Native Americans

Celebrating True Thanksgiving: One Native American View

 

Millions of Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving again this year with a philosophy of Manifest Destiny. Many Native Americans will not celebrate Thanksgiving at all. They will view the holiday as a national day of mourning. To them, the Thanksgiving Myth justifies the genocide of indigenous peoples and acquiesces to notions of White supremacy. They will protest at Plymouth Rock and [...]

We Are Still Here

The largest gathering of American Indians in U.S. history came together in Washington, D.C., in September for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. More than 80,000 people gathered on the National Mall for the opening day ceremonies, which included about 25,000 in the Native Nations Procession. "We are excited about the opening of this museum because it reminds America of the continuing contributions of Native Americans to the well-being of the country," Choctaw Methodist pastor David Wilson told the United Methodist Connection newspaper. More than 92,300 people visited the museum the first week.

NMAI director Richard West, a Southern Cheyenne United Methodist, told the Connection, "Our spirituality is...a quality that pervades all of our life."

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Sojourners Magazine January 2005
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Which Tribe?

Spokane Indian Sherman Alexie often snaps "that's personal" during interviews, yet the characters in his books and films closely follow his own life growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.

The Business of Fancydancing—Alexie's second movie and first directorial effort—is the most personal yet. The 35-year-old author of the novels Indian Killer and Reservation Blues, books of poetry, and short stories, and screenwriter of the 1998 hit Smoke Signals, debuted his new movie at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Now it's making its way across screens and film festivals throughout the country.

More abstract and poetic than Smoke Signals, Fancydancing offers a complex dialogue on ethnic identity. In the film, Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams) and Aristotle Joseph (Gene Tagaban), two high school valedictorians from the Spokane Indian Reservation, leave their native culture for university life in Seattle. Seymour becomes a writer and successfully markets his Indian identity by drawing on his childhood reservation experiences.

Aristotle doesn't adapt so easily to the white world. Resentful and angry, he returns to the reservation where he develops an alcohol problem and a violent disposition. When Mouse (Swil Kanim), a talented but cynical Indian violinist, dies, Seymour returns to Wellpinit—after 16 years—to attend the funeral.

The drive is a mere six hours, but the emotional journey is complicated. Seymour's white lover, Steven (affectionately known as Custer), fears that Seymour will decide to stay on the "rez." And not all of his old Spokane friends are excited to see the Indian—nicknamed "The Little Public Relations Warrior" by Aristotle—who made it big by writing about their personal tragedies.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2002
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Debunking Myths

Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo introduced the term "imperialist nostalgia" in the early ’90s to describe the growing Euro-American interest in cultures our ancestors once attempted to destroy—particularly American Indian and African cultures. Rosaldo implied that this romanticizing—the New Agey interest in Native American spirituality, for example—is one way Euro-Americans now deal with the neo-colonial guilt that comes from still being the economic beneficiaries of centuries of conquest.

This problem of white romanticizing of indigenous culture is an important theme in Ian Frazier’s new memoir, On the Rez. The book takes readers on a decidedly unromantic tour of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Sioux and the highest per capita poverty in the nation. "Indians remain the object of fantasy," Frazier writes in the first chapter. He then attempts to undo that fantasy through an inventive narrative that is interspersed with Native American history, extensive observations of reservation life, and dozens of interviews.

On the Rez is as structurally unpredictable as the ill-kept, pot-holed roads and the harsh, mercurial weather Frazier continually negotiates as he winds around the reservation on wheel and foot in search of new material. The book makes frequent skips in time and place, but it is anchored by Frazier’s 20-year relationship with Le War Lance (see photo), a Lakota man he met on the street in New York City. Frazier drinks beer and hangs out with "Le" in New York and later visits him on the Pine Ridge Reservation. War Lance, it seems, was his port of entry into reservation life.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2000
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The Fire for Survival

Last year’s anti-World Trade Organization uprising was a reminder that there are detractors from the Pax Capitalista that currently placates some Americans with e-money and numbs others with the not-so-cheap thrills of day-trading. With unfettered consumption and development largely unchallenged, Seattle was one of those rare signs that this economic boom is leaving in its wake newly impoverished people and a devastated environment that has never been in worse shape.

All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, by long-time Native American activist Winona LaDuke, is another disturbing signpost. This book implicates the current boomtown mentality flowing through America and cautions us to learn new ways to live in harmony with the environment and with our neighbors.

LaDuke examines the often heroic struggles of indigenous communities in North America and Hawaii to regain control of their traditional lands and resist the onslaught of "development"—which is rarely aimed at improving life for America’s Native peoples, but very often comes at the expense of their land and resources.

There are close to 200 environmental groups based in Native communities, most of them, as LaDuke says, "underfunded at best and more often, not funded at all." In these small groups, which lack the cash of their mainstream counterparts in the environmental movement (who, as this book points out, have rarely proved to be Native people’s allies), LaDuke found Native environmentalists who "sing centuries-old songs to renew life, to give thanks for the strawberries, to call home fish, and to thank Mother Earth for her blessings."

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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Housing Summit at Pine Ridge

Housing and Urban Development officials and Native American tribal leaders are launching a project to build and renovate housing on tribal lands. The "Pine Ridge Building Summit II" will take place at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and will result in 300 new or rehabilitated homes by the year 2000.

The Oglala Lakota Tribe and its partners are preparing for a seven-day build, July 30 through August 7. More than 1,000 volunteers will be recruited to help construct and rehabilitate the homes. The goal of the program is to help more Native Americans become homeowners.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1999
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Team name on Trial

A group of Native Americans appeared before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to argue that "Redskins," the name of Washington, D.C.’s football team, is racist and not deserving of federal trademark protection. Federal law states that a company name may not be "scandalous" or "disparaging." A lawyer representing the football team said that the term "Redskins" is neutral and synonymous with "Indians."

Offering another opinion is Chief Billy Redwing Tayac of the Piscataway Indian Nation, a Native American people who have been in the Washington area for roughly 10,000 years longer than the football team.

"‘Redskins’ is a racial slur," Chief Tayac said. "The term has only continued to be acceptable because native people have been decimated and don’t have the political or economic clout to stop it. One only has to look at the origin of the term ‘redskins’ to see that it is not neutral. When [Europeans] first came to our country, a bounty was offered on Indians, and the dead were brought in by the wagonload. But that got to be a problem, so they started asking for just the scalps of Indians. Just like the hide of a deer is called a ‘deerskin,’ and the hide of a beaver is called a ‘beaverskin,’ the scalp of an Indian was called a ‘redskin.’

"People want to see us riding horses and living in tepees, but Indians are modern people and we want the same respect that has been applied to other peoples. We are men and women—not animals."

The board is expected to make a decision on the case within a few months. While the board cannot force Washington’s football team to stop using the name, it can withdraw trademark protection. Such a decision would cause the team to lose significant revenue in merchandise sales and perhaps provide the bottom line for a name change.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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Which Road to Freedom?

Several weeks ago I was having lunch at a sandwich shop in downtown Washington, D.C. I hadn't been aware that everyone in the restaurant was African American until a homeless black man came in shouting something between lunacy and prophecy. He was yelling about Thanksgiving and "the Indians." He then drummed on the table, chanting "Plan-Ta-Shun! Reser-Va-Shun!"

Northwest author Sherman Alexie draws similar parallels between Native Americans and black history in his latest novel, Reservation Blues. Alexie and I both consider ourselves Spokane natives. But Alexie's ancestry goes back to the great Chief Spokane Garry, while the people who are my roots "discovered" Washington state's Inland Northwest through Lewis and Clark. Of course, they did get some help from Sacajawea. (Having grown up in Spokane, I only recently realized I had never been to the reservation 60 miles away.)

Legendary black Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson spent some time on the "rez," and his arrival opens the story. In the 1930s Johnson told a white man he wanted to be the best guitar player ever to live. The white man responded, "Then you have to give up what you love most." Johnson replied that he would give up his freedom. While the real Johnson was murdered in 1938, in this book he is haunted by a guitar that won't leave his side until 1992 when he stumbles onto the Spokane Indian Reservation, meets up with some Spokane natives, and pawns the legacy off on their new band, "Coyote Springs."

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1996
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In Defense of Holy Ground

Most of us have places that, for us, hold a special sense of the divine-sacred locations where we go for prayer, meditation, and reflection. For Christians, these places are often in cathedrals, churches, or chapels. For some Native Americans, such sacred sites are found in the natural environment-in forests, mountains, and deserts.

For the San Carlos Apache of Arizona, the mountain Dzil Nchaa Si An is such a place. Mount Graham, as it is known in English, has been visited for centuries by Apache holy men and women who gathered medicines, soaked in the sacred springs, and received spiritual power from the mountain. Located 140 miles northeast of Tucson, the mountain is a place for the tribe to be strengthened in their traditional faith. Wendsler Nosie Sr. of the group Apaches for Cultural Preservation calls Dzil Nchaa Si An "a seminary for our people, a place for spiritual training."

Yet the holiness of the mountain for the San Carlos Apache began to be desecrated in 1988, when the University of Arizona began construction of an extensive telescope project on its highest peaks. Since then, the mountain has been the site of an intense struggle between developers, scientists, indigenous rights activists, and environmentalists. Funded by the Vatican Observatory and other investors in Italy and Germany, the $60 million facility was able-for a time-to get around existing environmental legislation through the political torque of the University of Arizona.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1995
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A Ritual Recovered

O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both great and small. -PSALM 104:24-25

I'd heard about the incident days before. Interested, but busy with the usual list of daily tasks for urban living, I thought little of it until

an evening telephone call. It was from a friend who works with an Indian tribe in Washington, a few hours north from the university neighborhood where my family and I have lived for the last 10 years. He had witnessed the event, offering further details. It's come to haunt me with lingering images of tragedy, compassion, and mystery.

In late February, during a week of intermittent rains, a 30-foot minke whale became stranded on the shores of Lummi Island, 90 miles north of Seattle. The media made minimal notice of the event, probably because the island is an isolated, beautiful, protected geography inside the jurisdiction of an American Indian reservation, mostly ignored by outsiders.

The situation immediately drew the attention, however, of the National Marine Fisheries, the federal agency whose job it is to protect marine mammals under provisions of the Endangered Species Act. A designated law enforcement officer soon arrived and discovered there were already dozens of Indian people present from the nearby reservation, many of them in the shifting tides near the whale trying to move it back into deeper water.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1995
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