Deb Haaland, President-elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of the Department of the Interior, is a 35th generation New Mexican who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna. She will be the first enrolled member of an American Indian Nation to serve as a Cabinet secretary, and the fact that it is Interior—the federal agency designated to deal with Indian reservations and tribal issues—is, frankly, mind-blowing. In her first remarks, Haaland reminded people that one of her predecessors at Interior had called for the complete assimilation or extermination of all Indians.
This is a long time coming, it was not inevitable, and it did not come without precedent. The interactions between Natives and newcomers began before the US was founded, and has bounced along through wars, treaties, broken treaties, outright theft, forced assimilation, and a drumbeat of idealized justice and romanticism sounding beneath it all for over 500 years. Although some tribes were in fact exterminated, Indians—and hundreds of tribal languages, cultures, and tribal practices—have survived. In fact, a revival is underway.
There are many reasons for this survival—Indian resilience owed to language, land, and culture is a prominent one. But the fact that Indians have also risen to prominence in the broader culture while holding onto tribal ties was not foreordained. It owes to generations of tribal leaders engaging the dominant culture while retaining their own, and also to the occasional white leaders and writers reminding us that Indians have wisdom. Joe Biden stepped up!
In Indians in Unexpected Places, published in 2004, Philip Deloria argues that just as the physical situation for Indians was at its nadir—about 1890-1900, with populations plummeting, poverty on the reservations high, and the pain and failure of assimilation policies obvious—there was a three or four decade respite. For that brief period, Indians could live in two worlds, Indian and white, with heads high and respect on both sides.
Philip Deloria is the son of Vine Deloria, Jr. an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux who wrote the Indian manifesto, Custer Died for Your Sins in 1969. His grandfather, Vine Sr., was an outstanding athlete at St. Stephen’s College (later Bard College), graduating in 1926. He then returned to Standing Rock as an Episcopal priest. Philip is now the first Indian on the history faculty at Harvard.
There’s a fine picture of Vine Sr. in the grandson’s book, and along with it a chronicle of other Indian athletes who were successful in the white world. Jim Thorpe, who many say is the greatest athlete of all time, won Olympic gold medals in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, and played professional football, baseball, and basketball. “Chief” Bender and at least 29 other Indians—two of them also named chief—played Major League baseball between 1900 and 1930.
Indians—with some involved in friendship and even romance with Whites—were strong in the silent movies, with movie lots in New York and California devoted to Indians, with Indian writers and directors. Classical music had a period of “primitivism,” with composers exploring and incorporating Indian rhythmic complexity in their work, and Indian opera singers touring the country with Italian arias and Indian songs. And Maria Tallchief, the Osage prima ballerina.
In the 1930s came the Depression. At the same time, sports and entertainment became the provinces of big money and big companies. Indians were marginalized, and went back to reservations to fight for sovereignty and self-governance. They participated in all-Indian CCC crews—I think there were five in Oregon—and reached for self-government help offered by the Roosevelt administration.
And then the 1950s, and the last big push to finally assimilate the remaining Indian tribes with the Termination Act and Relocation program in the Eisenhower administration.
Jump to now. Ojibwa novelist Louise Erdrich shows us Indian country in the 50s in Night Watchman. Sundown, a fine 1934 novel by Osage writer John Joseph Mathews, follows his people through the throes of assimilation from contact to Oklahoma oil boom, is republished. Momaday, Silko, and James Welch are taught in “American literature” classes, and Joy Harjo, of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, is the first Native American Poet Laureate of the US. And a Finnish writer, Pekka Hämäläinen, writes Lakota America, a history of the Lakota people that puts Indians back into our own—and world—history.
Indians are protesting pipelines and advising on forests and fires; they are in Congress, in universities, and now, with Deb Haaland, in a central role in making policy on the big issues that confront the nation and the planet. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land,” she tweeted on accepting Biden’s nomination.
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