Recently, ABC ran a series called “Hidden America: Children of the Plains” that highlighted the poverty of Native American children living on reservations. The story, as told by ABC, is an unrelenting sad one. Some Native American youth took issue with the reporting, and created their own short video (2:35) response to it, called “More than that…”
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.
the once dirt-poor Oklahoma farm girl who grew up to become an activist for American Indian causes and women’s rights, an author and the first woman to hold the Cherokee Nation’s highest office, died Tuesday. She was 64.
President Barack Obama lauded Mankiller’s legacy. “As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the nation-to-nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America,” Obama said. “A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans. ”
In the 1960s, married by then with two children, she took an increasing interest in Indian affairs. When a group of tribal activists took over Alcatraz Island in 1969, occupying it for more than a year to protest U.S. government treatment of Indians, Mankiller visited them and raised money for the effort. … Mankiller used her fame and position to speak out on cultural issues, something she never shied from. She once said that white culture was to blame for the sexism of Cherokees, who were traditionally more matriarchal, and that Thomas Jefferson deserved as much blame for the Trail of Tears as the more often villified Andrew Jackson. When she slammed country artist Tim McGraw’s hit song “Indian Outlaw” as racially offensive, many state radio stations stopped playing it at her request.
Well, after a century or more of ripping off Native Americans’ trust accounts the U.S. government, that is the U.S. Justice Department, has finally agreed to a
a $3 billion settlement with Indian tribes. This marks the end of a 13-year lawsuit brought against the government by Indian tribes over billions of dollars in valuable land and oil royalties. The class action lawsuit Cobell v. Salazar alleged that the federal government mismanaged more than 300,000 American Indian trust accounts for more than a century. The American Indians claimed they were deprived of money they should have received for sale or usage of land for oil, gas, grazing and timber overseen by the Interior Department since 1887.
Under this agreement half a million account holders will receive some compensation, plus a modest Indian Education Scholarship Fund, possibly as much as $60 million, will be set up for Native American youth. All of this is conditioned of course on the court and the Congress agreeing.
Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff and executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp. (and a tireless campaigner for this justice) pointed out in this NPR report that numerous
plaintiffs have died since the suit began to wind its way through the courts in 1996. The original lawsuit was filed by Cobell and four other Indians on behalf of present and past beneficiaries of individual Indian trust accounts, including 300,000 then-current IIM account holders.
In this lawsuit these Indian plaintiffs have sought a financial accounting and reform of the government’s trust account system, which had been mismanaged for a century. To this point in time, the U.S. government has fought their lawsuit. Soon after it filed, a federal judge ordered the departments of Interior and Treasury to produce records for the trust accounts for the named plaintiffs, which they did not do. These trust accounts stem from land allotments made to individual Indians in the nineteenth century. Profits from the land—such as leasing fees and royalties for oil, logging, and other land uses—should have been held in trust by the government, but poor or no records were kept. A federal judge referred to this as “fiscal and government irresponsibility.” In 2006 an Indian Trust Reform Act was introduced in Congress, but has yet to pass. If passed, this legislation would have provided $8 billion as a settlement (plaintiffs have requested $47 billion) to individual trust account holders and give some Indian groups control over trust assets on reservations.
The federal government gets off very easy in this settlement, and Native Americans once again get exploited.
The largest White House Tribal Nations Conference in history happened recently (Nov.5), although it received scant coverage in the mainstream media. At the conference, President Obama signed an executive order before representatives from most of the nation’s 564 federally recognized tribes, giving federal agencies 90 days to submit proposals on how they plan to have “regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration” with American Indians when making policy decisions that affect their lives.
In a speech to the conference, President Obama said:
“Today’s summit is not lip service. We’re not going to go through the motions and pay tribute to one another, and then furl up the flags and go our separate ways. Today’s sessions are part of a lasting conversation that’s crucial to our shared future.”Few have been more marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, our first Americans.”
There’s a long video (45:34) available from whitehouse.gov where you can watch the speech in its entirety.
A few blocks from where I live, the annual “Columbus Day Parade” is about to disrupt traffic along 5th Avenue from 44th Street up to 79th Street, but I won’t be joining in this celebration. Like most school children in the U.S., I was fed the lie that Christopher Columbus was “an explorer” who “discovered America.” The local news stations here relentlessly refer to the parade as a “celebration of Italian heritage.” In fact, this is a holiday that disguises more than 500 years of church-sanctioned atrocities against indigenous peoples as well as the on-going, present-day racism against Native Americans.
While many of those who celebrate this holiday will participate in a Columbus Day Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral along the parade route (50th Street/Fifth Avenue), many others will protest the church’s participation in genocide. In fact, for the past dozen years, there has been an ongoing counter-protest, an Annual Papal Bulls Burning. At the Parliament of World Religions in 1993, over sixty indigenous delegates drafted a Declaration of Vision, which was originally “endorsed by resolution in a near unanimous vote” of the Parliament (Taliman 1994). It reads, in part:
We call upon the people of conscience in the Roman Catholic hierarchy to persuade Pope John II to formally revoke the Inter Cetera Bull of May 4, 1493, which will restore our fundamental human rights. That Papal document called for our Nations and Peoples to be subjugated so the Christian Empire nd its doctrines would be propagated. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. McIntosh 8 Wheat 543 (in 1823) adopted the same principle of subjugation expressed in the Inter Caetera bull. This Papal Bull has been, and continues to be, devastating to our religions, our cultures, and the survival of our populations.
Twelve years ago, Tony Castanha, a Boricua (Puerto Rican) in Hawai’i who was reconnecting with his Taino ancestry, began commemorating the day with a ceremonial burning of the 1493 Papal Bull Inter Caetera. The Papal Bull was the holy decree which gave Columbus the Church’s blessing and authorization to “establish Christian dominion over the globe and called for the subjugation of non-Christian peoples and seizure of their lands.” This racist law became one of the foundations of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and many laws authorizing the taking of native peoples’ land.
The myth of “discovery” that’s woven into the celebration of Christopher Columbus as a mythic hero also serves to cover up the on-going, present-day racism against Native Americans. In a terrific piece on “Native Americans Long Battle Against Racism,” at Global Voices Online (well worth reading in its entirety), Bernardo Parrella writes about the fact that even though there are almost 2.5 million Native Americans live in USA (0.87% of total US population), this group is largely “forgotten or invisible to the vast majority of Americans.” There are lots of resources in Parrella’s post if you decide to educate yourself about racism against Native Americans. He also includes ways that Native Americans are using online citizen media to fight racism and stereotypes. Just one example of these is a video called, “Racism The Way We See It” (7:50) statement about how young Native Americans experience racism within their own community: