We know we are opening ourselves up to antipathy from the "love it or leave it" crowd for saying this, but here goes: The United States has a long and ugly legacy of murder, exploitation, genocide and broken promises.
Perhaps most emblematic of that dishonor was the end result of Manifest Destiny (the 19th century doctrine that the expansion of the U.S. across North America was both justified and inevitable), in which of the 12 million Native Americans on the continent when Columbus stumbled upon a small island in the present-day Bahamas, only 237,000 remained 400 years later.
The reason we are bringing this up is because 2014 is the 150th anniversary of one of the most horrific events of that terrible legacy, The Long Walk, in which thousands of Navajo and Mescalero Apache were forced at the point of a bayonet to walk 400 miles from their reservation in northeastern Arizona to the edge of the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico.
Just as with the forced march known as the Trail of Tears in which 50,000 Cherokee, Choctaw and others were driven from their homes in the Deep South to Oklahoma in 1831, Native Americans died by the score.
Clarence Clearwater, a Navajo musician who 50 years ago retraced his great-great-great-grandfather's footsteps along The Long Walk, told NPR about the stories he heard along the way.
A Navajo family gave away their baby to a nonnative family so the infant would have a better chance at survival. Many drowned crossing the Rio Grande.
"Some of the older people were talking about how elders like themselves had just been left out in the desert, you know, left where they fell," Clearwater told NPR. "In cases of them trying to rejoin and soldiers didn't want them, they shot them and killed them."
"The route of the Long Walk was marked by the frozen corpses of Indians, who, too fatigued to go on, had crawled to the wayside to die," wrote Lynn R. Bailey in "The Long Walk."
The survivors arrived at Fort Sumner, which was really nothing more than a prison camp where Col. Kit Carson attempted to "tame the savages." Many more Native Americans died before the Navajo, or the Dine, as they call themselves, were given the reservation that now straddles the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.
The World Future Fund characterizes the eviction and the deaths of millions of Native Americans a peculiar type of "Yankee ingenuity."
"This involved the execution of some of the world's most brutal policies of racial and ethnic imperialism under the guise of promoting 'freedom' and 'democracy.' As in all frauds and deceptions in history this had an element of truth to it. For white Americans this policy did produce 'freedom' to gain land stolen from native Americans at a very cheap cost."
A particularly vicious aspect of all this hypocrisy and deceit was the use of legal strategies to give the whole process an aura of legitimacy, notes the World Future Fund. However, "The simple truth is that if a culture is racist then this will be reflected in the laws of that culture."
By 1890, all Indian tribes were consolidated onto government-structured reservations, noted the World Future Fund.
One hundred and fifty years later, the consequences of the Long Walk are still present, Jennifer Denetdale, a historian and associate professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, told NPR. She said severe poverty, addiction, suicide and crime on reservations all have their roots in the Long Walk.
"I think it's really been a struggle to believe in our own ability to create, on the Navajo Nation, institutions and structures that will bring about prosperity and a way to live well," Denetdale said.
"The Navajo have been beaten down to the point where a lot of self-hatred is evident," Shonto Begay told NPR,
The Long Walk was among many attempts by the federal government to wipe out native culture and those attempts didn't end that long ago. In fact, up to just a few decades ago, official U.S. policy was aimed at civilizing the savage breast of Native Americans.
Begay was 5 years old, he was out herding sheep when a man driving a flatbed truck gave him candy and hauled him away.
"I grew up with a different name -- a government name: Wilson."
While it can be argued that forced relocation and acculturation -- and genocide -- are integral aspects of human history (when one culture has clashed with another, there are very few examples of tolerance and co-existence), for a nation that claims it was founded on Christian principles, it can be hard to come to terms with our collective story of the expansion of European culture from coast to coast. It's much easier to offer specious excuses related to the cultures of the disparate tribes, or just ignore the history altogether, than it is to admit that what happened was indefensible.
While there is no way we, as Americans, can ever atone for the debasement of Native American cultures, we can acknowledge this bloodstain on our history and going forward do all we can to encourage the revival of traditional cultures that is burgeoning in the hearts of American Indian youth.
Today, the remnants of those once proud tribes are trying to reclaim their own legacy and relearn the wisdom of their elders. It would behoove us to facilitate that resurgence, because at the center of Native American belief is a respect for the Earth and all that it grants us.
In the future, when global climate change and all the chemicals with which we have doused our ecosphere begin to take their toll, there could be salvation in the old ways. And then again, maybe it will be too late. But we shouldn't discard any arrow in the quiver that might help our children and grandchildren survive the looming crisis.
It would also do us good to never forget that our history is not as respectable and idealistic as we would like to believe.