…Invisible, With Liberty and Justice for All


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.

Media
Perceptions

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