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"First Peoples First,"

by Lillian Wilmore January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

The principle of "first things first" should compel the inclusion of American Indian and Alaska and Hawaii natives, the indigenous peoples of this country, in any effort to solve the dilemmas of race and racism. The President's Advisory Board contains no representative of these "first peoples." This exclusion is a part of the reason for the floundering and weakness of the dialogue to date. The Initiative is taking place in a vacuum devoid of a sense of place, this place, the ground upon which we all stand. Unless you understand the place where you live in terms of its natural systems, you're not going to understand anything, anyplace. The connection to land, the recognition that life resides in everything and the understanding indigenous peoples have of how the forces and cycles of nature work are good medicine for healing the sickness of racism.

The Advisory Board must create space for the indigenous voices, advocate for them, and be willing to hear and respond to perspectives that are fundamentally different.

But because the tribal-federal relationship is a political relationship, based on the inherent sovereignty of each party, and not a racial one, and because of the genocide that has reduced America's indigenous peoples to small numbers — a false "color-blindness" is often at work, excluding indigenous peoples from the dialogue. The "crisis in black and white" is deep and reparations are long overdue, but as a nation the U.S. must understand the difficulty of seeking "common ground" on ground that was forcibly taken from others, and they are still here.

The indigenous red peoples were the original rulers and caretakers of the lands that are today the United States. Originally numbering close to five million, Indian people now number roughly two million — the smallest minority in their own land. The American Indian holocaust is not acknowledged, taught, or memorialized.

Although American Indian people have survived despite overwhelming odds and attempts to destroy their culture, alter their governments and extinguish their sovereignty, the very survival of the native nations remains a question. Chairman Ronnie Lupe of the White Mountain Apache recently wore a button saying, "We are a part of the endangered species."

Ignorance about Indian culture and competition for resources remain the two major reasons for white hostility toward Indian rights. When Europeans arrived in our world, they found communities of red color considerably different from their own. Indian people had (and many still have) a holistic and spiritual approach to life. Their societies were basically communal and nonmaterialistic. Their value systems stressed cooperation, harmony and responsibility. European culture, on the other hand, emphasized progress, materialism, individualism, competition and property. The Europeans considered their own culture to be vastly superior to the indigenous societies. It was incomprehensible to them that these "inferior" tribes did not wish to adopt the newcomers' religion, values and practices. Europeans considered Indians "children of nature" or "savage beasts." It is telling that Indian people are the only people under the Department of the Interior, along with forests and wildlife.

Sharon O'Brien, in her 1989 book American Indian Tribal Governments, noted: "The Europeans', and later the Americans', belief in their own superiority helped them to rationalize taking the Indians' lands. The tribes were viewed as intolerable obstacles to progress and Manifest Destiny. Selling Indian lands raised money for the U.S. government's operation and provided homesteads for settlers and resources for industries. To obtain Indian lands, the U.S. government broke treaties, negotiated fraudulent land deals and passed assimilationist legislation."

The Initiative should act swiftly to include indigenous peoples and should speak directly to the developing termination sentiment among members of Congress. There is a real and present danger that tribes face the greatest threat to their sovereignty since bills to terminate tribal authority were introduced in 1977. Numerous other bills were introduced during 1996 to erode the authority of tribes, make it impossible for them to regulate health and safety, and cripple them economically. Sen. Daniel Inouye recently observed that Washington legislators "have just begun their crusade to strip power from Native American tribes." Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell says he "cannot remember a time when there was more dialogue about Indians in Washington, nor a time when Indians were consulted less." These continuing threats to the survival of the native nations as nations should be ended by legal assurances of permanence. Prompt and fair settlement of outstanding tribal claims against the United States would help to lay the past to rest with some sense of finality and enable tribes to devote their time to other things.

Education is a priority. The U.S. public education system (in contrast to Canada, for example) has utterly failed to require that students learn any body of consistent, coherent knowledge about the indigenous peoples of this land. Civics classes do not teach (1) the continuing existence of native nations; (2) the government-to-government relationship that those nations have with the United States; or (3) the significance of treaty rights. Social studies generally do not teach the lifeways of living Indians, as opposed to the "Dead Chiefs," "Vanishing People" and "Nanook of the North" tidbits now sprinkled here and there in curricula.

The U.S. educational system leaves most children under the impression that all or most Indians died in the 1700s and 1 800s, and that those remaining went to reservations, where they serve the tourist industry. It is not taught that at a time when Europeans labored under authoritarian, hierarchical governments, most tribes possessed democratic and responsive governments. Most U.S. citizens are unaware that many tribes practiced universal suffrage and incorporated provisions for recall, referenda and other political processes thought late to have been developed by American and European political theorists. Few, if any, books deal directly with the subject of tribal government, and only in very recent years have any treated it from an Indian perspective.

White ignorance and misunderstanding of Indians continues to breed contempt and racism. Five hundred years of contact, unfortunately, have done little to reverse non-Indians' ignorance of Indian beliefs, traditions, rights and tribal life. Caricatures, sentimentalized stereotypes and racist kitsch about Indians adorn billboards, magazine ads, numerous products, and sports teams. In polls, non-Indians see nothing wrong with these things, despite repeated protests from the Indian community. Many non-Indians still find it difficult to understand why many Indian people wish to retain their culture, their reservations and their governments instead of just joining mainstream American society.

The notion that we are all striving only to create a society of equality, to "get our piece of the American pie," is at odds philosophically and legally with Indians' desire to be treated differently and to their hard-bargained-for treaty rights to a "measured separateness." We are an unassimilable element. As the Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan has observed, "Synthesis is thought of as positive, but that is not necessarily the case. There is a possibility of separate cultures living side by side, cooperating with each other, without being synthesized. Shared, but not enmeshed."

Not bringing the indigenous people to share in this effort deprives it of uniquely American authenticity. Without the active participation of the first peoples of this land healing and reconciliation on this land cannot occur.

Lillian Wilmore is an attorney of Kiowa/Scots heritage and director of the Native Ecology Initiative in Brookline, MA, which works with American Indian and Alaska native tribes and nations in developing their own environmental protection programs and environmental justice efforts.

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