On July 28, Alisha Custer says a quick prayer before stepping into the hot sun to address about 600 people gathered at the Kenneth Beartusk Memorial Powwow Grounds, three miles south of Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Custer is nervous. With good reason: She's standing in the middle of what's left of Indian Country, and her great-great-great-great-uncle, George Armstrong Custer, is perhaps the most notorious of the officers who led the U.S. war against Indians in the 19th century.
Alisha had come to Lame Deer for a meeting of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, a group composed of spiritual healers, shamans and naturopathic doctors from South America and Nepal, among other places, as well as from North America's Indian reservations. The grandmothers believe that people must return to indigenous, natural ways if they are to reverse the lingering effects of colonialism, not just in Indian Country but across the globe.
It's quiet inside the powwow circle, except for the sound of Custer's wavering voice as she tells the crowd that a friend invited her to this remote reservation, about 55 miles from where her ancestor was killed in 1876 near the Little Bighorn River while fighting the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota. It wasn't until after arriving at the four-day event that she felt compelled to extend an olive branch.
"I'm here to apologize formally to the Northern Cheyenne," she says.
The crowd gasps. Drumbeats and cheers erupt. Women weep.
For North America's indigenous people, such moments have been a long time coming. While this country's early inhabitants once revered the frontiersmen and cavalry troops who cleared the way for white homesteaders, hindsight offers a more nuanced view of the tactics the U.S. employed while laying its foundations.
It was only in 2009 that Congress finally and formally apologized to Native people, in a 246-word statement tucked into the 2010 defense authorization bill. The apology recognized "years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies and the breaking of covenants by the federal government" and noted the government's regret for the "many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States."
That resolution was historic—or it would have been, if anyone had known about it. President Obama signed the legislation with little fanfare in 2009. A White House press release about the bill said nothing about the apology. The only public ceremony came in May 2010, when the bill's sponsor, Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback (now Kansas's governor), read the resolution at a small ceremony at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
The quiet mea culpa drew criticism from those who wondered if an apology no one hears constitutes an apology at all. Lise Balk King, former executive editor of The Native Voice newspaper, wrote in December 2011, "Obama's apology to Native Americans is important, and could provide a much-needed shift in public attitudes toward tribes in the country, as well as attitudes of Native people toward the federal government. But only if he goes to the next logical and morally correct step, and makes the Native American Apology Resolution part of the national discourse. Otherwise, a big and historic tree fell in the forest and truly didn't make a sound."
Bozeman clinical psychologist Eduardo Duran is an Apache, Tewa and Lakota from New Mexico who's been adopted by the Cheyenne. He's written several books on postcolonial psychology and spoke at the grandmothers gathering. He introduced Custer to the crowd. The psychological value of saying "I'm sorry" resonates across cultures, Duran says. "In any human interaction, if there's been a violation, in order to heal the complete system, the perpetrator and the victim, ideally there should be an apology."
It can help staunch a victim's wounds. It also can be a salve for the offender. Native tradition holds that descendants carry the weight of their ancestors. When discussing the significance of Custer's apology, Duran points out that a similar theme runs through Christianity. "The sins of the father," he says, "are visited onto the children."
The profit motive
The smell of burning sage fills the air at the grandmothers gathering. On the way into the powwow circle, women wearing long, colorful skirts and men in button-up shirts wait in line to scoop a handful of smoke from a silver can where the sage burns. One by one, they pour the smoke over their heads and push it down with their hands, as if washing themselves.
Davian Stands, 13, sits on a log outside the powwow circle wearing a white buckskin dress and beaded moccasins. In 2008, Stands, a descendent of Northern Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife, presented a letter to the Vatican from the grandmothers. It asked the Pope to repeal church edicts that in the 15th century granted European nations the authority to exert power over tribal people and their lands. Those decrees formed the basis for "governmental doctrines of conquest," the grandmothers say in the letter, and were used as a spiritual, legal and moral justification to subjugate indigenous people all over the world. When Stands handed the letter to a Vatican guard, she says, he didn't seem pleased. Stands, the granddaughter of Lakota Council members from the Pine Ridge Reservation, was 9 years old at the time. "We almost got kicked out of the Vatican," she says.
Constance Mills Buck is also at the gathering today, in a red dress, her gray hair long. Buck is a clinical psychologist from New Mexico. She's also the great-great-granddaughter of Brig. Gen. Anson Mills, who was a captain when he helped lead U.S. cavalry at the bloody six-hour Battle of Rosebud in Montana Territory in 1876. Buck, who is 67, says she was troubled by her relative's role in the Indian Wars from the time she was a child. She began to speak publicly about her feelings in 1993, after both her parents had died. Feeling compelled to heal old wounds, she forged a relationship with the Northern Cheyenne.
Buck also apologized to the gathering. "Maybe the women can get together and trust each other," she said, before embracing a Native woman in front of the crowd.
In an interview later, Buck said that Anson Mills, who was also an inventor, an entrepreneur and a supporter of women's suffrage, "was a great guy." He was simply a product of his culture, she says—a culture that lingers today.