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.