Tag Archives: treaty rights

Not resolved

24 Aug

My last post describing the invisibility of Native Americans in media as a logical extension of our history of U.S. anti-Indian policy needed an exclamation point. I thought more needed to be said about how the idea of Native Americans as disappearing reinforces the notion that the relationship between the U.S. and Native nations is a settled matter, or at least a matter beyond the reach of justice.

Matters aren’t settled. In fact, to consider the matter resolved, if not justly, then at least irrevocably, is one of the ways in which racism against Native Americans (and Native Hawaiians) is expressed most forcefully. Yes, there are denigrating caricatures everywhere and racist slurs and stereotypes galore, but, in my humble opinion, none are as effective in stalling justice as the false notion that the conflict between the U.S. and Native peoples is uneasily but nonetheless finally settled. That even if we acknowledge injustice, reaching a more just settlement is unrealistic, you can’t turn back time.

How unsettled is this matter? I’m no expert, but I have a few stories to share.

As a program officer of a foundation out west, I often visited groups on Indian reservations. On a visit to one group in Montana, I learned that sewage moved through parts of the community in open ditches. People were so poor, they spent each summer in a race to pay off heating bills accumulated over the winter so that they could avoid freezing to death in the next one. The Indian Health Service office was inadequately staffed and so remote that many couldn’t afford the trip.

I found them after driving miles without seeing a single building. As I toured their facility, I became keenly aware of how powerfully problems of isolation are compounded by poverty.

But in spite of having so little, it was absolutely clear to me that the group was having a measurable, positive impact on the community. It wasn’t enough to rectify problems that have persisted for generations, but it was a little miracle of ingenuity, commitment, and hard work nonetheless.

The biggest obstacle to doing better is not a weakness of the leaders. It is the combination of raw deals, dirty crooks, and government neglect of our end of the bargains struck in treaty agreements, not to mention the poor land they have been forced to settle with, and many other injustices. In fact, year after year, the injustices pile up so high that people who suffer from them, no matter how determined, cannot hope to shovel them out of the way alone.

They need help.

In Wyoming, I visited a group working for environmental justice. At the time, their primary goal was the return of their water rights – rights without which the eco-system of the reservation, necessary to the sustenance of the people who reside there, will be destroyed. They’d taken their case to court and lost. The judge held up the rights of white farmers to divert water that would have run through the reservation, declaring that the issue of water rights was long ago decided in a war that “we” won.

Since then, that group has scored a major victory over methane mining on the reservation. They continue to score victories. But will they ever see real justice? That, again, depends on the rest of us.

I received a visit from a representative of the Chinook Indian Nation in Washington, a group that has been described in some reference books as “extinct.” She was seeking support for an effort to win back federal recognition of their tribe that was revoked by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2002, just ten years ago.

A hostile nation has stripped the Chinook people of their sovereignty. Regaining that recognition is necessary to their security and self-determination.

When you work for a foundation that provides funding to those most directly targeted by injustice to lead efforts to find solutions, you don’t often see the people in the communities you serve who are thriving. They exist, too.

But the struggles of Native Americans are real. Moreover, they have far reaching impact, including the creation of grossly unjust concentrations of wealth in the hands of very few people who in turn repress and exploit those of us without wealth in order to retain their riches. The impacts of the exploitation of Native peoples are all around us. They’re like the bars of a cage. If you haven’t noticed them, depending on who you are, it might just be because the downside of an unjust relationship is tough for those on the upside to see.  Our privilege obscures our view.

But whether we see the bars or not, the cage is there, and addressing the situation of Native peoples is necessary to setting ourselves free of it.

Not Vanquished

22 Aug

I started Race Files after screening 24 hours of political commentary programs. I screened them to test a hunch. That hunch was that if these programs were your only window on the U.S., you’d conclude that people of color are a barely present and politically insignificant part of America.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that my hunch proved correct. To political pundits, people of color are usually (in fact, in the case of white commentators, almost exclusively) mentioned to make points relevant to white people.

But, no matter how minimizing or misleading the rap was on African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos, we were mentioned. Of Native Americans, on the other hand, not a word was spoken.

That was six months ago. Since then, I’ve watched political programs with a pen and paper at my side in order to make note of any reference to Native Americans. Because analyzing how media represents people of color is part of my work, I watch a lot of these programs.

So far, I have yet to fill a third of a page. What’s scribbled in that space refers to only one subject: Republican objections to provisions addressing the special circumstances of Native Americans in the Violence Against Women Act. In this story, Native Americans were mainly used to bash Republicans.

On that same page I have two checks – one for each time that a non-Native person referenced Native Americans as people something really bad happened to a very long time ago.

Ever notice how there are stories, though few and far between, of the plights of indigenous people outside of the U.S.? I have. I noted them as well. They far out-number references to Native Americans. I suppose the issues are a lot more palatable when you and your audience aren’t implicated in the problem.

The absence of Native Americans may not be the result of some evil conspiracy but it is neither minor nor incidental. In fact, this silence is just an extension of a process that began before the American Indian Wars and never ended. We live it everyday and it’s an important part of a historical process of expunging Native Americans from the U.S. consciousness.

This disappearing of Native Americans as real, complex, contemporary people has so successfully naturalized within American culture that we (non-Indians) hardly notice it. It’s part of our national ethos, even a matter of pride, to think of Native Americans as a vanquished and vanishing people and to act accordingly.

Throughout American history we’ve been trying to make Native Americans disappear. Long after early colonists had already destroyed thousands of Native American lives, we waged a war against Native nations as a matter of federal policy. The formal acknowledgement of our intention to make Native Americans disappear continued into the early 1920s, ultimately resulting in the destruction of two-thirds of the Native American population of North America.

But warfare was just one tactic. Cultural assimilation was another. Cruel campaigns to “civilize” Native Americans were waged. The goal was to eventually separate Native people from their land.

And having failed at completely assimilating Native Americans, we have ever since used the tactic of simply making Native people disappear, and, along with them, all of the other complications associated with being a settler nation. To quiet our consciences, to avoid settling up our debts to Native nations, and to ignore the fact that we reside on land and have built a society using resources that were forcibly taken from others in a campaign of genocide, we make them vanish, even call certain tribes “extinct.”

This disappearing act is accomplished in a variety of ways. We terminate tribes, claiming that enrollment has fallen too far to constitute a nation. We appropriate spiritual practices, claiming to be honoring and preserving the traditions of a noble but vanishing people. And we do it by exclusion, especially in media and the world of politics, both of which contribute to the notion that Native people are of no relevance to the lives of the rest of us.

Native American activist and academic Andy Smith wrote about the logic of genocide in Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy, saying “this logic holds that indigenous peoples must disappear…must always be disappearing, in order to allow non-indigenous people rightful claim over this land.”

Smith’s article cites Kate Shanley’s analysis of Native Americans as a permanent “present absence” that, according to Ella Shohat and Robert Stam functions as “an ambivalently repressive mechanism [which] dispels the anxiety in the face of the Indian, whose very presence is a reminder of the initially precarious grounding of the American nation-state itself…”

This is one more for the echo chamber. Native Americans are not vanquished and not vanishing.

Race Basics: Colonialism and Religious Bigotry

18 May

I don’t play in the oppression Olympics. Yet, I’ve argued that anti-Black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy. This statement has generated some controversy, with some saying I’ve overlooked Native people, and others saying there is a hierarchy of oppressions in which Blacks suffer most.

All this talk got me to thinking about the particular racism faced by Native people and how it fits into my analysis.

I recalled a time, some years back, when I got stuck in a soft spot on the shoulder of a road on my way to a speaking engagement. I tried to wave down help, but to no avail. For hours, no one stopped.

When I got to my destination, I told the story to my host who promptly said, “You’re in Indian country. They thought you were Native American.” What the…? Lots of white folks, he explained, are afraid of Native people in reservation-adjacent areas in Oregon.

A year later, I was in Idaho for a reception with an LGBT rights group. Near the end of the evening, two Native American men arrived. As they walked to the ticket table, one of the guests referred to them by using the “N” word preceded by the word “prairie.” Again, I was shocked.

When years later I worked in criminal justice reform out West, I learned a bit more about the racism faced by Native people. In Montana, urban Indians are profiled as vagrants and targeted for  harassment. Native drivers were regularly pulled over and assumed to be either drunk or driving without insurance. The latter is often true because the extraordinary poverty rate among Native people in Montana means many can’t afford insurance.

In 2000, Native Americans were more than 20% of all prisoners in Idaho and Wyoming in spite of being approximately 7% of the populations of those states.

Later, as a program officer of a social justice foundation, I visited Native groups all over the Northwest, both on reservation and off. Among them was the Wind River Alliance in Wyoming. From them, I learned that the Wind River had been reduced to a trickle on the reservation by white farmers whose water rights trumped Indian treaty rights.

To make the point, they aired a video of a local judge explaining his decision against the tribes’ water rights lawsuit. He said “we” already won that “war,” and water rights are one of the spoils.

This conquerer mentality regarding Native people is everywhere. It is expressed by those who say Native people are “vanishing.” It’s indicated by the current fight over re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. That Act is opposed by the House Republican majority in part because of special provisions concerning violence against Native women.

It may also explain the soaring unemployment rates of Native Americans, topping 18% in the West.

I’ve toured the Crow Reservation on visits to the Center Pole Foundation in Montana. Many there live in dilapidated and poorly insulated trailers.

During the freezing winter, space heaters run constantly. Families sleep as close to the ceiling as possible in order to feel the heat. But the bills run so high that the electricity is eventually cut. Families wait until summer to earn enough money to settle back bills and avoid freezing next winter.

I also met members of the Chinook Nation. The University of Oregon describes the Chinook tribe of Washington as historical relics.  Some claim they are “extinct.” Yet these supposedly extinct people continue to fight for recognition of their tribal sovereignty.

The situation of Native Americans today is the legacy of genocide, relocation and forced assimilation. This legacy is as much a part of our history as Yankee Doodle Dandy, WWII, and and the invention of the car all rolled into one.

When Columbus first arrived in North America, the Library of Congress claims that 900,000 Native people lived here. Some demographers claim as many as 7 or 8 million. By the 1890s, only 250,000 remained. Whole nations were destroyed. Others were pushed onto reservations, and many more were simply terminated.

This history speaks to another dimension of racism: colonialism and religious prejudice.

While Africans were profiled as animals to justify race slavery, Native Americans were profiled as anti-Christians to justify wars over land and resources. Today’s debates over the dominance of Christianity in our politics echo this history. Religious bigotry continues to drive the expansion of American Empire in the form of the war on terror/Islam. And, that war is part of a larger culture “war” that is knocking down rights of LGBT people, women, and religious minorities.

I continue to believe that anti-Black racism drives white supremacy. I believe it because I know that the converse of Black in our culture is white. In order to justify slavery, white identity was created as the lever of white supremacy with anti-Black racism as the fulcrum.

But, anti-Indian racism is very real. It is an extension of a long history of colonialism, and its legacy is the mentality that drives the expansion of American Empire and Christian jihad.

I won’t play in the oppression Olympics, but I do believe that to fight racism we need a game plan. That game plan is incomplete if we overlook anti-Native racism.

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