Martin Luther King Day and Indigenous America

Tomorrow, Monday, is Martin Luther King Day, and I’ve just begun reading Pekka Hamalainen’s new book, Indigenous Continent. It strikes me already that King’s dreams and the Indigenous philosophy as described by Hamalainen share underlying themes: unity, harmony, responsibility, and reciprocity.

The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote yesterday, not of the famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech, but of “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” delivered on Christmas Eve, 1967, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as co-pastor.

Bouie quotes from the speech’s beginning lines:

“This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we see its ominous possibilities…. If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by misuse of our own instruments and our own power.”

Later in the speech, King philosophizes more generally: “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

Hamalainen begins his big book, which sets out to tell the story of the North American continent from a much wider perspective than has been traditional, by asserting that “European powers, and especially the United States, invested power in the state and its bureaucracy, whereas Native nations invested power in kinship.”

Euro-American Power.
The new Anglo-American colonies and then the new nation sought to leave the powers of feudalism and monarchy, and invest power in the individual. They brought decades of European Enlightenment philosophy to their own sparring within towns and colonies and among colonies, trying to set up a framework that would allow for ordinary people—individuals—to govern themselves. It wasn’t so easy in practice: Majorities should govern—but minorities should be protected; governing members and voters should be property owners—or not; powers should be shared between different levels of governance—“local,” state, and federal, with the definition of local always being subject to interpretation; power should be balanced and checked with executive, legislative, and judicial functions—but where are the lines? And, for centuries these governing citizens had to be white males.

In other words, these “simple truths” that bind us, that hold the individual and governance in their embrace, turn out to be very complicated. In fact, one of the big arguments of our day is whether the truths as established in the founding documents were and are final, and all current problems must be viewed in their light; or whether the “words of the founders” must continually be reinterpreted with advances in knowledge and the movements of history.

Hamalainen uses another word in his opening sentences: “bureaucracy.” “The state and its bureaucracy,” he says, are where Euro-America vested its power. And what is a bureaucracy? In government, it is an administration managed by departments staffed with non-elected officials. In any organization it is the cogs, the wheels of administration below elected or business leadership, that make the thing run. As our country has grown from town halls of tens and hundreds of individuals to companies and governing bodies employing and overseeing thousands and even millions of individuals, bureaucracies have grown. And have become points of controversy themselves.


Kinship power.
The tribal peoples the new Anglo and other Euro-Americans met had power vested in long and wide kinship relationships—and not just the kinship relationships of a ruling, regal class, but kinships that went from nuclear to extended families to bands and tribes. The individual, in their view, is never completely on his or her own, but incorporated in a web of relationships that extend even beyond other humans to the rest of the earth’s residents. The newcomers from England and Europe met a web of over 500 tribal nations on the continent that was further made up of webs of sub-tribal groups—bands, villages, towns—all linked together by kinship bonds.

A Nez Perce friend recently used a napkin to show me the lineages of his relatives on the Colville Reservation, tracing back to Nez Perce men and women who landed there after the War of 1877, after the return from exile in Kansas and Indian Territory. He included intermarriages with people at Lapwai and Umatilla since that time, and the intermarriages with Palus and with the Moses band that first hosted the Nez Perce at Nespelem on the Colville Reservation in 1885.

I think that this ancient web of relationships accounts for—or is instrumental in—the Indian Revival that is going on today. The obstacles that different Indian tribes and peoples—”Natives,” “Indigenous Americans”—have confronted over 500 years are the same: diseases; loss of land through war, treaty, and deception; loss of language, culture—assimilation through soft policies of religion and cultural adaptation and the brutal ones of boarding schools, termination, and relocation.

They have survived by holding onto kinship, and through kinship, through respect for and holding onto each other and elders, they have managed to keep over half of the languages spoken when Euro-Americans arrived alive. And now, rising up, and with helping hands to extended families and other tribes, they are reintroducing the continent to this pre-European form of power. And by extending kinship to the non-human residents, they are fueling a movement that is challenging the individualistic, bureaucratic way of dealing with what we non-Indians call “the natural world.”

And isn’t this the kind of kinship that Martin Luther King called for in 1967, when the country was being torn apart by the Vietnam War abroad and poverty and violence at home? King, who frequently used the terms of kinship—“brothers,” “sisters,” “my children and your children”—saw “the interrelated structure of reality” across the whole world, and warned that not seeing it risked “destruction.”

Our time now is as perilous as King’s 1967—this sermon made only a few months before his assassination—and growing impersonal bureaucracies and further divisions do not bode well in a world where rockets, drones, and missiles fall on cities, villages, and families; where distraught students shoot other students and teachers; where lies and deception poison governance; where profit trumps doing right; and where loneliness and anxiety are now national diseases.

I could go on, about women in all cultures being the mothers and stewards of kinship, while men hold desperately onto centuries-grown patriarchal power. But, today, I celebrate the vision and wisdom of Native elders who have kept culture alive with the power of kinship, and I celebrate Martin Luther King, who had the vision to see that the very salvation of the world is dependent on this Native knowledge of connectivity, of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humans and the kinship of all that live in this world.

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photo from Washington Post



  1. Hello from Fairbanks, Your perspective, the insights of MLK, and the truths of indigenous kinship are very comforting to me. Thank you for your constant perspective that kinship can enrich a bewildered world..

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