November is Native American Heritage Month in the US, and the fourth Friday in November is Native American Heritage Day. Unfortunately, it’s known more for being the biggest shopping day, aka Black Friday (which has nothing to do with African-Americans). And it comes on the heels of Thanksgiving, aka Un-Thanksgiving or National Day of Mourning. In the 2010 Census, almost 3 million Americans identified as indigenous, and another 2 million said they were indigenous and another race. I’m well aware I’m a white person writing about people of color, so before I go any further, here’s a good interview with Simon Moya-Smith, an Oglala Lakota journalist. Go give that a quick read and then come back. I’ll wait.
So as you learned from that, there are several problems with having this day when it coincides with a day of capitalism. It was the capitalist notion of expansion and “manifest destiny” that was the underpinnings of the policy by white people to conduct the wholesale slaughter of Native peoples in the US. If the racist killings by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people have taught us anything, it’s that the history of oppression informs today and does not operate in a vacuum. The vigorous, huge, nationwide protests in response by Black Lives Matter and allies gave some hope that maybe finally things would change in terms of racism.
But when it comes to Native Americans, aka American Indians, there is a void in the national conversation. There has still not really been a reckoning about the genocide of their people caused by White people. Sure, there’s been discussion about mascots in sports teams, and the Washington Redskins finally changed their name to the Washington Football Team. That may seem trivial, or a token change, but it’s a start and long overdue.
If you do hear anything else about Native Americans, it’s usually negative. There are news stories about casinos or the ongoing poverty, alcoholism, and other social ills found on reservations, and how COVID-19 and coronavirus is having an outsized effect on Native Americans. Or they’re romanticized, demonized or both in movies such as Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, The Revenant and many others. By the way, some of the basic tenets of democracy and the US constitution come from the Great Peace of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Many white Americans don’t know any Native Americans, self included. I do know two people who are, but I never see them. And we may know Natives but haven’t realized it. Maybe you have been to Santa Fe and bought some jewelry. What we’re taught in school is certainly limited and biased. I sometimes think of this quote in terms of how white America erases Native Americans.
One of the artifices of Satan is, to induce men to believe that he does not exist.–John Wilkinson in “Quakerism Examined,” 1836
Substitute “White people” for Satan and you have the result that many Americans of all colors have been led to believe that Native Americans barely exist. So if you meet one, you may have been taught the racist notion that they may not even really be Native, it’s just someone saying they are. That’s as pernicious a lie as one could ever concoct.
My experience with actual Native people is limited, but may be more than some. The culture and people have touched my life in several ways, though. Growing up, my grandmother would tell me and my brother about them on our summer vacations to Southern Nevada. We’d search for arrowheads in the desert and go to places on the territorial lands of the Southern Pauite and other tribes in Nevada, California, Arizona and Utah.
Learning to be in nature was a key thing I appreciated from being in the Boy Scouts, and eventually the Order of the Arrow, founded loosely on some Native American ideas. We went out one weekend a month no matter what, except for the occasional ice storm. In no small part, my many hours and miles of bicycling have a link to those times spent outdoors camping. If you’re looking for a link to the main thrust of this blog and this post, I guess that’s it. Not that there has to be one.
As a young adult and activist, I spent several summer sojourns with the Newe (Western Shoshone) protesting the Nuclear Test Site in Southern Nevada. I was young and naïve, but had come to view nuclear weapons as abhorrent for how damaging they could be to peace, health and the environment. One day before the campout and protest at the Test Site, I remember being at a conference at the University in Las Vegas.
I was sitting out on the lawn and saw a Native American man with a dog that I assumed was his. I asked “What is your dog’s name?” He said, quite matter-of-factly, “It’s not my dog, he just travels with me.” That blew my mind, and still kinda does. Raised as I was in the suburbs of a big Texas city, the notion that our pet dog wasn’t ours was just not in the realm of possible things I would hear or think.
Corbin Harney was the Newe former spiritual leader. I was fortunate enough to sit in a sweat lodge with him. He was under the weather so had us all lead different songs. It was an intense and spiritual experience, being part of a group of hundreds from all walks of life, but certainly more Native Americans in one place than I’d ever seen. We were camped out under the desert sky full of stars, getting arrested and detained on the base on my birthday. It was one of the magical times of my life, really. Later I was invited to go to Corbin’s healing center which has natural hot water baths. It’s called Poo-Ha-Ba, meaning Doctor Water. He lived to be 87.
My other main experience with Native Americans is two extended stays in Guatemala, where I met a number of people from the various Mayan tribes and other indigenous Central Americans. Both times my role was to accompany threatened activists like mothers of the disappeared, students unionists, and that included indigenous. Spanish was their second language, too, so we could sometimes communicate well. I bargained for wares in the open air markets, marveled at their intricately handwoven traditional clothes, and admired their ability to carry huge loads of firewood, water, or fruits and vegetables on their backs using headstraps. While there are assholes of every shape and color, overall they are a gentle, quiet and happy people despite their relative poverty.
Other times American Indian culture has influenced me. Once I attended the Austin Powwow; the pageantry of the dancing and costumes, the incredible horsepersonship and skilled artisanry of the jewelry and other handcrafts was all very impressive. When I lived in Seattle, I sang in a choir that performed the West Coast premier of a choral work by jazz legend Dave Brubeck. It was based on the oft-quoted speech attributed to Chief Sealth about the environment which we sang with Mr. Brubeck and his combo live twice.
On my epic trip to the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, I encountered a number of Native Americans and stayed in a hotel on a reservation. The steak dinner I had after biking to Canada and back from Glacier National Park (only 56 miles) was incredibly delicious. I’m sure there are assholes who are Native, but I didn’t encounter any on my trip. Lately I’ve been listening to Native American flute music on a free streaming channel while I do yoga and write; it is a haunting and peaceful sound. I don’t write any of this as boastful, but rather realizing the strand of Native culture that has woven in and (mostly) out of my life.
He’s not my dog. He just travels with me sometimes.-Native American man to a young, naïve Dude
But while the personal is political, as first-wave feminism taught us, the daily lived experience of being Native American is foreign to those of us who identify as part of a tribe (or not), or who live on a reservation (or not), or who have a Native American name (or not). Obviously a topic this vast cannot be encapsulated in one blog post. However, I found an organization called Native Hope. They have a 14-page e-book called How to Address Native American Issues as a Non-Native: A Resources for Allies. It’s a good beginning point for anyone wanting to unlearn the myths and to learn some truths about our Native brothers and sisters.
So on this day I give thanks and gratitude to those, Native American and not, who have taught me about the original peoples of Americas — the only ones living here who aren’t desended who aren’t immigrants. May we begin to undersand and heal the divisions and rifts, and learn to respect the old ways and Mother Earth. (Speaking of her, riding a bike is a good thing for the environment. It took me a very long time to write this post. So electricity was used, but no trees were killed in the process.)
What is your experience with Native Americans and their culture?
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