My friend Charlie texted me this morning to remind me that President Biden will announce today that he has ended America’s “longest war.” Charlie says that the Indian wars went on longer, that his people’s war, what we call the Nez Perce War, was one of the last of a continuing string of them, and that the suffering caused by Indian Wars cannot be measured.Read Rich’s Post →
The descriptions of a church-run Canadian boarding school for Indians in Richard Wagamese’s brilliant novel, Indian Horse, were brutal. The book was published in 2012; a movie released in 2017. In today’s news stories, echoing Wagamese’s book, a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children has been found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
In today’s Washington Post, long-time columnist Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter and consultant, labels President Trump a racist, and says that’s all you have to remember in the voting booth. He’s another of the staunch Republicans who is switching sides in this election, claiming older Republican and American values. But like so many principled Republicans and Democrats, he forgets and omits the long struggle of Native Americans with the waves of European immigrants in the first centuries of colonialism and nationhood. And like many of his journalism cohorts and academic mentors, he labels slavery our “original sin.”
“The struggle for racial equality is the defining American struggle. Much of our history has been spent dealing with the moral contradiction of America’s founding — how a bold experiment in liberty could also be a prison for millions of enslaved people. That hypocrisy and its ramifications have been our scandal. Our burden. Our sin.” Michael Gerson, Washington Post, October 30, 2020.
I’ve been at this serious examination of Indian history and culture for a little over a decade, spurred by the work of my mentor, Alvin Josephy, and the Indian people I have read, met, and tried to listen to. I remember Alvin harping on the invisibility of Indians, the conscious and unconscious lies and omissions of the misnamed Indians in the history of our country. He spent a working life—over 40 years—addressing the issue.
This is of course not to excuse the institution of slavery and the importation of Africans to do the work of building a Euro-American economy and country. American Indians, after all, were the first slaves—sent by Columbus back to Spain, and worked to death in the Caribbean.
I cannot imagine the lump in the throat, the pain in the gut, that passages like this, and the continuing distortions and omissions by journalists, pundits, and historians, give to newspaper and textbook reading Indians every day of their reading lives.
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Reparations—government payments or amends of some kind to the descendants of Black American slaves—are not a new idea, but the current Covid-19-BLM crisis has brought them back into conversation. I’ve been skeptical, wondering where Indians and Latinx would fit into it. But being open minded…
Reading Coates and trying to make sense of the Reparation argument.
Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a powerful argument in his oft-cited “Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. Although White indentured servants were the earliest low-wage, no-wage North American laborers, they were still “legal subjects of the English crown,” and thus had certain protections. As the European slave trade, which had relied on eastern Europeans but increasingly, in the 16th century, became dependent on Africans, the Americas joined in. As Coates says, “they became early America’s indispensable working class—fit for maximum exploitation, capable of only minimal resistance.”
Although we—mainstream, mostly white, America—see the South and its tobacco, sugar, and cotton plantations as the scenes of slavery and its reason for being, Ibram X. Kendi points out in Stamped From the Beginning that the growing manufacturing engine of the North relied on king cotton and the South, meaning slavery, for its success. And in fact, as international slave trade was banned and “breeding” and sale of domestic slaves replaced it, slavery also became very profitable. Slavers borrowed to buy, bought insurance policies on, and paid sales taxes on slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, the slaves in our country had more total dollar value than that of all manufacturing and the railroads combined.
If the Civil War “freed” slaves, the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow continued their oppression. No need here to recount the lynchings of Blacks, including war veterans returning from WW I and WW II. But Coates reminds us also that FDR’s New Deal largely skipped Blacks—domestic and agricultural workers, 65% of the Black labor force, were exempted from Social Security. Employers didn’t have to pay the tax; workers did not get Social Security on retirement.
And the post WW II G.I. housing loans were effectively denied Black veterans by official red-lining: mortgages did not go to unsafe neighborhoods, and, by definition, Black neighborhoods were unsafe—so no mortgages.
Coates argues articulately that wealth is a cumulative exercise, and that for most middle-class Americans the largest lifetime investment has been housing. Denied housing as a way of growing wealth, and facing ongoing discrimination in education and job promotion (athletics and entertainment are exceptions that deserve their own discussion), the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks has remained static from 1970 to present.
But reparations for descendants of those who were wronged? The catalog of White transgressions against Blacks is long and, some will argue, continues to grow. From a justice point of view, it’s hard to argue. From a precedent point of view as well. Germany paid reparations to Israel after WW II. Way before that, Quaker abolitionists gave land to freed slaves.
In 1988, President Reagan apologized to the Japanese-Americans who had been interned during WW II and gave the ones still alive each $20,000. John Tateishi, who was incarcerated at the Manzanar Internment camp ages 3-6, and became a leader in the movement for reparations, says it was not about the money, but the idea that the internees had been patriots, not criminals. “We were determined to pass [the Civil Liberties Act] as a way of having Americans recognize the injustice of what happened to us—not for our sake, but in order to make sure this never happened again.”
If some kind of reparations are due African-Americans, what is due the descendants of the first peoples, the misnamed Indians who greeted the white newcomers—and initially gave them the knowledge and help that would allow them to thrive—and then had their lands stolen. The stealing which started with squatting on lands communally “owned” by Tribes, continued with forced treaties, broken treaties, warfare, through the allotment and termination programs well into the twentieth century. High Country News is now documenting the stealing of Indian lands to house or to endow the land grant universities (Oregon State, Washington State, Rutgers, etc.). Some still live on stolen land; some still live on the endowment.
Language, culture, and religion were stripped away from the Indians too—stolen, through government programs. Gradually, over the last fifty years, there has been some turning back, some acknowledgment of past sins, with the Indian Freedom of Religion Act and the Boldt Decision on Northwest Salmon. Treaties have consequences, Boldt said, and the government must help restore salmon. The Sioux continue to refuse compensation for the Black Hills taken away from them in the nineteenth century, although the courts have determined that the Black Hills rightfully still belong to them, and set aside government money to compensate them. Though many live in poverty, the proud Sioux continue to refuse.
The Mexicans of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and California have claims too. The ones “trapped” on this side when the border was moved, with Texas Annexation in 1845 and the Mexican American War in 1848, were immediately discriminated against in voting, land ownership, and leadership. The Texas Rangers ruthlessly suppressed Mexicans, Indians, and Blacks.
Measuring human losses—especially losses from the past, inherited losses, losses of opportunity—and assigning dollar values to them is an impossible task. But Coates has something larger in mind:
Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely… Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
If we see Reparations as a reckoning with past actions, a coming to terms, if we have the stomach for addressing past moral mistakes made by “fallible humans” who were mostly White Euro-Americans, then I say we should try.
Maybe some treaty rights would be restored, new educational programs initiated; maybe there would be actual cash payments and transfer of lands to tribes and to the descendants of slaves. But most importantly, there would be acknowledgement of histories, languages, and cultures that have been demeaned and buried for centuries. Quoting Coates again: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
The “how” of it is not clear, but Coates suggests that “H.R. 40, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” an act asking for study with no commitment to cash reparations, introduced regularly by Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan beginning in 1989, would be a good place to start.
I’d add Indians and Latinx…
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When I first heard the news about Sherman Alexie’s treatment of women—especially of Native women writers—I thought immediately of Bill Clinton. Poor kid from wrong side of tracks with extraordinary smarts fights his way up the white male-dominated American ladder of success. And decides he deserves what those already at the top by dint of birth, family, and place of origin effortlessly have.
But Sherman is Indian, and everything Indian in this country is immediately more complicated. Starting with the name itself—“Indian,” an early European mistake that has been followed by 500 years of them.
Nevertheless, Sherman Alexie, by all accounts and by his own admission, is responsible for demanding sexual favors for career assistance with many women. It’s a charge that has become so routine in recent months that we barely flinch as we go on to the next accusations, the next TV expose, the next admission of guilt.
But Sherman Alexie is not Bill Clinton. In fact, Clinton’s long-ago carefully crafted admissions of extra-marital sexual misconduct and current stunning silence about issues of harassment and assault strike me as huge roadblocks in the national battle for respect and fair treatment of women.
But that is for another day. Sherman has in fact offered some sort of apology, and, if I know Sherman at all through his writings and brief personal contact, he is now in deep and profound self-examination of how he got where he is.
I am NOT excusing anything; I am exploring.
I just finished listening to his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. The story is painful, from the tortured relationship with his parents—mother especially, to athletic and academic successes in a white world he purposefully pursued from a very young age, and on to a sparkling literary career. I say that because there is continuing pain through the successes. Sherman willed his way off the rez when he was very young and different. He excelled at an all-white close-by school in debate and basketball, had white friends and white girlfriends, found his way to college and literary success. There are periodic visits back to family and friends and childhood torturers on the rez—some of the visits around funerals. All of the visits, the phone calls, and the recollections are permeated with stories of Indian tragedies—failures, breakups, and diseases; deaths by alcohol, car crash, and suicide. At one point he recognizes that he is the only one in his grade school cohort to still be alive.
The light in Sherman’s memoir is his wife and child. Which make the charges and admissions of guilt all the more painful. Why would a man with a beautiful, understanding, Indian wife he expresses the deepest love for in his book resort to harassment and sexual demands of other women?
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Sherman came to Fishtrap one time. I got a phone call from Bob Greene, the owner of that fine Moscow, Idaho bookstore, Bookpeople, suggesting that Sherman Alexie was about to explode on the national scene, and if we were going to get him to Wallowa Lake, we should do it now. A story had just been published in Esquire, and two books, The Business of Fancydancing and Old Shirts and New Skins, had been published by small houses. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was about to come out from a major publisher.
Sherman came, and he delighted. I chided him for not sending a photo, said that I had to cut one off the back cover of one of his books. He laughed and did a quick stick drawing self-portrait in the book in return.
I could not get him back to Fishtrap—he had indeed gone on to major fame, and once, when I saw him in Portland and asked about it, he described an uncomfortable scene in a Wallowa County gas station—he’d been asked to pay for his gas before the attendant would fill the tank. It’s too hard being brown out there, he said.
In many ways, it’s hard being brown anywhere in this country, especially in the current climate that permits overt racism. But Sherman will continue to be a brown American Indian, and in these times when harassment and assault are being openly talked about, he will continue to be known for his abuse.
Can anything good come of it?—he’s one step ahead of Bill Clinton with his acknowledgement and apology. But I am going to expect more from him than from Clinton or Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose or all the others in the parade of white male aggressors. I am going to look for words from Sherman. Words have been the tools of his trade from reservation grammar school to today. I want to know from him how and why, want an explanation of these terrible infidelities and sexual demands as muddy and clear as Indian humor and Indian resilience are muddy and clear in his movie, Smoke Signals.
I won’t go back and read the old books, but I might have to watch that movie again, remember how much it made me cry even as I laughed. I’m crying for you now, Sherman, and I can wait for the laughs as you spill out the pain that put you into this awful mess. But write it out—maybe show women they’re not to blame, and show white men how to begin making things right.
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