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Exercise 20

In a paragraph of about 100 words, summarise what the text says about the history of the American Indians and the efforts that are being made to improve their situation.

How the West was lost

In his book Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown describes the Indian kinship with nature: the land was their mother - ‘and one does not sell one’s mother’. Yet European notions of property gradually took hold, first with beads, blankets, guns; then fences, enclosures, deeds of purchase. Whole tribes were exterminated; then the buffalo on which they lived.
‘The Indians killed only enough to supply their winter needs, ‘writes Brown, ‘stripping the meat to dry in the sun, storing marrow and fat in skins, treating sinews for bowstrings and thread, making spoons and cups of the horns, weaving their hair into ropes and belts, curing the hides for tepee covers, clothing and moccasins.’
The monstrous slaughter of the buffalo that began in the 1870s had the double purpose of bringing in hides and depriving the Indian of his livelihood. The European hunter left everything but the skin to rot. Nearly four million buffalo were destroyed in two years so that civilisation might advance.
Even on the reservations, the Indians were not left alone. Corrupt politicians and army officers funnelled in bad food, shoddy blankets and poisonous whisky. If minerals were found, the tribesmen were moved on again. At rare intervals in the story, a protesting white voice is heard. General Sandborn, who headed a peace commission to the Cheyenne after an army massacre of 105 women and children (and 28 men), told Washington: ‘For a mighty nation to carry on a war with a few struggling nomads is a spectacle most humiliating, a national crime so revolting that it must bring down on our posterity the judgment of heaven.’ Yet Sandborn went on to help the army wipe out the remaining Cheyenne. It took a final piece of planned butchery, in 1890 at Wounded Knee, to end resistance.
Today, the new militancy is bringing fresh hope and pride to America’s 650,000 Indians.
But the upsurge of ‘red nationalism’ is taking many other forms besides simple resistance. In the one-year occupation of Alcatraz the population rose to 800. The spirit of the rock spread over the country: army centres, missile bases, islands and reserves in the U.S. and Canada were occupied; claims were laid to oil-rich lands in Alaska.
More and more Indians are moving to the cities - there are 60,000 in Los Angeles alone - yet somehow, retaining their Indian identity and pride in their heritage. Others, staying on the reservations, have successfully created their own businesses and industries. The Indian people are also gaining more friends in high places. A champion of long standing who has acted on behalf of the Sioux and other tribes in the settlement of land claims is presidential candidate Senator George McGovern. ‘We must never’, he observes, ‘repeat in these settlements the exploitation, abuse, and attempted cultural genocide which blots our national heritage.’ McGovern has introduced a bill to create an American Indian development bank which would make loans to tribes and the new corporations. He recognises that the Indians resent the paternalism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, some-times known as America’s colonial service, and feel themselves perfectly competent to run their own affairs.
Almost every day, television perpetuates the myth of the Indian as a savage, to be slaughtered without mercy. In fact, few stereotypes are as false as that of the blood-thirsty Redskin. The Indian is essentially non-violent and civilised, with a deep reverence for nature which makes him a hero and a pioneer in the environmental cause. In a world seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction, the white American is beginning to listen to the placid voice of the Indians.

(Abridged from an article in The Observer Magazine)

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