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Winona LaDuke, Published July 06 2013

Letter: How the West was won? By deceit and slaughter

I recently went into the Central Market in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where I shop. I had not noticed the promotion at the meat counter:

“Eat beef: The West was not won on salad alone.”

This caused me to pause. I took out my Sharpie and marked on the sticker (affixed to the meat counter):

“The West was not won, it was stolen.”

A manager of sorts came over, and we had a conversation that the ad was politically and historically incorrect. It is inappropriate anywhere but is pretty offensive to 25,000 White Earth Tribal members just 20 miles away from the store, and the native people who shop there.

Maybe poor education in American history is to blame. Let me help out a bit. Small pox devastated the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara peoples on the Missouri River in a set of plagues. In 1738, one European explorer estimated 15,000 Mandans died. Plagues in 1804 wiped out most of them; another plague in 1837 reduced the remaining Mandans from 2,000 to 138. These people, who developed the largest agricultural and trade empire in the region, were almost obliterated by disease. This is neither beef nor salad.

Then came the public policy theft – the treaty of 1851 (Fort Laramie), which guaranteed

9 million acres, until a U.S. government decided in 1880 that it will be 900,000 acres – so North Dakota could give land to immigrants. A few decades later, the government flooded most of a reservation for a dam to make sure that those same farmers got water.

On beef: It’s estimated that there were

50 million buffalo in this region 180 years ago, the largest migratory herd in the world. Those buffalo fed a lot of people and protected the prairie, making it a place of great top soil, 250 species of grass, immense biodiversity and health.

The U.S. military was intent upon destroying native people. Gen. Phillip Sheridan urged the military to encourage buffalo slaughter. In the 1870s, more buffalo were killed than in any other decade in history. The three years of 1872, ’73, and ’74 were the worst: 4.5 million buffalo were eliminated.

The Texas Legislature discussed protecting the buffalo, and then Sheridan testified:

“These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary … Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle.”

So, hmm. The West was not won by beef; it was damaged by killing buffalo, a military policy and a federal policy aimed at genocide of native peoples and destruction of their lands.

Closer to home, in Minnesota, public policy was part of “winning.” One hundred fifty years ago, Gov. Alexander Ramsey told the Minnesota Legislature: “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”

I’m doing well with my historic trauma, but it’s said that native peoples suffer from trauma, and the reaffirmation of it by a constant reminder that most Americans have no idea of real history, and many retell myths that seem to make Americans feel better about genocide.

I told the nice folks at Central Market that I was going to come back with my pen and mark that sticker again, if they couldn’t find the sense to take it down.

Happy Fourth of July. The West is looking a bit peeked now. Top soil is on the move; climate change is wreaking havoc; aquifers are challenged by the Bakken’s extraction by fracking.

I like Central Market because I like local stores; they have good food. I just need a little reciprocity. And hope someone fixes the marketing message to say: “I love big fat cows – Eat beef.”

LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwa writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.