Thursday November 29, 2012
This week Indian country awaited word from the Senate as to whether or not they would advance a bill known as the "Carcieri Fix" (S. 676), a wait which has been ongoing for almost 4 years, according to an article in Indian Country Today Media Network on November 28. The legislation would amend the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to allow the Department of the Interior to place Indian lands in trust, which in effect makes them reservation lands, and thus protected by laws that support tribal sovereignty. The bill is a "fix" to the Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar (2009). In that decision the court determined that the DOI did not have the authority to place lands into trust which were acquired after 1934, representing a deadly blow to tribes' sovereignty and efforts at self-determination and nation-building.
The case arose when the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island attempted to have 31 acres of land placed into trust which they could then develop and be relatively free of state laws. The state sued the DOI (assumedly not happy with the revenue they would lose from that tax base, and other benefits they would otherwise enjoy). According to the ICTMN article, "The misguided high court ruling has created chaos in Indian country, including hindering tribes from nation building and providing programs for their citizens, litigation over proposed and existing trust lands, safety issues, a backlog of land into trust applications, questions over the tax status of Indian lands, and difficulty for tribal governments to borrow money. Tribal leaders hope the clean Carcieri fix will be passed during the current lame duck session."
One of the problems with the court's decision, of course, is the precedent it sets in federal Indian law. But it also has a punitive effect for tribes like the Narragansett who did not achieve federal recognition until after 1934. Many of these tribes often don't have a land base, having long since lost their lands to the colonial process (federal recognition does not come with the restoration of land). Without a land base it is nearly impossible to build an economy, thereby hampering the exercise of meaningful self-determination. Thus, tribal nations devastated from centuries of ongoing colonial oppression are also still denied the possibility for economic self-sufficiency.
Wednesday November 28, 2012
When the Mayflower pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and found vacant Indian settlements, recently emptied from epidemics that killed off entire villages, their view of it was that their God saw fit to kill Indians on their behalf, making room for them. It was certainly a convenient perspective, relieving them (and their English brethren) of any responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of other human beings due to the germs they brought over with them from the filthy conditions they were accustomed to living with back in the old country. It wasn't as if they didn't know by then that it was illnesses brought by them that killed the Indians. We know for sure that by 1763 those good Christian men were using biological warfare to further clear the land when Lord Jeffry Amherst sent smallpox infested blankets to the Delaware and Shawnee.
Be that as it may, by 1620 the beleaguered Wampanoag and their leader Massasoit whom the pilgrims encountered at Plymouth Rock were already on their way out. But contrary to popular opinion they did not become extinct; those that remained--believing that their God had abandoned them--adopted the religion of the invaders, eventually blending in with them through time. But the descendants of the original Wampanoag, having always known who they are, still exist. Their culture has taken a beating and much of their work revolves around reviving what they can.
There is a saying that when a language dies, a culture dies. If this is true, then conversely when a language is revived, it stands to reason that the culture is revived. The Wampanoag language was deemed to be extinct at least 100 years ago. But if there was only one good thing that came from the Christian missionaries it is that much of the Wampanoag language was preserved in writing, enabling today's Wampanoag descendants to reconstruct their language and thus their cultural heritage.
Thursday November 22, 2012
For Native Americans the Thanksgiving season is cause for debate, and with good reason. It's an opportunity to tell another side of history through the lens of our experience. It is an inconvenient truth that Thanksgiving is not the same happy occasion for everyone in the United States. Indians will gather by the hundreds at Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving day (as they do every year) to express a national day of mourning for what the reader will hopefully see as obvious reasons.
The question is often asked: do Indians celebrate Thanksgiving (as in the national holiday)? Many do celebrate the day as a way to get together with family on a day off and enjoy a good meal, but many are adamant that they are not celebrating the national holiday. In Native cultures there is no need to set aside one day a year to give thanks because thanks-giving is built into the culture. Native cultures do not make distinctions between religion or spirituality and that which we could call secular aspects of life. Because life is inherently spiritual and seen as a gift given by the Creator or other deities, everyday is an opportunity to express gratitude.
As indigenous peoples, we are thankful for having been born of the land our ancestors have walked since time immemorial. We give thanks for the rich heritage passed down to us by the Creator through our ancestors, and for all they've taught us about how to be human beings living in right relationship to the Earth and all her children, human and non-human. We are grateful for each day the Creator sees fit to give us breath and the sacred foods that sustain us, and the opportunity to pass on the beauty of our ways to our children and share it with others so that they, too, will learn how to walk in balance on this precious planet we call our Mother.
Friday November 9, 2012
The changing of the seasons brings with it a certain change in mood. In America, the golden hues of fall signal the oncoming holidays, beginning with Halloween images of scary jack-o-lantern pumpkins (and if you're really paying attention, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead celebrations), morphing into the pumpkin pies and turkeys of Thanksgiving. As green gives way to shades of crimson, buttercup, and earth, nature signals her change by diverting her energy inward, and so do we, at least to some degree, turn our attention contemplatively inward.
American national holidays from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving inevitably invoke conversations about Native Americans. Columbus Day really didn't see much conversation about Indians until the days of the American Indian rights movement in the late 1960's and early 1970's, with actions like the first Day of Mourning at Plymoth Rock. Since then, Indian protesting has gained momentum and now Columbus Day cannot go by without some kind of attention paid to those protests; Indians protest Columbus Day parades, they plaster facebook with sarcastic but poignant Columbus Day e-cards, and the Native media seizes the opportunity to tell another side to history. And not just in America; all throughout North, Central and South America and the Caribbean Natives condemn the man and the myth of "discovery."
On Halloween the conversation turns to the Indian costumes Native people find so offensive, and non-Native Americans will once again say to America's indigenous peoples, "you are way too sensitive...get over yourselves!" A similar dynamic takes place with Thanksgiving. Native Americans--sick and tired of the self-gratifying story of friendly Indians sitting around a big table eating turkey with benevolent Pilgrims--tell a different, not-so-cute version of the story. And since 1992 November is Native American Heritage Month, in which the nation grants us carte blanche to tell our stories, like how slavery and disease were the real forces that aided European immigrants to colonize the continent.
Just when the conversation starts getting really juicy, it's December and the national conversation will turn to America's favorite subject: shopping. Santa Claus and capitalism saves us from the drudgery of truth telling in the end, and we won't have to talk about Indians again until next year.
Wednesday October 31, 2012
To be born Indian is to be born into a proud culture that many Americans wish they had. America's long history of "playing Indian" bears this out, and tonight many children will don Indian costumes in America's officially sanctioned begging ritual we call "trick-or-treating" as a testament to the ongoing fascination with Indian culture. New agers still appropriate Native American ceremonies claiming they honor and respect Native American culture. But being born Indian is also to be born into the history of America's dark side, a history that it has yet to completely reckon with. It is to be born into the struggle for justice and having to tell your side of history, a side people often don't like to hear. It is to be born inherently controversial.
When you are born a mixed-race Native American, as most of us are, you learn to negotiate multiple cultural spaces. You become accustomed to having your identity questioned and your authenticity scrutinized at every turn as people unconsciously ask questions about your percentage of Indian blood. If you are born a mixed-race Indian with African ancestry you straddle a doubly-complex world of racial stigmas and struggle for recognition, like the Cherokee Freedman who are still grappling with the consequences of slavery in a very real way.
The point is that history is never over, especially for those who have been the most negatively impacted by it. Who any of us are today is a direct result of the past and when that past is loaded with injustice we have to keep working to right the wrongs. There's a big difference, though, between that and the perception that all you are doing is staying stuck in your own victimhood.
Thursday October 25, 2012
Dr. Phil's longevity on daytime television attests to his enduring popularity. Go figure. While I imagine he is capable of offering valuable insights and advice, too often he comes off as the Jerry Springer of psychology. He did it recently in a highly sensationalized segment on Baby Veronica, the Native American child who was returned to her birth family after an illegal adoption to a white family in South Carolina. Baby Veronica's white mother placed her baby with an adoptive family without disclosing the fact that the child has a Native American father, circumventing the Indian Child Welfare Act, a law that mandates such disclosure in cases of children with Native American parentage. The law essentially gives the tribe priority in the adoption decisions. The child's return was upheld by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
In the show Dr. Phil clearly sides with the adoptive parents who are understandably distraught about the loss of their adopted child, now a toddler. The segment showcases Troy Dunn, known for his TV show called "The Locator." The show is based on his work in reuniting lost loved ones, and is obviously influenced by his family history with adoption (he has an adopted Native American brother). But it also biases him to the emotional pleas of the adoptive couple, despite his apparent lack of a full understanding about the ICWA and its history (which you can read about here).
The highly emotional debate raises all the usual issues about Native American identity and blood quantum. But it also raises other issues that non-Indians have a hard time grappling with, namely the concept of group rights versus individual rights because the law favors the rights of the tribe over the individual; i.e. the mother. What Dr. Phil failed to do was discuss the historical context of the law which was passed in order to right two centuries of wrongs where Indian children were removed from their homes at staggering rates, contributing immeasurably to the breakdown of American Indian families and societies. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a debate about the ICWA will be exposed to public scrutiny and the usual charges of racism and ignoring the needs of the child. However, the debate doesn't change the absolute need for the law.
Wednesday October 24, 2012
This week Indian country lost one of its most well-known icons with the death of Russell Means. Even many non-Indians knew who he was because of his association with the American Indian Movement, Native America's equivalent of the Black Panthers. The media has been plastered with news of his passing, none of it without playing on the endless controversy inextricably connected to Means and AIM. Even though Means broke with AIM long ago his history with them will never be erased.
The American Indian Movement jumped into the fray of the civil rights movement with all the fervor and militancy of young Indians who knew their history and how it led up to their dismal realities of relentless poverty, land loss, alcoholism and a whole host of other social problems, and they were very angry about it. Many people--both Indian and non-Indian--opposed AIM's confrontational and sometimes violent tactics, but love or hate them, they drew the nation's attention to the people it was conditioned to forget. They inspired pride in people who had been beaten down for so long they often no longer knew who they were or where they fit in American society.
Having been born at the tail end of the baby boomer generation, I was a young teenager when AIM was in full swing. I was born into a Native family that had been torn apart as a result of government Indian policy and while I was always told to be proud I was Indian there was always a vague sense of confusion about what that meant, especially living in a big city far from the homelands of my ancestors. Seeing images on TV of real Indians fighting for things I didn't completely understand but sensed was right made a big impact. It was something I could relate to; the message was etched deep in my mind that to be an Indian meant that you had to fight for your rights because no one was going to give them to you.
The American Indian rights movement was messy. Mistakes were made that had devastating consequences. But revolutions usually aren't clean and easy, and I suspect that Russell Means long ago accepted that he would not always be remembered with fondness. Say what you will about him, but in the end he was a warrior at a time when Indians desperately needed warriors. May he journey well among the ancestors.
Sunday October 21, 2012
Every year in April thousands of people convene in Hilo, Hawaii to celebrate what has arguably become Hawaii's most important cultural event, the Merrie Monarch Festival. Attendees will come from as far away as Japan and Tahiti to watch the best of the best in hula and compete for coveted awards and the Miss Aloha Hula title. Hula's most highly respected kumu (teachers) will be recognized for their contributions, and Hawaiians will prove that their culture is alive and well.
In the same month, more than 10,000 people will descend upon Albuquerque, New Mexico for the Gathering of Nations Powwow which can be said to be the Native American equivalent of the Merrie Monarch Festival. Over 1,000 dancers compete for over $100,000 in prize money and young women will vie for the title of Miss Indian World. It has come to be recognized as the largest powwow in the United States, also drawing attendees from across country and Canada.
Both events are a testament to the tenacity of cultures to survive in the face of centuries of profound disruption. By the turn of the 20th century Native American and Native Hawaiian populations had suffered the near complete obliteration of their populations. The 1900 census counted less than 250,000 Indians and 37,656 Hawaiians compared to a conservative estimate of 10 million in 1492 for the former, and upwards of 1 million at the time of Capt. Cook's arrival in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. That's a population decline of over 95%, it means that anyone born of Native American or Native Hawaiian ancestry has survived the most profound Holocaust in recorded history.
For native people dance is not only one of their most important expressions of culture, but in this context it is a celebration of survival and a way to say to the world "we are still here and we aren't going anywhere." As the indigenous people of what is now the United States, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians share many similarities but also many differences. A comparison of their dance traditions reveals these complexities and also how the process of colonization changed dance in their cultures.
Saturday October 20, 2012
Throughout American history Indians have never been high on the list of priorities when it comes to electoral politics. That is (arguably), until gaming infused money into certain segments of Indian country and filtered its way into the campaign coffers of key politicians, or became a flashpoint for politicians to rally around as a way to demand taxes from tribes, boosting their popularity with voters. Either way, over two centuries after the founding of the US and Indians are still controversial.
Still, things are different now and presidential candidates must have a Native American agenda in their campaign platforms, not only because of tribal financial influence, but also because Native Americans are a viable voting block. Recently, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both addressed the Native American media by answering questions from Indian Country Today Media Network (Indian country's premier news source), something that ICTMN reported had never been done before. Obama's record on Indian affairs speaks for itself; he's generally been an ally to tribal nations, as most of his Democratic predecessors. Indians have learned that they can rely on Democrats far more than Republicans to advocate for them. Knowing this, Romney acknowledged a Republican administration's need "to foster a culture of collaboration and respect."
Republicans have a history of being antagonistic toward Native American agendas. Oddly enough, however, Native Americans look back to Richard Nixon as having been one of the most important allies in history (which you can read about here), implementing the current policy of self-determination. Thanks in large part to Nixon's influence, Republicans like Romney (and in the past even George W. Bush) must engage the language of tribal sovereignty and nation-to-nation relationships. That said, all is not hearts and flowers, considering Romney's dedication to the Keystone XL Pipeline (which Native nations by and large oppose), but at least we've come a long way from the days when Republicans terminated Indians.
Saturday October 6, 2012
Here we are again at October 12 and the annual commemoration of Columbus Day, 520 years later. School teachers will dutifully teach lessons from district-sanctioned textbooks that promote one or another sanitized version of how Columbus the great explorer discovered a new world that would forever change the course of history. That history was changed is true; but pretty much the rest of the Columbus story is a myth that perpetuates a version of reality that simply isn't true. The truth is that Columbus essentially started the transatlantic slave trade and was responsible for what may be the first recorded genocide of an indigenous people in modern history. But somehow those details usually get left out of the storytelling, unsavory as they are for children's history books.
It's a mythology that won't die easily, and some Americans still hold on to it for dear life. Italian-Americans will go head-to-head with Native Americans as they protest Denver's annual Columbus Day parade. Columbus is, after all, Italian-Americans' claim to fame, but what most of them don't know is that his ethnicity as an Italian has never been fully substantiated in the historical record, and it is in fact shrouded in doubt.
Indigenous peoples worldwide have been working hard for the past few decades to expose the truth about Christopher Columbus. For Native people, celebrating Christopher Columbus is like Jews celebrating Hitler. Why celebrate someone who led to such misery for your ancestors? In Berkeley, Columbus Day was changed to Indigenous People's Day in 1991. In South Dakota, Columbus Day was changed to Native American Day in 1990. Other states are slow to follow suit, but student groups on college campuses such as my alma mater (the University of New Mexico) stage Indigenous People's Day events in answer to what they see as an absurd holiday. When I was a student there organizing Indigenous People's day events, we introduced a new ritual called the "Burning of the Bulls," in which we burned a copy of the Roman Catholic Papal Bull Inter Caetera, an idea we borrowed from our Native Hawaiian brothers and sisters in the islands. The Bull Inter Caetera is possibly the single most harmful document to the worlds' indigenous peoples ever produced.
Read about the uncensored truth of Columbus's history (and the accompanying Papal Bulls) here. And then think again about the wisdom of celebrating it.