Listening to Indians

I’ve been voting for 50 years—Johnson was my first Presidential pick in 1964. And yes, I’ve learned much about that strong-arming, deal-making, womanizing, self-agrandizing, Vietnam-failing President over the years. He had all of those negative qualities and more, and he wasn’t the first or last president to use questionable tactics or to cash in on the exalted position for personal satisfaction.

But Lyndon Johnson used strength and guile, twisted arms, shamed, compromised, made deals with the NAACP and other Civil Rights leaders, House members and Senators from both parties, to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He did so knowing that Democrats would lose the South for the foreseeable future, hoping that it would mark his legacy for sure, but knowing also that it was the right thing to do (his own gut thoughts about civil rights went back to pre-political school-teaching days):
“On June 19, exactly one year after President Kennedy’s proposal, the compromise bill passed the Senate by a vote of 73 to 27. House approval followed, and on July 2 President Johnson signed the bill into law. The law’s eleven sections prohibited discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations, public facilities, and agencies receiving federal funds, and strengthened prohibitions on school segregation and discrimination in voter registration.” (Library of Congress)
That was “progress,” The notion that there is some glorious past to return to, that somehow “conserving” the words and ideas of the Founding Fathers as they were said and meant in that time is, I believe, absurd. Few current American citizens would embrace a country where only property owning men of European decent could vote. Although women were not explicitly prohibited from holding office, they didn’t. African American were not citizens; they were property. I’ll leave it at that!
The genius of the country—and its founding documents—is that they have always been aspirational. Citizenship has been gradually extended; immigration, necessary from the beginning to fuel the new nation, has gradually if reluctantly made us home for Jews, the Irish, East Europeans, Southern Europeans, Asians, and Africans. Laws have been made—not always followed, and often amended to accommodate new understandings.
The history of the nation’s relationships with Indians, the people who were here when Europeans arrived, the people who were misnamed, enslaved, and killed by accidental disease and intentional action, (and at the same time sent back to Europe to be celebrated as “noble savages” and painted as kings and princes), reflects a troubled, murky, ambiguous journey. Indian-government relations have had their own historical, often troubled and sometimes downright horrible journey.
No one, I imagine, wants to return to a time of slaughter. Some Indians might want to return to the terms of treaties, sometimes although not always negotiated in good faith, which promised particular tribes ancestral lands and the freedom to continue their traditional lives. And Indians too were practiced in adaptation and aspiration before European arrival. They had created great cities, developed agriculture, and come to a close relationship with the horse before they met a European, and their current journey began. (clarification: Plateau and Plains tribes met horses before white Europeans; people in Middle America and what is now the American Southwest met the horse earlier, along with their often fatal meetings with the Europeans.)
Indians today are everywhere. Some are participating fully in mainstream society; others are negotiating lives that straddle worlds and cultures, tribal and American national educational, health, and economic systems that often exist side by side. Many are regular Euro-American and African American citizens who claim some small piece of Indian they’ve discovered through family history or DNA analysis.
Legally, Indians enrolled with tribes participate in a form of “limited sovereignty” defined by Chief Justice Marshall in the 1830s (and ignored immediately by President Jackson and his Indian removal policy). Some of those treaties and that sovereignty apply to lands outside of reservations, called “usual and accustomed places.”
Which brings us to salmon in the Columbia River and the water itself in the great Missouri. Indians today are reminding us that we are part of a bigger world that we must attend to.
In this season of political turmoil, my hope is in Indian eyes, the Indian eyes that shine with the new Longhouse in Wallowa, the drummers’ and dancers’ eyes at powwows that now are held openly, adorned by regalia once confiscated, words in languages once outlawed. The eyes that greet returning salmon and expect the lamprey. Listening to ancient tribal lessons, and with the help of laws and interpretations of laws—Justice Marshall’s interpretation, the Boldt Decision—Indians are often the leading and sanest voices as we plunge into a future where temperatures rise, land is gobbled for development, and water is scarce.
The whole continent was once a “usual and accustomed place” for Indians. Listening to Indians now might make it a better place for all.

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