Racism in America by Keith N. Larsen


In 2011, I met an 80 year old black gentleman who was reading a story on Chief Standing Bear. I asked him for his thoughts and he said, ““I believe Racism is not a matter of Skin but a matter of Sin.” He explained further, “If I do not love – everyone – then I am not going – anywhere – with God.” His words moved me in a profound way. It is a rare and wonderful experience to find such personal resonance between belief and expression.
Chief Standing Bear was the first Indian to be recognized by the US courts as a person. We have to ask “What was he before this landmark trial? Not a man? Not a person?” Thankfully, his impossible situation was recognized by several people from Omaha who stepped forward to help correct a moral injustice. The story is told in Joe Starita’s book “I Am a Man.”
Imagine, if you will, a new group of people, blue colored people perhaps… Thousands of blue people, settling on existing Nebraska farms and displacing existing Nebraska farmers off their land. Imagine the laws are written to support these actions and troops are sent to enforce the law. They have to leave and move to Mexico!
As our friends are forced to walk to Mexico how do they feel? They have to establish a new home where the lands and language are totally different. Imagine their anguish! Imagine also that they are promised food and clothing and compensation – but it never comes. Now imagine it is not your friends but you and your family that must leave! This is what we did to the American Indians.
When a “country” sins against a race, it creates new laws and rules to rationalize its actions. America did not legally buy this great land with the Louisiana Purchase – we merely paid France to stop their own encroachment against the Indian people. With a fabricated piece of paper, American politicians and pioneers behaved as if we owned the West.
We took the land – rich land – resource filled land – land filled with rich soil, trees, gold and oil. We surveyed it, parceled it out, and gave it all to homesteaders and giant corporations. It would seem the Indians had no more rights than the wildlife.
Our proud heritage would have us believe our family homesteads were built out of nothing but pioneer blood, sweat, and tears. In general, the homesteaders acted in good faith within the laws of the time and we can’t blame any one person for settling on native lands. There seemed to be plenty for everyone. However, the sad truth is our law abiding ancestors lived in a world that used “White Man’s Law” to take everything from the American Indians.
Although we feel this ancient shame, most farmlands are not going to go back to the Indian tribes. We can’t take land away from the current owners and return it to the Indian tribes. This was a world where “Might made Right” and “White made Might.”
It is ironic to me that we blame other countries for the atrocities they commit but we are somehow able to overlook the misdeeds of our own country. There is a shame so deep it is impossible for us to look at our history with any hope of resolution.
Many unfair choices were made in the name of America’s Manifest Destiny. I think most people can agree our American industry craved the raw materials of this great land – we needed it to grow! It is my personal belief that no corporation and no government will be needed, or welcomed, in heaven.
In recent news, we find that Congress has passed a bill to provide $3.4 billion in compensation to the American Indians who were first robbed of their homes and then robbed of the resources that came from the scrabble lands left to them. This bill is not a welfare program for native Americans but a court ordered judgment of a class action suit filed in 1996. The claim was that our governmental officials mismanaged and stole as much as $100 billion from the resources harvested from Indian Lands.
Let’s be reminded that this bill to compensate the Indian Nations is a natural outcome of the trial of Chief Standing Bear. We find there are real treaties that are backed by the US Government. After the trial 1879, Native Americans were deemed to be real people who are to be protected by those laws.
There has been significant pressure to provide some form of justice. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) noted that a federal judge has held the federal government in contempt for not funding the Indian case and called it a “bargain for the American taxpayers” that will avoid tens of millions of dollars in court costs. “We are correcting historic wrongs that should never have occurred in the first place,” he said.
Even though congress can only offer cold cash in this settlement, I hope they are able to express personal sorrow in some meaningful way. In the material sense, we will always fall short.
Perhaps, a spiritual cleansing is something that we can offer. Maybe we have a chance to purify our thoughts and bring them into harmony with our actions. Perhaps our penance will be to speak up the next time a demeaning comment is made about someone. We may fall short from time to time but, like my mentor on racism, we can begin the journey needed to “Love Everyone.” Only when we are ready from the inside, can we ask the Indian Nations to forgive us.
Our kudos to Joe Starita and the work he has done to open our eyes with his book, “I am a Man.” We are grateful for the exposure offered by the Public Library’s “One Book, One Lincoln” program. Recently, we are hearing calls to expand our reach of “I am a Man” to “One Book, One Nebraska” and beyond. Maybe the next time we print a state coin, the proud image of Chief Standing Bear will be the one chosen.
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