Matt Niswonger
Facing our past in solidarity with Native Americans

Reading through our last issue (#124), I was struck by a quote about Indigenous people. It was an article by Krista Houghton, about helping the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band stop a proposed gravel quarry on sacred land known as Juristac, near present day Gilroy in Santa Clara County. The Amah Mutsun are the descendants of survivors of the Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista missions.

The quote was by marine biologist Greg Cotten, a longtime advocate for the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “When we broke our relationship with the Indigenous people,” Cotten says, “we also broke our relationship with nature. Until we heal that wound, we will never heal our relationship with nature.”

Later that day, I came across the photo to the right. A friend of mine posted it on Facebook. It depicts a Native man being executed by a firing squad. It’s a haunting image that immediately reminded me of Cotten’s quote — especially the second part: “Until we heal that wound, we will never heal our relationship with nature.”

After doing a Google search, I learned that the historical details on the photo are murky. It was supposedly taken at Fort Stevenson in North Dakota between 1883 and 1890. It appears that Native residential school children are standing in a line, forced to watch while a Native man in traditional headdress is being executed.

Though the exact details of this photo are unknown, what we do know is that between the 1860s through the late 1970s, tens of thousands of Native children were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to boarding schools run by the US government. These boarding schools were designed to “civilize” Native children and were not outlawed until the passage of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.

“Until we heal that wound, we will never heal our relationship with nature.” We live in a country that ripped thousands of Native children away from their parents. This was evil. This was insane.

I used to believe that history, while important, isn’t relevant for understanding ourselves as we move forward. I no longer believe that. Until we tell the truth about ourselves and our past, nothing fundamental will change.  For Native Americans, the tragedy of residential schools is something they are still trying to process. It’s not our place to tell them to “just move on.”

We kidnapped Native children. We cut their hair, gave them new clothes and forbade them from using their own languages and names. They were not allowed to practice their religion.  We said we were saving them, but we actually were killing them. Many of them ran away. Many of them died of a broken heart. To this day, we are still finding the graves. Some are marked. Some are not. “When we broke our relationship with the Indigenous people, we also broke our relationship with nature. Until we heal that wound, we will never heal our relationship with nature.”

The photo of a Native man being executed is a metaphor for our collective estrangement from nature. We are killing nature just like we systematically tried to wipe out Indigenous populations all over the US and the world. We are killing nature and forcing our children to watch. It’s evil. It’s insane.

Welcome to issue #125. On our cover is Kutoven Stevens, one of the fastest distance runners in the country. Known by his nickname “Ku,” he started a running event called The Remembrance Run to honor his grandfather Frank “Togo” Quinn, a residential school survivor of the Carson Indian School in Carson City. We will be there on August 13-14 to follow in his footsteps.

Ku’s grandfather escaped from the Carson Indian School and ran 50 miles to his home on the Yerington Paiute Reservation when he was only eight years old. We will follow Ku, to honor this brave journey and what it represents for Ku’s family, for all Native Americans, and for our country as a whole.

We can restore our relationship with Native Americans while restoring our relationship with nature at the same time. The journey won’t be easy, but it will be transformative. We will use our power for good instead of evil. We will save nature.  We will save ourselves. This is not about white people saving Native people. This is about white people facing up to our history so we can restore our integrity. This is about standing shoulder to shoulder with Native Americans and saving Mother Earth together.

— Matt Niswonger

Read other editor’s notes here.