I have written often of what my life as the Mayor of Wheeler has brought to me. Some funny stories and some painful, but the one story of what I am most proud of is something I haven’t written about. It is a difficult and complex story so I have avoided it, although it is one, that at least for me as the Mayor, has a happy ending for everyone else more directly impacted. The struggle continues.
It becomes difficult to tell the story of what has happened to native tribes over the last 500 years when so much of what is believed about them is actually founded on myths or worse yet out right lies. One hardly knows how to pick up the thread of the story because in reality it is of course many stories, taking place across great spans of time, impacting many different cultures, and cutting through the heart of a diverse population sharing a continent but not necessarily the same beliefs or values. In such a huge group as the term “Native American” now describes it must be an intertribal story. There are over 550 federally recognized tribes in the United States today and many more that are recognized by the States in which they originate. It actually takes an act of Congress for a tribe’s existence. It can take years, decades, and all to often generations for the process to be completed. There are still tribes that have not been recognized because of their size, forced assimilation, blood quantum, and worse – poverty and apathy.
For many years during the Indian Wars when this nation was first founded there was a goal of genocide against Native Americans. For most this is a distant history that occurred hundreds of years ago, perhaps as far back as Christopher Columbus’ fictitious discovery of North America. The fact that he never landed on this continent is just one of many fables that many generations of school children grew up on.
So what happens to a person or group when their identity is wiped from the book of history? Who is recognizable by today’s world standards? How do you kill a tribe? Support the death of a culture… many cultures? For 500 years? Having worked in and around Indian Country for the better part of 30 years I am acutely aware of both an increasing knowledge of, and total ignorance of, what it means to be a Native American in contemporary American society.
The international legal definition of the crime of genocide is found in Articles II and III of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, excerpted here: “Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
Many people will shy away from the raw reality of what has been endured by Native American tribes since the arrival of the northern Europeans. Genocide is an ugly word and protests have arisen around the world when contemporary acts of genocide are committed. But for the average American the issues of genocide and Native tribes is ancient history and many resent it when the subject is brought up now.
“It all happened 500 years ago. Why don’t they just get over it and move on?”
“Well if they aren’t recognized as a tribe – are they really a tribe?”
“What about all those casinos, they’re making all kinds of money now, why are we still talking about this?”
Such naiveté of the truth has repeatedly created a dangerous situation for tribes. Funding is denied. Services are withheld. Poverty is ignored. Indians are blamed. The death of a culture is unknowingly or deliberately given passage.
So here are just a few facts to help balance out the fallacies built upon for generations.
Yes some tribes have casinos. They have in fact helped tribes combat poverty, the lack of education, and loss of medical and social services. However a vast majority of native tribes in this country do not have and could not afford casinos. Most tribes do not have the land, economic base, infrastructure, or power to build casinos that would be viable businesses for them.
When you think about the definition of genocide and how it applies to native communities and peoples, often there is confusion about how what happened historically can still have a meaningful impact today. In a closer look however, one will find that in very significant ways the actions of genocide have continued into the present. Consider this:
It was 1945 before Native Alaskans were recognized as citizens and protected from discrimination, in their own state.
The U.S government recently admitted to forcing thousands of Native American Indian women to be sterilized (3,406 women) without their permission between 1973-1976.
It wasn’t until 1975, that Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. It was the first time Natives had the right to decide for themselves how they would live, educate, and take care of themselves.
It was not until about 1975 the U.S. government discontinued the practice of forced Native relocation, which created large populations of Native Americans who were removed from tribal lands to large cities like San Francisco and Oakland, and where today many still suffer from poverty and lack of access to services.
It was not until 1978 with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act that Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools, (American Indian Relief Council) i.e. boarding schools, infamous for their poor treatment of natives and their culture. The motto often quoted in these schools, “Kill the Indian. Save the man.”
An act that was finally passed in 1993 provided American Indians with help to retain their sacred sites and the 1994 act made it legal for peyote to be used and transported for ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of traditional Indian religion.
In an example of the current status of tribes in this country, as of September 17, 2016: Unemployment on the Pine Ridge Reservation is 33.40 percent, compared to the state as a whole, which is 3.8 percent.
The median household income on the Pine Ridge reservation is $20,568, while 29 percent of the population of the reservation earns less than $10,000 a year.
The trauma associated with such atrocities is hardly ancient history and the courage that it has taken to stay true to the path has come with many painful losses.
And the struggle continues today. Right here in northwest Oregon, we have a group of small local tribes that have joined together as the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes. It is not an easy road and many would deny them the right to be recognized. Despite waiting since 1885 Congress has yet to act on their request, thus effectively saying to the country and world these people do not exist on the books of law. It is a terrible thing to be reduced so far that despite tracing your ancestry back thousands of years you do not merit the mere status of recognition. I was invited to one of their recent Potlatches and it was a story of the steadfast movement of a people back to who they have always been. Despite the obstacles of living in a world that does not recognize them as who they are, the Clatsop-Nehalem continue to respect and hold sacred their truth and identity. Instead of giving up they focus their energy on teaching the young and old alike what it means to be one with the earth. So it was my great honor with the help of our City Council to help them take that first step. While this Confederation of tribes does not appear on the book of recognition at the federal or state level, they are recognized in Wheeler for who they are, a proud people. It is a miniscule step on the long road and this generation may never see the fruits of all their labors and if history is any indication neither will their children or grandchildren.
Parents and grandparents have whispered stories, songs and prayers, their native languages, their beliefs, traditions, and values; through the long dark times when it could cost them their lives, through the forced separations with their children and families, through all the efforts to “Kill the Indian and save the man” they told of their ancestors.
They still tell the stories and sing the songs. The vibrancy and unique cultures of what being Native American is continues. Despite 500 years of genocide, isolation, poverty, discrimination, and increased risks of substance abuse, premature death, and suicide you still find intact native cultures that are not only still in existence but thriving. While it has been a struggle to reclaim languages and territory the rich fabric of Native cultures across the United States is remarkably strong. Whether recognized by government or not these tribal communities and people have continued to live their lives and raise generations of children to be proud of who they are as Indians; to honor their ancestors, and to walk the “red road.”
At a recent potlatch hosted by the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes, they counted their blessings and not their complaints, spoke with humility and respect, talked of reconnecting with themselves and those around them and of being good stewards of the land. They sang songs and said prayers that have been handed down from generation to generation in a line so long none will ever trace it to its beginnings, because for them it never started or ended. It has been a circle continuing to rotate through the seasons of lives and lifetimes to the drum of heartbeats that have come before and the ones that will come after. It is an unending journey based in faith and hope and grounded in the knowledge of who they really are. And again I am reminded of what it means to be a person of honor and humility.