Interview: â€œWeâ€™ve Done Them Wrongâ€
As soon as we received a courtesy copy of author George Saurman’s book, We’ve Done Them Wrong, we knew we had to help get it out there! We hope you will take the time to read this blog for my complete interview with George, in his own words. He wants you to know what he now knows about Native Americans – and had never heard before.
1. George, what was your central motivation for writing the book?
The big thing that prompted me to spend time in research was the speech made by Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior (DOI) on September 8, 2000 – the 175th anniversary of DOI. Gover referenced all the problems that Natives faced through the early years of U.S. development and verified that the deterioration of Natives was the intention and policy of the U.S. officials/government. Along with his speech, the verification made it certain that these facts were actual and breathtaking.
When I realized I had been through school, college and 33 years of government and never heard of any of the difficulties that existed for Indians, I was shocked and started to look into it. Kevin Gover’s speech matched what I found in my research.
The worst fact of all was the boarding schools, the brainwashing, harsh treatment, and indoctrination of children. The separation from family and culture that was imposed on the children created a big gap in their development and it was a deliberate attempt to “kill the Indian and save the child” as far as the schools were concerned. This was the motto and it was shocking to me that it took place.
I see the boarding schools as largely responsible for what’s happening on the reservations today. The difficulties with alcohol and drugs, the sexual violence with women – these things were never a part of the Indian culture. I wrote the book to share this with other people because, in speaking with others, very few were aware these things had taken place.
Gover indicated this was official policy, and he apologized because the formation of DOI was intended to protect the Indians, but it had done just the opposite. Gover intended to set forth a policy that this would change and that they would look forward to healing the harms done. Unfortunately, the legal attacks and the lack of any remedial help for situations on the reservations continue.
In one of the severe massacres that took place, the U.S. invited Indians in to discuss a peace treaty and poisoned the food. Although not insignificant, this was a stand-alone incident. The effects of the boarding schools were certainly more ongoing and set up a situation that continues to exist. It’s been done in other countries to separate children from parents and family. In this case, the U.S. and schools also indicated that Indians were bad and whites were good, and only Indians that became westernized were good while those that remained in their own culture were bad.
2. What do you hope people take away from reading your book?
I hope they begin to understand the difficulty that exists for Native American Indians. My book doesn’t get into the differences in our cultures; I’m still learning about that. In the book, I was trying to show what actually took place as the U.S. was being developed. We took people from their homes and evicted them, as portrayed on the book cover. We dug them up from homes and pushed them across the entire continent, then confined them onto bits of land that were nonproductive and promised to take care of them. Repeatedly, promises made by our officials at the highest level were broken and continue to be broken. We still do not recognize and own up to what we really owe them. That’s the reason I wanted to write the book, We’ve Done Them Wrong.
In terms of solutions, it becomes very difficult. The U.S. tries to impose the answers in terms of what we understand. To find solutions, we need to work through the Indians and their culture and what is important to them. That is what I hope the book at least begins to share.
And, if individuals begin to work with organizations such as National Relief Charities [now Partnership With Native Americans] we can begin to understand more clearly what the problem is and hopefully attempt to relieve some of the immediate difficulties while working on a much longer solution.
One of the things also amazing to me was the reliance of early American founders on the organizational situation of Indians. When the Continental Congress was meeting, they repeatedly visited Native leaders and, in my opinion, the Constitution that was verbally related to them by the Iroquois Confederacy gave the U.S. a working model. When America was in its infancy, every other country was imperialistic and had a king or monarch or leader. There was no model of a free system except among the Indians. The “Great Binding Law” of the Iroquois was the glue that held them together, and the comparable parts of that document to the U.S. Constitution are remarkable. In fact, the Iroquois influence was so great that Benjamin Franklin spoke about them when the Albany Plan for Union was being created. He said, ”It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming such a union and be able to execute it in a manner that it has subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impractical for ten or a dozen English colonies.”
I also hope people recognize that, when the U.S. adopted a Constitution, we did not adopt the tenet that the Chief was a guidance person rather than one with authority, or that decisions were made by consensus. The U.S. approach hinges on a majority vote rather than a consensus; this leads to hard feelings and resentment. I think Indians maintained their systems of government for centuries because consensus did not create hard feelings or people taking sides. There were no winners or losers.
3. What was the most surprising fact you learned from your research, and why do you think it is important?
I was surprised that the difficulty facing Native American Indians was officially known by the U.S. and continues to exist. As a World War II veteran, I know there are hard feelings in combat; but, at the end of the war, we rebuilt Japan and Europe. With the Indians, there is no end – we have not rebuilt, and attempts to rebuild were made from our point of view and we messed up on them. For example, when President Eisenhower made the offer for jobs if Indians left the reservations, they did so and wound up homeless, without help or guidance, in cities where they were total strangers. U.S. attempts at rebuilding were made without much real consideration of what fits for the tribes and cultures.
I wonder, for instance, why the U.S. couldn’t offer to sovereign Indian nations a lower tax rate that would be more comparable to Third World countries where companies are locating. If that could happen, it could offer some solution to the 85% unemployment that exists on the reservations. If a company were in that area, they would also be looking to improve housing and other concerns that go along with the poverty that exists. That is just one thought. I am hopeful that others with more technical/legal knowledge could come up with a solution that really makes sense. I am sure a solution could be found.
4. Do you think U.S. citizens owe a debt to the Indian people, and why?
I think we owe certainly a moral obligation, as this is not a situation created by the Natives. They did not want to be uprooted and moved from their locations, and they had every reason to believe that when our officials spoke on behalf of our nation they could expect it would be truthful and fulfilled. Now, we as relatives of those who made these bad mistakes owe something to the relatives of Indians to whom those promises were made. We caused the situation; we should help alleviate it.
I hope the right people hear this. I was moved that Obama would show some act of humanity by awarding the medal to Billy Mills. But, that does nothing to compensate for what we owe them.
5. If the book could create just one outcome, what would you hope it to be?
I don’t know whether my earlier idea about lower tax rates would help; it is just one possibility. But, I hope that people with far more knowledge than me of how the government functions would think about this. If industries going offshore could be brought back into this country, both the U.S. and Indian nations would benefit. If the right people would sit down and talk about the situation, they could try to find a solution and see if it can’t be done. Whatever the solution is, it has to be done through the Native American Indians themselves. For it to happen, they have to want it to happen – it has to fit for them. But, I’m sure there is a workable solution. I have enough faith in our Creator to know there is an answer.
6. What’s the one thing you want people to understand after reading the book?
The one thing I want people to understand is how mistreated and unfairly treated Native American Indians have been and how they have suffered. The consequences of our actions are ongoing. It isn’t something of the past. It isn’t something we can hide in a closet somewhere. It’s a situation that realistically exists, and in all decency, it deserves our greatest attention.
7. What should people tell their children about Native Americans?
First, they should make sure that children are aware that, like every person, Indians are created equal. They deserve our respect, freedom and equality, and they deserve hope.
Uppermost, the readings I have from Native American children are that they feel badly because they are discriminated against; they don’t see the opportunities most American kids see growing up. If we could in some way instill in Indian children a belief that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and an opportunity for them and a belief that they share the freedom/equality we talk about, that would make a difference.
I’m not anti-American, but I believe we have misplaced some of our activity and ought to be directing it to helping the Indian people.
8. Who or what influenced you most in your life?
My grandfather, Albert Borst, set a good example for me. He was the kind of person I wanted to emulate, his morals and reason for living. Daddy Borst, as he was known by community and church, cared for others. I never saw him say or do anything he couldn’t be proud of, and I’ve always tried to follow his example. He was a great role model for me and continues to be. Thank goodness I had him to follow.
9. What personal message or motivation do you have for people?
My grandfather worked out the things he believed in and tried to pursue them in his life. This guides me. He personified “what’s right in life.”
So, I want people to have this information. I want them to consider how important it is for individual Native Americans to have hope. I just talked about that. I would hope they would be motivated to contribute at present to take care of immediate needs, but also spend some time to think about possible solutions. Who knows who has the answer.
10. What’s “your” favorite book?
I don’t think there’s another book that matches the Holy Bible. It’s not what educators would want to hold up as a model of literature. But, in terms of motivation and direction on the way to live, I think there’s no match.
The reason I wrote We’ve Done Them Wrong was to get the word out. When people have read it, the effort comes back. I had lunch with Father Joe at St. Joseph’s Indian School and asked him about the book. He said they use it in their school. That made me feel real good.
11. Anything else to add?
I really appreciate what your organization is doing. I have no idea how the book will help, but I’ve said a lot of prayers that it will get the message across to people and something good will come of it.
About George E. Saurman
George E. Saurman was born in Houston in 1926. He served with the Sixth-Fifth Infantry Division in the European Theater during World War II and later graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Ursinus College. He held several executive positions in business and served 33 years in local and state government. He and his wife Mary (deceased) have four children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. George currently resides in Pennsylvania.