Not just Americans, but the entire globe.
People know that the founders didn't mean it then, nor does this nation mean it now. Sure, the words were written down, and our leaders frequently point to them as evidence that we are good. But no one really meant them. They were merely a means to an end.
Back in 1776, when representatives from a bunch of colonies wrote the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," they did not in fact mean all men.
But people know that.
They see the news reports from July 2nd, 2014, when a town in the United States of America congregated, waving their red, white, and blue flags, and demonized busloads of undocumented immigrants, telling them to go home, that they are not welcome here.
The world knows.
The entire globe looks on and shakes their heads. They understand that if anyone in that crowd had any integrity whatsoever, they would climb aboard those same buses and depart this land themselves. For this nation is undocumented—never once having asked for, nor having received, permission from the indigenous tribes and peoples of this land to live here.
But if people know, why are things not changing? Why do we continue to make the same mistakes over and over? And why do the countries of the world continue to follow the lead of the United States of America?
America as Reckless Teen
As a Navajo man living on our reservation, when I hear the United States speak on the national and global stage, I cannot help but compare our country to a runaway pre-teenager — one who, while running for his life, hijacked a car full of people at gunpoint. He shot or wounded all of the occupants, climbed in and took off driving down the road. But he had no idea how to drive, and he could barely even see over the steering wheel. As the vehicle moved down the road he could hear it scraping parked cars, driving over landscaped lawns, even hitting children and pedestrians on the sidewalks. He could not see the damage but he could feel the jerking of the suspension and the bumps of the tires. He could also hear the scraping of metal on metal, the breaking of glass, and even the screams of the people as he lumbered through the neighborhood, wreaking havoc everywhere he went.
But on he drove. For over 500 hundred miles he drove. Soon he noticed that there was a long line of cars behind him. Occasionally one of them would try to pass him, but his erratic driving and frequent swerving either forced them off the road or caused them to slow down and stay behind. Soon he began to fancy himself their leader, when actually, most drivers, fearing for their own safety, were simply wise enough to drive behind him and stay well out of his way.
He didn't stop. He couldn't stop. For while he felt bad about what he had done and he knew that continuing to drive would mean causing more damage in the road ahead, that was for more preferable than the thought of stopping the car, getting out and facing the destruction he had left in his wake.
Truth and Belonging
As a Native American, one of the original occupants of the hijacked car, the temptation is to respond to this child out of anger. His behavior has caused untold destruction, massive deaths and incredible pain. But responding out of anger will only feed our hurt and escalate his fear and his irrational behavior. So anger is not helpful.
The child wavers between the silent sobs of remorse and the screams of defiance, yelling commands and waving of his gun. He is in incredible pain. And he knows it. Everybody knows it. But almost no one is willing, or able, to speak up. Anger is not needed. What is needed is for the original occupants of the car, with tender but necessary authority, to address the child. Acknowledge his pain. And help him to stop the car.
As a Native American I daily see, and experience, the historical trauma caused by the actions of the child driving this car. But I also see that his hurt is even worse than ours. He has no home. He has no family. He has no place to belong. And he is terrified that if he stops driving the car he will be thrown out and left alone.
I often tell people that the United States of America is a nation that desperately needs to be adopted. This is a nation immigrants who have left their lands, their families, their people and their cultures. Everything that they knew and understood has been left behind. And they came to this continent largely following a financial dream of prosperity. But they never asked for—nor were they ever given—permission to be here, and now they feel lost. They have no idea why the rivers flow where they flow, or why the mountains lie where they lie. As native people, our creation stories take place on this continent. They tell us how the mountains and rivers came to be. They add to our sense of belonging here, and they motivate our desire to respect this land.
As indigenous peoples of this land, Native Americans are one of the few populations left in the world who are able to speak with authority to the United States of America. But we cannot do that if we are their victims. We cannot do that by suing them in their courts. And we cannot do that by collecting reparations for their injustices.
Instead, we must rise above that way of thinking and adopt this nation of immigrants. We must share our stories, our families, and our histories with our uninvited guests. For in the end, they are merely runaway children, scared and desperately looking for a place to belong.
A Way Forward
So what can we do? I have two practical ways to start.
First, our nation needs a truth commission. I recently attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. I was deeply moved by the healing that came from the telling and hearing of stories from the boarding school survivors who came forward. The truth telling was even more powerful than the statements of reconciliation that were given by the government and the churches. For that proof will be shown in their willingness to follow through on their pledges. But the truth telling stood powerfully on its own.
The United States is not ready for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for reconciliation requires an acknowledgement of past wrongs as well as a commitment to repentance moving forward. So far, our leaders have demonstrated no desire to do that, as was evidenced by the toothless US Apology to Native Peoples that was buried in the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. It ended with a disclaimer and was never announced, publicized or read by Congress or the White House.
But a Truth Commission? A significant platform where our native elders and boarding school survivors can come forward and share their stories? This is completely doable and would shed some much-needed light on the injustices that have been hidden for decades, even centuries. We could also leave an empty chair. A space for this nation to come forward, willingly, and on its own to join the conversation for reconciliation.
Second, we need immigration reform. As native peoples, we can rise up and take our place as the indigenous hosts of this land by sharing our wisdom and understanding of the proper protocol for dealing with visitors and foreigners who come to this continent, both invited and un-invited. For nearly a decade I have watched and listened from the reservation as this nation of immigrants has unsuccessfully struggled with how to reform their immigration laws. They stand on their soap boxes and demonize the undocumented immigrants and each other, but none are able to acknowledge that they lack both the integrity as well as the authority to “comprehensively and justly reform” these laws. They need our help, for they are incapable of doing it on their own.
I have been speaking and writing about these topics for nearly a decade. But recently I started an organization, 5 Small Loaves, to better organize people and begin working on projects like these. We are deeply committed to pursuing reconciliation through honest education, intentional conversation and meaningful action.
Our nation is in pain. Our people are in pain. And our land is in pain. It is time to come together, acknowledge our past, and begin to change the conversation for the future.
Mark Charles is the son of an American mother (of Dutch heritage) and a Navajo father. He lives with his family on the Navajo reservation and seeks to understand the complexities of our country's history regarding race, culture, and faith in order to help forge a path of healing and reconciliation for the nation. (Twitter: @wirelesshogan, Web: wirelesshogan.com)