Dams and People

There was a story in the New York Times yesterday about the flooding of the village of Hasankeyf in Southeast Turkey.Some say the village is 12,000 years old, and certainly it and the surrounding area have stories of ancient civilizations that are part of a historical thread that goes back to the “Garden of Eden.” Hasankeyf is on the Tigris River, which, along with the Euphrates, framed the Fertile Crescent, land where we think the domestication of wheat and animals took place millennia ago, land the holy books and their followers say was home to Adam and Eve.Read Rich’s Post →

Indians on historical, political sidelines

Cannon Ball, ND,, Sept. 9. Photo Reuters, Andrew Cullen

If 700 African-Americans camped in Ferguson, Missouri for two months, or 700 Latinos marched California from the San Diego border north, the national news media would have campers and marchers on the spot—and we would be reading updates and seeing video clips daily.

Seven hundred Indians–they call themselves “water protectors”–are camped in North Dakota. There ARE national reporters on the spot, but the Indians get only passing mention in national dispatches. The NYT had one very good essay a couple of weeks ago, and NBC News had good written commentary last week from their reporter—but has had scant mention on the evening news. If you work at it, Google it daily, there will be a story somewhere, in the Des Moines Register, Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now,” or on a blog post. But nothing like the daily news we got from Ferguson or New York or Florida.

Yesterday, the LA Times said that there have been 269 arrests, local law enforcement is calling the protesters rioters, and Indians are dragging logs in the path of the Pipeline. The pipeline company, Energy Transfer, is apparently going to build right up to the Missouri River and wait out the courts, the President, and any other legal obstacles in their literal path.

The pipeline is just the latest rendition of the story. When Indians are shot by white police—and they are at greater risk of this than African Americans or Latinos—we don’t get their names drummed at us daily. We don’t know the Indian Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. We know more about Flint’s bad water than water shortages and uranium contamination on the Navajo Reservation. We don’t hear or know much about Indian health, education, and welfare.

We don’t even get much of the good Indian news—do you know that Pyramid Lake is full of water and Lahontan cutthroat trout are swimming again? Or that a loopholes which failed Indian women when raped by white men on a reservation was filled in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act? Or are many in the general public familiar with Indian fisheries’ work in restoration of salmon runs on the Columbia River and its tributaries?

Why aren’t Indians and Indian issues of continuing interest to all Americans? Why aren’t Indians part of the Presidential debate? Why do Indians always seem to get shuffled to the sidelines?

“Indians,” Alvin Josephy used to say, “don’t have history or biography; they have archeology and anthropology.” I’d add that they don’t have much in the way of news value either.

There are so many things that make the contemporary Indian experience in America—and the majority interest in those experiences—different than that of other groups. Indians are not one people, but members of over 500 sovereign nations, living on over 500 reservations and in urban areas across the country. Their languages, cultures, and needs are diverse. Indian tribes have “treaties” with the US government, and enjoy “limited” sovereignty,  going back to an 1830s decision from Chief Justice Marshall. What does that mean? In the Civil Rights era, Alvin Josephy remarked that the liberals who had worked so hard on behalf of African Americans thought they could just do the same with/for Indians—and Indians told them they were not after Civil Rights, but Treaty Rights.

Maybe, most importantly, Indians were here first. They are of this land in a way that the rest of us are not. Ironically, with grandmothers’ stories and new DNA testing, more and more white and black Americans are claiming some Indian ancestry. Unfortunately, most such majority claims do not make the next step and enter into the Indian situation today. That sliver of Cherokee blood is, like the artifacts in museums, something out of the past, to be honored but not picked up and used in a march on a North Dakota pipeline.

From the first meetings of Europeans and Indians, there has been confusion—noble savage or savage savage? Learn from; take from? Leave Indians on reservations or give them bus tickets to the cities? Assimilate, remove, or kill? Honor treaties or “terminate” them?

It could be that understanding the place that Indians occupy in our daily lives and giving thought to the views, problems, attitudes, and promises that are still out there in Indian Country must somehow go back to this confusion that has followed and plagued Indian-white relations for over 500 years.

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