My last post describing the invisibility of Native Americans in media as a logical extension of our history of U.S. anti-Indian policy needed an exclamation point. I thought more needed to be said about how the idea of Native Americans as disappearing reinforces the notion that the relationship between the U.S. and Native nations is a settled matter, or at least a matter beyond the reach of justice.
Matters aren’t settled. In fact, to consider the matter resolved, if not justly, then at least irrevocably, is one of the ways in which racism against Native Americans (and Native Hawaiians) is expressed most forcefully. Yes, there are denigrating caricatures everywhere and racist slurs and stereotypes galore, but, in my humble opinion, none are as effective in stalling justice as the false notion that the conflict between the U.S. and Native peoples is uneasily but nonetheless finally settled. That even if we acknowledge injustice, reaching a more just settlement is unrealistic, you can’t turn back time.
How unsettled is this matter? I’m no expert, but I have a few stories to share.
As a program officer of a foundation out west, I often visited groups on Indian reservations. On a visit to one group in Montana, I learned that sewage moved through parts of the community in open ditches. People were so poor, they spent each summer in a race to pay off heating bills accumulated over the winter so that they could avoid freezing to death in the next one. The Indian Health Service office was inadequately staffed and so remote that many couldn’t afford the trip.
I found them after driving miles without seeing a single building. As I toured their facility, I became keenly aware of how powerfully problems of isolation are compounded by poverty.
But in spite of having so little, it was absolutely clear to me that the group was having a measurable, positive impact on the community. It wasn’t enough to rectify problems that have persisted for generations, but it was a little miracle of ingenuity, commitment, and hard work nonetheless.
The biggest obstacle to doing better is not a weakness of the leaders. It is the combination of raw deals, dirty crooks, and government neglect of our end of the bargains struck in treaty agreements, not to mention the poor land they have been forced to settle with, and many other injustices. In fact, year after year, the injustices pile up so high that people who suffer from them, no matter how determined, cannot hope to shovel them out of the way alone.
They need help.
In Wyoming, I visited a group working for environmental justice. At the time, their primary goal was the return of their water rights – rights without which the eco-system of the reservation, necessary to the sustenance of the people who reside there, will be destroyed. They’d taken their case to court and lost. The judge held up the rights of white farmers to divert water that would have run through the reservation, declaring that the issue of water rights was long ago decided in a war that “we” won.
Since then, that group has scored a major victory over methane mining on the reservation. They continue to score victories. But will they ever see real justice? That, again, depends on the rest of us.
I received a visit from a representative of the Chinook Indian Nation in Washington, a group that has been described in some reference books as “extinct.” She was seeking support for an effort to win back federal recognition of their tribe that was revoked by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2002, just ten years ago.
A hostile nation has stripped the Chinook people of their sovereignty. Regaining that recognition is necessary to their security and self-determination.
When you work for a foundation that provides funding to those most directly targeted by injustice to lead efforts to find solutions, you don’t often see the people in the communities you serve who are thriving. They exist, too.
But the struggles of Native Americans are real. Moreover, they have far reaching impact, including the creation of grossly unjust concentrations of wealth in the hands of very few people who in turn repress and exploit those of us without wealth in order to retain their riches. The impacts of the exploitation of Native peoples are all around us. They’re like the bars of a cage. If you haven’t noticed them, depending on who you are, it might just be because the downside of an unjust relationship is tough for those on the upside to see. Our privilege obscures our view.
But whether we see the bars or not, the cage is there, and addressing the situation of Native peoples is necessary to setting ourselves free of it.