An Unprecedented Diversity in Representation
Something is happening on Turtle Island that has never happened before, and mainstream media still refuses to report it. It is the gathering of hundreds of sovereign Nations to fight one thread of corporate America. But to understand the breathtaking reality of the situation, I should first paint you a picture.
Hundreds of years ago, Turtle Island (the “Americas”) was heavily populated with an incredible diversity of people. There were Nations in the Andes with large lungs well-adapted to the altitude; there were vast cities on the Yucatan Peninsula with intricate ceremonies to maintain their balance; there were entire groups of peoples thriving off the icy hills of the Arctic Circle. In present-day America, there were longhouses in the northeast, wigwams in the Midwest, tipis on the prairies, hogans in the southwest, and plank houses in the northwest. These were people who traded abalone shells and other goods across thousands of miles; but these were also people who were not a people. They were many peoples. They were many Nations. To this day, we remain, and we remain as many Nations. We remain this way, yet we are identified, stereotyped, and degraded as one “race” of people whose stories, histories, and religions continue to be inferior to the mainstream America.
The label “Indian” is a legal term, but it is a misnomer that reminds us of how poor Columbus really was at his job (navigating) to think he was in India when he met people from the Caribbean. He is venerated for discovering America, a country he never even set eyes on, yet more than 567 tribal nations in the United States alone are now legally united under the term “Indian”. Even the title “Native American” is Euro-Centric. Many people prefer to be called by their citizenship, for example “Navajo” (or, as said in Navajo, “Diné”). Imagine all the folks at the Italian-American Club being called “European-American” and being stereotyped the same was as a Russian-American, Irish-American, or even Turkish-American. Perhaps the greatest irony is that “Native Americans” enrolled with their Nations could not legally be American citizens until 1924 – that is, if they even wanted to be citizens of the same country that committed centuries of genocide against them.
If you want to understand how this generalization – this racism – affects the way people perceive Native Americans and the way Native Americans often view themselves, I highly recommend logging into Netflix and watching Reel Injun.
Can you begin to grasp the diversity of tribal nations in North America? Can you see how these nations are no more similar than European countries with territorial boundaries drawn on a map? That each of these tribal nations comes with its own Creation Story, its own religions, its own set of constellations in the same sky? Many of these Nations were once enemies fighting for territories and resources, yet today we all face a greater enemy: The people who determined us as the same People, the people who have labeled us “Indian”…Those are the same people who have exerted their political powers to create Reservation boundaries near or thousands of miles away from traditional land; they’re the same people who have made it illegal for certain Native populations to carry eagle feathers in ceremony; the same people who marched the “Five Civilized Tribes” hundreds of miles; the same people who held the Navajo in a concentration camp for four years; the same people who started residential boarding schools to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” (government motto); the same people who shot buffalo and livestock to starve out populations, hanged Natives under Lincoln’s racist orders, and dissolved traditional governments or tribal status when tribal Nations refused to sign over all of their rights. (Another good film to watch: go on YouTube and find Broken Rainbow.)
Now that you see the diversity of indigenous Nations to this country and their historic individuality, you might begin to see the significance of what is happening in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Allegedly over 150 Native Nations from the continent have already made the journey to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation to announce their positions of solidarity with Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline. These are Nations bound to each other by nothing other than a modern identity of “American” and a legal label of “Indian”. These are Nations who could have easily been natural enemies but who are now uniting against common enemies. But they are also Nations who acknowledge all human beings are related, all human beings share the same earth and atmosphere, and all human beings need clean water to live. We need these things, and so do all of the organisms that we rely on.
Let’s also pause for a moment to paint the picture of the Standing Rock people and who they are. The Nakota, Dakota, and Lakota peoples are all united under the modern term “Sioux”. Each branch has subgroups, and they all speak a similar language with many dialects. They are the people who have occupied the northern Plains since the time settlers began pushing west into their territory. It is this “frontier” conflict that gave birth to the stereotype of “Indians” who challenged “cowboys” while wearing headdresses, yield bows and arrows, riding horses, and retreating to tipis. Clearly this is not an accurate portrait of all “Native” peoples. Even the “Sioux” themselves are made of an incredibly diverse gathering of people.
The Standing Rock people are among the Lakota. Their reservation now straddles the boundary between southern North Dakota and northern South Dakota. Their traditional boundaries extend well beyond these arbitrary lines, and therefore their burials and sacred sites are also scattered across this great territory. When the Dakota Access Pipeline declared it would be passing through treaty land, the Standing Rock stood in a heartbeat to oppose it. This would threaten traditional land, sacred sites, and – of course – the health of water resources. And fighting pipelines is nothing new for the Lakota. It was just last year that Obama helped to effectively block the Keystone XL pipeline from threatening traditional lands as well as the Oglala Aquifer, the largest freshwater resource in the entire world.