Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Politico.com mistake marginalizes Native Americans

As noted in the sidebar, I am a double Government and Native American Studies major. Just yesterday I took my final in a Gender Issues in Native Life course. I don't want to get into a lengthy discussion of it today, but I do want to say that Indigenous issues extend far, far beyond casinos (and 50% of casino profits go to just ten tribes) and affirmative action. 1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped at some point in their lifetime, compared to 1 in 6 nation-wide (you can blame the Supreme Court for that); many remote homes on South Dakota and Arizona reservations lack electricity and running water; sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) occurs three to four times more often among Indian babies than white babies; and the tuberculosis mortality rate is 750% of the national rate. Throw in alcoholism, diabetes, and a poverty rate double the national average, and you've got yourself a real problem. Arm-chair pundits are often quick to blame genetics, tribal inaction, and perosnal irresponsibility, and I don't deny that these all play some role, but many of these issues are the result of past, and sometimes even current, colonial behaviors and institutions.

My goal to day is not to rant, explain the problems, or even propose solutions. I only want to make one point: We, as American citizens, are more interested in watching Dancing with the Stars or following Britney Spears' latest escapades than we are in paying attention to the problems of poverty and colonialism that exist in our own house, right under our own collective nose. Such issues are almost never discussed. These problems and the people they affect are invisible to us, and inexcusably so. Even when it's easy to give a quick media shout-out, and even when we can learn a little cultural or political fact without any extra effort whatsoever, we look the other way. What brought this to my mind today was the following story from Politico about Joseph Cao, the newly-elected House member from Louisiana's Second Congressional District (my enthusiastic congratulations to New Orleans for finally ousting Dollar Bill Jefferson):

The 41-year-old immigration attorney and community activist, the first Vietnamese-American ever elected to Congress, will be the only Asian-American Republican in the 111th Congress and the only non-Hispanic minority in the House GOP.

Cao joins three Cuban-Americans — Florida Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — as the only GOP House members who are minorities. The only Hispanic Republican in the Senate, Mel Martinez of Florida, recently announced he will not seek a second term in 2010.

What's wrong with this story? Cao will NOT be the only non-Hispanic minority in the House GOP. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), pictured at left, is a member of the Chickasaw Nation.

I don't think the reporters of this story are racist, which is why I'm not including their names in this post. I do, however, think they are guilty of lazy reporting - they previously knew of the three GOP House Hispanics and no other minorities, and assumed that was all there was and ran with it without checking further. As a result, this story from two reputable reporters at a major political newspaper further marginalized Indian political clout, helping make the already-invisible just a little more so.

I have e-mailed both reporters a quick note politely highlighting the omission, and hope it will be corrected.


Dogwalkmusings said...

Nathan, If you're interested in Native American art, sometime when you're in CDA get in touch and I'd be delighted to show you our collection.

Cany said...

I love you even more:)

Very nice post. I had a "myself" moment in reading this.

In 1970, a Jr. in High School, I made a deal with the high school: I will come to school if you let me do research and write papers. I was bored to death. My mom was there more than I was. They refused to send me to what was then called "continuation" school. Wise, actually.

So we struck the deal, and I got to work: I would do research and writing for my civics class. Perfect. The rest of the classes I had to attend. Deal. Somehow--and to this day I don't understand this--I graduated in January v. June. Go figure.

While they were probably thinking I would renege on the deal, to the contrary, I was at the library doing research even on Friday nights until closing when everyone else was whooping it up. I loved what I was doing, though it broke my heart. I was reading everything from novels to health studies to government papers on the topic. It was distressing.

And what, you are asking, did I write on? BIA schools and conditions on reservations.

I wrote a voluminous--if badly typed--footnoted paper on the issues and gave lectures, eventually, to every history and civics class in the school. Then they sent me to colleges to do it. Native Studies (in fact all cultural studies) were just beginning in coursework. Native Studies were FAR behind.

I began each lecture with Buffy Saint Marie's "Now That The Buffalo's Gone". (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCWJYTCfjSg)

I ended each with "My Country Tis of Thy People You're Dying". (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tl08n8_b3Sw)

To this day, I cannot listen to the latter without crying. The sense of outrage never dies.

When I was working on the Ward Valley radioactive waste dump, we worked with several NA tribes as it was proposed on sacred land. I came into frequent contact with tribal elders all of whom had been forced into BIA schools, for the most part. Some had escaped (their family hid them). Their stories, first hand, were extremely sad and horrendous. I was so ashamed, even though I too am Native American in ancestry (Seneca) but was not raised in any traditional way.

In college, I literally taught my Ethnic Studies professor on the topic (he was Latino and had NO training in Native American studies at all) giving him the reading lists etc. and coaching thim through the course.

Yes, I got an A. :) He also gave me an autographed copy of one of Vine Deloria Jr.'s books, Custer Died for Your Sins (1969).

A lot has changed since then, but most hasn't. The names of the tribes being abused has changed, but not the abuse. For the Navajo, today, they are faced with huge coal issues--another reason I don't like coal.

I don't know if you have ever read My Life on the Plains by Custer, but you should if you havn't. It is a series of writings published in city newspapers as his rage of slaughter and abuse moved from one tribe to another, and in his hand. Terrifying, actually. But it lends to the times the thinking of not only our people, but our government. Such a travesty.

So you have no idea how much this post makes me smile and how much it also makes my heart ache.

In your post, I see myself, though far, far older, realizing that nothing, really, has changed.

THAT, my dear, is terribly sad.

Jordan said...

The way you put the plight of Native peoples surprisingly hit home. I think a large part of that were statistics (from reliable sources I hope) and that having worked with a few Native Americans and hearing their vastly differing points of views on these issues I realize this isn't a simple thing that can just be fixed by wiring a house or hooking up some plumbing.

Sure a good deal of problems go away when people get more modern amenities that they lacked previously, but the culture that is in crisis is still there.

And I'm not sure how you can 'fix' the lifestyle someone has chosen to live.

Perhaps I'm looking at this issue from too large a standpoint.

Nathan Empsall said...

Dogwalk; I've always focused more on the political and legal than the cultural, which needs to change. The cultural and the spiritual is the most personal and the underpinnings for all else, so I should certainly see your art! Is it from the CDA tribe? And I'm actually in CDA now, as of last night.

Cany, that has got to be the best comment this blog has ever recieved. Thank you for sharing. I've only read one thin book about the boarding schools, but they've come up at least in passing in just about every class I've had. I had to write a paragraph about them on Monday's final. Shameful stuff. :( No, I haven't read Custer's book, but I'm so jealous you have an autographed copy of Custer Died for Your Sins!!! Wow. Thanks for raising awareness about this stuff.

Jordan, the rape statistics come from both the Justice Department and Amnesty International. The health stats come from a poorly-cited policy paper I wrote for EPPN this past summer, which means I'm not sure where each specific number comes from, but I do remember that all the sources I used were sound. You're right, it's a very broad issue, but so much of it is about more than lifestyles. While there are certainly internal tribal issues, I find that when tribes are empowered and when their sovereignty is honored, when the US government is willing to work with them rather than be in charge and when states recognize that they have no legal power (save under PL280 and the gaming law), things almost always improve. Cultural respect and legal empowerment is something we whites can help work toward.

Dogwalkmusings said...

Nathan, E-mail me at dogwalkmusings @mac.com and let's see if we can get together! The house is in chaos with decorating but I would still love to show you the work. It's Northwest Coast, Inuit and Southwest - Navajo and Hopi mostly with a few odds and ends thrown in. The spirituality is all intermingled within the art. Fascinating stuff.