Circle the Wagons – The Natives Are Restless

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I went to a national conference on Indian Child Welfare issues. It is typical for me to feel lost in large urban areas and packed hotels. I easily lose my sense of direction in cities and winding hallways. As I was hurrying to make it on time for a workshop I wanted to attend, I took a wrong turn and ended up in a workshop on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome-Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAS/FAE). This wasn’t the one I planned to attend. Because the speaker was just beginning, I didn’t want to appear rude by leaving, so I took a seat in the audience of 50 plus mostly Native American women. As the Euro-American speaker began, she let the audience know that her expertise in this area began when she adopted a child who was born with FAS. At first, she felt overwhelmed, until she remembered her grandmother’s saying, “When times are tough, put your wagons in a circle.” The audience let out a collective gasp, yet the speaker seemed completely unaware of the meaning of the audience’s response. She went on to describe her challenges. Accustomed to ignorance and insensitivity, nonetheless respectful and polite, the audience remained seated and silent during the workshop. They exited quickly at the end, without a word to the presenter. What would be the point of making someone feel bad?

circle the wagons

Photo Credit:

As it happens, this metaphor is still commonly used for contemporary purposes by investors interested in capitalizing on further mining developments and in political commentary. It’s also an automatic response for Euro-Americans who want to flippantly dismiss reminders of the genocide and oppression that resulted in benefits for their immigrant ancestors and the relative privileges they themselves enjoy today.

I have tried to use Facebook periodically as a medium to heighten awareness about Native American issues, but invariably the superficiality of exchanges has convinced me that it’s a waste of my time. Yet there are occasions when I cannot refrain from commenting on blatant and dangerous information. The result, of course, is predictable. The wagons circle to protect the comforting illusions that expressing white guilt and denying any complicity for past atrocities is enough. The ultimate show stopper is to call the one Native voice “racist.” Here are excerpts from the most recent exchange.

White Woman 1: (trying to show that she is supportive of Native American People)

Check through the comments following this post. The photo op has some explaining to do. (a caveat added after my comments)

ACT OF WAR — Obama’s EPA Takes Entire American Town Away From Wyoming and Gives it to the Indians

My Response: a dangerous and untrue story! This is not how it works, folks!

White Woman 1: I will take it down, but where can I find out what really happened?

My Response: The best advice is to check with the Wind River Tribe for more information. Wyoming is an incredibly anti-Indian state, and the Wind River reservation, the only one in the state, is now the focus of pressure from the oil industry because of deposits on their land, and from farmers, ranchers, etc., because the tribe is pursuing avenues to protect its water rights. A couple simple clues from the article itself: first, the EPA has no authority to make decisions related to tribal land. Congress is the only entity that is able to make decisions related to land and resources for federally recognized tribes. Second, Congress has never enacted legislation in favor of tribes that do what this article alleges. Third, it serves the interest of energy corporations and the white elite to turn public opinion against an impoverished tribal nation by spreading inflammatory false information.

Knowing your values, I know you shared this article with the best of intentions. But the fact is that Congress unilaterally assumed “plenary power … over all Indian tribes, their government, their members, and their property” in 1871 when they enacted legislation to end treaty-making (Pevar, 1992, p. 48). I honestly doubt that this Congress would ever consider enacting policies like the ones this article describes, especially given the senators and representative from Wyoming.

White Man 1:…/epa-ruling-sets…

EPA ruling sets up battle over Indian country boundaries in Wyoming | Al Jazeera America
An EPA ruling on air quality defines the borders of a Wyoming Indian Reservation to include the town of Riverton.

White Woman 2: If there were any breach, it was the other way around: land that was supposed to be reserved for the Native Americans by treaties was built upon by settlers, and Indians were chased away by the Army and posses. The Natives all over the country are asking for what is left of their agreed-upon territories to be protected, and that make them the bad guys in the eyes of the usurpers. In other words, sameo, sameo.

My Response: This morning as I awoke, I remembered the Northern Arapaho and Shoshone people I met during a visit to the Wind River reservation several years ago. I remembered the stories they shared about the challenges they overcame in their lives because they wanted to make a difference for their community, the visions they had for a future where the legacy of genocide and historical trauma could be healed, and the contemporary discrimination that made every day difficult. This empty gesture by the Executive Branch does nothing to address that history or the contemporary challenges the community faces. It appears only as an empty symbolic PR stunt that has backfired, with the real potential for creating even more harm, as evidenced by the racist portrayal by media “a declaration of war” that will take away the property of white residents. The EPA declaration does not mean lands have been returned to the tribe, nor does it mean that the tribe is able to exercise sovereignty over the land and people. Nor does it award federal funding in reparation to help community residents implement their visions for a tribal college that can help community members gain the credentials and skills to walk in two worlds and manage their own affairs, or create innovative programs to help community members develop real alternatives to support themselves and their families. Quite frankly, I am angry that those who purport to be Native American allies know so little about the history of Indigenous Peoples in the U.S., the web of distinct federal policies that controls their lives and limits tribal sovereignty, or the contemporary challenges tribes face. It makes me angry because empty gestures do nothing to help earnest, caring people accomplish their dreams to heal a legacy of brutal oppression that creates poverty and hopelessness for many.

White Woman 2: My heart can hold just so much anger toward the injustices perpetuated by mankind upon mankind and the rest of the Earth’s sentient beings, lest I become a hateful person, something I refuse to be. I acknowledge the injustices; I am verbal about them; I participate in their rectifications as much as I can given my limited resources, and I hold hope in my heart that someday humans will succeed in creating a just and empowering society for all instead of the few. I am thankful to … (White Woman 1) for sharing this link that exposed another tool being used to create division among The people. That is how they successfully control them: lies and distortion of the truth. All My Relations, and may the wrongdoers become enlightened.

White Woman 1: Now that all this good discussion has ensued, I don’t know if I should take the post down, or not? Your points, Carol, are not small ones; rather they seem almost insurmountable. In my year here … I have, for the first time, spent time amid the natives people. I feel, as … (White Woman 2) does, that my righteous anger could easily weigh my heart down and I would become unable to help. I also realize that I should not imagine that I have a comprehensive picture of how things stand for Native Americans, now. I am learning, interested, and sympathetic. My ancestors were among the first people to come to American from England. They were English, Scottish, Danish people who may have been out to get rich from this fertile continent. Much more likely, they were peace-loving people who were deserting trouble the only way they could. I want to be proud of them, knowing enough about some of them to sketch out the path of their migration. My family moved into an area of … (New England) where they helped create some early towns there, principally … (one town) and lived alongside the native people in the area. Were we kindly and peaceful with them? I wish I knew. I hope so. This is a question that bothers, if not haunts, many of us. How will we share what’s left is the big question. My fear is that we will not restore Native Americans to some of the lands due them until there is so much ruin, human and territorial, that the point will be moot. I am trying to discover ways to help. Even this isn’t easy. No wonder.

My Response: History is something we can’t change. We can only change the future. Although I wish I could live without anger about injustice, there are times when I simply do not feel I have that option.

White Man 2: (the expert who needs to have the final word in any discussion)
The article is misleading. Here is a link to the Federal Register page describing the action taken. It doesn’t confer any kind of regulatory authority on the tribe; it just makes them a stakeholder in regional air quality activities.…/approval-of…

As an initial reaction anger is understandable and sometimes even useful. It alerts us to a problem. But when it is cultivated it turns into resentment. Terms like “white elite” and “usurpers” are racial slurs. An eye for an eye, and pretty soon the whole world will be blind. It’s regrettable what happened during the conquest of the New World, and even that we call it the New World, but people living now aren’t responsible. It was in a sense inevitable. It wasn’t different in kind from the centuries of genocide and taking others’ lands that had gone on before, without the help of any white man.

This was the conversation stopper. Sound familiar? “It’s not my fault. And really, my ancestors only did to Native peoples what they were already doing to each other. It’s not my problem, it’s yours. You just need to get over it.” None of the voices that had earlier indicated how much they cared about Native American issues responded. They circled the wagons in silence.

Well, I can’t remain silent. I can’t silence ignorance, but I can unfriend and block it from my facebook page. Done. I won’t waste any more time trying to dialogue with folks who believe they already know all the answers. They don’t. But I won’t let them have the last word! They have the privilege of ignoring the suffering of others. I don’t. I carry the pain of past and present generations in my DNA and in my heart. I sometimes live with a rage that is too strong to ignore and a sadness too deep to name. What makes it bearable is to willingly shoulder the responsibility to do what I can to raise awareness and address ignorance and injustice. It will take many voices to break through the protective circles of ignorance, denial, and New Age spiritual platitudes.


Photo Credit:



18 thoughts on “Circle the Wagons – The Natives Are Restless

  1. Carol,

    I do not presume in any manner to comprehend fully the suffering and heartbreak you have endured, so I hope my comments don’t add in any way to the burdens you already carry.

    Because the discourse is so controlled by the elite of the dominant culture, many Americans are unable or unwilling to shift their paradigms. One argument I’ve heard about historical injustice is “Why should I be blamed for what my ancestors did?” For myself, I do not blame Americans today for the atrocities the U.S. military committed in Vietnam decades ago. What I do have a problem with is those who, at this very moment, have no problem with the government waging war indiscriminately in our name across the globe, thereby creating untold more Vietnams.

    The problem is not merely that the legacies of these collective injustices are still present and visible (if one is really looking) but that they are still being actively perpetrated. As Michelle Alexander documented so thoroughly, Jim Crow is alive and well in the labrythine, state and federal prison systems. The federal government continues it’s ongoing, status quo policy of de jure violations of every treaty or act brokered with the sovereign tribes of N. America. The apartheid, second class reservation system still exists with no meaningful reparations or concessions offered much less implemented to the descendants of either groups, African slave or Native American.

    The issue isn’t that Americans today should be held responsible for the actions of their great-granddaddies, it’s that their silence and complicity exists in the present tense. All while the system continues in every way to intensify the historical abuses and genocidal practices towards these populations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeff, as always, I value your perspective and thank you for your eloquently-argued response. Far from adding new burdens, you help me carry them in your own way.

      This was not the article I intended to work on today. I had planned to jot a few notes for a future essay about the sex-trafficking of Native women that is a growing issue in Duluth, a major international shipping port. Yet when I sat down to type the first paragraph, the image that came to mind was “circling the wagons.” There was this unresolved issue to deal with, so the words that flowed were angry (again, imagine sparking fingertips). I decided to let it be angry — the one true sentence prompt again.

      The pain I mention is mostly not due to things that have been targeted toward me, but rather what I have witnessed on both sides of the divide. Here’s one example. As a program developer and administrator in Indian country, I worked with tribes to reduce infant mortality, at the time higher for Native Americans living on reservations in Wisconsin than among any other group in the state. The reasons were complex, but too many white experts wanted to simplistically explain the differences as alcohol-related. Among the reasons I personally knew from objective research were the attitudes of health professionals. As an evaluator for health education projects, I knew all too well what some of their attitudes were, but as the only Native American on a team of all-white medical professionals, my objective, well-argued, and carefully documented observations were diluted and minimized. Families were struggling on so many levels, children were at risk for so many reasons, and ultimately all policy makers and researchers wanted to do was blame deviant parents and deficient communities. What I could do was to work in partnership with tribes to build an intervention that worked for each community and let my staff share their successes with other communities around the country. This didn’t change policy, but it may have saved a few lives. I could go on about child welfare, education, and other health disparities.

      The deepest sadness and rage come from the fact that we have failed to learn from history, and because too many are content to remain ignorant, we keep repeating the same brutality over and over again. And sometimes, I just need to let the sparks fly as they will.

      But thank you, dear friend, for your ever-profound and thoughtful words.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Different context but similar results…as a public school teacher I see similar approaches and perspectives taken that merely serve to reinforce the status quo. When it comes to complex social and economic issues, the “failure” of students to pass an unending barrage of standardized tests that are clearly skewed to certain demographics is blamed on the teachers first and parents second. Little acknowledgment is given to the violent economy policies that lead to children coming to school hungry and homeless, parents working endlessly to make ends meet, and teachers under incredible pressure to overcome all of these factors. Those educators who speak up and speak out are marginalized and, in some cases, driven out of the profession. I could go on but now I feel the sparks flying.

        I confess that I had to look up where Duluth was.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel it is my responsibility to understand what happened before me…to know how I have arrived…to be cognizant that my ancestors may have committed terrible acts in my name. I can’t change what was done…but I can be more informed in my relationships with others now.
    And yes..silence in the face of current horror is complicity.

    Like..I had no idea that the “common” phrase mentioned was such a deep insult. It is so embedded. Now I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your honest and thoughtful comments. (I have to admit that I empathize with the presenter — although it was a rather large oversight on her part to do so little research on her audience, no real harm was done. It helps me remember and laugh at similar mistakes I have made.)


  3. Carol, You write well angry – I read it as an informative and reasoned piece, and was glad to get a better perspective on what happened in that state, as I had only caught it in passing headlines. What I am seeing now – living in a white rural community – that many people are so caught up in just maintaining – their families, their homes – they don’t have the energy, time – let alone interest – to step out of their comfort zones and find out the truth of any issue. My husband addresses issues such as you do on Facebook all of the time – I don’t spend much time on it – and most of my friends share my views. Of course, every once in a while I post a political or social issue blog – and occasionally forward the many petitions I sign. Having lived and worked with the Navajo and Hopi Nations, having been an active participant in the Latino Conferences in Des Moines Iowa (for years), being black, and having written an essay over 40 years ago called The Minority Myth I understand what both you and Jeff are talking about. But, even though many have acknowledged that the phrase “minority-majority” is an oxymoron it’s use continues -as does racism, classism, sexism, social and economic injustice. And even when this country is no longer predominately white – we will still have these injustices and have to be aware of those privileged and ignorant black and brown skinned so-called “leaders.” But, we’ll still be out here and our voices will continue to create a current for knowledge, change, and progress. Thanks for keeping the dialogue moving forward.


    1. I appreciate your affirming feedback and insights, Skywalker Storyteller, and miigwetch for joining in the dialogue. I realized before I decided to post this piece that I am always tempted to self-censor works that show too much emotion, especially too much anger or too much vulnerability. But lately it has felt as though I was boxing myself into a corner, showing only the sides that were thoughtful and wise, or playful and kind — too good to be true. Thank you for validating the decision to let truth be what it is, a story that is moderated at any given moment by our shifting vantage point.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. We need to understand history and where we come from to understand where we are going. As Nick Shepherd says, when specters remain, it is because the past is not resolved. I think it is the continual blind spots created by privilege which prevent people from being willing to engage with the pain of oppression, but it’s sad, because then how can we grow as a humanity?

    Melissa Steyn called the “I didn’t do it” or “let’s move on” narrative “whiter than white” but argued the unwillingness to see the other side as it’s biggest cruelty! To be able to turn away from pain and discrimination because you haven’t experienced it is an aspect of privilege which really should be exposed, I think.

    I still battle to understand the offhand cruelties!


    1. Eloquently argued! Becoming more mindful of others, deepening our understanding of what constitutes the “reality” of oppression and privilege, and acting on these foundations are never-ending challenges and responsibilities for all of us.

      I often wish I had the presence of mind in these situations to simply ask the question you raised — “Could you help me understand why you feel it’s appropriate to be so disrespectful and dismissive of other perspectives?” Maybe someday, I will get there…


      1. It’s hard at times like that to say anything at all! I think the shock and complete lack of compassion just knocks you! I had that last year in a discussion… ‘Why don’t people get over it and realize what they have now?’ It left me so outraged that I wrote an article on privilege, then on care and privilege, but I can still feel it, and it wasn’t even my history she was speaking of! Another woman with a similar approach inspired my masters thesis. I think it has to be a sense of guilt or upset which inspires such a bitter and sometimes almost hysterical cut off from other people’s emotions, experiences and present challenges. The lack of empathy can be absolutely astounding though!


  5. Powerful stories, Nicci! I agree that the absence of empathy remains incomprehensible! Perhaps the key is understanding what purpose lack of empathy serves and creating constructive alternatives to meet that need?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I truly appreciate this story, through it you’ve ignited valuable glimpses into the powerful nature and impact of microagressive attacks that are connected to a history of oppression and related trauma. The dialogue this sparked truly reveals the dynamics of power and privilege protected by the dominant culture’s ability to enforce and perpetuate the historical and current narrative (to the degree that ignorance and silence trumps daily thoughts, communications, and justice by even well intended white people like myself). This is the kind of dialogue we need, that can only happen when hearts are honestly open to the truth and there is reverence for the stories and storytellers that reveal it.


    1. Thank you, Cynthia! Your comment was profound and it made me realize how absolutely crucial it is to have knowledgeable allies who care so deeply and can articulate these issues with such eloquence and passion.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a powerful piece, Carol. When I tell other whites about the torture and other atrocities that I have learned, I am met with disbelief. They have a very hard time accepting that it happened and that they were lied to.

    I am glad that you put past posts up for those of us who came along afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: