There is an ugly blot on the image of shining purity projected by the United States. Our story of ourselves as a land of freedom and liberty and democracy and opportunity that respects the rights of all individuals rings far from true when you consider the treatment of the American Indian.
We have tried to mythologize that bit of history we don't want to face with the Western movie and cowboy-and-Indian serials. We have tried to trivialize it by making the Native Americans silly symbols of the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians and other sports teams.
But the blot will not go away. So painful is the truth of what we did to this conquered nation -- it makes what Saddam Hussein is up to in Kuwait a walk in the park by comparison -- that rarely does the media even look at the issue.
When it does, it's usually a pity-the-poverty-stricken-alcoholics portrait of life on the reservation, or coverage of a court decision on some treaty, usually seen as nothing more than a quaint anachronism.
Now PBS' Frontline brings a different perspective on the issue, an enlightening, subjective essay from correspondent Milo Yellow Hair who, in addition to being a journalist, was involved in the American Indian Movement, the militant protest group that came to prominence in the 1960s, a rise that culminated in several violent standoffs with federal authorities.
"The Spirit of Crazy Horse," which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 9 o'clock, focuses on Yellow Hair's tribe, the Oglala Sioux, who refer to themselves as the Lakota.
The hour demonstrates that there is a continuum between those archival images of Indian wars and the various strains of political activism within the Lakotas today.
At issue is the status of the Black Hills, an area in South Dakota that the Sioux consider the most sacred spot on Earth, their Holy Land if you will, but that is now the home to the carved white faces on Mount Rushmore, a variety of tourist activities as well as private homes and ranches owned by whites.
Yellow Hair's home, the Pine Ridge reservation, is in this area. It was here that the Sioux fought their last battle at Wounded Knee.
One group had signed a treaty with the United States, handing over the Black Hills after gold was discovered there, but another group, led by Crazy Horse, refused and returned to the sacred land. It was that group that was defeated at Wounded Knee in 1879. The site of Crazy Horse's grave is still a secret.
Yellow Hair contends that the two groupings within the Lakota at the time of the Black Hills treaty -- those who hung near the government offices and traded cooperation for money and goods, and those who sought to maintain their identity through resistance -- were still present when AIM came into being.
As he explains it, AIM was the result of the policy of the Eisenhower administration to shut down the reservations. Indians moved to the cities where, poor and untrained, they found themselves in dead-end jobs, living in ghettos. Inspired by the civil rights movement, AIM tried to bring these Indians who had lost all sense of their identity back to the land their culture had always regarded as sacred.
But AIM was opposed by members of the Sioux officialdom that was close the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Their so-called "goon squads" sided with the federal officials in trying to intimidate AIM supporters. If different winners were writing the history, the Sioux officials might be called collaborators, while the AIM members would be the resistance.
History is filled with tragic results when one culture, often with the best of intentions -- as the Eisenhower administration probably had when it tried to integrate the Indians into the cities -- tries to forcibly impose its values on another that it does not understand.
The colonization of Africa is an example. So is Vietnam. So was Iran. And one can only wonder about Iraq. Many Arabs might look at the people of Kuwait as the Indians do those who live close to the government offices, fat and happy living off the oil money from the West, while Iraq might be considered the resisters who are trying re-establish Arab identity. Do we really know? Do we really understand?
We certainly don't in the case of the Sioux. The case of the Black Hills treaty went all the way to the Supreme Court. Earlier this decade, the court ruled in favor of the Sioux and ordered the U.S. government to pay $122 million for the stolen land.
The Sioux have refused to accept the payment. They want their holy land returned instead.