Gary K. Clabaugh
Emeritus Professor, La Salle University
Much deference is paid to the need for “multiculturalism” in the public school. How else, ask the disciples, can educators promote a sense of empowerment and worth in all?
True enough. But that does not change the fact that groups, be they tribes, religions or nations customarily benefit at another’s cost. For instance, when Israel gains middle eastern land, they necessarily do so at Palestinian expense. It’s a zero sum game. There is only so much land.
The same held true with the arrival of Europeans in America. Each time they won control of territory, native-Americans lost it. Consider, for example, the state of Georgia. This land was originally inhabited by native-American tribes. European-American’s desire to inhabit and exploit their land resulted in the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the subsequent Trail of Tears. That’s when Congress, with urging from President Jackson, forced Native-Americans to trek some 850 miles to Oklahoma in the dead of winter, leaving a trail of loved one’s corpses behind them. Heartless ethnic cleansing. The very thing for which we now rebuke other nations.
It’s this kind of zero sum game that defines multiculturalism’s limits. Why? Because it is difficult to honor, another group’s culture when your gain sits atop their loss. The winners can only grant token recognition to the losers without risking a measure of control.
Here is how this limitation was revealed in the classroom. An E.S.O.L. tutor for the School District of Philadelphia was helping a Haitian-American fourth grader write a book report. The book was to be about an American “minority achiever.” So the Haitian-American girl chose a biography of Crazy Horse, the Sioux chief who co-led the annihilation of Custer’s command.
The tutor helped the Haitian-American youngster with a secret smile. She doubted that the Custer massacre was the sort of “minority achievement” the assigning teacher had in mind.
The report format required students to describe the particular accomplishment of their “minority achiever.” So the tutor asked the young lady what Crazy Horse’s achievement was. She replied that in battle with other Indians, Crazy Horse’s bravery had been so reckless that his original name, “His Looking Horse,” was changed by acclimation to “Crazy Horse.”
The student admired such courage and saw it as an achievement. But the accomplishment she most admired was that Crazy Horse led resistance to white encroachment on the Black Hills; a region the Sioux regarded as sacred and which a solemn treaty (1868) promised to them “…for as long as grass should grow and water flow.“ That promise, the Haitian-American girl wryly noted, was made before the discovery of the “…yellow metal that makes the Wasichus (white man) crazy.”
The report format also required students to imagine they could sit down with the “minority achiever” and ask them any question. So the tutor queried, “What would you ask Crazy Horse?”” The girl surprised the tutor with her answer. She wanted to ask him why, before the arrival of the white man, he had warred upon and killed so many other Indians?
The answer to the student’s question gets us back to our original point. Why? Because material resources are limited and groups urgently compete for them. Crazy Horse killed other Native-Americans for exactly the same reasons Custer killed Indians. To gain personal advancement and grab other culture’s resources.
Note that white lust for Black Hills gold is little different from the Lakota’s lust for other tribe’s hunting grounds, horses and women. And had native Americans regarded gold as valuable, they would have competed for that. Black Elk even said: “Our people knew there was yellow metal in little chunks up there; but did not bother with it, because it was not good for anything.”
The difficulty the Lakota’s had with whites wasn’t that whites were more evil, blood thirsty or covetous. It was that whites were many times more efficient at grabbing what they wanted. The Indians weren’t more noble. They simply were less capable of successful aggression.
Admittedly, whites turned out to be graceless winners. They did not even grant Native-Americans citizenship until 1926. They also forced their children into government schools and attempted to make them into ersatz whites — though still emphatically second class. And they certainly will never give back Native-American lands. In fact, ethnic cleansing was the general order of business. As Black Elk observed: “My people’s dream died in bloody snow.” (He was referring to the U.S. Army’s final and particularly repellent massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee.)
No matter how often “multicultural” schools celebrate the noble red man, we will always be the ones who murdered their dream in order to realize ours. And pious demands for multiculturalism will never white-wash this blood-letting. Competition for resources will continue, “…for as long as grass should grow and water flow.“
John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, (New York: Pocket Books, 1959) p. 66