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Us vs. Them
Breaking the cycle
12/04/16

As the destination of the Trail of Tears, Oklahoma has more Indians than most states. I've crossed the Trail of Tears several times in my cross-country voyage. Each time, I yank out a $20, see Andrew Jackson's mug, and wonder what drove him to do it.

The classic answer, that it was just a land grab, doesn't make sense. With much less turmoil, Jackson could have signed a piece of paper saying all the land was part of America and anyone living on it were American citizens. In those days, America was a patchwork of Italians, Irish, Germans, and such communities. We could have easily added Cherokees, Seminoles, and so on to the patchwork.

Was it some sense of guilt that drove Jackson to give land to the Indians to replace what had been stolen? Doubtful. Europeans had a long history of trading real estate at the point of a sword. Less well documented before the arrival of the pale faces, but so did the Indians.

These days, racial or ethnic hatred is the ready answer of the politically correct. But then why was not genocide the logical answer, morally popular ever since the Jews wiped out the Canaanites to grab their promised land? The 1800's was not a time of shy people.

Not that racism and bigotry were unpopular, but if that is all that was required, why were there no black reservations?

By a process of elimination, I was left with but one conclusion about them Indians, the ease with which it is to call them "them". Whereas the Italians, Irish, and Germans embraced the melting pot and were quick to call themselves Americans, the Indians held tightly to their customs and culture, resisting assimilation at every turn. Consider how an Italian-American is an American modified by the Italian adjective, but an American Indian is an Indian modified by America. Whether this was moral or justified, it bread an us-vs-them tribal mentality, endemic to humanity since we swung through trees.

Once the walls are built, the us-vs-them mentality contains within it the seeds of its own amplification. A growth of love within the us community is easily matched by a hate of the them community, particularly as the wall escalates ignorance and fear of "them".

Modern day Palestinians understand this when they look at Israel's wall, as did Adolf a few generations before. The outlook would be bleak if it were not for the rest of the American experience.

Not all that long ago, black & white movies portrayed "them" Indians as fearsome savages ready to scalp innocent farmers if not for the cavalry. Color movies and the introspection of the 70's rehabilitated Indians and swung the pendulum in the other direction. Indians became wise, close to nature, and admirable. A movie or book with an Indian villain became a rarity.

Meanwhile, Indians came out of their reservations to fight in America's wars with distinction, dot the roads with casinos, and remove bricks from their own us-vs-them walls. Oklahoma's country festivals are complete only with a few booths presenting Indian baskets and dream catchers. I bought a flute made by a Choctaw so I could learn to celebrate our exit from the us-vs-them spiral.

Of course the journey isn't finished, but the world news is full of so many us-vs-them communities that could learn to heal by how we Americans reached into our hearts.

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Beaver Bend State Park

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Cow waterhole

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Atop Talimena Drive, Ouachita National Forest

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Dawn mountains like rolling waves

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Breakfast table

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A knee-slapping good time

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Get back here so I can dance some more

For more pictures of Oklahoma, click here.


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