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...Invisible, With Liberty and Justice for All
Thoughts on the elections
Steven Nasr Salaita
Native Americans continue to be America's invisible constituency. Now that the presidential election is over, we can evaluate how Natives were treated by the candidates and what that might signal in the coming years. Vibrant activism arises from numerous tribes spanning all geographic regions of Turtle Island (North and South America), yet Natives are still overlooked in important ways. An assessment of current media misrepresentation and enduring colonialism is clearly in order.
The presidential race demonstrates how lightly American politicians and the American populace regard the nation's original inhabitants. After mind- numbing debates in which only marginally competent corporate figureheads repeatedly spouted preplanned sound bites, it became obvious that issues of substance in the United States were again being ignored at the top levels of government. It is clear why Ralph Nader was turned away from the debates. If, as Noam Chomsky believes, it goes against the principles of good business to encourage everyday people to interrogate and analyze, then who better to address the nation than Gore and Bush, they themselves devoid of these skills? After the debates, we were treated to hundreds of media experts as equally dull as the Republicrats, none of whom took the liberty to break dogma and ask the obvious question of why our government continues to openly defy Native treaty rights and land claims.
One could find plenty of lip-service on Gore's website about implementing treaty obligations and restoring tribal sovereignty. All this from the person who is complicit in displacement as we speak. Gore is a principal shareholder in Occidental Oil, which moved its oil drilling rigs into U'wa territory in Colombia on September 30. The military kept the Indigenes and protestors at bay. Despite international outrage, none of which received coverage on American network news, the drilling began, with Bill Clinton's $1.3 billion blessing to Colombia's military in hand. The same person who happily supports the starvation of millions in Iraq because their leader flouts the sanctity of law waived human rights conditions in the Colombian aid package, which opens the possibility of using biological agents as a method for eradication. Concerned Americans staged over 50 demonstrations at Gore's offices and campaign appearances. For once, at precisely the wrong time, Gore remained silent.
As expected, one had to undertake a massive search to find Natives mentioned at Bush's site. If successful, he or she would have seen only this: “My view is that state law reigns supreme when it comes to Indians, whether it be gambling or any other issue.” In some regards, Bush's honesty as a colonizer is more refreshing than Gore's steal-with- a-smile approach. However, the invocation of Bush's stupidity as an excuse will not suffice here. It is extremely revealing that he could have exposed Gore's role in U'wa dispossession but never broached the subject. Some rules simply cannot be broken. To disclose this brand of imperialism would have meant obstructing the machinery of American democracy, namely that big business is untouchable and those who stand in the way of profit must sacrifice their human rights.
The exception, of course, was the Nader-LaDuke ticket, whose sweeping Indigenous policy proposals included amnesty for Leonard Peltier, protected tribal autonomy and land recovery based on both treaty stipulations and pre-contact property holdings. Nader and LaDuke would have conjured forbidden topics on network television and forced Republicrats to discuss issues that weren't preordained. These issues, as we will see in the following section, involve enormous profits in corporate exploitation of Native lands.
Issues in Native America Today
Although there are over 500 federally recognized tribes today in the United States, each with its own problems, prospects, and interests, there are common affairs in Native America that generally reach across the board. These include land recovery struggles; enduring racism and hate violence; government attempts to rescind or restrict tribal sovereignty rights; fishing and hunting claims; gaming privileges; corrupt tribal governance; autonomy in seeking self-determination; government sterilization of females; alcoholism; amnesty for political prisoners; misuse of religious symbols by white-shamans and in advertising spots; their likeness as sports team mascots; and lack of adequate national attention to their concerns.
The United States perseveres in its domestic colonization agenda. Corporate encroachment, most Natives are quick to point out, is age-old oppression with a different face. Many of the facts are striking. In All Our Relations, LaDuke notes that “one hundred and seven stocks of salmon have already become extinct in the Pacific Northwest, and 89 are endangered.” Three hundred seventeen reservations, she goes on to say, “are threatened by environmental hazards, ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts.” Yucca Mountain, home to the Western Shoshone in Nevada, has been targeted as a government nuclear waste dumpsite. PCB contamination on the Akwesasne Reservation in New York, whose landbase on the St. Lawrence River receives the spillover from Great Lakes industry, is at toxic levels. Children's brains are literally being dulled as a result. General Motors, whose record of human abuse would make Vlad the Impaler envious, is largely responsible, but never held accountable. This is part of a longstanding tradition of using Native lands as dumping grounds. That Native America occupies approximately 4 percent of the United States but receives the majority of its nuclear waste wasn't important to Oprah, but revealing Bush's favorite type of sandwich was.
Natives remain the most economically depressed demographic in the country. While the government spends on average $2,600/year per person for health care, for Natives it is $1,300/year, and 31 percent of Native families live below the poverty line. On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota alone, the most impoverished community in the nation, 60 percent of women have diabetes as a result of malnourishment. Average income is $4,500/year. Twenty percent of homes lack a functioning toilet and telephone. The average household head receives $32 bimonthly from welfare. Unemployment consistently hovers well above 50 percent. The Sioux's desire to regain the Black Hills, stolen for its gold reserves, is powerfully indicated in their rejection of the 1980 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians. Offered $106 million in compensatory damages based on the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty, the Sioux continue to demand the return of their land. Twenty years later, it is still incomprehensible to American politicians that land and income are not one and the same.
Other numbers are disgraceful. Sterilization of Native women peaked in 1975, when 25,000 were permanently sterilized, many by force. This practice continues today through coercion and misinformation according to the Women of Color Partnership. Native men have an average lifespan of 46 years, as opposed to 76 for the general population. The U.S. government controls over 90 percent of all Native land.
There are more subtle methods of control. Politicians have gone to great lengths to keep the Native populace capped at under 1 percent. A particularly foul example is Public Law 101-644, effected November 30, 1990, under the Bush administration. This placed the responsibility of establishing tribal enrollment criteria in the hands of the government. Once again, Natives were informed that self-determination is contingent on the whims of the patrimonial master. “Further,” M. Annette Jaimes observes, “the entire populations of federally unrecognized nations such as the populous Lumbees of North Carolina, Abenakis of Vermont, and more than 200 others, are simply written out of existence even in terms of their internal membership identification as Indians” (The State of Native America).
Another example is ecocide. The vast natural resources found on reservations are frequently mined by government agencies serving corporate demands. The negative effects, including stilted health, enormous concentrations of toxins, and systematic displacement, are given to the Natives in return. This succeeds because of the illicit assumption that Natives are a thing of the past, and if not that, then rightly disinherited by having been impediments to a much grander dream. Such is the historical basis of domestic education, sustained in political discourse by jingoistic moralists such as William Bennett, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will. A fundamental restructuring of thought is in order, and yet recent opportunities to make this point to a mass audience were suppressed in place of patriotic cliches and chauvinistic sloganeering. Sadly, ecocide is alive and well. Billions of corporate dollars depend on it.
This is not to imply that Natives ever stopped their extensive resistance projects. At present, the Tohono O'Odham (Papago) Nation, Hopis, and Dine (Navajos) of Arizona are in land reclamation struggles, as are the Anishinaabeg of Minnesota, the Gayhead Wampanoags of Massachusetts, the Aleut and Inuit of Alaska, the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy of New York, and the Western Shoshone of Nevada. Many tribes, including the Narrangansetts of Rhode Island and the Mashantucket Pequot of Connecticut, have found success in litigation to regain control over land and resources. Across the country, Natives are raising their voices in diverse and powerful ways. Currently, over 300 books a year are printed in the field of Native American Studies. Solid gains are being made in the areas of self-governance, sovereignty, and intellectual recognition.
The barriers, however, are still great. With every small gain comes flag-waving backlash. This can be seen in New York, where Six Nations land claims are met with signs proclaiming “No Reservation” and “No Recognition,” sometimes escalating in violence. The Academy is still hesitant to properly accommodate the research coming from Native scholars, who are often without tenure because they fail to conform to dominant scholarly models.
A particularly troublesome matter facing Natives is the centuries-old Spanish Doctrine of Discovery and its validity in American public policy today. That is, the notion that as discovered land America's title fell automatically to the conquerors, which has laid the groundwork for not only corporate abuse but its public acceptance as well. Whereas oppressed nation-states have the regulative stipulations of worldwide monitoring organizations, legal international protection is a more difficult resource for Natives to gain, in large part because of the government's reluctance to classify tribal landholdings as sovereign nations. The work of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) and writers such as Sharon Helen Venne and Glenn T. Morris have gone a long way in attempting to correct this obstacle.
Most importantly, wealthy conglomerates in Canada and the United States have billions invested in land exploitation. These include ALCOA, AMAX Coal Company, Occidental Oil, Del Monte, Dole, INCO, Hydro-Quebec, Hudson Bay Company, Northern States Power, Reynolds, and General Motors. It takes only a small peek at history to understand that when one speaks of the American dream, the vision is always green in color.
Although positive gains have been made on both the political and intellectual level in disrupting Columbus's status as pioneering hero, much of the apologist commentary about the evils of his journey fails to move out of a 16th century context. Those who stress continuity between Columbus's logic and today's colonial actions are attacked as anti-American agitators. Outrage over mass murder must be encapsulated in the past, which serves only to reinforce today's discourse of humanity at the expense of those who understand America's concept of generosity firsthand.
When Natives vocalize their concerns, commentators become disgusted that Indians refuse to accept the grandeur of Western culture. In 1991, at the height of the Columbus quincentennial controversy, Krauthammer wrote, “The real question is, What eventually grew on this bloodied soil? The answer is, the great modern civilizations of the Americas—a new world of individual rights, an ever expanding circle of liberty and, twice in this century, a savior of the world from totalitarian barbarism.” A better historical assessment might have looked at the slaughter of over 80 million Indigenes, widespread theft, and over 500 years of torture, then asked who was protecting the Natives from totalitarian barbarism. Then again, had Krauthammer done so, he would not have been able to offer this self-congratulatory proclamation: “Is it Eurocentric to believe the life of liberty is superior to the life of the beehive? That belief does not justify the cruelty of conquest. But it does allow us to say that after 500 years the Columbian legacy has created a civilization that we ought not, in all humble piety and cultural relativism, declare to be no better or worse than that of the Incas. It turned out better.” The Incas, we can be assured, are still praising their good fortunes.
Nine years later, things have changed little. In a recent discourse that would have bloated Thatcher's pride, Michael S. Berliner makes the remarkable claim that “Columbus is routinely vilified as a symbol of slavery and genocide, and the celebration of his arrival likened to a celebration of Hitler and the Holocaust. The attacks on Columbus are ominous, because the actual target is Western civilization.” Berliner holds a PhD and is a contributor to the Ayn Rand Institute, which posted this essay. Noting that “prior to 1492, what is now the United States was sparsely inhabited, unused, and undeveloped,” Berliner goes on to remark, “Columbus should be honored, for in so doing, we honor Western civilization. But the critics do not want to bestow such honor, because their real goal is to denigrate the values of Western civilization and to glorify the primitivism, mysticism, and collectivism embodied in the tribal cultures of American Indians…. We should, they claim, replace our reverence for Western civilization with multi-culturalism, which regards all cultures as morally equal. In fact, they aren't.” It would be convenient to dismiss Berliner as a fundamentalist on the fringe of rational society, but to do so would be inaccurate. His theory has all the backing of predominant educational institutions and widespread validity in the framework of American foreign and domestic policy.
It also corresponds with Clinton's latest Columbus Day announcement: “Columbus's own passion for adventure survives as an integral part of our national character and heritage, reflected in our explorations of the oceans' depths and the outer reaches of our solar system.” Later Clinton praised Columbus's “immeasurable contributions to our national life. From business to the arts, from government to academia, they have played an important part in advancing the peace and prosperity our country enjoys today.” We can presume that the irony here was unintended. Berlinger and Clinton draw from the classic national metanarrative so instrumental in silencing Native voices in place of patriotic newspeak. In this system, the proven murderers go unnoticed and the aggrieved are propelled into a defensive position.
The dispute over Kennewick Man in the northwest reveals the same sort of patronizing virtue. Many scientists are upset that grave-robbing and desecration of tribal remains are no longer allowed. One can only imagine the outrage if a tribe dug up John Kennedy's grave in order to rationalize the world in unilateral terms. Yet when the roles are reversed, common thinking stipulates that the answers to our (read: white) existence are impeded by the irrationality of tribal custom. Says The Economist: “Wiser heads might, perhaps, have found a way to persuade the tribes to adopt a more moderate position. But buried bones tell no tales, and science will suffer if the anthropologists suing for the chance to study the skeleton lose their case. The tribes who claim him, meanwhile, will be seen as more interested in frivolous point-scoring than in a serious discussion about how to explore a past that does not belong solely to them.”
Again, we can see the patrimonial tone of scientific discourse. The tribes do not know their own past, cannot properly discern real-life implications, act as roadblocks to a superior level of comprehension. Tribes are urged to give up their frivolous claims and replace them with a more rational, Western approach. Columbus would have been proud.
Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity
Lately it has been popular to sympathize with Natives. An excess of liberal apologists, dovish commentators and white-shamans have adopted the cause of Indigenous struggle. However, the fundamental fact remains: when tribes assert their rights as sovereign nations and demand the return of their lands and resources in full, their presence suddenly becomes less trendy and their mainstream champions usually disappear. We are familiar with how corporations treat the tribes living in their backyards. More telling is how everyday Americans react when the Natives arrive in theirs.
LaDuke suggests that, “There is a direct relationship between the loss of cultural diversity and the loss of biodiversity. Wherever Indigenous peoples still remain, there is also a corresponding enclave of biodiversity.” We all stand to gain from the restitution of American land to its rightful owners. Given the billions of dollars at stake and a mass media trained to protect it, however, this prospect requires concerted grassroots effort and far-reaching educational reform.
Corporations have proven that they have no respect for the land, and a minimal interest in the well-being of all biological life, humans included. In this sense, it is no exaggeration to say that the fate of our future lies in the recovery and restoration of a more responsible pattern of life on Turtle Island. Based on the sad state of the presidential election, more needs to be done in bringing Native issues to the nation's attention. Otherwise, it will be progress as usual in the United States. Z