Help from the Natives

It’s a heavy job to give to Indians—and I use “Indians” here in deference to older tribal people who still use that term comfortably—but I don’t know who else we turn to. Young white men are killing African-Americans and Asian-Americans. Young Blacks are killing each other on the streets, and I don’t know about today but know that in the past Latino and Asian gangs also killed their own.

The white middle class in America is at war with itself, with one side worried that they are rapidly being replaced by a phalanx of colored people, and the other side pleading for some kind of “inclusivity,” though often speaking to each other more than to the ones to be included.

Indians—Tribal people; Natives—meanwhile are restoring their languages, hunting up lost foods, showing us how we might recapture some control over fires and live with, rather than off of, the land. They are, against all odds, even reviving Northwest fish runs. They tell us how important and catastrophic the Snake River dams are for fish, but at the same time go on improving the habitat they have control over, finding the lamprey distressed and putting it back into upriver systems, and waiting for the time that we—the country—gets over or around these dams.

Deb Haaland, the first Native at Interior, is herself a watershed, immediately scouring the records for Boarding School deaths, bringing that sorry chapter in our history to the light of day. She visits tribes across the land, and puts a glass on poor living conditions on reservations. She appointed Chuck Sams, a Tribal member from Umatilla, to be head of the National Park Service, and this first-ever Native director vows to support his employees, see every park, and do what is right for these lands stolen from Indian tribes as the nation grew across the continent. There is no bitterness from Haaland and Sams. Grief over what happened in the past, yes, but a quiet determination to do what is right now for the land and for all of us.

Yes—there are the deaths and disappearances of Native women, the diabetes and depression and suicides on reservations, the continuing poverty and lack of clean water; the nuclear waste and oil pipelines, the overwhelming devastation of Covid and legacy of European epidemic diseases.

While Natives are busy healing themselves and the land in Indian Country, I’m looking for them to help us with broader healing. It doesn’t seem fair. Yet there is some primal logic in this. The people who lived with the continent in over 500 distinct tribes and mixings of tribal peoples are still here, still clinging to the small pieces of land left them, now using the law and technologies of modern society for their own revitalization. And they know, because family is a broader word than it is for most of us, and because they still think generations behind and in front of us, that we are all in this together. That is why my hope is in them leading the way.

As my mentor, Alvin Josephy once said about Indians and the drug problem: “They will solve it before the rest of America does, because Indians are the only people in America still capable of ‘group think,’ of thinking for the tribe.”

It’s time for the human tribe to look to them.

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