You Wanted to Know: Why can’t they just move on?

Question: I’m not racist, but it all happened in the past. Why can’t they just move on?

Excerpt: Language and culture loss, many health issues, substance abuse, the educational opportunity gap, lack of economic opportunity, and many other problems in Indian country can be directly attributed to specific government policies. It’s easy to push people into a pit, but it can be very hard for them to climb back out.

Photo courtesy of artist David Wick (pub.

Often this question is asked without consideration of one’s personal life experience or that of another’s. In asking, the individual putting forth the question assumes that all people view the world through the same lens. Those asking the question may see themselves as different from those around them, but presume that everyone has equal access to the resources that they themselves have. “All men are created equal,” after all.

Similarly, there is ignorance inherent in the question that sets the past as something isolated from the present – as if some connection doesn’t exist between the two. By asking the question, 500 years of foreign disease, armed conquest, forced removal, and anti-Indian policies are pardoned and forgotten. Yet, those 500 years are still here today. They led to today.  The victims are still affected.

Ignorance isn’t always bliss. It isn’t possible for this nation as a whole, Native or non-Native, to move forward without knowing the true history. Without knowing the past. Without dispelling the misconceptions and stereotypes.

In order for healing to happen, the American dominant culture must look back. It must look in the mirror. It must go on trial, serve its time, and be rehabilitated. Like it or not, the United States of America owes a debt to society — particularly to a very specific society, the collective American Indian societies they so drastically altered by Manifest Destiny.

All too often “the past” is talked of as something that happened so long ago that its impact is somehow null and void. Yet, there are Grandmas and Grandpas, Aunts and Uncle alive today that personally experienced the trauma of government-mandated boarding schools. Right now, there are children growing up in a culture that is still coping with the aftermath from loss of language and a way of life that the US government’s reservation system forced on Native people. Broken treaties, stolen land, termination of social benefits, and limited access to resources all play a part of this.

Nothing just starts and stops with a generation. Instead, the residual effect is passed from one to the next. All things move in cycles. And let’s not forget that the past isn’t the past. History didn’t stop when the reservations were started. Many oppressive policies against American Indians have been created since then and continue to limit the tribal nations to this day.

So perhaps it is best to think of the past in relation to yourself. Think about how the unexpected death of a love one shaped you. Or, how an abusive relationship altered the course of your life. The same thing could be said about the positive parts of our personal pasts. Isn’t that past ongoing? And for purposes of relating to this post, think of how 500 years of nothing but almost continuous, negative developments would affect your culture, your family, and yourself. Maybe then you could understand “Why they can’t move just on?”


Credits:  Treuer, Anton (2012-05-01). Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask, published by Borealis Books.
Photo credit:  Photo courtesy of artist David Wick

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 14, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Whoveer edits and publishes these articles really knows what they’re doing.

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