When I am talking with non-Native audiences, and even when talking with Tribal friends, I sometimes say that I feel like I am body-surfing on a wave of pro-Indian sentiment in the country. I say that a big part of this is based on recognition of non-Native—read mostly white male—failures in dealing with the natural world. We haven’t been so smart about fire, fish, and water, and grope now, trying to play catch up with preemptive burns and reintroduction of beaver and bison.
But there is also, in the country at this time, a deep awareness of history and past injustices. The history of the boarding schools and the blunt-edged attempts at making Indians white, at “assimilation,” are now openly discussed. Land thievery, from treaties made and broken to public lands—read Indian lands—given by the federal government to found land-grant universities, are acknowledged. There are attempts to redress these past sins.
This wave of pro-Indian feelings among majority populations is buttressed by strong historians—academic and popular historians—reciting stories of Indian wars, Indian removal, Indian sovereignty. And by Tribal elders openly and stridently passing on language and oral history to children and grandchildren. This new truth-telling is eased by the extensive written records left by missionaries, explorers, fur-traders, and government functionaries. I recommend Claudio Saunt’s aptly titled Unworthy Republic, an aptly titled history of Indian Removal under President Jackson. Saunt tells us how much the government paid for the oxcarts that took the Cherokee on their “Trail of Tears,” and a government accounting of the actual costs and gains of the Indian Removal Act; the US made a profit!
I remember reading Oh Jerusalem a half century ago. It’s a vivid account of the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli war for Jerusalem, told from all sides—Arab, Israeli, and the British. The British governed Palestine by League of Nations Mandate at the conclusion of the First World War and—accompanying collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the meddling of France in Syria—until the United Nations sponsored creation of Israel and Jordan and that Arab-Israeli War over the new dimensions of the ancient Holy Lands. I pluck from memory of that long-ago reading a story of the British handing over one municipal function—it might have been the water system—to the Zionists, and another to the Arabs, based on the whims and prejudices of a single British bureaucrat.
That history is important, but there is older history too, of prosperity of Gaza in Ottoman times, of Muslims, Druze, Christians and Jews living side by side before the pogroms in Eastern Europe, before the annihilation of Western European Jewry in Europe under the Nazis sent waves of Jewish immigrants into the territory.
We have to begin from where we are. We cannot remake the past, although we can atone for past sins and try to make good on past promises. This is where the American Indian model makes sense.
Let all the stories come out! Let the good stories and bad stories, and especially the stories of guilt-fed European and American support for Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, be told. But also let the stories of old friendships, of a multi-cultural and multi-religious Jerusalem be told. Let years of living in refugee camps be cried out, and years of living in fear of Hamas be told.
But then! Let destruction stop, and let building begin. Let Palestinians grow their olives, weave their fabled cloth, make their pilgrimages. Let Jews remember the reach of their diaspora and recount their fears of the Holocaust, make their pilgrimages to holy walls and grounds. And build. But not let them build on Arab grounds. Recapture the spirit of Kibbutz.
New governments in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and Jordan will not look like today’s governments, and different border lines and, more importantly, lines of resource sharing, will emerge. If we nurture them.
This is the miracle that is happening in Indian Country in the United States today. It has been a very long time in coming. It has had fits and starts, times when it seemed like white America was listening, grieving with, and supporting Tribal peoples. And then, in the 1950s, we made one giant last attempt to eradicate Native America, to abrogate all treaties, to trade money for ancient Indian lands, to make Indians white. “Termination” and “Relocation” were dismal failures, adding to rather than easing things in Indian Country.
But today, the US Government is supporting Native language programs, making grants available to help tribes restore bison and the giant condor. We are hiring Native fire consultants and looking for ways to make salmon and dammed rivers coexist when they can, and salmon be favored when they cannot. We are celebrating Native language, culture, and religion, and trying desperately to heal old wounds that have left Indians in poverty, counted Indian lives and health less valuable than our own.
Can history and culture be recited and revived without causing more pain? Can a new generation of people build something new in these oldest of Holy lands? Can the American Indian experience be a guidepost in the lands that people across the world still refer to as Holy?
It has to be better than the roads now being followed.
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