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Omdahl: Intergenerational justice for Native Americans

By Staff | Jul 8, 2016

Woodie Guthrie wrote an inspiring song to assure us that this land was our land. The melody was great but his premise was wrong.

With immigration becoming a major national issue, last week’s column speculated on a conversation that might occur at a meeting of North Dakota’s tribal leaders at which they expressed their perception of immigration.

For four years, I chaired the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission for Governor George Sinner. It was a frustrating but important experience.

I met regularly with tribal leaders to discuss issues peculiar to the North Dakota reservations and their 35,000 enrolled members. Inevitably, the meetings became hand-wringing sessions because every problem we discussed required money and the state policy system was not particularly responsive to funding reservation needs.

We had palmed all responsibility off on the federal government. Indian treaties were federal deals not ours. The Native American people were federal people not ours.

Justice Miller, writing in Kagama v. United States, was right when he said that:”because of the local ill feeling, the people of the States are often their (Native Americans) deadliest enemies.”

While we struggle with the unresolved immigration issues of the day, little is said about the European immigration that marched across the continent, gobbling up land occupied by Native Americans. The treaties proved to be valid until gold was discovered or European immigrants wanted more land.

The land we stole became invaluable. We got some of the richest farm land in the world and quadrillions in gold, silver, oil and other precious minerals. If our treaties would have let the Native Americans keep the mineral rights, they would all be living on easy street.

But we didn’t do that. While confiscating their land and minerals, we murdered Native Americans by the thousands. General Custer is still regarded as something of a hero for his mission to “punish” the Indians.

General Custer should have expected no less at the Little Big Horn, considering that none of the treaties before 1876 were honored and Native Americans were being pushed into the Pacific Ocean.

Today, our killing of Native Americans would be labeled as genocide in the World Court. The German people have expressed more regret over the behavior of Adolph Hitler than we have over our treatment of Indians.

It is true that we cannot go back and correct the sins of previous generations. However, a historical perspective should give us some acceptance of our ongoing obligation for the consequential problems being suffered by the current generation of Native Americans.

We should appreciate that our comfortable homes are built on Indian land; our businesses prosper on Indian land; our oil royalties come from Indian mineral rights; our farms flourish on Indian land. All the while, Native Americans live on reservations.

North Dakota and America have prospered from Indian land far more than $300 a month in food stamps.

While it is true that the major responsibility for Native Americans falls on the federal government, it seems that we should be willing to do more as a state to supplement federal programming. After all, Native Americans are now our citizens, our voters, our people.

Then there are the 11,000,000 “illegal” Mexican immigrants, living mostly in territory we confiscated in the treaty ending the war on Mexico. In that treaty, our “Manifest Destiny” was to steal half of Mexico.

Of course, we have to regain the integrity of our borders but we call these immigrants illegal when they are living in areas of the United States once owned by their ancestors.

In relation to both the Native Americans and the Mexican immigrants, we can’t change the facts of history. Nevertheless, reflections on the sins of our past should at least temper our attitudes in the present. There should be some intergenerational justice.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and a former political science professor at the University of North Dakota.

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