Tag Archives: Violence

No Mercy

It was a long drive to Gnadenhütten. It was Thursday, last week, and the weather seemed cooler than usual. The rain fell for much of the drive from Rochester. It was a dark day most of the way as we traveled along the Lake Erie shore, and cut south into Ohio.

I listened to National Public Radio on the drive, searching for a new station each time I moved out of range of the one I had been listening to before. Stories repeated over the course of the day. Because different NPR stations run different shows at different times of the day, some stories repeated several times: the end of testimony in the Derek Chauvin murder trial, for instance, and his decision not to testify in his own defense; the arraignment of the police officer who killed Daunte Wright when she pulled out her pistol rather than the taser that she intended to use; and the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer in a back alley. The child had been carrying a weapon, but when he turned toward the officer who pursued him–showing his hands as he had been instructed to do–the officer shot and killed him. Three people of color killed by white policemen dominated the news.

I am sure part of the problem is that police fear that everyone has guns. There are too many guns, and that needs to be part of the discussion about disarming or abolishing the police. Unless you are a hunter, you will never convince me that you need a gun. Owning a weapon is a choice made by those who want to control or threaten others or, for reasons I do not pretend to understand, those who need a killing machine to feel secure in their manhood, or for those who choose to live in fear.

Several months back, I dropped by daughter off at a gym about twenty minutes from our house. Attached to the workout facility was a large hockey center with a couple of rinks where youth leagues played their games. Because the workout lasted for only an hour, I always brought work, and waited outside in the car, doing reading for classes. One time I parked next to one of those over-sized pickup trucks that have become an all-too-common blight on our roadways. You have seen them, decorated with NRA stickers, or some form of The Punisher, or a blue line flag. The driver got out of his truck. He reached back in for something and as he stretched to do so, I could see that he was carrying a holstered gun on his hip. He pulled his black hoodie over belly, bullets and belt, and went inside to watch his kid play hockey, armed and ready for action. Many of the kids going into that rink must have been about thirteen.

Like Adam Toledo. I watched the video of his shooting, placed on an official Chicago website. It happened really fast. So fast. But he was shot and he went down and I saw the blood pouring out of his mouth or nose. I turned it off.

When we reached Gnadenhütten, right there beside the Tuscarawas River, the museum was closed. I called the two numbers on the locked door. The first went to voice mail. I dialed the second number. Tom answered. He drove over from his house, a very short distance away, let us in, and showed us around the museum. Lots of arrowheads. Lots of pictures of the site taken over the years since 1782, when American soldiers murdered the Christian Indians gathered there. Books that had belonged to the missionary David Zeisberger. But what really interested me was outside. The small grave where were buried the “martyrs” (to what cause?). A reconstruction of the Mission House. A site that echoes with the screams of children.

If we are to understand Native American history in all its complexity, I believe that we must confront the lacerating violence of events like Gnadenhütten. We must do so whether we are on the Right or the Left or in the middle.  I would contend that an honest rendering of this event would not differ widely on the basis of who taught it. We might differ in terms of its broader meaning. Last week, after a long drive, I saw it in the same light as I see the murder of George Floyd, the shooting of Adam Toledo, and the killing of Daunte Wright. Examples all of America’s long-enduring race war.

The frontier, we must remember, was a violent and at times a frightening place. No historian would dispute that, no matter what their politics, unless they chose to ignore the evidence completely. Many Anglo-American settlers living on war-ravaged frontiers simply could not trust their Indian neighbors. Settlers in the Ohio country, for example, experienced the horrors of warfare just as did Indians. Some of them witnessed the death of friends and neighbors in Indian attacks. More of them heard horrifying stories of Indian attack. These settlers had occasion to fear Indians. They acted, with violence and decision, to save themselves.  But settlers found in their fears justification for horrible acts of terror. They could, as did Ohio country settlers in 1782, conclude that the singing of psalms by Christian Indians at the Moravian mission at Gnadenhütten was not the pious expression of praise to the One God but the ranting and boasts of savages who had wet their hands in the settlers’ blood.

Native peoples had their own fears, of course. When Kentucky militiamen attacked a cluster of villages in northern Indiana where Potawatomis and many other native peoples lived, they threatened them with extermination. If native peoples refused to make peace, Brigadier General Charles Scott said, “your warriors will be slaughtered, your towns and villages ransacked and destroyed, your wives and children carried into captivity.”  Read Jeffrey Ostler’s excellent piece in the William and Mary Quarterly from 2015 and his more recent award-winning book.  Indians feared genocidal violence from white Americans, and you cannot miss the expressions of that genocidal intent in the writings and statements of American officials. Words and deeds combined, a frightening mix. Many native peoples who lived in the Ohio country saw in the United States and its citizens, whatever its claims to desire peace, an existential threat to their existence. Gnadenhütten. The white soldiers, these guardians of their communities, held a vote on whether or not to kill the 100 Christian Indians they had taken captive. This was, for native peoples, American democracy at work. As the Christians sang the last hymns they would sing, savage militiamen began to murder them, thirty men, three dozen women, and thirty-two children in all. Kids. Almost three dozen.

Tom, the guy who drove over to open up the museum, gave me a pamphlet reproduction of “The History of the Gnadenhütten Massacre,” written in 1843. It tells the story of the “Blackest Page in History of Northwest Territory.” It opens with a poem:

Alas! Alas! For treachery! The bestial white man came
With weapons of destruction, the sword of lurid flame;
And while the poor defenseless ones together bowed in prayer,
Unpitying they smote them all while kneeling meekly there.
The cry of slaughtered innocence went loudly up to heaven;
And can ye hope, ye murdering bands, ever to be forgiven?
We know not, --yet we ween for you the latest lingering prayer
That trembled on your victims' lips, was 'God forgive and spare!"

The pamphlet closed with the following:

May the memory of our red brethren, who at Gnadenhütten sealed their faith with their pious confessions of the Savior in their sufferings, their meek endurance, and triumphant Christian death, bear testimony to the Truth as it is in Jesus, as long as the memory of the atrocious deed shall last.

Just a couple of blocks away, in the center of Main Street, the head of the “Brave” who serves as the mascot for Indian Valley High School is painted in the middle of the intersection. Images inspired by James Earle Fraser’s “End of the Trail” sculpture appear at the entrance to the site and on a hardware store on Main Street. The large obelisk at the site of the Gnadenhütten massacre indicates that the Indians were victorious in their deaths. But they weren’t, were they? They lost before the lost everything. Statements that they prevailed over their murderers might make white people feel better, that the pious converts “went to a better place,” and you can believe that if you want to. I am inclined to believe that they were slaughtered, tossed in a mass grave, under a small mound that stands feet a way from the small gravel parking lot, surrounded on three sides by the graves of the village’s white residents. It is such a sad, sad, place.

I am so conscious that what I do as a historian and educator is viewed with suspicion by those who do not share my political beliefs. I have been told that I teach “children” to hate America, that I emphasize the negative rather than the positive aspects of American history. There is a student at my college–in my classes–who has made himself a polarizing figure on campus by loudly and stridently proclaiming his contrarian conservative politics. Among many things, he has accused those who teach him of being Marxists, Anti-Christian, Anti-American and, implicitly, demonic.

I was tired by the time I arrived at Gnadenhütten. We still had a couple of hours to go to get to Cincinnati. For me, it is a place that forces reflection. What else can one do while standing on the ground where American soldiers murdered nearly a hundred Christian Indians?

The locals remember the massacre at Gnadenhütten as a black mark in their history. But in the small museum on the site, there is little real discussion of the horrible crime itself. There are relics–a large collection of arrowheads harvested from farmers’ fields once worked by Shawnee women. There is plenty of information about the mission and the missionaries. But far less about the murders that took place a short walk from the front door. You learn who lived there, but not how it was that soldiers felt the need to slaughter children.

We thanked Tom for letting us in to the museum. We thanked him for his time and his hospitality. We dropped a small donation in the box, and walked back to the car. I am glad we stopped. I am glad we called him and took him up on his invitation to show us the collections. I took a last look again at the grounds, walked once more around the burial mound. Then I got back in my car, started the engine, and drove away. We saw the giant warrior’s head in the center of Main Street. The hourly news update came on before we left town, indicating that city officials in Brooklyn Center expected another night of protest in the aftermath of the killing of Daunte Wright, the latest battle in a race war that has gone on seemingly without end.

Patterned Acts of Violence

Brooke Crews butchered Savanna Greywind.  Crews wanted a baby, and her young neighbor was eight months pregnant.  On the night of 17 August last year she lured Greywind into her home. While Savanna was still alive, and passing in and out of consciousness, she cut the child from her womb. When Crews’ boyfriend arrived, she presented him with the baby.  “This is our baby,” she reportedly said. “This is our family.” Together, they cleaned up the blood. Together they disposed of Savanna’s clothing. And, together, they wrapped her body in plastic sheeting and dumped of it in the river, where kayakers found it sometime later.

JUST OVER A YEAR BEFORE Savanna Greywind’s murder, another twenty-two year old, Colten Boushie, set out from his reserve west of Saskatoon. The car Colten and his friends were riding in got a flat tire, and the guys pulled into the farm of Gerald Stanley.  Boushie and his friends had been drinking.  They may have committed some petty thefts, though the testimony is confused.  Young guys, engaging in mischief.  Committing some minor crimes.  (If you were ever a young adult, you probably have done this sort of stuff, too). But, here, at Stanley’s place, they seem to have wanted nothing more than help fixing a flat tire.  What happened next is a matter of dispute. Stanley said that the 70-year-old handgun he wielded in order to scare the young men off misfired. Others that he carried out an act of vigilante justice against a group of young men he feared had come to rob him.  And others still believed that Stanley was an Indian-hating westerner from the Canadian Plains.  Whichever, the case, Colten Boushie, who was seated in the vehicle’s front seat, died from a gunshot wound to the head.  The bullet was fired by Stanley, from his old gun.

Last week, Savanna Greywind’s killer was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Stanley’s trial for the murder of Colten Boushie began last week. Both stories struck me as so evocative of the long and troubled history that I teach.  Both stories scream with the echoes of the past.

The news is increasingly filled with stories of missing and murdered indigenous women and children.  In response to Greywind’s murder, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp has introduced “Savanna’s Law,” which will “help address crisis of missing and murdered Native American women.”  Specifically, the act would

  • Improve tribal access to certain federal crime information databases. The bill would update the data fields to be more relevant to Native Americans, and mandate that the Attorney General consult with Tribes on how to further improve these databases and their access to them. The Attorney General would then submit a report to Congress on how the U.S. Department of Justice plans to implement the suggestions and resolve the outstanding barriers Tribes face in acquiring full access to these databases.
  • Require the Attorney General, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health and Human Services to solicit recommendations from Tribes on improved access to local, regional, state, and federal crime information databases and criminal justice information systems during the annual consultations mandated under the Violence Against Women Act.
  • Create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans. These protocols would take place in consultation with Tribes, which would include guidance on inter-jurisdictional cooperation among tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement.
  • Require an annual report to Congress with data. The report would include statistics on missing and murdered Native women, since there is little data on this problem and there isn’t a central location for keeping that information. The report would also include recommendations on how to improve data collection.

I wish Heitkamp well. I hope her legislation passes, and I hope it helps.  It mainly aims at attempting to improve information about a problem that all acknowledge is poorly understood.  That is a good thing, but it seems to me it is at best a half-measure. So much more than information is needed.

Heitkamp’s proposed piece of legislation addresses nonetheless deep and systemic problems that cut to the core of the Native American experience in North America.  Native American women have always been objects of white violence.  Long ago, for instance,  George Percy told the story of how he ordered the Queen of Paspahegh stabbed to death after his men had earlier entertained themselves by throwing her children from the boat and shooting out their brains in the water.  Edward Moseley, that mercenary who sold his services to the Puritan Saints during King Philip’s War, boasted about how he unleashed his war dogs on an Algonquian captive his men had taken.  The dogs, Moseley noted, tore her to shreds. The mutilation of women’s bodies by American soldiers at Sand Creek: that, too, is part of a long, long story.  Sexual violence rests at the core of this history and it continues: along the Canadian Highway of Tears and, if the spotty records are correct, on reservations across America.  And in Fargo.

Brooke Crews stole Savanna Greywind’s baby.  There is a long history of white clergymen, government officials, military officers, and bumbling do-gooders who have scooped up Native American children.  Canada, much more than the United States, has started a discussion of the legacy of residential schools and the problems that continue to plague them. European colonizers and their colonial heirs long have collected the orphans whose parents they killed, sold them into slavery, bound them into servitude, and still, today, distribute them to white families in some states through broken and racist foster care systems.

Colten Boushie’s story, too, has so many ties to a vicious and violent past, for white people, throughout the history of this continent, have murdered native people. That reality runs through every book I have written, including Native America: Arthur Peach, the killer of a Narragansett messenger, Northern Neck racists who murdered Susquehannocks; Pennsylvania Frontiersmen who murdered Senecas with impunity, leading Federalist Timothy Pickering to lament that, for most white people living in close contact with native peoples, killing an Indian was no crime at all. Read the annual reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:  they are full of complaints from federal policy makers who felt powerless to stop the violence meted out on Indians by the white frontier population.  It was frontier whites, American officials understood so well, who were responsible for frontier violence.  Indians were usually victims.

You cannot miss this in the documents. It is all there. It is always there.  And still it goes on.  The police treated Boushie’s body with a callousness they would not use for white crime victims. And the police, when they came to Boushie’s house to tell his mother and father that their son had died, searched the house.  They came in with guns drawn. They treated Mrs. Boushie with disrespect and cruelty.  If the Boushies’ account is accurate, the Canadian police behaved like racist thugs.  It is a heart-breaking tale that should shame police officials in Saskatchewan.


GREYWIND’S MURDER has provoked discussion and legislation in the halls of Congress to address a problem that native peoples have talked about for generations, but that Congress is only now starting to act upon.  Boushie’s murder has caused deep-seated racial tensions to surface and has brought into the open, his grieving friends and families say, the sorts of racism and violence First Nations people face every day.  The trial is receiving heavy coverage in Canada, where Boushie is being described as the “Rodney King of Canada.”  Maybe something good will come from airing out these issues.  That is what some hopeful people say.  I am doubtful, because this violence has gone on forever.  The headlines in the newspapers point out that the case has caused racial fears to increase, and that white people, one story said, are fearful of retribution. White people are worried.  Fear of the other.  Fear of the marginalized. Fear of the neighbors whose ancestral homelands you now occupy. I heard the expression of that fear when I lived in Montana: from my landlord, a feisty old woman who would not rent to Crows because, she said, if you let one in, soon you would have the whole tribe; from my students who, in unguarded moments, embraced baldly racist stereotypes; to the angry ranchers who extracted their livelihood from what had once been Crow land, and who refused to place themselves voluntarily under the authority of tribal officials. I hear it in small-town New York, too, where one can still see the faded “Upstate Citizens for Equality” sign along the sides of roads throughout the Finger Lakes.

We are historians.  Many of us have heard the old line, that if we do not learn from the past we will repeat our mistakes.  We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  And, in Native American history, it is the continuities that stand out: with a Secretary of the Interior who views anything he cannot kill as something he might drill, and who views nothing as sacred save for his own conservative evangelicalism; with violence continuing across the continent; with a hostile legal system assaulting native nationhood; and with a Chief Executive whose infantile racism makes clear what many of us have long argued: this is a deeply racist country, and many of us continue to benefit from that systemic injustice.  We have numerous examples of how difficult it will be to achieve meaningful change.  That is realistic, not pessimistic.

My students are shocked when they read about stories like those of Savanna Greywind and Colten Boushie, and even more so when I take the time to place them in the context of a much larger, and much more violent, history than they have ever been taught. They seem empowered, some of them, and determined to “do something.”  Others, they sense that the obstacles are formidable. And so on we go, teaching and writing, fighting against the dark belief that things will not get better. We choose the stories we want to tell.  We must remember that.