Indians’ turn

There is much worrying and gnashing of teeth at today’s election. I am tired of the daily solicitations for money from my liberal allies—it seems that once you have given to one political person or cause the money seekers from that edge of politics find you and torment you with requests for more. I am sure my conservative friends get the same treatment. Yet, the amounts of money raised by all sides in the current election cycle means that it works, no matter how offensive many of us at our far ends of the money-raising lines find it.

My own sanity in the face of this is once again Indian Country. There is a wonderful interview with National Parks Director Chuck Sams in a recent High Country News article. In it, Sams cuts through the liberal-conservative, conservation-exploitation, Native-Non-Native dichotomies with good, practical, Indian logic.

There are no words for “wild” in most Native American languages, he tells us. Natives have been living with the North American landscapes for millennia. Yes, he admits that National Parks are lands taken away from tribes, but Sams describes the growing number of agreements with tribes for the management of Parks, and for the restoration of ancient horticultural practices. And he emphasizes outreach to African-Americans, Latinx, LGBT communities. The Parks, Sams says, in what strikes me as Longhouse Logic, are open to all.

Most Americans abhor the past treatment of indigenous Americans. Like the good Germans who “did not know” that death camps lived next door to their villages, we Americans were unaware of land theft by treaty and Indian Boarding School terrors. When I showed college students at Eastern Oregon University the story of one Indian boy, born in 1942—my own birth year—being taken from his parents on the Pine Ridge Reservation at age five to go to a boarding school, they were outraged.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s task force on Boarding Schools has reported back, and she is visiting sites at some 39 schools with unmarked and neglected Indian cemeteries, talking with survivors and descendants. Like Chuck Sams, she is doing important work in bringing Indians into the national picture while not raising political hackles on right or left.

In the Josephy Center Library where I work, a parade of visitors—local, and from far places in the nation and world—looks and listens carefully to the Nez Perce story. Most now know something about the Boarding School story. Many have stories of their own about tribes in their back yards. They are reading books and going to powwows, listening to Indians talk about fire and fish.

There was a time when the “liberal” idea, the “progressive” idea of dealing with America’s first peoples was to assimilate them, to make them white. Indians were the “Vanishing Americans.” That is clearly in the past. Most Americans of all political and religious persuasions agree on the past mistreatment of Native Americans, and seem anxious to learn more about Indian arts, crafts, culture, and natural resources. There are now national outlets for tribal news—Indian Country Today; Native News Online, scores of Native novelists, and a popular television series called “Reservation Dogs.” Claiming the Indian great-grandmother is not uncommon.

On this election day, President Biden, through Sams and Haaland and others, is pursuing a pro-Native climate change agenda that will be good—and instructive—for the rest of us. While many in wealthier parts of the country rebuild in the paths of fires, floods, and advancing oceans, fight with government and insurance agencies, the small tribe at Shoalwater Bay in Washington State is moving to higher ground with government help. They, and other tribes consigned to marginal and now endangered lands more than a century ago by the United States government, are recipients of what might be the first program in American history specifically designed to help relocate communities threatened by climate change.

On this election day, 90 Native Americans are running for state and national offices. In Oklahoma, six Indigenous candidates are running for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, or Governor’s office. In Alaska, Mary Peltola is seeking reelection after becoming the state’s first Native representative in Congress.

There are and will be other firsts. And Native American tribes and people will live with the changing landscape, adapt, and survive, as they always have—and show us the way, if we will listen.

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Photo: Shoalwater Bay Lands

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