Ralph Waldo Emerson had predicted that if Indian people were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, “the name of the nation removed would be a stench to the world.” After enduring centuries of sickness, near starvation, crippling cold and loss of their ancestral homelands, the Choctaw again faced the very exact “stench to the world” that Emerson mentioned. Moreover, and forced at gunpoint in 1830 to march westward from Mississippi to Indian Territory in Oklahoma without preparation, many thousands died as aresult of the Removal, also known as the Trail of Tears.
A stench of removal by an archaic white frontier still exists today, emanating out of a Mississippi jail cell. It also consists of an ongoing “living” genocide. One day after Sandra Bland was killed, Rexdale W. Henry, age 53, was arrested by the Neshoba County Sheriff for failure to pay a traffic fine. The Choctaw activist was later found mysteriously dead in his cell. Like Bland, Henry fought against racism while striving for full equality for his people. He had also revived many ancient Choctaw traditions, including being an outspoken advocate and agitator for possible land and resource reparations.
Henry’s death and its missing details and disappearance in the media, is symbolic of a pathological legitimacy which eliminated Indian peoples. But this vanishing race of people, who planted corn, delivered speeches about their land and disappeared so that a more “advanced” civilization could establish themselves, is a grotesque lie, a distortion of history. Nor does it reflect how Indian people have never recovered from 500 years of genocide. For many Native Americans, they are living a genocide, especially in the face of corporate greed, institutionalized racism and continued colonization of the mind.
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Choctaw people of Mississippi and Oklahoma have many sacred places, but none is as holy as Nanih Waiya in Mississippi. Nanih Waiya is sacred because it is the place where the Creator wanted them to settle, and where they buried their ancestors. In other words, Nanih Waiya became sacred and traditional land where not only the souls of the departed dwelled, but where the living, like Henry andother Choctaw, and their souls also belonged. It was in Mississippi, then, that the Choctaw finally settled, and where they buried thebones of their ancestors they had carried.
For Henry, Choctaw history was a subject of place and relationships of humans to their community, a community including trees, rivers, mountains, valleys and other elements of the natural world. Important places included the soil that held the remains of ancestors, along with holy sites where forefathers prayed, danced, gathered, gardened and hunted. Seen and unseen beings and forces also dwelt and worked their powerful influence on the living. To be removed from ancestral land was tantamount to death. Henry, acandidate for the Choctaw Tribal Council, was trying to revive this tradition.
Of the thousands of Choctaw herded from their homelands along the “Trail of Tears,” only a few survived. Choctaw historian Donna Akers has pointed out that the removal of her people from Mississippi to Indian Territory placed all Choctaw in jeopardy, because thegovernment forced them to move toward the land of the Dead, which they believed was in the West. The spirits of the newly dead traveled close to the Earth in a westerly direction and had power to do humans harm. When the Choctaw faced more starvation, cholera, outlawry and death, many elders attributed this to their being forced into the path of soul traveling westward.
What did Henry face in his jail cell? Was it more starvation, racial sickness, and removal at the hands of greed and white superiority? Or was it more outlawry and vigilantism, even genocide? To be certain, he faced a living genocidal death, a systematic policy of decimation, one that is still a stench to both the United States and world. For their part, the family has launched an independent probeand autopsy report. John Steele, a civil rights activist, and Diane Nash, cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, are assisting in the investigation of Henry’s death.
More can be done to prevent these controversial deaths from occurring in jail cells. (This was not the first time an activist turned up dead in in the Neshoba County Jail). The continual anomie of Indian people and their communities should also be confronted. Young Native Americans, for example, are the racial group most likely to be killed by police, followed by African Americans. Having lost their ancestral lives, homes, lands and resources, including their sacred places memorialized in stories, songs, and rituals that tied themto these holy sites, is there an attempt to also eliminate their memories?
If it was not too late, Rexdale W. Henry could have been asked this important question. Again, was his death another “living” genocideand stench to the world?
4. www.thefreethoughtproject.com. “Native American Activist Arrested for Traffic Fine, Dies in Jail 1 Day After Sandra Bland,” by Matt Agorist., July 28, 2015.
5. www.thefrethoughtproject.com. “Native American Activist Arrested for Traffic Fine, Dies in Jail 1 Day After Sandra Bland,” by Matt Agorist., July 28, 2015.