Not Vanquished

I started Race Files after screening 24 hours of political commentary programs. I screened them to test a hunch. That hunch was that if these programs were your only window on the U.S., you’d conclude that people of color are a barely present and politically insignificant part of America.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that my hunch proved correct. To political pundits, people of color are usually (in fact, in the case of white commentators, almost exclusively) mentioned to make points relevant to white people.

But, no matter how minimizing or misleading the rap was on African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos, we were mentioned. Of Native Americans, on the other hand, not a word was spoken.

That was six months ago. Since then, I’ve watched political programs with a pen and paper at my side in order to make note of any reference to Native Americans. Because analyzing how media represents people of color is part of my work, I watch a lot of these programs.

So far, I have yet to fill a third of a page. What’s scribbled in that space refers to only one subject: Republican objections to provisions addressing the special circumstances of Native Americans in the Violence Against Women Act. In this story, Native Americans were mainly used to bash Republicans.

On that same page I have two checks – one for each time that a non-Native person referenced Native Americans as people something really bad happened to a very long time ago.

Ever notice how there are stories, though few and far between, of the plights of indigenous people outside of the U.S.? I have. I noted them as well. They far out-number references to Native Americans. I suppose the issues are a lot more palatable when you and your audience aren’t implicated in the problem.

The absence of Native Americans may not be the result of some evil conspiracy but it is neither minor nor incidental. In fact, this silence is just an extension of a process that began before the American Indian Wars and never ended. We live it everyday and it’s an important part of a historical process of expunging Native Americans from the U.S. consciousness.

This disappearing of Native Americans as real, complex, contemporary people has so successfully naturalized within American culture that we (non-Indians) hardly notice it. It’s part of our national ethos, even a matter of pride, to think of Native Americans as a vanquished and vanishing people and to act accordingly.

Throughout American history we’ve been trying to make Native Americans disappear. Long after early colonists had already destroyed thousands of Native American lives, we waged a war against Native nations as a matter of federal policy. The formal acknowledgement of our intention to make Native Americans disappear continued into the early 1920s, ultimately resulting in the destruction of two-thirds of the Native American population of North America.

But warfare was just one tactic. Cultural assimilation was another. Cruel campaigns to “civilize” Native Americans were waged. The goal was to eventually separate Native people from their land.

And having failed at completely assimilating Native Americans, we have ever since used the tactic of simply making Native people disappear, and, along with them, all of the other complications associated with being a settler nation. To quiet our consciences, to avoid settling up our debts to Native nations, and to ignore the fact that we reside on land and have built a society using resources that were forcibly taken from others in a campaign of genocide, we make them vanish, even call certain tribes “extinct.”

This disappearing act is accomplished in a variety of ways. We terminate tribes, claiming that enrollment has fallen too far to constitute a nation. We appropriate spiritual practices, claiming to be honoring and preserving the traditions of a noble but vanishing people. And we do it by exclusion, especially in media and the world of politics, both of which contribute to the notion that Native people are of no relevance to the lives of the rest of us.

Native American activist and academic Andy Smith wrote about the logic of genocide in Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy, saying “this logic holds that indigenous peoples must disappear…must always be disappearing, in order to allow non-indigenous people rightful claim over this land.”

Smith’s article cites Kate Shanley’s analysis of Native Americans as a permanent “present absence” that, according to Ella Shohat and Robert Stam functions as “an ambivalently repressive mechanism [which] dispels the anxiety in the face of the Indian, whose very presence is a reminder of the initially precarious grounding of the American nation-state itself…”

This is one more for the echo chamber. Native Americans are not vanquished and not vanishing.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

6 replies on “Not Vanquished”

We examined the types of sources quoted in news stories. Most sources (75%) in the
timeframe were officials who represented the federal government and the states of Oregon and Washington. Advocacy groups such as the US Humane Society, the Sea Lion Defense Brigade and American Rivers were included as sources about 18% of the time, while tribal sources appeared in about 8% of stories. – This from a Report on News Framing authored by Cynthia Lou Coleman at Portland State University, available from a link here:

One aspect of the Romney campaign that is never discussed is the the fact that Mormonism is founded on the idea that God gave the Americas to White people (at least to a lost tribe of Jewish White people) and that Native Americans (who were this lost tribe) were cursed by God and had their skin color changed to brown for rejecting Jesus as he passed through Missouri and thereabouts after his resurrection. This is one of the reasons for baptizing the dead: That eventually all of the indigenous peoples will be turned White once all of their evil ancestors are baptized.

This was a surprise. I found this through an unrelated google image search actually.

I groaned at the site of the picture. As a servicemember actually. As an active part of homeland security, reading the labeling on that picture of Geronimo literally made me groan in embarrassment, because I help mantain homeland security, and even though this message is obviously very ‘pro me’, its embarrising on nearly every level.

Then I saw the url, ‘the racist files’ and i groaned again. Either this was a message board full of reveling in racism via the anonmity of the internet, or certainly a completely overkill pc rantathon full of hot air, strawmen, arguments through verbosity, silence, ridiculousness, and nearly every other logical fallacy, and completely devoid of research sources, and accountability.

And then the page loaded, and I read it. And then I looked around at your other entries.

Thank you. On so many levels.

Hi Josh, Thanks for the comment. Just to be clear, it’s not “racist files,” but race files I hope the files aren’t “racist” like binders full of racists! I hope you follow me and keep reading. I would find it very interesting to get the take of someone in the military about the issues I raise in the blog. Take care.

The original native population (once the majority) was seen as an impediment to anyone and everyone who came to stake a claim in the North American and South American Continents (including the Caribbean and Hawaii). This continues to this day. Regardless of what color a person is, the native populations were and are considered inferior to all others. Yes the African Americans suffered though slavery and other injustices and the Hispanics have also been subjected to inequality from the Spanish, English and French and others. However, look at the populations of the other minorities (excluding the native Americans); it doesn’t take a genius to see who lost out and is the real minority, in all ways.

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