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As a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, whose ancestral lands reside in the modern-day states of Georgia and Alabama, I listened with immense frustration and anger as former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania, gave claim to American exceptionalism by denying the attributes and contributions the Indigenous peoples of North America provided European explorers and settlers.

Santorum attempted to continue the old, false mythology that the Indigenous peoples of North America were primarily one step from Neanderthals prior to European arrival.

The former senator’s remarks about America being a “blank slate” and the country being “birthed from nothing” represent a vast misunderstanding of history, culture and social structures.

Let’s begin with simple reality. Santorum acknowledged the existence of Native Americans prior to colonialism, but severely devalued their cultures, systems and religions.

Charles C. Mann authored the book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, detailing the intricate and extensive cultures, systems and religions of Indigenous peoples prior to the European invasion.

Mann points out an important fact delineating the truth, a reality most often not taught in history books or found in political speeches. Many of those first settlers preferred Indigenous communities over European ways.

“The leaders of Jamestown tried to persuade Indians to transform themselves into Europeans,” Mann writes. “Embarrassingly, almost all of the traffic was the other way – scores of English joined the locals despite promises of dire punishment. The same thing happened in New England.”

While I am certain Santorum and others will continue arguing the superiority of European culture over the Indigenous cultures, the fact remains that many first-generation settlers would not have survived without the generosity, hospitality and wisdom of the native peoples.

So, let’s ponder how Indigenous generosity, hospitality and wisdom were returned by white Europeans.

For the most part, settlers and colonists in the early years began to “repay” the Indigenous peoples with conquest and conformity.

Like Santorum, many white Europeans could not fathom the value of native ways, believing their own ways were not only superior but also must prevail in their new homelands.

Therefore, a new strategy needed to be developed and implemented. Conquest and conformity would be achieved through a 400-year effort to eradicate and replace Indigenous cultures. Genocide would be the most popular tactic adopted by the newcomers.

From the moment white settlers understood their path to opportunity and wealth would be hindered by Indigenous communities, they set in motion the practice of genocide to erase what they deemed uncivil and un-Christian.

And when Indigenous peoples sided primarily with French and English during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, respectively, the colonists ramped up their distrust of and war on native peoples.

Over the course of the next 300 years, white Americans waged war on the Indigenous people. The slaughter of native peoples was more common than not, as the path to American superiority and exceptionalism began to emerge.

Along the way, while taking the lands of Indigenous peoples and killing them, white colonists enslaved African peoples and brought them to North America for free labor in order to build their “city on a hill.”

At this moment, I want to acknowledge what I believe Santorum got right, even though he did so accidentally.

His assertion that “there is not much Native American culture in American culture” is, obviously, technically inaccurate. However, his comment certainly honestly acknowledges the historic attempt to achieve this goal.

From the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee, from the modern-day issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women to Standing Rock, the United States of America has a long-standing war against Native Americans.

While Santorum either ignorantly or arrogantly made his comments, the truth he revealed is refreshing. Eradicating Indigenous traditions and cultures has always been at the heart of American exceptionalism and expansionism.

It is at this point I must share my deepest pain regarding this reality. While European expansion was primarily for economic reasons, it was couched and sold as having to do with religious freedom.

If the founding of the American colonies were truly about religious freedom, then colonists would have actually respected and honored native religions and culture. Instead, they did everything they could to destroy those cultures and replace them with a forced acceptance of Christianity.

Yet, as hard as they tried, the native ways persisted in the United States. While the communities of our ancestors no longer exist in their ancient forms, the spirit of those cultures and traditions lives on today.

My sense of community comes from my grandmother, Okema. My connection to tradition derives from the great-grandfather I never met, Mitchell Boudinot. My passion for advocacy, especially for those being marginalized and oppressed, comes from stories of my people.

So, no, Rick Santorum, America was not created in a vacuum. It was an extension of a proud and beautiful people that your ancestors attempted to destroy.

It’s a long and complicated history, but we would all be better off if we were just honest about it.

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