Paul Andersen: Fair Game
November 23, 2009
A headline last week announced that Obama has pledged, “The U.S. Must Reverse its Course with American Indians.” This is good news, except for one thing. The people referred to by the president are not Indians.
The term “Indian” was a misnomer, coined by Columbus, who thought he had landed in India when he set foot on the island of Hispaniola. The absurdity of still calling the tribal peoples of North America “Indians” speaks to the perpetual ignorance of the prevailing European culture.
The good news is that Obama made an overture of goodwill to almost 400 tribal leaders who gathered recently at the Interior Department. “I get it. I’m on your side,” said Obama, an “outsider” himself who has suffered the stigma of being an ethnic minority. “You will not be forgotten as long as I’m in this White House!” he vowed.
One tribal leader urged Obama – and the U.S. government – to honor tribal commitments beyond the itinerant nature and shifting policies of White House occupants. These commitments include support for economic development, employment opportunities, education, health care, public safety and housing. Some will criticize these as “entitlements,” but they should be redefined as “rights” for people whose human rights have been repeatedly taken from them.
Anyone familiar with American history knows that the treatment of native peoples since Columbus named them “Indians” has been genocidal. In Colorado, native Utes were marched out of their mountain home at bayonet point in 1881 by the decree of Governor Frederick Pitkin, the namesake of Pitkin County, who threatened that the Utes would be “exterminated at the expense of the state.” Pitkin said his plan would be worth every penny when 12 million acres were opened to white settlement.
So much damage has been done to America’s native peoples that reparations at this point seem absurd. How do you repair the dissimulation of an entire gene pool whose culture, language, traditions and landscapes have been willfully and arrogantly destroyed? Are we to believe that casino gambling can achieve parity for these people?
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Ten years ago, backpacking in the Grand Canyon, I stumbled onto the Supai Village of the Havasu tribe, where obesity has spawned an epidemic of diabetes and poor health because of what our fatty American diet does to people with inherently slow metabolisms. The Havasu have been literally eating themselves to death on burgers and fries since their traditional lands were ironically declared a National Park.
Last spring, in Utah, a vast network of illegal antiquities dealing was uncovered that resulted in arrests and the confiscation of thousands of artifacts of vanished tribes of the desert Southwest. Even in death, tribal peoples are exploited by culture thieves and their feckless customers.
Last August, I visited British Columbia and spent several days with a chief of the Squamish tribe who is making great strides in the resurgence of his native traditions. The fact that this 36-year-old chief is one of 12 people in the world today who speaks his native tongue reflects the urgency for salvaging what is left of his heritage.
I contribute modestly to a school for Lakota Sioux at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and I am bombarded with solicitations for other native causes. I try to help each one – like a subsistence water fund for Navajos on a desert reservation in New Mexico – but am overwhelmed by their needs. There is no end to their privations or the sorrows of their history.
Combating Third World poverty is a noble cause that has many Americans looking far beyond our borders. We do this with compassion, but it comes at the risk of forgetting the natives of this land, who have been relegated to a Third World right here in America.
If Obama hopes to spark a commitment to help ease privations for these oppressed people, he will need nationwide support. Otherwise, ours will be a legacy of shame for having failed the first Americans who are left to struggle, without dignity, on the very fringe of survival. On Thanksgiving, try refraining from calling these people “Indians,” and grant them status as “native peoples” to whom we owe much more than sympathy.
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