Monday, August 17, 2015

Dishonorable Intent

Several of my more irate correspondents found my recent statements regarding the condition of Native Americans impossible to believe. One wrote intimating that I was using this as a clever foil to be racist, another just flat out stated that the situation in which many Native Americans find themselves is of their own doing. 

Yeah. Just like Africans volunteered to be slaves in the 17th and 18th....and 19th and 20th...and 21st centuries. Sure they did. They just lined the coast of African shouting at any passing ship, "Take me! Take me!" 

No one volunteers to be an oppressed people. No one raises a hand to say, "Choose me!" 

White Earth Reservation
Civil rights for Native Americans is a complex and complicated issue. As of 2015, 567 separate Native American tribes are recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In case you didn't know, the BIA holds approximately 55,700,000 acres, about  87,800 square miles  in trust for Native American tribes, Native Americans, and the Native Americans of Alaska. IN TRUST. Kinda like what your mother does with your first savings account. This means you don't have direct access to it, but your executors do, and that's what the BIA is supposed to do. 

The BIA, established in 1824, used to have three sections: Indian Affairs, Indian Education, and Indian Health. The health part has been moved to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, but the other two parts remain intact. History of the agency demonstrates they are not always the friend of the indigenous peoples. In fact, quite the opposite. The BIA was known to aid and abet the government in the confiscation of lands already guaranteed to Native Americans.

Even though most Native Americans don’t live on the "res," it does not mean that the concept no longer plays a role in the life and times of all Native Americans. It does. There are still laws on the books in a variety of locales that, while completely ignored, remain a part of the legal system. Can you imagine if language restricting African Americans to certain segments of a municipality remained as silent law? Can you imagine what would have happened had former slaves been told "Well, technically you're free, but you have to live in assigned areas only that are reserved for you."

If the original treaties "reserved" segments of native lands for use by specific tribal nations, that reservation did not stick. The reservations did not stop the US government from subsequently forcing tribal nations to relocate to lands that were not historically or culturally connected to a particular tribe. As soon as the government had a use for the land, the tribes were moved again. Not sure? Read about the Trail of Broken Treaties.

Are you beginning to see where I'm going here? If not, let me be real specific: very little has changed. In fact, it's being done right now, right here in Minnesota. 

Yes. Right now. 

Looking out over the rice fields.                        Jolene Yazzie for Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera (yes, that Al Jazeera) published a story on June 24th about Enbridge, the owners of the proposed Sandpiper Pipeline, considering a law suit for eminent domain along Lower Rice Lake, not only putting the environment at risk, but creating a huge risk for the wild rice harvesters. The pipeline would run square thought some of the most productive wild rice fields in the state. These fields are hand harvested by White Earth Nation, and they are invoking their treaty rights to stop the progress of this pipeline.

Before you get all huffy, here's the straight skinny on this. In 1837, the Chippewa of the White Earth Nation....known to themselves as the Ojibwe/Anishinaabe, signed a treaty that, in exchange for land concessions, they would retain usufructuary rights. This was important stuff: it meant they would retain the rights to hunt, fish, and gather rice on ceded lands. When a case contesting these rights reached SCOTUS in 1999, the Supremes decided in favor of the White Earth Nation. Although Minnesota claimed the treaty protecting usufructuary rights was vacated when a new treaty was signed in 1895, SCOTUS said, "No," and upheld the rights on behalf of the tribe. 

Wild rice is a crop pretty unique to Minnesota. Yeah, they try to grow it in other places, but everyone on this immediate planet knows there is no rice like our wild rice. 

That, and the rice harvest is a major component of the  income and stability of the White Earth Ojibwe. To damage the lakes involved is not simply a matter of temporary inconvenience. This pipeline is destructive to the rice fields, the environment, and the entire economy of the region. 

The greatest part of this tragedy is not necessarily the broken treaties or the attempt at stealing more land from the Ojibwe. The real tragedy is the one at the bottom of this morass: no one is talking about it.

I want a candidate to talk about Native American rights....and their continued treatment by corporate and governmental America. I want this to be seen as an unresolved problem in this country. 

This is an ongoing national disgrace. We should be ashamed.    


  1. Thanks for pointing this out. There is the move by Senator McCain, and now this. And who knows what other actions are being taken to rob Native Americans of their homes and rights. Keep up the good work.

  2. I applaud your taking this focus and I agree with you. But, yep here comes the "but," please, please, please find other examples to make your points than the status of African-Americans. Restricted areas for Blacks and the accompanying policies continue to this day. Mostly known as "redlining," these policies remain solid as written law for a variety of reasons and compounding economic contributors. There is so much that we, as Americans have to be ashamed of, but knowledge is power. Hopefully, as we gain info in one area, we won't perpetuate misunderstanding in others.

    1. I think the statement in this case is analogous. I said _Africans_, not African Americans. Slavery in Africa is not a historical event; it is modern and continues even today. My initial thought was Boku Haram and the other radical groups that continue to enslave opposition populations for sex and labor.

      No one volunteers for that, either.

    2. I understand. You are correct. However, what about the currently enslaved in Eastern Europe or India? I suppose my sensitivity is in what seems the perennial linkages to Africans and the diaspora, without ever referencing similarities among other groups. Can't please everyone, but you do a pretty good job! :-)

    3. Definitely agree about the currently enslaved in the rest of the world, but slave trade in Africa is openly practiced, as it is in the would-be Islamic Caliphate.Seriously openly practiced. Slave markets and all. So hard to believe that it still exists, but it does.

      And thank you for the compliment. That made be blush and smile. Really.