The election and the first days of a new and controversial Presidency have captured the news and national attention. For the most part, Standing Rock has slipped to back pages and Indian media websites, even as President Trump tweets and signs executive orders demanding a speedy resumption of pipeline building. The sheer number of tweets and executive orders helps obscure this news.
Water problems on one reservation and a lawsuit over education on another creep into the news, but, for the most part, Indians and tribal concerns are background noise once again, caught occasionally by a local press, or by an environmental media newly awakened to Indian allies, covered regularly only in Native news outlets.
But, I would argue, now is exactly the time we should be looking at and to tribes for guidance in dealing with current social, environmental, and political issues: Indians have the kind of history and standing that might instruct us now—while reminding us of past errors in their regards; it is becoming increasingly obvious that Indian environmental and legal concerns are concerns for all Americans; and, more than anything, Indians can remind us of and teach us about resilience.
Indians were here first, here to meet the boats from Spain, England, Holland, Portugal, Italy… Indians were then decimated by European diseases to which they had little resistance, enslaved, killed in wars over land, “removed” by Andrew Jackson, restricted to reservations, coaxed into assimilation by the Dawes Allotment Act, boarding schools, the Termination Act, and an urban relocation program.
But they have survived and, incredibly, retained tribal cultures and values.
And, they have survived from coast to coast and border to boarder, even made hay of their mistreatment in boarding schools by meeting one another, learning from one another, and emerging now, in 2016 and 2017 to stand together at Standing Rock.
After decades of Indian concerns over water, fish, and other natural resources, often in the face of majority opposition (see the “great fish wars” in the Northwest prior to the Boldt Decision), the environmental community is acknowledging Indians and the Indian stance in the natural world rather than over the rest of it. After water contamination in Flint, Michigan, Portland, Oregon and dozens of other places, we—majority culture environmentalists—see that clean water is precious and fundamental in North Dakota and everywhere.
And, as Standing Rock illustrates, Indians can teach us to bridge the rural-urban divide. In the 1950s, in the Eisenhower era, a last gasp at assimilation called termination policy aimed to erase the reservation system, Trust responsibilities, and the whole doctrine of Tribal Sovereignty. As an accompaniment—Indians were to join the main stream in America—thousands of young Indians were loaded on buses and moved to urban outposts across the country. As a result, the Federal government and State and corporate interests terminated the Klamath and scores of Oregon tribes, and built the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, coal fire plants in the Southwest, and the Kinzua Dam on Seneca land.
However, by standing their ground and established legal doctrine, Indians beat back termination—President Nixon famously said that “there will be no further termination of Indian tribes, but self-determination for Indians.”
Even then, Indians learned from their misfortune, met people from other tribes, studied at universities, learned to have a foot in two worlds. And now they are still in urban areas, at colleges and universities on reservations and off, and have trained their own as lawyers and battled in courts over land, water, and sovereignty. They have also retained family and tribal links, and move back and forth between city work and rural tribal work. They are trained in fisheries and wildlife management, business and gaming, and move from government to non-profit to tribal to private fluidly.
They run huge gaming and entertainment enterprises, and assist tribal programs and local non-tribal educational, cultural, and government programs with their winnings. (The Wildhorse Foundation on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation has given millions across northeast Oregon.)
Indians are everywhere, and more often than not they are on the side of the angels. As my old mentor, Alvin Josephy often said, “Indians are still capable of ‘group think,’ of thinking beyond the self and immediate family for the good of all.”
So now, in these troubled times, it is up to us, the majority white culture and African-American and Latino and Asian-American groups, to find them, support them, and learn from them. They know these roads. They know resilience.
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