pleased the atrocity was admitted to have occurred in a history text. I am not impressed by half-truths and incomplete histories, however.
Another example of this occurred just before I entered law school. A friend of mine is a professor who taught me as an undergraduate. I told her I planned to study Indian law. She looked curious and asked with sincerity, "Why do Indians have special rights? They are a conquered people." I spent the better part of two hours trying to explain to her that whatever rights we have are not "special" but were based on our treaties with the United States.
In essence, I explained that the rights and privileges we enjoy were part of the purchase price of the land. I also explained that we were never conquered. Indeed, to make such a claim, the United States would have to show that it fought a just war with each of the over five hundred tribes and that each tribe's government was destroyed and replaced with the United State's government and law. This cannot be shown for any one tribe, much less all the tribes. Far from "fact," the myth of conquest is perpetuated by the ignorance of the American people. I could not convince her that she had learned her history incorrectly. She was unable to look for the truth.
Our societal system, from tribe to different tribe, was founded on the concept of truth. If an Indian gave his word, it was accepted as the truth, for Indians did not commit their word lightly. Among the Cherokee, the only thing that was binding upon an individual was an agreement to which he gave his consent. The commitment of the word of one's forbears committed the successive generations, as well.26 That is why, even today, Indians have not abrogated their treaties.27 Today, we accept the truth of our commitment by our ancestors to the treaties of the past. These treaties are not always easy to uphold. It is our acceptance of the frank truths of history that drives us to confront non-Indians to get them to just admit it happened.
Certainly, we accept the unpleasant facts about ourselves. I am not particularly proud of the way my forbears killed settlers on the frontier. I understand the feelings of non-Indians who might bear the same moral hatred against my people as I do against theirs for the atrocities committed against us. I would point out that we did not do so, unless the settlers broke a treaty. It was the constant push of frontier boundaries beyond treaty lines that produced the reaction of killing the settlers. By our law, they had broken the treaty. It was an act of war to cross the treaty line and settle on our lands. By American law, it was American land waiting to be claimed, despite the treaties. I accept the harsh reality of what happened, but I understand the context in which it took place.
Another example is that I readily admit some members of my tribe owned slaves. I also understand not all of us owned slaves. The United States government encouraged us to imitate the whites around us in the civilization process, which meant the white Southerners surrounding our nation. I accept the reality of what was, even as I am morally opposed to what occurred. In the end, we paid a heavier price than did the Southern states. We atoned for our wrong - all of us - not just the slave owners. We gave the former slaves land and accepted them as members of our society. Because some slave-owning Cherokees had joined with the Confederacy in the Civil War, all of us, not just the slave owners, were forced to cede more tribal land. Indeed, my great-great-grandfather fought on the side of the Union, but he, as part of the nation, was required to give up tribal land despite his loyalty to the United States. Eventually, we were forced to become the state of Oklahoma and ac! cept allotment, all for the actions of a few of our tribal members.
The latter example provides an opportunity to contrast what Americans have demanded of us in the past to what is being asked today. Americans demanded that despite the fact slavery was not widespread among the Cherokee, that all Cherokee bear the cost of having slavery in our midst. Americans were only too quick to forget it was their representatives that instituted slavery as an economic force in our nation. We were forced to confront the actions of our nation that allowed the institution of slavery to exist among us and accept the responsibility for our inaction, as well as our action. This we did. We have no need to ask for forgiveness, because we accepted the truth, accepted the responsibility, and paid the price demanded of us. We atoned our wrongful action. In payment of our debt, I believe we did more than any of the Southern states have ever done.
Indians want Americans to look with frank honesty at the actions of the past, accept responsibility for their actions today and for those of their forbears, and to pay the price. That is the Indian way of forgiveness.
Indian memory is longer than that of Americans. As stated above, we try to remember things as they truly were, not as we want to remember them. Admittedly, not all Indians do. Some of us are no better than Americans at admitting the past wrongs of Indians. However, that is not a fault of mine, or if it is, it is one that I constantly attempt to correct. Indian memory is a concept that also evades American grasp.
N. Scott Momaday recalls an event that happened before he was born in the quote at the beginning of this paper. It was a Kiowa ceremony in which his grandfather was honored in 1920. The meaning of this memory was a moment of great meaning and propriety to Momaday. It meant that "[a]ll was well with the Kiowa; everything in the world was intact and in place, as it ought to be."28 His vivid recollection is explained by him.
This blood recollection, which is an intricate image indeed, composed of innumerable details, is especially vivid and immediate to me, a whole and irrevocable act of the imagination. I have the sense always that the event, the dramatic action, is just now, in a moment, taking place in the real world. I have held on to this vision for many years, keeping it within my reach, bringing it into focus in moments of peace and quiet. I have walked about in this vision, taken it into account from many different angles, across many distances, in many different lights. And I have thought about it; I have tried to understand it in its own terms; I have tried to perceive myself in it.
[T]his experience which I have related . . . is of a very particular kind, there is a synthesis of other, more general experiences, I believe. In such things there is an evocation of the tribal intelligence, an exposition of racial memory.29
To the American mind, this is all an exercise of imagination. To American Indians, this is a true memory. The difference lay in the differing views of time. Americans and Europeans conceive of time as linear. The past is behind us, they might say. To American Indians, the past is part of us, because time is circular. We examine the past, contemplate it, walk about in it, consider it on its own terms. That is how we confront the bad, as well as the good, that happened the in the past.
When I recall the horror of the Trail of Tears and consider my great-great-grandfather's ordeal, it is a real occurrence, as though it were happening now. It is something I have tried to understand on its own terms. I have tried to learn the lessons it would reveal. It is more than history as conceived by Euro-Americans; it is a racial memory of my people, my family and myself. To forget what is may well be impossible. To us, the past is not behind us, but is with us each and every day.
How the past affects us today is tied to our philosophy of balance and harmony with the world. Not all Native Americans subscribe to the old ways, but this is how many of us think. Momaday explains it this way: an Indian's perception of himself is a series of equations that make up our general philosophy.30
You see, I am alive.
You see, I stand in good relation to the earth.
You see, I stand in good relation to the gods.
You see, I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful.
You see, I stand in good relation to you.
You see, I am alive, I am alive.31
This series of equations is how we determine our self-worth and our perception of not only ourselves but others around us. The first equation refers to the earth, which is sacred. It is a consideration of our proper place within the ecosystem of our planet. This is what Chief Seattle referred to as the "web of life" to which we are all connected. This is why the earth is sacred to Indians. It is the first equation.
The second equation is one of religion. It is bound to the perception that everything we are is tied to our religious view. Momaday explains:
The Indian exerts his spirit upon the world by means of religious activity, and he transcends himself in a sense; he expands his awareness to include all of creation. And in this he is restored as a man and as a race. Nothing in his universe is exclusive of him, but he is a part of all that is and forever was and will be.32
Again, our religious view is that the past is part of us as much as is the present and future.
In the house of long life,
there I wander.
In the house of happiness,
there I wander.
Beauty before me,
with it I wander.
Beauty behind me,
with it I wander.
Beauty below me,
with it I wander.
Beauty above me,
with it I wander.
Beauty all around me,
with it I wander.
On the beautiful trail I am,
with it I wander.
The third equation is one of aesthetic perception. We notice the beauty of all around us. It is a quality of abstraction of order, design, proper proportions and balance. We seek it in our lives and in our history. We find these qualities to be beautiful and fulfilling. Likewise, I am especially aware of what is not beautiful; what lacks the proper proportions, balance, order, and design. We do not apply this aesthetic abstraction to just artistic endeavors. We seek it in everything in our lives, including our memories.
Finally, we consider our equation of humanity. This, like the other equations are ways to focus us to seek the ideal. We realize we may not make it, but it is this striving to become better in our lives that defines us as a human. We seek deep into our nature and our potential and attempt to realize that ideal as best we can. This is our moral regard for all beings, animate and inanimate among whom we live. This is where I confront my failings and learn from them. This is where I attempt to change the bad into good and make it so. Honesty is not an easy virtue, but to us it is vital or we will never grow or fulfill our human potential.
Each of these equations ties into the others. The aesthetic sense drives my sense of humanity. My religious perception drives all my beliefs of my world and myself. The earth is my grounding point against which all is measured. These types of measures, although differing somewhat nation by nation, are what we use to judge ourselves as Indians. Cherokees refer to this as being of "good mind." Being of good mind includes taking the bad things that happen in life and turning it to a better path.33
The Cherokee system of justice was related to this equation. As discussed above, the Cherokee system was based more on responsibility for wrongful actions than on the notion of "justice" in the western sense of the word. Rather than justice, the Cherokee system was ideal for keeping balance and harmony in the spiritual and social worlds.
One day, some Cherokee children were playing outside, when a rattlesnake crawled out of the grass. They screamed and their mother ran outside. Without thinking, she took a stick and killed it.
Her husband was hunting in the mountains. As he was returning home that night, he heard a strange wailing sound. Looking around, he found himself in the midst of a gathering of rattlesnakes, whose mouths were open and crying.
"What is the matter," the man asked the snakes. The rattlesnakes responded, "Your wife killed our chief, the Yellow Rattlesnake today. We are preparing to send the Black Rattlesnake to take revenge."
The husband immediately accepted their claim and took responsibility for the crime. The rattlesnakes said, "If you speak the truth, you must be ready to make satisfaction." The price they demanded was the life of his wife in sacrifice for that of their chief. Not knowing what else might occur, the man consented.
The rattlesnakes told the man that the Black Rattlesnake would follow him home and coil up outside his door. He was to ask his wife to bring him a fresh drink of water from the spring. That was all.
When the man reached home, it was very dark. His wife had supper waiting for him.
"Please bring me some water," he asked her. She brought him a gourd from the jar, but he refused it.
"No," he said. "I would like some fresh water from the spring."
His wife took a bowl and stepped outside to get him some fresh water. The man immediately heard her cry. He went outside and found the Black Rattlesnake had bitten her and she was already dying. He stayed with her until she was dead.
The Black Rattlesnake then crawled out of the grass. "My tribe is now satisfied," he told the husband. He then taught the man a prayer song. The Black Rattlesnake told him, "When you meet any of us hereafter, sing this song and we will not hurt you. If by accident one of us should bite you, sing this song over the person and he will recover." And the Cherokee have kept this song to this day.
We had a strict liability law for any killing. The death created an imbalance which required revenge to restore harmony. The clan of the perpetrator of the homicide was to admit and accept responsibility for the wrongful killing. Then the clan was expected to pay the cost. Blood called for blood. Following this system, the husband sacrificed his wife's life to restore harmony. He did so because that was the law. In following the law, harmony was restored between the rattlesnakes and the humans. To reward the man, the snakes gave the humans a song to protect them and to remind the snakes of their duty to the humans, as well.
The Cherokee religion drove the sense of balance, which created a moral system for the human to follow. What drove the revenge system was the sense of balance. When a delict was committed, it created imbalance and tension on the jurisdictional unit. The acceptance of responsibility and paying of the cost restored that balance. Once the balance was restored, the relationship between the jurisdictional units or clans continued as if nothing happened. There were to be no hard feelings expressed between family members of the victim or killer. Balance had been restored and any friction was to end with the restoration of balance.
The creation of imbalance was tied to the Cherokee religion. It was believed that the murdered "soul" or ghost would be forced to wander the earth, unable to go to the next world. This created the imbalance. The acceptance of responsibility and the death of the killer or one of his clansmen restored balance by freeing the innocent ghost, allowing him to go to the next world. That is why it did not matter who paid the cost for the delict of the wrongful killing. Any death from the responsible clan would suffice to free the innocent man's ghost from this world. An enemy scalp might suffice as well.
In international law, the Cherokee system worked much the same way. If an international delict occurred, then anyone from the that jurisdictional unit, in this case, the foreign nation, would suffice to pay the cost. Taking responsibility for the international delict and paying the cost were exercised in the face of swift vengeance. There was no time for contrition. Thus, interloping settlers took their chances by moving onto Cherokee territory, because they might be called to pay the cost for someone else's actions or the actions of their nation. Cherokees saw it as their responsibility, whether or not the settlers saw it that way.
Therefore, the Cherokee system to forgive transgressions is to call upon the appropriate jurisdictional unit to publicly accept responsibility and to pay the cost, thereby restoring balance. Using this system, for me to forgive the atrocities of the United States against my people, I would first need the people of the United States to publicly accept and acknowledge responsibility for their immoral actions. The fact that it was the forbears of today's citizens does not alleviate their responsibility, for the imbalance still exists. Finally, satisfaction, or the cost, would have to be paid to restore the balance.
The satisfaction, or cost, is an interesting problem. According to Cherokee tradition, all the ghosts of those who died on the Trail of Tears could be seen as unable to cross to the next world because of the actions of the American government. This would mean four thousand Americans should die to restore the balance. However, I think that circumstances ameliorate this harsh penalty. While Americans today bear the moral guilt of their forbears for putting my ancestors in harm's way and thereby causing massive deaths, they did not shoot them for sport or perceived inferiority, as was later done at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee. The relative depravity of those acts exceeds the Trail of Tears, in my judgment. A Cherokee who died of disease was free to enter the other world. Most of those who died on the Trail of Tears died of disease, albeit proximately caused by the actions of the American government. Perhaps the ghosts are not wandering this earth, so the severe penalty! may not apply.
That is not to say there is no satisfaction needed, however. International delicts were often settled by acceptance of responsibility for the offending nation and payment of symbolic gifts. The gifts could be enemy scalps, or slaves who would be accepted as free clan members to replace those who were killed. Usually, these gifts were accompanied by white beads, to symbolize peace between the nations.
The Germans, even those who did not directly participate in the atrocities against the Jews, made amends by paying reparations to Israel. My tribe, despite our Union supporters, was called upon to pay the cost of having slavery in our midst. I am not asking Americans to do anything my people, or others in similar situations, have not already done.
I think that this makes sense, because of the ameliorating factors of seemingly indirect responsibility and the relative lack of the level of the kind of depravity that would require a harsher punishment. Therefore, some form of reparations should be paid by Americans to atone for the actions of their forbears. This would restore the balance symbolically and allow forgiveness to take place.
Note that I do not require contrition. I only require that Americans admit their responsibility. These concepts are not the same. Although I would hope that Americans would not repeat their actions, that is beyond the Cherokee law. That is reserved for each man to ponder in his own heart and reconcile with his own religion and morality ("You see, I stand in good relation to you."). Perhaps Americans will not do this. I cannot control what goes on in their hearts. I cannot really know if they are sincerely contrite. I can know that they publicly acknowledge their responsibility for the delict and are willing to pay the cost to restore balance.
While this would be the Cherokee approach, Americans would prefer their own rules. I believe this to be wrong. I am bestowing my gift on you. The Nazis were not allowed to define the rules by which they were judged at Nuremberg. If Americans committed atrocities for which they desire forgiveness, I have the right to define reasonable rules, according to the gift I am bestowing. Still, I am willing to consider other methods of forgiveness. We will look at the Christian approach to forgiveness.
To Christians, forgiveness is a two-part gift for oneself. First, it is a way to restore the personal inner harmony of the person granting forgiveness. It is also a way to restore a relationship. This concept implies that the moral hatred is a destructive power in one's inner psyche. It is interesting to note that some Indian religions and philosophies would agree with this concept, although the Cherokee would not.
The moral hatred I feel is not a hatred in the malicious sense. I do not see Caucasians and hate them because of my perception that they are "guilty" for their forbears' actions. Rather, I feel wronged by the larger jurisdictional unit of the United States for its failure to take responsibility for the imbalance it created through its actions. My feeling is directed toward restoration of balance, not to senseless hatred toward anyone who is white. That I cannot forget what happened is part of my heritage and culture. As Momaday would say, it is in my blood. The memory persists because Americans have not restored the balance. Neither my memory nor the resulting moral hatred tortures me nor causes me harm. Nor do I spend vast amounts of time perusing my moral hatred of the United States. Therefore, I am not sure the Christian method is applicable because forgiveness is implicitly linked toward helping oneself - something I do not feel the need to do as I do! not perceive a destructive force at work resulting from my moral hatred.
Christ speaks of loving one's enemies, walking an extra mile, and turning the other cheek. Yet the same man had no compunction about turning the merchants out of the temple, or indulging in inflammatory rhetoric about the Pharisees and Sadducees. Christ asked for forgiveness for neither act, implying that sometimes, retribution and moral hatred are justified.
Ghandi thought that walking the extra mile or turning the other cheek referred to showing courage in the face of adversity. By allowing oneself to be harmed by another, yet showing no anger or revenge, called upon some deeper emotion within the perpetrator, he thought. In the end, he believed the immorality of the actions would become repugnantly clear to the immoral actor.
Of course, American Indians have been turning the other cheek for a century or more now and no impending sense of moral repugnancy has surfaced among the American people. Instead, they have forgotten their immoral acts and replaced them with prettier thoughts.
I think that this is what Christ faced when he confronted the merchants in the temple and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. There was no hope for self-examination that would produce the appropriate response of repugnancy at one's immoral acts among those people. It involved a hardness of heart that could not be loved away. Instead, Jesus used a different method, moral hatred, to counter their "hard hearts" and call them to examine their actions. The effectiveness of this approach is unknown, although for his pains Jesus was crucified.
The second concept attached to the Christian concept of forgiveness is to restore the broken relationship. In this sense, forgetting may be a necessary part of the process. I am uncomfortable with this concept because it smells of condonation of the immoral act. I think the relative depravity of the act bears on this question of forgiving to restore a relationship.
The most important element in the Christian tradition of forgiveness to restore a relationship is repentance. Christ demands repentance to forgive us for our sins. This seems to me to be the model that drives this theory. This makes sense, because without repentance, by overlooking or covering up your immoral act, I am condoning the act by failure to object to it. Indeed, I am letting you get by with the act without demanding justice. Whether or not I believe I deserve the immoral treatment, I invite the world to see me in that light.
The demand for repentance before granting forgiveness repairs this fault. Here I am not in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether my forgiveness actually condones your immorality. Rather, your humbling of yourself by admitting your wrongful action and request that the relationship be restored relieves me of that uncomfortable choice. I am not condoning your immoral act, now. You admit it was wrong. The whole world can see that I forgave you while maintaining my moral stance.
In this situation, the latter reason for forgiveness, to restore a relationship, seems more applicable to the Cherokee-American situation. While Americans have asked for forgetfulness, though, they have never actually admitted the wrongfulness of their actions nor sought true forgiveness, in any sense of the word "repentance."
Under the Christian model, I should not forgive the American actions until the wrongdoers repent of the acts and ask for forgiveness. This falls apart on the macro scale of the Trail of Tears. Indeed, Christianity is ill-suited for the temporal aspect of our problem. The actual wrongdoers are already dead. There is no theory of collective guilt in the Christian religion (although the Old Testament Jews were held collectively responsible by God). In such a case, the situation is not resolvable. I should not have a grievance against today's Americans, as the actual wrong was committed by other people long ago. Instead, I must leave the wrong to God to resolve.
"Vengeance is mine . . . saith the Lord."34 When there appears to be nothing that can be done on earth, the Christian approach is to leave it to God. Rather than the Cherokee clan being the arbiter of vengeance, Christianity seeks to remove worldly disputes to a higher realm. Under Christian doctrine, God is the highest jurisdiction. The benefit of this is that it presumably allows one to get on with things, without expending great energy to protest the action or to feel moral hatred at the immoral event. It is a utilitarian calculation designed to keep the meek happy in the mire.
The problem with this approach is that it comes awfully close to condoning the immoral action by lack of response. While there may be nothing substantive I can do to remedy a situation, it behooves me to at least register my objection as to the immorality of the act. Then if there is nothing more to be done, I can leave it to God. Still, this is not forgiveness, but recognition of my limited ability to exact revenge or to get justice.
Where Christianity fails in this problem is in its limited ability to provide a satisfactory model to solve the worldly macro-dilemma. This might be an unfair criticism; I do not think Christianity was ever intended to address such worldly problems. On a micro-scale or personal-scale, the system works well. Once we no longer are talking about individuals, however, the system loses its effectiveness.
Indeed, Christ seemed to acknowledge this. When asked about taxation and the Roman domination of Israel, Jesus separated those situations from the spirituopersonal solutions he provided. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's," implies that Christianity is not concerned with the worldly macro-dilemma, but the personal dilemma. Jesus implies that the two worlds are separate and the solutions for the worldly problems are not his concern. Christianity is designed for the person, not the nation.35 It seems wrong to try to stretch it to provide the type of guidance needed to solve the problem of collective responsibility. Even were I to apply it here, it seems to require more of Americans than they are presently willing to give. The Cherokee system requires less to achieve the same result.
As Christianity is inadequate to the task, I will return to the Cherokee system. The difference is that the Cherokee law was made to comport to group dynamics, rather than the individual. The smallest jurisdictional unit in Cherokee law was the clan. While individuals had rights and great liberty, it was the clan who operated the basic justice system and protected individual rights. On the international level, the nation as a whole was the jurisdictional unit. Therefore, when the United States engaged in its barbaric behavior toward the Cherokee in the Trail of Tears, it committed a collective delict, for which responsibility is placed on the nation, and therefore the people, of the United States.
It would be wrong to say that the United States was guilty of the delict. This is a western notion for which Indians had little need. The question is who has responsibility. Collective guilt may be controversial, but collective responsibility is something that comports to modern ethical beliefs, as well as the ancient. Modern international law, for example, uses this notion of collective responsibility for abuses of human rights.
I indicated that what I want is for the United States to admit and accept responsibility for the Trail of Tears. Then I want it to pay the cost; to provide satisfaction. The American request to forget the past conflicts with the demands I place on my gift of forgiveness. I already dismissed the idea that I could forget the event, for to do so would condone it.
Manès Sperber, in reply to Simon Wiesenthal's dilemma in The Sunflower, writes about this notion of not letting the wrongdoer forget his immoral act.
[D]o the evildoers themselves forget, do they forget before they confess and repent of their crime? Without confession and sincere repentance their forgetting is nothing more than a continuation of their crime. So do not grant pardon until you are sure that the guilty on their side will always remember their guilt. . . . [B]efore we have the right to forget, we must be absolutely sure that the Germans on their side have not forgotten, and that they are willing to do everything possible so as to not forget the crimes committed in their name.36
I do not require repentance. I find guilt useless. I want Americans to never forget the crimes they committed, because that abates the chance of them doing it again. I want them to grow as humans. I want them to examine themselves, to look at the grimness of the Trail of Tears and their collective responsibility for it squarely, and accept that responsibility. Then we can discuss satisfaction. The imbalance continues. Americans may choose to forget, but I cannot.
The rattlesnakes in the Cherokee story confront the husband of the killer. The husband has claimed to accept responsibility, but the snakes are unconvinced. "If you speak the truth, you must be ready to make satisfaction," the rattlesnakes said to the man. I am at the same stage as the rattlesnakes, now. If Americans really want to resolve this dilemma, then I stand ready to discuss it, consider it, and decide. At this point, I do not believe Americans are ready to accept responsibility and, therefore, I must regretfully decline to forget.
1. N. SCOTT MOMADAY, I Am Alive , THE WORLD OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN, 11 (National Geographic Society 1974) (Momaday recalls with vividness and immediacy the event. His grandfather was honored at a Kiowa Taimpe celebration in 1920.)
2. William Blake, Jerusalem, pl. 10, 1.20.
3. Attributed to Tsunu Iahunski on the Trail of Tears.
4. The Trail of Tears occurred in 1835, when the Cherokee were rounded up by the U.S. Army, interned in open stockades like cattle, then driven 1200 miles from our ancestral home in the southeast to what is now northeastern Oklahoma. The removal occurred in the middle of winter without proper food or supplies. An incredible one-fourth of our entire nation died along the Trail, including several of my ancestors. Nevertheless, there were other American-Indian encounters far bloodier and which rank more malevolent and outright evil than the Trail of Tears. If the level of malevolence was higher in other events, for sheer numbers the Trail of Tears is hard to match.
5. SHERMAN ALEXIE, THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN, 150 (1993).
6. WIESENTHAL, THE SUNFLOWER, 87 (1976 ed. 1969).
7. Id. at 94.
9. Id. at 95.
10. Id. at 99.
11. Jane Austen (May 31, 1811) (Commenting on the battle of Albuera earlier that month.).
12. John G. Burnett, December 11, 1890 (reprinted in MANKILLER, A CHIEF AND HER PEOPLE, 95 (1993)). The Summer of 1938 refers to the civil war in the Cherokee Nation that resulted from several mixed-bloods signing a false treaty that was used by President Jackson to drive the Cherokees from the Southeast.
13. ALEXIE at 150.
14. WEBSTER'S NEW COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY, 447 (1980).
15. Americans may be inspired to encourage us to this act of forgetfulness by the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. Within the Christian faith, it is a virtue to forgive and to forget. Such events as the Trail of Tears are often left to God to seek vengeance. Still, Christ had his moments of justified anger, for which he sought no forgiveness, nor did he resign himself to the fact and leave it to God to settle the score. I see my anger as fitting within this exception to the Christian doctrine. In any case, as an Indian, I am more interested in my own doctrine of forgiveness, than the foreign concepts of Western religion.
16. Jeffrie G. Murphy and Jean Hampton, FORGIVENESS AND MERCY (1994 ed. 1988).
17. Id. at 39.
20. Indeed, I maintained self-control during a tour of the National Portrait Gallery. I did not once spit on a bust or portrait of Andrew Jackson, although there were many tempting choices available.
21. ALEXIE at 145.
22.Tony Barber, Reagan Calls American Indians' Lifestyle "Primitive", The Reuter Library Report, May 31, 1988.
23. I still question whether Worcester v. Georgia can be called a victory. It was a partial victory at best.
24. I do not mean this to perpetuate a sense of eternal victimization. Rather, I am invoking a well-known lesson we learned the hard way.
25. ALEXIE at 146.
26. This required, of course, the consent of all or mostly all the members of the nation, or it would not be binding on that part of the nation that did not give its consent.
27. This is also why we still claim to be separate nations from the United States. We never gave our consent to its government over us. Without our consent, it cannot be binding on us.
28. MOMADAY at 14.
30. I hesitate to make generalizations; each tribe is different. For our purposes, this view is generalized to provide a place from which to analyze the differences in American and Indian thought and memory.
31. Momaday at 14.
32. Id. at 25.
33.For a brief discussion of this concept, see Mankiller at 226.
35.Of course, this runs afoul of the Republican Party's current platform. My point could serve to warn them of their folly, but somehow I doubt serious attention would be paid.
36.WIESENTHAL at 205.