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Native Women Rule: The 'Town Destroyer' vs. the Clan Mother

Reps. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo-NM) and Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk-WI) at an event celebrating their swearing-in to Congress (Creative Commons non-commercial license)
Historian Colin G. Calloway, author of “Indian World of George Washington The First President the First Americans & the Birth of the Nation,” writes, “Washington knew what history has forgotten: Indian nations still dominated large areas of the North American continent.” And consequently, “Washington’s entire Indian policy and his vision for the nation depended on the acquisition of Indian lands.” He was himself a land speculator, trained as a surveyor and “he looked on Indian lands with a surveyor’s eye for the rest of his life.”

The dismemberment of Native nations’ lands for the acquisition of resources, and the erasure of thousands of years of lived human history they once contained, is still active U.S.policy today. One of President Trump’s first acts in office was to sign an executive order reauthorizing the hard-fought Dakota Access pipeline that had brought more than ten thousand Native Americans and their allies to the northern border of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota to stand off against a heavily militarized response by the state of North Dakota and the pipeline builder Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners. He was declaring that Native lands and concerns would not stand in the way of money-making ventures that sought America’s “energy dominance” of the world that would “make American great again.” Trump’s obsession with rolling back hard-fought protections of Native lands won during his predecessor’s administration was once again emphasized in December 2017 when he signed another executive order reducing the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by 85 percent. The reduction of the monument, proposed by the five tribes and meant to be co-managed with them, puts at risk over 100,000 archaeological sites documenting 10,000-years of human history on the land. These sites include cliff dwellings, kivas, graves, villages, stone towers and more.

“It's all about power, greed, and money and how much oil can we extract from Mother Earth,” said Rebecca Ortega of Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico who was in Washington DC to see the January 3 swearing-in of the very first two Native American congresswomen in U.S. history, Reps. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Sharice Davids (D-Kansas). “And I really think that you know Pueblo women, as well as Native American women, you know we all know what we need. And we need our lands protected, we need our families to feel secure.”

In their newly minted offices crammed with Native people and in the city named for “father of his country” George Washington, it is instructive to look at the road that grew out of Washington’s decision to pursue total war against unarmed Native American women and children to secure a win in the Revolutionary War. This resulted in the deaths of thousands of defenseless Native women, children, and elders in some 40 villages whose were allied with the British and whose men were away, engaged in raids on the borders of their lands. Their alliance with the British was spurred on by the colonists themselves who had been streaming into their lands for decades, squatting on their lands to turn into private property. Washington sent several American regiments under the command of Major General Sullivan to lay waste to these villages throughout western New York destroying their foods and homes including 1,600,000 bushels of corn. Washington already had a reputation of resorting to his kind of “warfare” considered a war crime today. The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee “the people of the Longhouse,” as they called themselves, had given him the sobriquet Conotocarious or “Town Destroyer” in 1753, a name also given to his great-grandfather John Washington after the murder of five Algonquin chiefs under a flag of truce. In 1755, the future U.S. president even signed a letter to Oneida leaders (one of the six nations that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy) using the name.

An 18th c. portrait of a Mohawk woman (Getty Images)
On the National Endowment for the Humanities website, historian Sarah Pearsall vividly describes a solitary Iroquois elder confronting the Continental Army laying waste to her village, “Madam Sacho must have emerged from the smoke like a ghost: startling, uncanny, and with a tale to tell.” The NEH’s website presently has a “Shutdown Notice” banner across the top warning that during the shutdown, their website will not be maintained while the president holds the government hostage for a wall that will keep out migrants and refugees from south of the border, many of whom are Indigenous people.

Madam Sacho, or as the soldiers variously called her “a very old Squaw,” “helpless, impotent wretch,” “antediluvian hag,” was utterly alone, everyone else had fled and the corn was still standing tall in the fields. The Continental Army was “taking the war home to the enemy to break their morale,” as Washington described what would today brand him as a war criminal.

The Haudenosaunee are composed of six nations (Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Tuscarora), ruled by the Great Law of Peace, and the leaders were chosen not by white men of property as would be the case in the new republic, but by clan mothers, women who were leaders of their respective clans from which descent was traced matrilineally. Perhaps this “antediluvian hag,” as the soldiers called Sacho was just such a clan mother. It seems unlikely the people would have left her behind lightly, it must have been her choice — her choice to face the town destroyers alone.

My father’s Dakota people have stories of warriors of the Kit Fox Society who would stake themselves into the ground and fight refusing to budge even onto death. And yet, she did not fight; the elder addressed the enemy, she took advantage of their dismissal of her as a "helpless, impotent wretch” and gave them false intel, misdirecting their search, and possibly gaining time for younger women and children to escape.

“Sharice [Davids] and Deb [Haaland] coming to the Congress makes me think about our past,” Wilfred Cleveland, Ho-chunk Tribal Chairman says standing next to Ho-chunk tribal member Rep. Davids’ desk, “our relationship with the Mother Earth. And how in the home, the mother is the one that keeps the home fires burning, so to speak, and that in this day and age, the way the government is — although the government is a non-Native type of governing — it's still through the years they realize that because of dealings with Mother Earth it goes back to the relationship of woman… of the woman in the home.”

In the Declaration of Independence, King George III is accused of having “excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes, and Conditions.” Knowing Washington also engaged in this tactic the declaration can be more clearly seen as not entirely immune to the use of selective facts for propaganda purposes. The King did enforce the terms of the treaty that ended what Americans call the French and Indian War, and what in Europe is called the Seven Years’ War. A war begun by the colonists’ incursions into Indian land, and which triggers the first world war, what historians call World War Zero, doubled Britains national debt, and which the hated taxes were meant to pay for. And it was begun when a Virginia raiding party under the command of a very young George Washington led to the death of a French diplomat in western Pennsylvania. The “taxation without representation” was to pay for that debt and British force to prevent further colonists’ incursions into Indian land that could further beggar the British treasury.

Today, the U.S. maintains a military budget that dwarfs that of most of the world. And the response as seen at Standing Rock to Native nations demanding consultation on development that might harm their people’s drinking water and attempts to invoke treaties signed with the U.S. provoked a substantial military response. It is clear the land is still held by military force and to extract profit and nothing else.

“I stand with the tribes on the Chaco Canyon issue. They want a buffer around the monument,” newly sworn-in Rep. Deb Haaland told me in an interview her first full day on the job, “I will do whatever I can to stop drilling and fracking in Chaco Canyon before they sign leases with fossil fuel industries. That’s my ancestral homeland. It’s not unlike what the folks at Standing Rock did to protect their water. That’s their ancestral homeland. I hope I bring a new voice to that issue. I traveled to Bears Ears in September before my election and because I felt like I needed to be there and know what I would be fighting for. It’s apparent that in those areas there are so many treasures we do need to protect.”

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