It’s the Land!

This weekend “media tycoon” Byron Allen told a TV audience that he now owned the Weather Channel and intended to bid on the Denver Broncos. While the NFL is in a dispute over the lack of Black coaches in the league, Allen intends to be the first African-American owner of an NFL team. NFL rosters have, of course, long been filled with African-American players. The league is more than 60 % Black, but coaches are few, and owners none.

In another, quieter announcement this week, President Joe Biden nominated Harvard University Native American Program Executive Director Shelly C. Lowe to serve as the 12th chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lowe is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and grew up on an Arizona reservation. The National Endowment for the Humanities is our national institution that celebrates “culture.”

Lowe’s fellow Navajo Nation citizen, Deb Haaland, is the Secretary of the Interior, the government agency charged with managing a myriad of public lands, from offshore drilling lands to the nation’s 400 National Parks. Chuck Sams, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, has just been named and confirmed as the Director of the National Park Service. The National Parks and shorelines were once all Native “lands.”

Over at the Department of Defense, Nez Perce Tribal member Jaime Pinkham, also appointed by Biden, sits as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. According to an Army publication, “he assists in establishing policy direction and supervision over the Department of the Army functions relating to all aspect of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program.” That, as I read it, means the Columbia River dams, among other Corps projects.

Haaland, Sams, and Pinkham are three highly placed Native Americans who address the ”land” as a primary focus in their work. In Native parlance, land and culture are wed together like bread and butter.

Back in Black America, the number of highly successful athletes is accompanied by robust rosters of professional entertainers, news personalities, and a growing number of African-American military leaders. In a word, African-Americans are being successful in the places where they were most severely suppressed: the military was segregated until 1948; entertainment traditionally gave Blacks roles as mammies and houseboys, and Whites purported to voice their humor in Blackface. Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947. Major Southern colleges and their athletic teams were segregated until the 1950s and 60s. African-Americans have in some ways dominated American popular music from jazz to rock ‘n roll to hip hop.

What struck me watching Mr. Allen talking about Black ownership was the way that he and the African-American community have fought their ways into the White establishment, picked off pieces of it and made them their own, or performed their ways into dominance. Others might still control banking, financing, and corporate ownership, but Black America is knocking at those doors. Allen is an African-American who believes that the biggest trade deficit in our country is between corporate America and African-Americans.

The difference between Native concerns and African-American concerns is stark, and rooted in history. Blacks, dragged from many cultures and another continent, were homogenized as the “other,” beaten into submission, restricted or denied the basics of life, of adequate food, education, marital and parental relationships. They were owned with no right to own.

They poured what they had into resistance and escape, always fighting on white turf, adopting and adapting Christianity as their own, developing voices and resistance in song until today their music is dominant in popular culture. Black history and Black books, detailing the struggle, have become bestsellers. Black politicians and intellectuals call for some form of monetary “reparation” for slavery and its segregated legacy. And Black athletes have picked up White contests and excelled in them. Whites still control coaching, managing, and owning, but Byron Allen, Tom Flores, LeBron James and scores more work to change that.

For American Indians, it was always about the land. And land has been and still is intricately tied to language and culture. Today, in America, over 250 Native languages are spoken or being revived. Places are being renamed. There is a land-back movement, and Ojibwe writer David Treuer has suggested that the Native American “reparation” start with the National Park system be turned over to a consortium of Indian tribes. The Sioux will not take the money the courts have allotted them for the lands stolen from them. They want the land.

Louise Erdrich, details the tools that White America has used to steal indigenous lands—her own Ojibwe tribe’s lands—in her fiction, and new American Indian writers follow her lead with stories of Boarding School oppression and loss of family and cultural connection. The work of her indigenous writing elder, Scott Momaday, told the story of loss of land and culture in House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

In what I find a most beautiful testimony to the relationship of land and culture, and the primacy of both in Indian America, Jim Enote, a Zuni farmer and the director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in New Mexico, brings indigenous narratives back to the land, partnering with Zuni artists, creating maps that replace White men’s boundaries with storytelling and shared knowledge of Zuni lands.

# # #

Leave a Reply