At the outset of embarking upon the Manifest Destiny series, my intent had been to write a single novel with the more unconventional purpose of depicting native Americans as the heroes of the west. The notion of the inhospitable wilderness being conquered through the intrepid fearlessness of a few bold explorers has always seemed laughable, since the native peoples had regarded the uncharted lands of North America as their home for millennia. It was a place in which they saw the Mother (earth) as providing for all their needs, food, shelter, clothing, tools and spiritual guidance.
My personal journey whilst writing Native has cultivated a deeper understanding of the culture and values of a group of people who might well be regarded as the original conservationists, a deeply spiritual matriarchal society whose motives were centred upon preservation of the environment for future generations – a message that we would all do well to heed!
Sadly, the story of the Lakota, probably the most notorious and powerful of the plains tribes, is desperately depressing. As with many other native peoples, the Lakota were the subject of a genocide and ethnic cleansing strategy that would rival any other atrocity seen anywhere else in the world, the purpose being to ‘liberate’ the plains for colonisation by European migrants.
There were once 60 million buffalo (North American Bison) roaming the Great Plains, an animal upon which the society and culture of the Lakota was founded. The tribe followed the annual migration, harvesting only what they needed, and the buffalo taught them how to live their lives, how to look after their children, what it meant to protect one another and act as a cohesive family. It was this dependency that the US government sought to exploit as the first step in ridding the plains of Indians. In the course of less than 20 years the great herds of buffalo were slaughtered, until less than 50 remained – the genetic pool from which all of today’s bison have evolved.
Many of the Lakota were confined to reservations, usually situated on the worst quality land, unsuitable for farming. However, some persisted in attempting to maintain their nomadic life, living on the open prairie, and ultimately military force was used to drive those stragglers on to the reservations too, or kill them if they resisted.
But, still the Lakota refused to concede their way of life. So, during the 1880’s the government implemented one of the most heinous acts imaginable. They forcibly removed Lakota children from their parents and sent them to boarding schools hundreds of miles away. The children had their clothes burnt and their hair cut. They were banned from speaking their own language or practicing their own ceremonies. They were schooled in Christianity, and they were sent out to work on ranches during the summer months where many were abused. Often children would be away from their families for up to 7-10 years. Then, finally, they were sent back to their people having been Europeanised, unable to speak their own language, outcasts in their own society and still regarded as natives by the settlers.
The trauma of this experience persists to this day, the boarding school system only having been abolished in the 1970’s. Much of the Lakota’s history and culture has become dangerously diluted, since it was all passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth – none of this knowledge was written. The consequence is a loss of identity coupled with huge social problems.
Some statistics suggest that there is up to 85% unemployment on Lakota reservations, and poverty is the worst to be found anywhere in the world other than Haiti, or war zones. Teenage suicide rates are more than three times the national average, and heart disease, diabetes and other health problems are endemic. Alcohol and drug abuse, in a society where optimism for ones future is a scarce commodity, is naturally of grave concern to tribal elders.
I have seen the reservations, talked to many of the people, enjoyed the privilege of participating in their ceremonies and found them to be warm, kind hearted, inexplicably ready to forgive the past, and concerned about preserving as much of their heritage (their value system and culture) as is possible in a modern world.
I worry for their younger generation. They have a lot of baggage to contend with, and many obstacles to overcome, simply to live a decent life and be able to provide for their own families – not too much to ask. So, my first book, Native, is dedicated to them and the proceeds will, I hope, be of some use, if only to give one child a chance of a brighter future.