I'm reading Breaking Ground, an account of events in Port Angeles (our new hometown) in 2003, when a Washington Dept. of Transportation project on the PA waterfront unearthed a cemetery of the Lower Elwah Klallam tribe (my husband's new employer). WSDOT hired a consultant before starting the project to determine whether they would be running into any such issues, but the consultant neglected to speak to a single tribal member, many of whom could have told them that the cemetery was there. Somewhat laudably, as soon as the first remains were unearthed, WSDOT began working with the tribe to try to respectfully move remains out of the path of the project, and when that proved impossible they canceled the project--a really astonishing move, in light of US history, and one that probably still rankles local non-Indians (the project would have created a lot of much-needed jobs and other economic stimuli), although it was also the only humane alternative, to the extent that matters to anyone.
Although my sympathies were with the Indians from the start, I did find it a little hard to empathize initially, I think because I am the recent descendant of recent immigrants, and have never been in a position to view long-dead ancestors as close kin. So I could kind of understand the local whites' POV, at least until I started reading the detailed accounts of tribal members who were working with WSDOT to move the graves having to, for example, pull apart skeletons locked in an embrace, in order to take them from their grave and put the bones in boxes. That's a far cry from some abstraction about the spirits of your ancestors.
But even aside from the desecration of human remains (note that this was not the first time--previous construction on the site, including quite recent utility trenches, had gone on despite the human bones being churned up and used as backfill), I'm finding it really hard to read at times.
I've literally felt nauseous reading a background chapter about the 1855 treaty that the US government obtained to justify taking this land from the tribes, moving them to a reservation, and burning their villages. I wanted to put the book down and try to go back to what I imagine to be the American status quo--a sort of collective willful amnesia about that horror show. It strikes me that we've come a long way in acknowledging American slavery and black apartheid, when you compare it to the denial that is still so rampant regarding Indians. I don't recall learning any of these difficult truths in school. My uber-liberal high school offered an African-American History class as an alternative to the standard US history taught junior year, but in neither curriculum did we take a close look at the "treaties" that still govern US-Indian relations today. At least not that I recall. In fairness, I didn't exactly pay a lot of attention to the curriculum in high school. *cough*
Maybe it's that I grew up in the Midwest, where it was easier to pretend that Indians are mythical creatures and any skeletons being swept under the rug are not actual skeletons being physically swept. But that's still no excuse. I actually find the willful amnesia more understandable here, where the truth is unmistakably real. It's easier to think about torturing a unicorn than a horse.
And anyway it's not just in the Midwest. Just think of the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. It's like a Holocaust denial, but animated and broadcast on network TV. It's crazy. I heard the Wampanoag perspective on Thanksgiving in 2005 (I have spent way too long searching for an online version of the talk I went to by Tobias Vanderhoop without success, very frustrating) and I remember feeling shocked that I'd been lied to repeatedly in school long after we all should have known better. And here I am shocked again by the truth that we would all rather forget.
One thing that strikes me about this is how it must affect Indians, who do not have the luxury of choosing to forget. What is it like to live with those ugly truths, to have them be a part of who you are? I can barely imagine how potentially crippling it would be. In fact I've attempted to write the rest of this paragraph several times and keep rejecting my attempts to imagine and voice what it would be like. I can't. The fact is I've led a blindingly privileged life. It's amazing how easy it is to overlook that.
The book has changed how I view the landscape around me, for the moment. I can't take Nugget down to watch his beloved heavy machinery haul logs around the docks without thinking of the ancient village on its wide beach, buried somewhere under our feet.