What’s in a name: Indian, American Indian, Native American, Indigenous, Native or First Nation, they are used to describe the peoples that inhabited this hemisphere with their own unique civilizations, language and culture at the time of early contact. None of these names or terms existed prior to the wayward voyage of Christopher Columbus.
Due to the popular myth of discovery, we became Indians either because Columbus described us as “Indios” meaning with God or unto God, or the belief he was searching for India, to which some sources point out the country was called Hindustan in 1492. The label Indian stuck until Congress imposed the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, although some of the treaties made earlier also forced citizenship, as with the Choctaws who remained behind in Mississippi at the time of the forced removals known as the “Trail of Tears and Death.”
History has been well documented that the intent of America was to kill the Indian, thereby saving the man during the reservation and boarding school era of the 1800’s and 1900’s. The genocidal attempts at eradicating a people of their culture, language and spirituality through their children have left an impact that is felt to this day. The damage could have been worse, but the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the warriors and leaders who fought with the federal government in battle or in negotiations, remembered the betrayal of broken promises and treaties. With the civil unrest that took place in the 60’s, Native people began speaking out and demanding America live up to its promise.
The audacity of these young Native men and women assuming militant and unyielding positions not only embarrassed and angered the federal government, but it shocked other Native people who felt that they were going to ruin everything they felt they had worked for. They were proud to be Americans and had no problem reciting the pledge of allegiance and saluting the flag that waved over their dead ancestors. However, the traditional elders, Chiefs and spiritual leaders stood with these young men and women.
From reservations and other Native communities, young men began to wear their hair long, young women began beading, and they sought out their spiritual ways of life. Not since the days of the boarding school where the Indian was beaten out of the children did such new-found pride in spiritual and cultural identity spread like wildfire. The violence perpetuated by the federal government could not extinguish the resurgence. If nothing else, it only inspired more to join the front lines to stand for their people against the theft of their lands, the sterilization of Indian woman and to protect their natural resources.
It has been nearly four decades since that time, and as I heard back then, I still hear it now: “We can’t changed the past,” “You can’t dwell on the negative,” or “We have to let go and move on.” These voices of resignation, surrender and defeat are one of a sense of disempowerment. These people know some of the wrongs that have been done, but feel there is nothing that can be done to make a difference. Some are from those with mixed bloods without a traditional upbringing that brings about a conflicted feeling of which side to choose. I don’t like labeling, but these are the voices of American Indians/Native Americans. They display the symptoms of generational/historical trauma from being conditioned to think of themselves in terms of being Americans. Without a cultural/spiritual baseline to understand the past, there is no future for them, other than to be Americans.
I believe it was Sitting Bull who was quoted as saying, “It isn’t necessary for eagles to be crows.” So while we cannot change what happened in history, we can expose the myths of the history that has been taught to our people – and to the public at large. If there had been a truthful understanding in their language, things could be so different now.
Winona LaDuke said that the only remedy for stolen lands is the return of those lands, meaning as Native people we have a rightful place in this country, but the government’s position has been to keep us marginalized as wards of the federal government. In the recent decision to approve the Cobell Settlement, one obvious fact that was ignored occurred when I appeared in the DC federal court and objected to the continued supervision of the Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Indian Affairs over our resources and trust accounts. They have been accused of embezzling $176 billion dollars, but the settlement awards only $1.5 billion to trust account holders, while $2 billion goes to the Interior Department to purchase select fractionated lands to give to the tribal governments, which may be leased to corporations for exploration and mining. Unused funds by the Interior Department revert back to the U.S. Treasury. However, payments from this settlement have been placed on hold until an appeal is resolved. (One round of payments, a second round has yet to be disbursed)
It would have been an important victory had the courts ruled the guardian (U.S.) be removed from administering the trust of its wards (Natives), and the BIA dissolved, thereby freeing Native people from this form of subjugation. In any other case where violations of this trust were to occur, they would have been removed and prosecuted. Instead, the court approved a settlement, which amounts to a historic cover-up.
This opportunity for freedom from the federal government was possibly the closest we had ever been. Had more Native people been fully aware of the consequences, it could have been brought to a head. Which brings us to an important point, if we won our freedom tomorrow, what will it look like? So many of our people have lost their traditional ways, we have been dispersed across the country that we have lost that sense of community involvement. The remaining strongholds are the reservations where ceremonies and language is still practiced, the Iroquois Confederacy still have their Great Law. All of which is critical to maintaining a form of self-governance, how many of us are ready, how many of us have yet to rebuild our own internal systems or will some of us emulate the systems imposed on us by the federal government? It is a question where there is not a consensus, but one we should address in the very near future.
We cannot change history, but we can change the future direction of where the federal government wants us to go. We can do this by freeing our minds from years of conditioning and assimilation; we don't have to think as Americans; we can think according to our traditional principles and philosophies. We can move beyond race and examine the elements of the mentality of greed that contradicts those beliefs we hold.
So who are we? We each need to look closer within, without anger, but a genuine search for the truth of how we came to be the person we are today. I’ve done this and my answer is that I am not an American Indian, Native American or an American, but “Chahta Sa Hoke” (I am Choctaw), but first and foremost, I am a human being. It is no easy task to unlearn the myths we have been taught, but it is where we must start to determine our future."
(This article was first published in Whisper n Thunder 1/2012)