History on Repeat

in The Salon by

It is a little funny, and also a little sad, that few people know George Santayana’s name and even fewer can remember what he said about history. They say simply that “history repeats itself,” though that isn’t what the Spanish philosopher said and is even further from his point. What he actually said, or wrote rather, is that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Apparently the average person, having forgotten Santayana’s warning against forgetting, has already surrendered to the inevitable consequence of their forgetting. History repeats itself is now the new maxim, since people have become so hopelessly forgetful. And because so many people have forgotten history and continue to, history is indeed repeating itself.

Marx said something similar about history, though not exactly the same. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, written more than 50 years before Santayana’s dictum, Marx, referring to something in Hegel, says that the greatest historical figures and circumstances appear twice, adding “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” It’s a poetic statement, but much too hopeful. The history of the United States, for one, repeats itself often — due to the Yankee penchant for lying about history and then forgetting even the lie — both times as tragedy, though, fortunately, when U.S. history does eventually swing around for a second time, the tragedy is less than the first.

What’s more, U.S. history usually repeats itself three times. You need only look at how the Indians were first treated in Virginia and New England, then during the 1800s, and now, today, at places like Standing Rock Reservation on the border between North and South Dakota; or how the descendants of Africa were treated: first as beasts of burden under slavery, then as second-class citizens under Jim Crow, and now as criminals under the New Jim Crow. Over time blood has flowed less and less, but there is still blood.

Should any person think that the U.S. government treats and has treated its oppressed minorities differently from one another, the invasions of Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Cuba and the subjugation of its peoples, which came just as Uncle Sam was seizing the last valuable pieces of Indian territory and corralling the so-called “savages” onto reservation camps — which functioned and behaved very much like the later concentration camps — show what the U.S. system makes of anyone who isn’t a white man.

Just read, for example, this passage from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and try not to see yet another police killing of an unarmed black man, far too typical in our time:

Crazy Horse [a Lakota chief] stared hard at the agency policeman. He was Little Big Man, who not so long ago had defied the commissioners who came to steal Paha Sapa, the same little Big Man who had threatened to kill the first chief who spoke for selling the Black Hills, the brave Little Big Man who had last fought beside Crazy Horse on the icy slopes of the Wolf Mountains against Bear Coat Miles [the same Miles who would soon lead the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico]. Now the white men had bought Little Big Man and made him into an agency policeman.

As Crazy Horse walked between them, letting the soldier chief and Little Big Man lead him to wherever they were taking him, he must have tried to dream himself into the real world, to escape the darkness of the shadow world in which all was madness. They walked past a solider with a bayoneted rifle on his shoulder, and then they were standing in the doorway of a building. The windows were barred with iron, and he could see men behind the bars with chains on their legs. It was a trap for an animal, and Crazy Horse lunged away like a trapped animal, with Little Big Man holding on to his arm. The scuffling went on for only a few seconds. Someone shouted a command, and then the soldier guard, Private William Gentles, thrust his bayonet deep into Crazy Horse’s abdomen.

Crazy Horse died that night, September 5, 1877, at the age of thirty-five.

And then there was the killing of Big Snake, a brother of the Ponca chief, who the other Poncas called “Peacemaker.”

From Wounded Knee again:

On October 31 Big Snake entered [Indian agent] Whiteman’s office about noon and was told to take a chair. Lieutenant Mason and eight armed men then surrounded him, Mason informing him that he was under arrest. Big Snake wanted to know why he was being arrested. Whiteman spoke up then and said one charge against him was threatening his (Whiteman’s) life. Big Snake calmly denied this. According to the post trader, J. S. Sherburne, Big Snake then stood up and threw off his blanket to show he was not armed.

Hairy Bear’s statement: ‘The officer told Big Snake to come along, to get up and come. Big Snake would not get up, and told the officer he wanted him to tell him what he had done. He said he had killed no one, stolen no horses, and that he had done nothing wrong. After Big Snake said that, the officer spoke to the agent, and then told Big Snake he had tried to kill two men, and had been pretty mean. Big Snake denied it. The agent then told him he had better go, and would then learn all about it down there. Big Snake said he had done nothing wrong, and that he would die before he would go. I then went up to Big Snake and told him this man [the officer] was not going to arrest him for nothing, and that he had better go along, and that perhaps he would come back all right; I coaxed all I could to get him to go; told him that he had a wife and children, and to remember them and not get killed. Big Snake then got up and told me that he did not want to go, and that if they wanted to kill him they could do it, right there. Big Snake was very cool. Then the officer told him to get up, and told him that if he did not go, there might something happen. He said there was no use in talking; I came to arrest you, and want you to go. The officer went for the handcuffs, which a soldier had, and brought them in. The officer and a soldier then tried to put them on, but Big Snake pushed them both away. Then the officer spoke to the soldiers, and four of them tired to put them on, but Big Snake pushed them all off. One soldier, who had stripes on his arms, also tried to put them on, but Big Snake pushed them all off. They tried several times, all of them, to get hold of Big Snake and hold him. Big Snake was sitting down, when six soldiers got hold of him. He raised up and threw them off. Just then one of the soldiers, who was in front of him, struck Big Snake in the face with his gun, another soldier struck him alongside the head with the barrel of his gun. It knocked him back to the wall. He straightened up again. The blood was running down his face. I saw the gun pointed at him, and was scared, and did not want to see him killed. So I turned away. Then the gun was fired and Big Snake fell down dead on the floor.’

What happened to Crazy Horse, and then to Big Snake after him, had happened time and again before, and would continue to into the future. History repeated itself with the Indians — not only over the centuries, but within a matter a few decades during the so-called “Indian Wars” (more a genocide) — as the U.S. government made promises to each tribe, promises which it always broke, except for those which guaranteed death to the Indian who refused to submit. And history kept repeating itself, over and over, lie after lie, massacre after massacre, till there were no more Indians left with any fight in them.

After reading Dee Brown’s 1970 masterpiece, one fact is left crystal clear: The U.S. government, but specifically the U.S. system, was never going to live in peaceful coexistence with the Indians, much less share the land with them — which for the Indians amounted to the same thing, since the earth gave them everything they had and made them everything they were, making any fight over the land a practical matter of life and death. It seems easy for most people today to chalk the whole thing up to racism, arguing that the white settlers were racist and therefore never going to respect the treaties made with the original Indian inhabitants, but that isn’t the whole truth. Sure, a lot of the white people settling and mining in the Old West were racist in their views toward the Indians — toward all brown people, really — but racism isn’t what lusted after Indian lands.

Early capitalism, in the form of the Industrial Revolution, craved more and more land and resources to grow; bigger profits and more and expanding markets are the rules of the capitalist game. The Indians, according to the U.S. government, weren’t “using the land” properly (enough), but U.S. capitalism promised to. Racism merely made it easier for white people and their government to take the land by making it easier to abandon the country’s founding principles — “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the common rights of all peoples — and terrorize and kill any Indian who stood in the way.

This last point is important to remember, because the U.S. system that wanted the land, and the white racism that facilitated the theft, are still very much with us today. As the United States becomes ever more populated, and land and resources ever more scarce, we may see a reprisal of the Indian Wars — only not out on the open plains this time, but in our crowded cities. Because, as the old Lakota chief Sitting Bull warned, “The white man knows how to make everything, but he does not know how to distribute it.”

 

Featured image: wsilver/Flickr

A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave, as well as a guest columnist for Chile’s Prensa Irreverente. He is the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino "artivist" site based in his hometown. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including the Huffington Post. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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