U.S. Native Prisoners of War

One of the ways I came to be interested in issues around race, was that my father identified as Native American and with the struggles of native peoples, yet for the most part passed as white (what a friend of mine refers to as a “chera-honkey”). My dad also frequently expressed overtly racist and antisemitic views about black and Jewish people, while he spoke with admiration about our Mexican American neighbors in South Texas. That, my friends, will set you on a lifetime of trying to figure out race and racism.

I mention this personal history because there was a something really flawed – and telling – in my father’s logic of “comparing” the plight of Native Americans with what he referred to as the “whining” of blacks about racism. In his view, Native Americans had it “much worse” than black Americans and still do. I think that my father’s “reasoning” here is not isolated but rather a common misunderstanding about the politics of race in the U.S., and a view I’ve seen here on this blog in the comments.

Rather than trying to rank order oppression and which group “had it worse,” it’s important that we see these as connected. Here, for example, we’ve talked a lot about “the new Jim Crow,” and the system of mass incarceration of black and brown people. Of course, this system isn’t all that new, really. In fact, it’s directly connected to the legacy of colonization, forced migration, and oppression faced by Native Americans.

This photo essay and talk (h/t @TheAngryIndian) by Aaron Huey of the native Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, based on five years of work there, is a compelling example of visual sociology. The talk is on the long side (16:00), but worthwhile (even if he needs to learn to not back out of his own spotlight). It was recorded at TEDDxDU, Denver, September, 2010:

One of the things I appreciate about Huey’s talk is that he clearly situates the health conditions among the Lakota as a direct consequence of forced migration and the loss of native lands, rather than on the pusillanimous “health behaviors” that so pervades the language in public health. Huey’s talk is a powerful reminder of the deep roots of institutional racism in the U.S.