The long-lost truth about native Americans

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, February 29 1988

In February 1911, Woodrow Wilson was just launching his campaign to become President of the United States, more than 500,000 automobiles clogged the streets of American cities, an aeroplane made the first transcontinental flight from New York to California and on a grassy hillside in Nevada, a lone band of untamed native American Indians made its last stand.

The Indians were Shoshone. They were only a small group: half a dozen children, three young men, two women, and their leader, a white-haired old man who was known to his family as Ondongarte – Sitting Light – and to white settlers as Shoshone Mike. They were to become the victims of the last Indian massacre.

Their demise has been traced in a new book, Shoshone Mike, written by a Nevada-born historian, Frank Bergon. It is a story which has been lying undisturbed in a blind spot in American history, a fate which overtook it despite the fact that it received sensational treatment from newspapers at the time. The same blindspot conceals much of the experience of the native Indians, not only in the past but also in contemporary America.

For bloodshed and exploitation, their history exceeds the suffering of black people in America, but they have never matched the political clout of the civil rights movement. Their loss of land is greater than that of the Palestinians, but they have no paramilitary campaign nor foreign allies to fund one. Today, they are the victims of official corruption and commercial exploitation which put Watergate in the shade, but that scandal has never pushed its way to the front of the long queue of scandals which wait to capture the attention of the American public.

Shoshone Mike was one of the last Indians to be moved on to a reservation. He was sent to Fort Hall in southern Idaho in the 1870s, but there the same forces which had driven the tribe out of their traditional home around the Great Salt Lake caught up with them again. The reservation was halved and halved again as the US Congress in Washington sold off swathes of the land to railroad companies and white settlers.

Their attempts to grow wheat on the reservation failed when grasshoppers ate their crop. They ate the grasshoppers. Most of them ended up turning to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to avoid starvation, begging rations and blankets as the economic roots of the tribe withered. At the turn of the century, Mike and his family struck out for the hills in one last attempt at survival.

Bergon’s book, which draws on old journals and newspapers, shows how close they came to success during the next ten years, before the wild deer and elk they were hunting were driven away by cattle companies and before the salmon they were catching were blocked off by the new Milner Dam. In the Spring of 1910, the encroaching settlers finally sent them skidding downhill towards their end.

On May 6, Mike’s son, Jack, disturbed three horse thieves who were hiding out near their camp in the remote mountains of north east Nevada. The thieves shot and killed the young Indian; that night, Mike and his other sons took revenge, killing one of the thieves and stealing their horses. The whole Indian family then ran away, heading off on a long trek southwards into Nevada, hiding in the hills during the day, stealing supplies from farms at night.

Unknown to them, the two remaining horse thieves were arrested for an armed robbery. They kept running. In January 1911, according to Bergon’s research, they were thrown into a panic when they saw four cattle men inspecting the remains of a cow which they had stolen and slaughtered; when the four men turned and rode towards their camp, they opened fire, killing all four of them, and sealing their own fate.

Newspapers hyped up the story, adding mutilation to murder, terrifying the little local towns with reports of a large band of roaming Indian outlaws. The state police, determined to prove their superiority to the local county sheriff, set out in pursuit. On February 26, just seventy seven years ago, they caught up with Shoshone Mike and his starving family on a cold and lonely hill by Rabbit Creek, Nevada. They did not try to arrest the old man but riddled him with bullets; they also killed his aging wife, his three adult sons, a young woman, two small boys and all of their horses. One teenage girl and three babies survived.

When the police rode back to town, they were greeted by cheering crowds. The local newspaper said they had “comported themselves with credit and honour to the best traditions of the race” and that “these Indians had threatened the lives, the property, and the peace of the entire state”. The victorious hunters shared out Shoshone Mike’s belongings and argued about the reward money. The four survivors were sent back to the reservation, where three soon died of tuberculosis. One baby girl remained and still lives in Nevada.

She is only one of some one and a half million native Indians who have survived and who still surface occasionally in the small print of American life. Most live on the 269 reservations, which harbour the nation’s poorest communities with unemployment rates running up to 65%. The reservations continue to suffer the encroachment of their old enemies.

A new organisation named Protect America’s Rights and Resources, claiming support in 15 states, is campaigning to abrogate all Indian treaties, to seize all reservation land and remove any surviving rights. The old hunting rights which allow Indians to kill game without the limits imposed on weekend sportsmen are under particular pressure. “We don’t think the Indians should enjoy full benefits of civilisation and then claim to be a sovereign nation,” says the group’s executive director, Larry Greschner.

At its most bizarre, the encroachment takes the form of bingo. The reservations provide a loophole through anti-gambling laws, and white businessmen have paid large fees for the right to hold bingo sessions on tribal land. There are stories of bribery and intimidation: one New Orleans businessman was caught passing a $25,000 bribe to an Indian chief and then exonerated on the grounds that the Indian did not qualify as a state official and so the money did not count as a real bribe.

In its more common form, the encroachment involves oil and mining companies who have been allowed to rifle through the natural resources of the reservations. On the most recent estimate, reservation Indians are owed nearly $6 billion in royalties which have been promised and never paid to them

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is supposed to ensure the welfare of the Indians, is now under investigation by a Senate committee after a newspaper in Arizona uncovered widespread evidence of fraud and mismanagement. Whether the investigation will help is itself questionable.

The Senate’s most recent foray into Indian territory came in November when Senator Bill Bradley tried to introduce a bill to restore 1.3 million acres of land to the Sioux in South Dakota. The tribe had been pushed off the land in 1877 under threat of starvation and had successfully sued and been awarded $105 million in compensation in 1974, an award that was approved by the Supreme Court. However, the Indians turned down the money and insisted that it was their land they wanted.

Bradley’s attempt to return it to them was killed by opposition whipped up by a South Dakota senator, Thomas Daschle, whose office explained:”The majority of South Dakotans oppose the Bradley bill. And it’s not good policy. It’s simply not realistic to give back 1.3 million acres. If you carry that to the nth degree, almost every inch of land from shore to shore would have to be returned to someone.”