American Indians And Gun Control

May 1, 2013 by Sam Rolley

Two billboards erected in Greeley, Colo., which use the historic mistreatment of Native Americans by the Federal government to make the case against gun control, have drawn fire from some residents who say the images are offensive.

According to the Greeley Tribune, the billboards bearing pictures of Native Americans in traditional dress and the words “Turn in your arms. The government will take care of you” were purchased by a group of anonymous locals.

Jim Rydbom, Greeley Tribune

Some people in the area say that the billboards oversimplify the plight of Native Americans to make a political point. Others, however, point out the historical ties between racism and disarmament.

A paper published last year by Professor Angela Riley, Director of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, supports the latter view in a study of the relationship between American Indians and guns:

Through a different lens, the history of Indians and guns is a story about becoming American. In colonial America, rights and obligations related to guns were often tied to race, and race, in turn, was tied to citizenship. The sovereign authority to define who was in and who was out was deployed to exclude “undesirables,” including Indians. But the extension of citizenship—for Indians, the moment came officially in 1924—marked the inclusion of Indians into the polity of the United States…

… A final, related viewpoint contemplates the history of Indians and guns as an account of racial hierarchy and social control, deeply pronounced at the point of contact and through the early years of the republic but tenaciously embedded in much of American law. This narrative reveals that the relationship of Indians and guns developed in parallel to African-Americans and guns, with both groups situated at the bottom of a racial hierarchy that facilitated oppression, noncitizen status, and subjugation. Here, as a means of extracting wealth—with African slaves, their labor; with Indians, their lands—the gun served as a tool of white privilege, forever linked to a history of violence and oppression.
There are many historical accounts that would support the legitimacy of the pro-gun argument made on the Greeley billboards, wherein Native Americans were systematically disarmed and murdered by white settlers with the backing of the American government.
Perhaps the most famous example occurred in 1890 — decades before the 1924 guarantee of Constitutional rights for Native Americans — when Federal agents murdered 297 Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Before the Native Americans were killed by the agents of the state, they were notified that the 7th Cavalry had come to confiscate their firearms “for their own safety and protection.”

Later, when Sioux representatives were invited to tell their side of the story to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, this account — which is wildly different than the government approved story — was given by the Sioux leader Turning Hawk:

These people were coming toward Pine Ridge agency, and when they were almost on the agency they were met by the soldiers and surrounded and finally taken to the Wounded Knee creek, and there at a given time their guns were demanded. When they had delivered them up, the men were separated from their families, from the tipis, and taken to a certain spot. When the guns were thus taken and the men thus separated, there was a crazy man, a young man of very bad influence and in fact a nobody, among that bunch of Indians fired his gun, and of course the firing of a gun must have been the breaking of a military rule of some sort, because immediately the soldiers returned fire and indiscriminate killing followed.

This historical account, it seems, makes two points for those resistant to gun control: 1) Even when government orders disarmament and the majority obey, there is always the possibility that some will not. And 2) When one bad apple stirs the wrath of the state, it is much easier for agents of the government to react by systematically annihilating innocent people, with impunity, when they have first been disarmed.