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Marginalized People Don't Need Lessons in Civility

The rhetoric of civility and civilization continue to serve as cover for barbaric policy.
Chief William Weatherford surrenders to Andrew Jackson following the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

Chief William Weatherford surrenders to Andrew Jackson following the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

White House officials, Republican politicians, and right-wing activists have been complaining recently about getting heckled and kicked out of restaurants and Ubers. Earlier this month, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that a local Uber driver had expelled six Republican volunteers from a ride, allegedly telling them as he pulled away, "Welcome to the resistance." The response from mainstream pundits has largely been to call for civility, but there are strong historical reasons why some Americans don't consider civility an absolute virtue.

White people tend to use the word "civilized" in its adjectival form. To them, it describes being polite and respecting other people's opinions and beliefs. For me, as for many other natives, "civilized" is a historical verb, recalling a bloody ultimatum imposed on us by an invading army. White people were never more "civilized" than us; they perpetuated the dichotomy of civilized versus savage to dehumanize us.

Those who posit themselves as most civil are often the people with the most power and privilege, and they're also often the most forgetful of the history of this continent, which was founded in blood. I do not believe in civility, just as I do not believe in savagery. I believe in decency and see the living traumas still unresolved in my own people's history. There are remnants of distrust that go back to when my grandmother went to Indian residential school, and indigenous people still distrust the government, not only for the massacres throughout indigenous history, but also for parts of our history that are often neglected or overlooked, like the coerced and forced sterilization of indigenous women in both Canada and the United States, which occurred as recently as 1990. Today, the only people telling the story of Louie Sam, an indigenous boy lynched near the Canadian border in 1884 over a crime he did not commit, are the people of our nation.

Civility is an invention that has been weaponized against indigenous people since settlers first started coming to indigenous lands. The rhetoric Europeans used, the language settlers used, the words presidents used against indigenous people argued that Indians were savages. And we indigenous people have lived with this narrative of savagery bleeding into our classrooms, televisions, and lives every day.

As Charles Dickens wrote in his essay "The Noble Savage": "I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth."

They described us like animals, and when we point out how that persistent rhetoric still harms us today, we hear rebuttals that allude to native histories of warring or discord. Champions of civilization argue that we should be thankful for what Western conquest has brought to us.

In the town where I'm now based, Evansville, Indiana, there is a memorial to Isaac Knight, a boy who, the memorial says, was abducted by Pottawattamie and Kickapoo people in 1793, and escaped after two years' captivity. And close to this town, there are historical markers placed on each campsite along the Trail of Death, where Potawatomi people were forced to march from Indiana to Kansas. Many got sick and died along the way—most of them children and elders. The first plaque commemorates the first death: an unnamed child. The Trail of Death was the largest "Indian removal" in Indiana history.

I don't write this to place one tragedy over another. I write it because the truth of my life as an Indian woman has asked that I hold many things: white histories and my people's and other nation's stories, passed on and unwritten but still living. As an indigenous person, in order to find the true history of other indigenous nations, I must remind myself that history doesn't exist in a linear progression; it's duplicitous and not always found in books. So much has been erased, and too much still has to be uncovered.

The history of Indians and scalping, for example, is difficult to process for me, perhaps in part because it's built on a lie. When white people allude to our savagery, or to how barbaric we were, they tend to evoke the specter of Indians bent on scalping; meanwhile, there is a quote from Susette La Flesche, a writer and artist from the Omaha tribe, who said in 1879 about scalping: "Don't you know that the white man taught Indians that? It was practiced first in New England on the Penobscot Indians. The General Court of the Province of Massachusetts offered a bounty of 40 pounds for every scalp of a male Indian brought in as evidence of being killed, and for every scalp of a female or male Indian under 12 years, 20 pounds."

In all of this, it's difficult to discern who is the savage. On my homeland, among my people, we say we know who the real savages are: They're the ones who took our kids away and beat the language out of them to "civilize" us as a people. Yet here too I resist the urge to debase myself by throwing the accusation of savagery back at them—because the word is a white invention, conceived to denote an inferior people. I cannot welcome a vocabulary or ideology that makes me or my people superior to anyone.

I will say, though, that indigenous people often have to reconcile in silence with who we are. My son was once told in his middle school classroom that, "What happened to Indians wasn't as bad as what happened to Jews."

"Who would compare the two?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said.

But I knew. I knew that his teacher was white, and to tolerate, engage in, or dispute what his teacher was saying would be to invite a diversionary tactic many indigenous people are familiar with. Positing one people's tragedy against another is a zero-sum strategy, and a cruel one.

My son is the only identified Indian in his school. I've lived in Indiana for a year, and I can say that it's no longer the "Land of the Indians." There are no federally recognized tribes based in Indiana because of the Indian Removal Act, carried out by President Andrew Jackson.

In Jackson's Speech to Congress on Indian Removal, the man whom the Cherokee had called "Indian Killer" said:

And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children? Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.

The rhetoric seems plain from writers like Charles Dickens and leaders like Andrew Jackson: They used the opposition between "civilized" and "savage" to present a binary that never actually described Native life. They used these words, vaunting the supposed virtues of "civilization," to justify their profiting by our erasure and removal.

We remember the children of residential and boarding schools, and those who lost their lives to racism, but I've noticed something else strange: Non-Natives are now using our histories to discuss current events. This summer, when immigrant children were removed from their parents' care and put into cages, several people shared pictures of indigenous children in history who were removed from their families in the U.S. and Canada. The resurfacing of these pictures is meant to stimulate and provoke, but even now, white Americans' investment in indigenous lives seems to remain strictly rhetorical. People are quick to share pictures of our historical displacement, to use them as evidence of an ugly past that America does not want to repeat. Yet often these same people refuse to acknowledge that these ongoing transgressions against us are generational and still with us in this very moment.

Liberal Americans typically only talk about indigenous people when it's convenient for them. They use our tragedy as talking points, to say that what happened to us should never happen again. They talk about us as though we are ghosts because in places like Indiana they don't see us. It is easier to reconcile with a tragic picture in black and white than to reconcile with who we are now and what we're fighting for. The tragedies inflicted upon Native people across North America—and the tragedies this country is inflicting on children at the border—cannot be comfortably relegated to history with the scratch of a pen or a fresh news cycle. They will continue being felt long after the news crews pack their equipment, after a different point of outrage dominates our social media feeds. We must pay attention to the way civility is still being weaponized against marginalized people. If we agree merely to be civil—to allow ourselves to be civilized by the very people who benefit from our timidity, by a society that values the lives of black and brown and indigenous people less than white people—then we will lose this fight.