It’s in the—Native—water

I was in Portland a couple of weeks ago for a mini family reunion. My brother lives in Portland now, and my sister drove up from Sacramento. We were celebrating a granddaughter/niece going to Japan on a student exchange, and other, younger, grandchildren just for being who they are.

My siblings are all retired, but I am still working. Having worked in non-profits most of my life, with a 12-year hiatus running a bookstore that didn’t bring much profit, I work because I have to. But I also work because I want to, because I learn something new every day, and because my work with Native Americans is amazingly rewarding.

My sister asked if there were others like me across the country, white guys who work for and with American Indians. I did not want to be dismissive—of course I know other non-Native men and women who work with Indians. But I pointed instead to Indian revival that is happening across the country, told her that old, mostly white, men had written the laws and managed the economies and natural resources of our country since its inception, and that some of us are realizing now that we’ve made big mistakes.

It’s not just the pope apologizing for Canadian boarding schools, or the cataclysmic fires that are burning lands that Indians traditionally burned and let burn regularly and we have tried to put out for 100 years. It’s a coming together of years of quiet resistance and holding onto language and cultural values in the face of overwhelming forced assimilation policies.

It’s Natives being educated in White ways while holding onto traditional values. It’s a few US presidents—Nixon, Obama, Biden—realizing the value of Native knowledge and pulling it into government. Yes, Nixon, the “I ain’t a crook” guy who used the IRS after his enemies and resigned office in disgrace over a botched political robbery. But Nixon liked Indians, in part because the football coach at Whittier College was Native. Nixon didn’t play much, was probably more a team manager, but he loved coach “Chief” Wallace Newman, thought he would have been coaching at a large college had he not been Indian.

As recounted in Indian Country Today, “Richard M. Nixon, in his July 1970 address to Congress, asked Congress to honor Indian treaties, strengthen tribal governments, allow tribes to subcontract federal programs, and invite tribal communities to engage in decision making over their own futures. Nixon’s policy change toward tribal self-determination was a landmark initiative in Indian policy, and has characterized federal policy ever since.”

Obama was friendly towards Native Americans, but Biden has been a game-changer. New Native appointments happen regularly. He just appointed Mohegan Indian Tribal Chief Marilynn Malerba as U.S. Treasurer, marking the first time a Native woman’s signature will appear on U.S. currency. Before that it was Shelley Lowe of the Navajo Nation, appointed as Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Biden’s most consequential appointment might be that of Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior. Haaland, of the Laguna Pueblo, is not only the first Native American Cabinet Secretary in the nation’s history, but she is a former congresswoman who schooled in Western universities and worked for her tribe. She’s a hard-scrabble single mom who understands poverty and racism. Her response to the boarding school scandal in Canada was to commission a study of US boarding schools. The report is in and she is visiting some 39 cemeteries uncovered in the study. She was in nearby Idaho to announce the transfer of a fish hatchery management to the Nez Perce Tribe. And she appointed Chuck Sams, an enrolled member on the Umatilla Reservation, to run the nation’s National Parks.

Biden drank the water—or he is swimming in it. And it seems so natural that after centuries of attempts at making Indian America white, large segments of white America are assuaging guilt for past actions and leaning on Native American knowledge and tradition to combat cataclysmic fires, loss of species, and the overall impacts of climate change.

Learning to swim in waters that were Native before they were industrialized and polluted, turned into power and electricity without regard for unintended consequences, seems like a pretty good place to go. Maybe a necessary place to go.

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