The First on the Land... Last to Vote.
In 2018, supporters of President Trump were protesting a congressional effort to pass legislation on immigration reform. Part of this protest, according to staffers in the Arizona Legislature, involved singling out dark-skinned Democratic lawmakers. While the armed protestors asked everyone if they supported illegal immigration, only those with brown skin were called “illegal.” One representative, Eric Descheenie, told Arizona Capitol Times that he stepped in to defend a young student who was being harassed, and was then asked if he was here legally.
Descheenie is Navajo.
This moment is illustrative of the bind we as a country have put Native Americans in. To this day, even less subtler manifestations of bigotry and hate can still bring challenges that many other legislators fail to face. From racist public cries toward a Massachusetts Senator to a sports teams profess to “honor” native peoples with a blatantly racist name. These are just a couple of outward examples of a bias that should have sent many Americans running into the streets with outrage but did not. Not for the oldest holders of the land. Other challenges remain entirely unrecognized. There are more subtle pressures that exclude them, by virtue of the fact that they must push for change inside a nation that seems increasingly determined to stew in its own ignorance.
There are five hundred and seventy-four federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Native Villages. This is to say nothing of the tribes is recognized on a state by state basis, or the various cultures and traditions inherent to each of them. It’s almost cliché to say that Americans don’t really care about foreign policy. But it would be safe to say that they know even less about the sovereign that are inside their own borders. Our government recognizes these tribes as sovereign.
This puts them in a triple-bind where they must navigate the politics of their own tribes, the states in those tribes live in, and the federal government. On top of that, they have been systematically excluded from many of these institutions for centuries. Native Americans only completely gained the right to vote in 1970, and any attempt to advance their interest in government is dragged down by the number of hoops they must jump through.
To their credit, many have used this political moment to assert themselves. Earlier this year, Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state said, “Across this land, tribal nations are writing remarkable stories of cultural, social, political, and economic renewal […] In the face of great obstacles, we relentlessly plow forward in our eternal quest to create futures of hope, opportunity, and cultural vibrancy for our youth and those generations yet to come.”
That said, she did not fail to mention the many challenges that must still be overcome. Native Americans face high dropout rates. Indigenous women are twice as likely to face violence as any other demographic in this country. The threat to them, and the rate at which they have been murdered in the past few years has been called, by some, a plague. In some counties, the rates at which they are murdered and sexually assaulted are nearly ten times the average. Those crimes are overwhelmingly committed by those outside of their community.
On top of all this, these cultures and communities must face the desecration of sacred lands, climate change, policy, and court battles about all of it, and so much more.
What does it say when the ignorance of the general public is the greatest threat facing First Nations people? Honestly, nothing new. One element of our so-called American Exceptionalism that we unconsciously laud is that we are exceptionally ignorant about our own history. So it should come as no surprise that the more marginalized the group, the more ignorant we tend to be about them.
Combating ignorance is the first step towards creating change.
Progressive causes for civil rights for many marginalized communities in this country require people to be well-informed about the issues and how they impact the broadest swarth of society. Movements like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Poor People’s Campaign” served to broaden intersectional perspective. One of its aspirations was to give Americans as a whole a broader perspective of what a system like poverty “looked” like. More than any other color, it was White. It was female. It was very young and very old people. Sadly, is held higher percentages within non-dominant groups, but the point was to show that American social indifference was far closer to the average American than they knew. The hope was to give people who were part of the dominant cultures a reason to pay attention to their message cause now, maybe, they could see themselves more clearly in it. The same philosophy is being used in Rev. William Barber’s new “Poor People’s Campaign”.
In the Dialogues on Diversity play “The Movement: 50 Years of Love & Struggle” one of the characters tells his newborn daughter a thing he consistently heard from his father:
“America is a morality tale; told by the voices you hear the least.”
These words could not be more true when it comes to the Native Americans' tale.
The “Black Lives Matter” has seen historic, record numbers of people turning out to protest and who are willing to support their cause. It is, and continues to be, a good and necessary thing.
But has there ever been a moment like this for indigenous people in America? Has there ever been a national movement, that the dominant culture has been broadly aware of, not to mention accepted? How many people are aware of the number of cultures that are either gone or dwindling? How many are aware of the systemic ways that Native Americans have been marginalized? How long would these institutions last if they did know? If they bothered to become more “woke” to possibly the longest genocide in the history of the world.
Maria Givens, a Schitsu’umsh woman, says in an article for Vox: “I know why no one is talking about us. Most people think Native Americans only existed in the 1800s on the back of a horse trotting across the prairie. The image of Native people is frozen there forever. More than any other race, ethnicity, or nationality in America, we suffer from invisibility. No one knows we still exist.”
In part, Givens says, this happens because many Native Americans are rural, and live in places that have been physically left behind, like mountains and hiking trails. Places where people would have physical trouble canvassing and organizing in. Many have been physically excluded from the electoral process. “For a campaign to reach these remote places,” says Givens, “it would take a canvasser days to contact just a handful of prospective voters. It would resemble more of a backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon or the Smoky Mountains than the typical door-knocking event in the suburbs with coffee and doughnuts.”
There are some who have taken this into account. Natives in Alaska, for example, make up around fifteen percent of the state’s population. They have been responsible for swinging state elections as recently as Lisa Murkowski’s 2010 victory.
“The first people on the land should not be the last to vote,” says Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. “Native American voters have the potential to decide elections.”
And while systemic physical exclusion may suffice for an explanation on its own, there are still sixty-seven percent of all Native Americans living in urban areas. They themselves are in their own binds, having to navigate voting for politicians who refuse to help them. “While Native American issues are complex and vary by region, tribe, community, and culture, there are key points many Native voters agree on —” Givens writes. “supporting tribal sovereignty and self-determination is the foundation of any tribal policy platform. Tribal nations are governments and want to operate as the sovereign nations they are and always have been. They want the federal government to hold up their end of the bargain on treaties.” History has shown us that the paper rarely meant much for long. Currently, there are a host of domestic and quality of life issues that seem in some perpetual state of unsettled. This means that all the stress and hardship that come from paying for health care, education, and food only contribute to their already too hard situation. Given went on to say, “After all, tribal nations have kept up their end of the bargain and haven’t taken back all the land in America.”
This is why marginalization is so dangerous. It’s as time-honored a tradition as Thanksgiving and produces higher and higher levels of national fragility. The more you avoid the truth, the more you delude and oversimplify your own story, the harder you are on yourself to accept your own shortcomings. Indifference is the mother of our ills. Denial it’s father. Together they have raised a family destined to eat itself alive at bounty’s table.
Maybe this Thanksgiving, you can change it a little.
But before you take on the weight of hundreds of years of savagery, please keep these things in mind:
1. History is a ship. You cannot change where it came from. You can influence where it is going. You are not your country’s past, but you are responsible for its now and future. You are part of the crew. At best, a captain. In either case, temporary.
2. The best navigators are the ones who knows the charts. Literacy is the best way to find your way and not make the mistakes of the past. Use the past to strengthen your spirit as you sail forward.
I have spoken to too many white people who are afraid to talk on the task of dealing with our many national shames. Too often, they make it about the “bad white people”, so they cannot help but lump themselves among history. You are not responsible for history. You are accountable for making it better. Your shame keeps people hurting. You among them. It empowers those who are driven by ignorance or greed.
Make no mistake about it. The American ship has sailed history of genocide and atrocity. It currently sails through an epidemic of missing and murdered women that plagues these communities. It continues to happen because most of us; White, Black and otherwise refuse to actively course correct.
There is a common refrain among left-wing conversations about the Confederate flag: that it is still allowed to be used and displayed in the U.S. because this country has decided that it is too proud to be ashamed of the abhorrent roots that its power is steeped in. This sentiment fails to recognize that a refusal to accept and reckon with these injustices is not a matter of pride, but apathy. They exist precisely because people aren’t interested in learning about the cultures that have been exterminated, much less the ones who are still around and still fighting every day for their rights.
The solution comes with combating apathy. There is always time to learn. Time to give. Time to provide people with systemic resources that they have long been denied access to in this country.
Firstnations.org provides a list of books and resources split up among politics and history, culture, economic development, novels and more. It is incredibly detailed, and you can find it here. The National Museum of the American Indian also has a number of resources and information for those who are willing to seek it out.
There are also a number of charities to donate to that will provide money to Native American businesses, education, policy advancement, and healthcare. If you do nothing else with this, pass it on. Hopefully, it will give others some insight. They will, hopefully, become part of the crew ready to chart a better course.
To combat the problem, people need to understand that the problem even exists. The native people of this land exist, and boy do they have problems.
I assert that we treat too many of our national and cultural observances like window dressing. We have little knowledge of the true story or the deeper meaning. At best we treat it like a reason to beat our collective chest. Or, at worse, like another day off, a time to sleep late and gorge ourselves on apathy.