Standing Rock, Moahdak Do’ag, and the Pervasiveness of Cultural Warfare

American History classes leave out so much of indigenous history.  It’s not because curricula are reinforcing the idea that these nations are sovereign and therefore separate; it’s because it perpetuates this notion that indigenous peoples exist only in a historical context.  It also is a means of downplaying the genocide crimes this country is responsible for and invalidating non-Western cultures and traditional knowledge.

The Indian Affairs office was created under the U.S. Department of War in 1824, the same year Mexico claimed the southwest “American” territories from Spain.  In 1849, a year after the United States took claim of these territories from Mexico, Indian Affairs was transferred to the Department of the Interior.  The mentality that “Indian” cultures are a threat, however, did not die as the federal government chose to assume a position of warden to its newly inducted wards, the tribal peoples.  This mentality would continue – and does continue to this day – to play out in policies and court decisions that promote assimilation and normalize cultural genocide.

When the events at Standing Rock began to intensify this past summer, more and more “outsiders” became aware of Reservations, tribal voices, and the Federal government’s imposition on indigenous rights.  More or less, they began to wake up to a reality that has dominated the lives and histories of so many American citizens.  Militarized police began occupying the lands around the #NoDAPL camps, using unprovoked violence, intimidation techniques, and actual war supplies to advance the agenda of a corporation that had violated laws protecting cultural resources.  This may have shocked many, but for others it wasn’t the same surprise: the military occupation of our tribal lands started centuries ago.  This was simply a manifestation of that occupation that hadn’t been seen in a physical sense until, perhaps, Wounded Knee in 1973.

Sadly, not everyone who participated at the resistance at Standing Rock served the community in its best interests.  While the movement largely began over the violations of land rights and clean water rights – sovereign titles held by binding, international treaties – a great number of people showed up in droves to advance their own climate justice agendas.  They showed up to fight pipelines and fossil fuels rather than to defend the graves that were torn apart and the waters from which the people are said to have been born.  These people wanted to use Standing Rock as an advertisement for how these poor, victimized, nature-loving Native Americans were actually doing something about a pipeline – and now how can we do the same thing at home?

The proof that 99% of Standing Rock’s outside guests were not in the movement for the right reasons comes with their absence at the dozens of ongoing atrocities on tribal lands.  Many of these are not pipeline conflicts, and therefore they do not fit into their climate agendas.  Instead, small groups are left to fight for the same sorts of assaults on their cultural resources and communities’ health.  They are risking everything – far more than others even have to risk.

This is because brown people all over the country are arrested, incarcerated, and often killed by police violence at disproportionate rates.  In indigenous communities, so many of our people fall far below the Western-defined line for what is poverty.  The Federal government has forced such a rapid transition of lifestyle, economy, and political structure on Reservations, adding layers of red tape that cripple development and extraction projects that spew pollution and radiation, often unchecked, into these sacrifice zones.  These people live among unreclaimed mine tailings.  Surely not all, but many, have underlying health issues that expound all of stresses.  And, finally, these battles are typically all-or-nothing attempts to block irreversible cultural and spiritual damage to their very identities.  White allies might be able to afford child care, pay their bills, and take time off of work.  They don’t have to fear police brutality, and they have the resources to bail themselves out of jail.  But the people most impacted by these projects are risking far more than that, if not their lives and their ways of life.

True solidarity will never exist unless non-indigenous communities can agree to organize and support indigenous peoples on the basis of ethics, not on the basis of belief.  For example, with Moahdak Do’ag (South Mountain), Arizona Department of Transportation is threatening the local O’otham communities of Phoenix by irreversibly damaging a sacred mountain as part of a new highway project.  The underlying problems are identical to those at Standing Rock, but because it’s not a pipeline we don’t have droves of supporters lining up like we did in North Dakota.  It simply doesn’t fit into people’s climate agenda – at least not in a direct way that they can comprehend.  However, true solidarity in this project doesn’t come from a shared belief that this mountain is sacred and that its protection is necessary for life to continue as it has; instead, it comes from the ethical realization that no violation of human rights is acceptable, and that indigenous rights are included in human rights.

Just like at Standing Rock, the US Army Corps of Engineers is considering water permits.  The Gila River Indian Community has been in the forefront of voices in opposition of such a project.  After speaking at the public hearing in Laveen, Arizona on May 9th, I submitted the following comment by the 19th to demand the denial of this permit:

I would like to support all of the findings of the Gila River Indian Community’s demand that these permits be denied. My response here is surely not complete; however, I will highlight some points I find relevant to why this project cannot be permitted.

The Army Corps is meant to evaluate the legitimacy of a permit application based on a number of factors. The underlying goal is to protect and utilize important resources. As the South Mountain and corresponding water flows are at the central part of these resource considerations, and as they are central to the survival of an entire nation of people (Gila River Indian Community) and equally important to their relatives (other O’othams), that is a central piece to why this project – and the permits – should never move forward.

This permit must be denied as this project clearly violates many rights, including human rights. Construction should never have begun as dispute is ongoing. The Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), a sovereign nation impacted in what appears to be a very biased manner, is currently in the 9th Circuit to shut the project down. The Army Corps claims to not permit projects in an ongoing dispute, therefore it cannot permit the project for many reasons if not for the simple reason that it’s disputed. Furthermore, the O’otham sovereign nations, which include GRIC, have every intention maintain their position, to never consent but rather to dispute this project as a means of protecting their religious freedom and longevity in this area. It is their absolute right – and obligation – to do so, in order to protect their existence and freedoms.

No substantial information demonstrates the need for this project. Any economic development it claims to support is exclusionary. By creating a bypass past GRIC, its western casino is no longer easily accessible. This directly impacts the income of the community. There appears to be bias in the ingresses and egresses designed and how they serve tribal people. Furthermore, the tribal lands, atmosphere, and cultural ways and resources are all being sacrificed to the benefit of the outside, fledgling community. There is outrage with the realization that this extension is part of a larger trading scheme – the CANAMEX Corridor – that will perpetuate pollution in the vicinity and which will detriment before support the indigenous desert farming peoples. Even the non-tribal residents north of Pecos Road have published pieces in local papers denouncing this absurd intrusion on their health, environment, and seclusion. You have very vocal opposition from both sides of the most disputed segment of the design, the Central piece.

This central segment has no alternatives, and the only alternative offered will irreversibly desecrate a sacred mountain. Were that mountain Mecca, you would not be able to assault the Muslim community by permitting such a project to desecrate their spiritual and cultural resources. This issue is synonymous with the effects of desecrating Moahdak Do’ag to the O’otham minority. The difference is you, as a federal agency, have a clearly defined trust responsibility with sovereign Indian nations. This means you are required to serve the best interest of the community, which they have clearly expressed is denying this permit. In fact, the numerous Arizona tribal nations have united in recent years, vetted against this project.

If you so value public comment, let’s also take a moment to acknowledge how everyone that attended your remote public hearing opposed this project. Tribal members cited United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a means of describing how this project will violate their human rights. The US Army Corps needs to be fluent in this doctrine as it is essential for functioning as defined by legal obligation to indigenous citizens. In the public hearing on May 9th, 2017, even non-tribal members echoed the concerns of the local tribal members. This non-indigenous audience largely defended their natural recreational areas and right to a healthy environment. Perhaps instead of promoting road traffic through this area, we should be investing in a more extensive transportation system that will actually help combat emissions and build a sense of community. Speakers at the meeting, from all communities, pointed out the US Army Corps’ failure record thus far in abiding to the law of trust relationship with tribes. If you add yourself to these failures, you can expect a number of groups to counter your decision in the courts.

Additionally, sandy, silty lands this dry will not absorb discharge, posing flood risks and blownout infrastructure. The US Geological Surveys surveys published and available online clearly define the soil types of this area and the dependency on the Reservation to their pristine, undisturbed state. Discharge from highways always contain chemical changes, a water quality issue. You cannot permit these waters to wash off a new highway and drain into tribal farm lands. StreamStats shows the majority of drainages come from the mountain and flow naturally into the Reservation; thus the majority of water quality issues will directly affect the tribe. The local community barely survived a famine not 100 years before; promoting similar risks is little if nothing short of genocide. The surveys also clearly detail how seeding needs to be specific to saline-tolerant plants; how seeding should be well-maintained in order to prevent severe erosion (which requires a lot of watering and aftercare); and how not adding amendments to the soil will discharge toxins due to the chemical composition of soil that has been disturbed in this particular soil type and region. How has that been evaluated? It has not.

And finally, consider how water quality is not merely a chemical measurement. In a Westernized mind, perhaps it is. But religion is not always so clear cut, and it is not legal to make a ruling discrediting one’s religious views; rather UNDRIP requires that different paradigms are honored. These people have clearly described to you their views about the spirituality of their water, its sacredness, and its memory. Refusing to acknowledge their spiritual beliefs as to how this will desecrate and destroy the South Mountain discharges and other cultural resources is to say you don’t validate their religion. Many federal laws prohibit such violations.

With this information in mind, I would like to address the three regulatory program goals.

1) To provide strong protection of the nation’s aquatic environment: I have mentioned how this will impact water quality, from both a Western and non-Western perspective. Therefore it is your duty to deny the permit and stay true to your goals.

2) To ensure the Corps provides the regulated public with fair and reasonable decisions: The public has been clear in its opposition, and not hearing the majority voice – or honoring the minority, sovereign community disproportionately affected by this project – is not providing the regulated public with fair and reasonable decisions. Therefore it is your duty to deny the permit and stay true to your goals.

3) To enhance the efficiency of the Corps’ administration of its regulatory program: To this day, the Army Corps has a poor track record in proper tribal consultation, consent, and meeting conduction. There it is your duty to work on improving these systems and to deny the permit and stay true to your goals.

For these reasons and many more, it is clear you cannot issue this permit legally. Deny it immediately, and work with the indigenous communities on how you can both operate together in a better, more respectful way than before – through genuine consultation, the honoring of alternative worldviews, and cultural sensitivity such as the way in which you conduct meetings and hear tribal members’ requests.

As you can see, the assault on cultural resources is perpetuated by every unwelcome infrastructure project on or near tribal lands.  #NoLoop202, just like #NoDAPL, demonstrates how the Federal government utilizes the US Army Corps to refuse sovereign rights and to occupy arenas that should promote cultural protection.  From pipelines to dams, from power plants and the abrupt closure of power plants and their jobs, this is cultural warfare, and it is pervasive in Indian Country.

My question is: Will 2017 finally be the year that Americans support indigenous peoples rather than appropriate them and what their stereotypical notions are of them?

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“I am the river and the river is me”: How New Zealand is defending Maori worldviews.

Perhaps one of the greatest struggles in indigenous communities today is the laws that oversee their affairs but do not incorporate their own intrinsic values.  Western society has become so accustomed to a worldview developed through sets of values such as Christianity that it becomes difficult to separate these perspectives from our every day lives.  But not all peoples hold the same values, including the Maori in New Zealand.

Recently, New Zealand attorney general Chris Finlayson worked on agreements between the New Zealand government and various Maori groups to enable a swath of land or entire body of water to be granted personhood in the eyes of New Zealand law.

“In [the Maori] worldview,” stated Finlayson,”‘I am the river and the river is me’.  Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”

This idea seems foreign to those who view “personhood” as something that belongs only to a human being.  But in a worldview that sees spirituality and what constitutes as living in a different light than what many Westerners see, this definition applies to traditional lands is completely logical.

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The former national park, Te Urewera, existed from 1954 to 2015 and consisted of 821 square miles of North Island.  Recently, the Te Urewera Act took effect so that the government abandoned its formal ownership and the land became its own legal entity, including having “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person” per the statute that was passed.  In other words, the park was granted personhood; a river system is expected to receive the same designation soon, once it passes Parliament.

This classifications seem like “unusual designations” for those accustomed to non-Maori worldview, yet the legal status is similar to that of corporations who are also not an individual human being.  The decision to grant personhood was a “profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world,” according to Pita Sharples, the minister of Maori affairs when the law passed.  The settlement resolved the ongoing argument between New Zealand government and Maori groups over the guardianship of natural features within the country.

One great advantage to passing this law for the sake of conservation is the power it gives to the land itself.  Lawsuits to protect the land can be brought on behalf of the land itself without any need to demonstrate how a human being is impacted while defending the land’s protection.

The river set to receive similar status is the Whanganui River, the third longest river in New Zealand.  To the Maori, it is “an invisible and living whole, comprising the river and all tributaries from the mountains to the sea – and that’s what we are giving effect to through this settlement,” according to Mr. Finalyson.

These new designations do not mean people cannot still enjoy Te Urewera like when it was a national park; it simply means special permits for activities like hunting must be issued through a new board that represents the river.  This board will consist of both government and Maori representatives.

The hope now is that this landmark decision will set precedent for other indigenous communities around the world whose worldviews and cultural paradigms are not being incorporated into the laws that govern their traditional and sacred sites.  Finlayon has already began discussions with Canada’s new attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, on how these concepts can be written into Canadian law.

Will Canada be next?

Eurocentric Curricula: A Modern-Day Colonizer of Young Minds and Perspectives

This is a paper I did for HST102 at Dine College.  I probably could have written thirty pages, but I already went over the limit…

 

Kayla DeVault

Dr. King

World Civilizations 102

20 April 2016

Eurocentric Curricula: A Modern-Day Colonizer of Young Minds and Perspectives

Formal public education in the United States has its roots in the American Colonia Era. During this era, Christianity and white supremacy affected every aspect of political and social life in the United States as well as in many places in Europe or colonized by European countries. With an educational system being borne from this era, it is therefore understandable that the subsequent system be entrenched in Christian values and a Eurocentric perspective on the world and on racial equality. As eras have passed, more and more work has been done by the government and pressuring citizens to rewrite the curriculum, resulting in changes of religious content in curricula, the inclusion of a more racially diverse student body, and even topics like anthropology that explore more human histories. However, are the curricula in public schools still heavily Eurocentric? In particular, how are the histories First Americans portrayed today in these systems, if at all, and how does it reflect on how they portray themselves?

Until the Indian Citizenship of 1924, any Native American who did not relinquish his or her tribal citizenship could not be considered an American citizen. In some ways, becoming a citizen of both a tribal nation and the United States was controversial as it could be seen as undermining tribal sovereignty. Even so, this change means that it has been less than a century that Native American histories have become part of American history rather than an “us vs. them” viewpoint, i.e. a Eurocentric perspective. The question is whether or not the curriculum has shifted to reflect this societal change. Considering the heightened “Indians and Cowboys” film activities in the 1950s and 1960s, the American obsession with “us vs. them” and the Plains Indians cultures prohibited non-Indian Americans from seeing anything but the 1800s, stereotypical Indian fighting invading frontiersmen.

Even as the American Indian Movement rose alongside other Civil Rights movements in the 1970s, old-fashioned mentalities continued to affect modern Natives. The involuntary sterilization of thousands of Native women by the Indian Health Service during this era, under the guise of “helping” Native communities, demonstrates the prevalence of this outdated, “us vs. them” concept of Indians in the popular American viewpoint. Furthermore, the continued lack of coverage on such acts of genocide reinforces the disparities in including Indians in American history. Yet this is merely one example; American Indian histories extend for thousands of years over thousands of miles, and those histories are living. How well is our public school system doing to address such an enormous spread of topics and in a way that is culturally appropriate, accurate, and inclusive?

One of the first methods used for reviewing the curricula in public schools was to study the guidelines for Social Studies provided by the Bureau of Education. Various public school superintendents, from Flagstaff to Tuba City, confirmed that the Arizona Bureau of Education’s standards are the best resource for studying the curriculum of social studies from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Having also been a student in the Pennsylvania public school system, I spent some time analyzing that curriculum as well. I also took Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH), and so materials were reviewed for APUSH as another “American History Standard”. In all areas, the curriculum was reviewed for: 1) inclusion of Native histories; 2) presentation of Native peoples as historic-only, contemporary-only, or both; 3) breadth of Native cultures included; 4) emphasis on local history, including local tribes; 5) perspective on Native histories (Eurocentric or unbiased); 6) included or excluded historic events that are significant in Indian Country; and 7) Navajo history, especially the Long Walk.

Having attended several public and private schools in Pennsylvania, I am particularly interested in the changes being made to curricula as well as where there are still disparages. Indian mascots are used widely across eastern States, yet so many curricula fail to educate students on proper Native history, thereby perpetuating a vicious cycle of ignorance. One of my private schools is currently looking into a curriculum revision that includes training teachers on how to present materials in ways that are more culturally inclusive. In a conversation with my former school’s headmaster, she described the old curriculum as being “written and presented from the view of the oppressor”. In my years at that school and others, I can only recall a focus on the Removal Act, the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and a very general view of Indian Policy. Otherwise, topics included “Indians”. My younger brother was even given an “Indian name” in 5th grade, and we were both made to create paper headdresses to celebrate Thanksgiving. These activities not only inaccurately depict past and present Native peoples, but they also assume no Native child is on the receiving end of that education by the nature of how the information is presented. These lapses contribute to the Eurocentric curriculum perspective.

Today, education in Pennsylvania still lags behind in quality like much of the nation, but changes in the curriculum are evident. In fact, after reviewing resources for public education standards in Pennsylvania, I was pleased to discover some social studies curricula specifically geared to dispel “Indian” stereotypes in young students. One example of this is a 3rd grade activity that focuses on Anishinabe peoples relative to the Great Lakes region of the United States. This activity introduces students to past and present cultures of the various Anishinabe/Ojibwe people, discussing both original and contemporary locations. The culture and tradition of the Ojibwe people are studied in depth. The class is then tasked with researching the topic of migration of the peoples and reflecting on this migration’s role to culture. Another section, specified for grades 3 through 5, is “Not ‘Indians’, Many Tribes: Native American Diversity”. The point of this section is to show similar interactions between environment and culture for the Abenaki, Hopi, and Kwakiutl Nations. Students are asked to contrast and compare these wildly different groups and to demonstrate how their environment has shaped their cultures. These activities are encouraging to find in the curriculum guidelines because they demonstrate an effort to dispel stereotypes and create a better understanding of native peoples in both a past and present context.

However, not everything in Pennsylvania’s standard curriculum is up-to-date. While the examples found were great ones, they are not representative of the efforts across the board. These two examples were perhaps the only examples that could be made of this myth debunking, and the word “Navajo” only returned results for a collection of poems under a long list of books recommended under one track of high school history. Searches for the term “Long Walk” returned nothing, and so it is expected that even an intensive scouring of commonly used textbooks in the Pennsylvania curriculum will likely result in very little representation of significant southwest tribal history. Even the vocabulary used by these curricula to teach the most disgraceful parts of American history is rather biased. Textbooks are quick to describe the actions of Nazi Germany as “genocide” by means of “concentration camps”, but the reality is these Nazis replicated American designs that were used against tribal peoples – and yet we continue to use language like “walk”, “march”, “relocation”, and other milder terms.

Furthermore, there are many elements in the Pennsylvania history and social studies curricula that, as they stand, continue to present negative figures in a positive light. One prime example of this is the depiction of Andrew Jackson. As most Americans have likely been educated to believe, Andrew Jackson is generally portrayed as a war hero with many great accomplishments. His face appears on the twenty-dollar bill for this reason. Yet, as many modern Natives understand, and as activists like Deloria Vine, Jr. have loved to remind America, Andrew Jackson is far from a hero. Then how is it that, under the standards for social studies teaching for Pennsylvania on the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson is described as having a victory over the British in New Orleans which made him “a new hero” in the United States? (PDESAS). In fact, the link referenced for more information continues by stating: “Added to his fame as an Indian fighter, this brilliant action propelled him to national prominence and ultimately to election as president in 1828” (American History). How would an Indian student reading that line feel about what it was suggesting? Would it even occur to the other students and teachers who are non-Indian that this passage is an incredibly exclusive piece of “history”? The entire section also seems to fail drastically at educating students on contemporary issues, such as why today Andrew Jackson is so widely rejected as a hero in Indian Country. How could a modern, non-Indian student understand the motion to change the face of the twenty-dollar bill when any portrayals of Andrew Jackson in the public system are so positive?

The standards for education in the southwest are similarly governed by the States. In Arizona, the curriculum prioritizes Native history far more than eastern curricula tend to. Various Superintendents across northern Arizona supported this observation in phone conversations about their schools’ curricula. Just by reviewing the very general outlines Arizona sets for education in high school, topics regarding Native Americans appear in history, geography, and government strands. The first mention is in Paleo-Indian topics; an effort is made to differentiate the various kinds of tribal peoples and their specific inheritance. One section is set aside for the southwest populations, relevant as a local cultural topic. Unlike many other curricula for different states, the Arizona curriculum does require students to analyze the movements of American military and government and how these impacted the cultures and lives of the tribal peoples affected. In the government section, students are required to learn about the voting rights issues Natives faced – not just on a National level in 1924, but also following World War II in Arizona. This section also talks about the Code Talkers.

However, one observation is that the “Long Walk” is never specifically detailed in the curriculum, and neither is its famous eastern counterpart, the “Trail of Tears”. Even in descriptions of Kit Carson, his supervisor Carrelton, and Fort Sumner, many American texts shy away from capturing the true brutality, injustice, and Eurocentric mentality that dominated the era (Gordon-McCutchan). Carson, long praised for his efforts as written in White history, is in fact a criminal by modern standards. Especially among the Navajos, this holds true. Students today should be taught the same perspective, for anything short of that would be at conflict with the human rights topics they cover in other classes. Students on the Navajo Reservation or living near it – or perhaps just in the Southwest in general – should absolutely be made aware of not only this topic in history, but of the shift in perspectives regarding how we now reference it. Imagine if we still read passages on slavery in American history books written by those in support of keeping slavery in the economy. There are some perspectives that have to be updated and erased, so why is it taking so long to change Native American passages?

While it is true that local histories should be emphasized in one curriculum more than another, it is still important that the histories being taught at a national level should cover a significant part of Native histories. The curriculum set in place for APUSH is essentially a national standard for understanding United States History. The scores from the AP exams in this area are capable of earning college credits for high school students pursuing higher education degrees. The curriculum therefore should reflect an intense and holistic view of what is widely accepted as “American history”. Yet, APUSH does not define as “American History” starting at its Independence of 1776 or even in just the years leading into that event. Instead, it defines “American History” as 1491 and beyond. This inclusion of one year before Columbus landed in the Caribbean in a way implies that Native history is a part of the American story, but in reality its purpose is to establish an idea that Native populations have been conquered and how it was done. This is a troubling approach as it disseminates Columbus’ viewpoint on the peoples he and the Europeans after him used to justify their actions: Native peoples in a limited, narrow, and uncivilized context that fails to acknowledge cultural diversity and richness. Without making this distinction between how these “conquerors” viewed Native peoples and how they should be viewed, it becomes increasingly difficult to put contemporary Indian issues into a historical context. For example, just the very idea of “Indian policy” as a blanket term for how to “deal with” Indian peoples perpetuates the blurring of lines between sovereign nations and the “us vs. them” mentality that devastates understanding modern issues faced by tribal governments and citizens in the Americas.

Although the curriculum largely focuses on the “Five Civilized Tribes”, the Spanish missions and encomienda system in the southwest, and some of the political movements from the American Indian Movement in the northern Plains, I saw no indication of Hawai’ian and Alaskan indigenous histories. The Dawes Act and subsequent Indian Reorganization Act is mentioned, but no curriculum notes outline the Residential Boarding School Era, the Navajo Long Walk, the Livestock Reduction, the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute, or even the Termination Era of Indian Policy. In fact, Native history seems to end in 1973 with Wounded Knee – although, sadly, that is much more impressive than most histories that end with the Trail of Tears and which fail to portray Natives as living citizens with professional careers.

In addition to these curricula, one business book for business classes at Coconino Community College was analyzed for material relevant to Indian businesses. The book is “The Legal, Ethical, and Regulatory Environment of Business” by Bruce D. Fisher and Michael J. Phillips (1998). The purpose of the book is to “[emphasize] the relevance of legal environment topics to business functions” and to present a “strong emphasis on ethics, international law, environmental law, and women’s legal concerns”. After scanning the book’s contents for any coverage on Indian businesses or tribal entities, it was found that Native Americans are mentioned very few times in the text.

On page 459, a section devoted to “Exclusions from Coverage” mentions employer discrimination policies. In this, it explains that Title VII does not apply to Native American tribes, but nothing more is stated to explain why this is so. For the Navajo Nation, for example, there is a complicated business arrangement. Not only is employment priority Navajo (not simply Native American), but all business transactions fall under a complicated bidding process with Navajo Priority 1, Priority 2, and Non-Priority. Indian services provided by the Federal government, on the other hand, are Indian Preference. This concept is so widely misunderstood by the non-Indian population that it should be emphasized in all business texts. In a school like Coconino Community College, surrounded by Indian Country, it is somewhat surprising that is excluded. Another mention, on page 783, casually describes the Department of Energy attempting “to convince Native American tribes to accept [nuclear] wastes on their reservations in exchange for federal money”, as if this is ethical business practice (Fisher).

All in all, it appears as though states are making an effort to be more inclusive of non-biased Native histories that assist in dispelling stereotypes. However, the transition is slow, and it is especially slow in areas where there are less Native students or Native populations – i.e. areas that may have a higher tendency to not see Natives in a modern perspective and who would, therefore, benefit from these contemporary lessons the most. So many curricula focus on the expulsion of Spanish powers from the southwest without consideration that people already lived there. That is why incorporating lessons on the Long Walk is such a key point for introducing the atrocities committed by all armies during the 1800s in present-day New Mexico and Arizona. The real story of the Long Walk is not lost among today’s Navajos, however. Modern music about the walk can be heard regularly on KTNN, the local Window Rock radio station. There is also the famous song Shí Naasha, written in 1868, that sums up the true emotions of the walk back from Fort Sumner:

Ahala ahalago naashá ghą

Shí naashá ghą, shí naashá ghą,

Shí naashá lágo hózhǫ’ la.

Shí naashá ghą, shí naashá ghą,

Shí naashá, ladee hózhǫ’ǫ’ lá.

I am going in freedom.

I am going in beauty all around me.

I am going, I am going, in beauty

It is around me.

This song reflects the anxiousness and relief of the people returning. It is also cultural significant when one realizing the story and the impact of reentering the boundaries of the four sacred mountains. Furthermore, “walking in beauty” and “harmony” play such an important part to Navajo culture, and seeing it as such a positive way to recover from Fort Sumner demonstrates the resilience and cultural strength of the Navajo people. The spirituality is completely interlocked with their experience at Fort Sumner, despite the conditions and lack of hope. Their song and prayer is what kept them together. These are things students are not able to learn from modern curricula and therefore are not able to understand wholesomely when visiting the Navajo Nation or surrounding areas.

In conclusion, the American education system still has a ways to go before it will be truly and equal and unbiased learning experience. Once students are able to recite the culture, history, capitals, and names of tribal nations as well as they can European ones, they will be closer to understanding the country they actually live in; and once students can stop using descriptors like “African”, “Asian”, “Indian”, and “French” or “Italian” as if they are parallel words, equality will be better established in the way we perceive the world. We have had numerous battles about removing religion from schools; it is time we begin making greater strides to reform the “Native American” curricula in these schools as well.

Your Privilege is Showing: How Climate Change Movements Miss the Point

Let’s cut to the chase: The current climate change movement, on both a national and international level, is an excellent cause with a plethora of misguided notions.  Not a piece you were probably expecting to come from a 2016 COP22 Youth Delegate candidate.  But it’s a piece that has to be said, and it has to be said now.

Before we continue blasting the world with our thoughts about environmental and social injustices, before we unite across state lines and borders to commit ourselves to challenges of the best intentions, we need to realize the lenses on our own faces.  We need to become familiar with the privileges we have that give us a voice.  We need to be aware of the hypocrisy of our actions, and how some of our actions actually silence those who, for whatever cause, have a limited participation.  With so much of our advocacy moving into cyberspace, we must acknowledge how many off-the-grid victims of climate change are left out of the conversation.  We use globalization as a strength, but isn’t globalization also our biggest enemy?

PRIVILEGE ON THE CLIMATE CHANGE FRONT
Many of us have privileges for different reasons, and if you’re reading this right now you already have one: internet access.  It’s so crucial for us as individuals to understand what privilege is and also for us to acknowledge it.  In order to make any true social change, understanding privilege and power is key to success.  These privileges are things we have access to in our lives that are in fact luxuries.  They might even be social classes or citizenships we were born into that were simply a roll of the dice.  Yet these privileges affect us both passively and actively.

When privilege affects us passively, it may be because, e.g., we do not experience discrimination or struggle financially day-to-day.  A lack of discrimination, or a lack of financial difficulty, therefore becomes our accepted norm.  In fact, it might not even occur to us how many privileges we have because we haven’t experienced a lack of that privilege.  On the other hand, privilege affects us actively when it creates a lens through which we see the world.  We have a certain idea of how life “should” be, usually based on our norms, and we end up transposing our ideas cross-culturally without even realizing it.  It’s sometimes hard to see a lens when we don’t even realize we are wearing it.  (Click here to read more about how I think our cultural lenses affect our conversations with “developing”, “impoverished”, and even indigenous communities in an interview by Chloe Maxmin.)

Today, we live in a global economy.  Our actions, more than ever, have a rippling effect that touches even the most remote face that we will never get to see or know.  This is so evident to those passionate about climate change and carbon emissions.  We understand the earth is one being, that the trees are its lungs, and that water is a sacred, shared source.  Our days move in a rhythm with the same fiery, gaseous, and extinguishable sphere in the sky.  Even before the internet, we were synchronized in this way.  Our existence, whether spontaneous or planned, relied on this synchronization in order to come into being.  Yet we are weaving that interconnectivity even closer to the point of complete interdependence.

So how does this globalization affect the movement against climate change?  The more and more we become interdependent in our global economy, the more and more we rely on international movements to address global changes.  Carbon emissions is at the forefront of this struggle.  However, we can’t help but be hypocrites; for, as we strive to resolve shared issues from globalization – like carbon emissions – through international efforts and coordination, we are in fact reinforcing the same principles we are trying to defeat.  We look to international leaders, we rally the people from every corner of the globe, we use the effective global communication tool known as social media, we buy cotton shirts in support from unknown material and labor sources, and we hop on a jet plane to get us everywhere in between.  In this way, we become hypocrites – and we exclude those without the same privilege as ourselves from the conversation.

A LIMITED PARTICIPATION
Social justice and environmental justice are not mutually exclusive things.  In fact, our Western lens tends to separate all things that should not be separated.  To think that human rights can be preserved without addressing environmental protection is a foolish notion that will destroy us if we cannot separate ourselves from it.  Yet as the culture of modern, Western society strives increasingly to separate the two, the inseparability between indigenous communities and the protection of their natural resources become evermore clear.  Our disconnect from where our food comes from, who makes our clothes, and even our cultural values translates into a disconnect from humanity and social justice.

When we operate with this disconnect, we risk framing our actions and the reasons why we do them in a way that limits how people feel they can participate.  This circles back to privilege and to having an expected vision of what life should be like.  It’s easy to make a movement where you encourage people to shower only 1 minute a day, ride their bike instead of drive to work, and buy only locally-sourced, organic foods.  Well, there are many places in the world where the population cannot participate in such a movement.  And it doesn’t have to be a remote corner; sometimes it’s in the American backyard.  Even where I live on the Navajo Reservation, many people don’t have running water so they can’t reduce shower time; they might hitch-hike to work, but they can’t bike clear to the border cities where the work and the bus routes only connect major towns a few times a day; and we live in a “food desert” where some folks don’t have electricity for refrigeration, so the choice is usually between a bag of chips or canned conventional food.  Yet it’s undeniable that the Navajo Nation is feeling the effects of climate change.  In some ways, these changes are contributing to the food desert effect.  So how can these exceptions be inclusions?

My example is just one of many, and it’s something I’ve thought about more and more as I’ve traveled.  So often the people being affected the most by climate change are the same people who don’t live with the luxuries that we “cut back on” here and there to “reduce” our impacts.  Of course, it isn’t just about how we rally ourselves socially and who is or isn’t included in social media movements.  It’s also about who is making the decisions on how we live and our health.  The policy-makers who separate themselves from the rallying public and who negotiate behind closed doors are making decisions that will affect the health and prosperity of literally every being in the world.  Talk about privilege, and talk about power.

Another example that I think really embodies the same concept of limited participation actually has to do with public art.  Public art is such a powerful tool of communication, a wordless language that transcends boundaries and delivers messages of varying complexity.  But public art can also be incredibly exclusive.  In the United States, public art is too often used as a tourist statement to encourage people to visit and come into an area.  Sure, it might positively impact local business, but the art the movement introduces is static pieces that live among the unintended audience.  The art isn’t meant to necessarily do anything for the citizens in the area, and it especially tends to exclude certain citizens like the homeless.

A classic example of how public art can be exclusive is the Fremont Troll of Seattle.  The bridge where this art piece is now used to house sleeping homeless people and some alleged drug activity.  As a way to “creatively address” this “problem”, the “public” united to install the Fremont Troll.  On the surface, it looks like a nice idea; but really, the statue displaces the “problem” rather than addresses it – and it most certainly alienates the people the art is actively targeting.  It simply strengthens and widens that social divide/gap.  It reinforces the already present issue that homeless people are not viewed as citizens, as part of the public.  The alternative?  Public art that is in fact a fluid space, inviting participation from the community.  Urban peace gardens are an example of this.  They serve as educational platforms open to any human and they rely on the community’s efforts to keep the installations running after the artists have created them.

If we really want to make a difference on the climate change front, we have to be aware of how we limit participation.  Maybe we are limiting others, and maybe policy-makers are the ones limiting us.  Regardless, we have to avoid reinforcing these gaps by building a Fremont Troll and to instead create a change that runs deeper than just a bandage on a communal wound.  We have to actively seek voices and participation from all demographics and situations, in spite of the nature of the movement and because of the movement itself.  Movements that look to include all kinds of experiences, and which add real perspective to privilege in every form it takes, it’s those movements that are more like the education tool of the urban peace gardens.  They work to include every story into the need for change. 

Ironically, Chloe’s blog also touches on this issue, describing her experience between “us” and “them” while participating in COP21.

THE HYPOCRISY OF OUR METHODS
As I mentioned briefly when addressing privilege, the methods we have to have access to in order to participate – such as transportation, cell phones, and social media – are also methods that reinforce our hypocrisy.  The most obvious is when we have to take a plane or a car to a conference on climate change, or to promote having Zero emissions by 2050.  But some of them aren’t as obvious, and not acknowledging them weakens every effort we could dream of making to combat a changing climate.  Do you know the environmental and social consequences of your cell phone?  Of the coffee you drink?  The clothes you wear?  The manufactured bike you ride?  The alternative energy you promote?

While I admire the #ZeroBy2050 movement from the COP21 Youth Delegates last year in Paris, I think it is also a good example of how we tend to really miss the point.  Yes, zero emissions is an amazing concept.  But there are numerous flaws.  Perhaps the biggest offender is the support of renewable energy.  During the #ZeroBy2050 movement at COP21, the participants were fighting to get language entered into the Paris Agreement that would call for the complete phasing out of carbon emissions by 2050.  Similar to the Break Free campaign, which aims to abandon fossil fuels completely, this movement vehemently promotes “clean energy” in place of emissions-generating operations.

I’m a Masters candidate in Mechanical Engineering for the purpose of studying alternative energy, what goes into the systems, and how they have yet to improve.  I am in this field solely for the purpose of understanding the technologies and what we are actually promoting.  One of the biggest flaws of these alleged “clean energy” sources: they depend enormously on the mining industry.  I’ve experienced across so many different organizations and communities this diehard approach to going “alternative” without having seriously considered that the “alternative” is not “clean”.  True, renewable sources will last us longer, but the current technologies we have leave us tied to mining, no matter how much we want to keep it all “in the ground”.  And it’s not just the metals and rare earth materials that go into fuel cells/solar panels and wind turbines, it’s also the metals and chemicals in our painted bikes and modes of transportation and the gold in the circuitry of all our electronic devices.

Yet, the more you think about it, our world works in a balance.  That’s part of what we are fighting for, right?  To maintain the atmospheric balance.  To reverse rapid changes we have made since the Industrial Revolution to which Nature is struggling to adapt.  But we can’t completely eliminate carbon emissions.  It sounds radical to say, but carbon emissions are also part of the balance.  When we say “carbon emissions”, we simply mean “carbon dioxide” – a key component to the atmosphere.  Too much of it can have serious ramifications.  For example, too much CO2 in the atmosphere heats the earth during radiation.  It also causes an imbalance in calcium carbonate precipitation in the ocean water, leading to the acidification of the ocean and the dying of coral reefs.  (Read my term paper on this topic here.)  But the same can be said if we dramatically reverse and completely eliminate carbon emissions.  We have to be careful that we don’t promote the idea that no carbon dioxide equals a healthy planet.  Rather, we have to find a way to strike a balance.

Saying we will not burn fuels that create carbon emissions also means we must strike down every effort to promote biomass energy.  Why?  While burning coal, oil, and gas does produce far more emissions, burning woody mass is not “clean” either.  Here in the southwest, biomass offers an alternative to fossil fuels that also has an alarming abundance.  When we get forest fires, they tend to rage for long distances at greater intensities.  The tendency is to fight them, yet forest fires are crucial to the ecosystem here.  Certain seeds only open when burned, generating young trees.  Fires create breaks that keep disease from spreading across entire forests.  Climate change, sadly, is having a negative impact on the natural phenomenon of these fires as well.  All of these factors result in crown fires that lick up the dense, dry, unburned undergrowth and fuel the intensity of the flames.  Encouraging people to burn this undergrowth through biomass projects would help reverse our negative impacts on the natural cycle of fires, but, of course, it would technically produce carbon emissions.

My mom always talks about diet by saying “Everything in moderation.  You can have too much of any thing, even if it’s good for you.”  I think our attitude about climate change and natural phenomenon should be like that too.  Not nonchalant, but in a way that accepts there are meant to be periods of drought, there are meant to be periods of flood – as long as it’s the way of the world deciding what happens and not humanity’s greed that is causing the changes.  I think this perspective is really important and grounding if we want to seriously make a difference.

When I was younger, I used to be zealous about changing light bulbs. Then my focus shifted to changing the systems that determine how we use energy, because, as the saying goes, “we need system change, not climate change.” As a youth delegate to COP21—the international climate-change conference in Paris last December—I witnessed the most sophisticated political skills the world has to offer focus on one goal: to change the fundamental components of our energy systems. They failed. In Paris, I learned that there is an even deeper level of change required to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s not system change—it’s human change.

-Chloe Maxmin, In 2016, No More Human-As-Usual

It really is human attitude and perspective that is the underlying, root cause of so much turmoil in our world today.  It is a disconnect from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the social/environmental impacts of getting those products to our hands.  We can’t fully depend on policies to govern how we rule ourselves.  As Chloe says, the change for humanity and the health of the world has to come from within.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
I don’t have the solutions.  In fact, I go through days of doubt when I’m convinced there is no solution.  But what I can say is self-awareness is at the core of this movement.  For the collective human body to make a change, that change has to come from within the individuals.  To create this change and self-awareness, we have to acknowledge where we do and don’t have privilege; we have understand the implications of everything we do, purchase, and consume; we have to be aware of the lenses we have.  We have to include, not exclude.  We have to share stories alongside facts, because it is the facts the policy-makers want to see and it is the stories the people want to hear.  And always, always, always, we have to keep an open and honest perspective.
To see how these topics have surfaced in my own global challenges, and how I’ve questioned “What does solidarity look like in the eyes of climate change?”, click here to read my experience in Nicaragua from May 2016.
 
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A repost of a watercolor I did after being inspired by the street art in Nicaragua.  Read my post on my trip to Nicaragua for more information.

Miss Navajo

I haven’t written forever…as I wait for Internet to be installed at my new place on the Navajo reservation, please enjoy the paper I am submitting about the Miss Navajo pageant for my Culture class.  We had a vague prompt to follow.  Feel free to Google more about the competition!  It’s awesome.

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In Dinétah this past week, the Navajo Nation Fair has had the center of attention. The Fair, with its various traditional dance, rodeo, and carnival events, runs in conjunction with the Miss Navajo pageant. Miss Navajo has gained a lot of popularity in outside media over recent years for its divergence from “typical” American beauty/national pageants. Rather than heels and swimsuits, these ladies dress up in traditional moccasins and crushed velvet dresses. Their political platforms take the shape of heartfelt “save our culture” and “save our people”, rather than overly-sentimental “feed the children of Africa” and “go vegan” – although not to say they wouldn’t personally make those choices, or that these choices aren’t honorable. Indeed, while Miss America is judged on her body, Miss Navajo is judged on her ability to butcher a dibé – tasks that include handling stomach organs and breaking leg bones in front of a focused and learned audience.

​Although the Miss Navajo pageant lasts several days in September, the Traditional Competition was held at the Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise this past Thursday. This segment of the competition lasted approximately three hours, with people in the audience sitting for well over four. The Traditional Competition was divided into four separate categories: Traditional Skills, Oral Presentations, Traditional Talent, and Modeling Traditional Attire. This year’s five contestants were asked to compete in each of these four categories, and they appeared in shuffled orders each time.

For Traditional Skills, each contestant had five minutes to show her skill. These skills varied from grinding corn to singing songs. For Oral Presentations, each contestant was asked to draw a slip of paper and answer a questions on the spot. For the Traditional Talent, each contestant had five minutes to demonstrate something from singing from the Bible in Navajo to explaining the pieces of a traditional baby backboard. Finally, for Modeling Traditional Attire, each lady had three minutes to show off her traditional outfit and state a platform, then an additional two minutes to answer another impromptu question.

The pageant demonstrated the importance of two major interrelated concepts: Navajo fluency, and fluency in Navajo culture other than language. These women were asked to demonstrate their ability to present on stage, represent their culture and heritage, and to represent their direct lineage (through clanship presentation as well as through wearing ancestral pieces and demonstrating skills passed down through their families). Since this pageant is for Miss Navajo, a female representative of an entire nation, it is crucial that language and culture is critiqued. Language and culture are at the heart of identity; therefore, being a Navajo woman should be defined by these things.

The Beauty Way of Life is the standards by which Navajo people live, and knowing you culture – your language, your kinship, your place in the world – is a vital role of this way of life. It is especially represented by the Western direction (é’é’aah) and its tie to k’é, to family, and to who you are as a Navajo. I may not be Navajo, but I understand the need for Navajo fluency and for fluency of Navajo culture. I now live on the Navajo reservation and work for the Navajo government, so as a guest here I must learn and respect the Navajo language and ways. Furthermore, my particular heritage(s) value the same principles: of understanding one’s origin(s) and participating as much as possible in one’s culture(s). Witnessing elements of the Miss Navajo pageant has been inspirational in a variety of ways for me, although I will admit it was a challenging competition to watch with limited language and cultural skills. Questions I have about the competition would predominantly pertain to a more detailed explanation of what was demonstrated, what was asked, and what the greater meaning behind things were.  

To conclude, I know that some of the questions were very challenging in the pageant…but I also know that the contestants to varying degrees struggled with the Navajo language. It is my belief that some understood the language to a decent degree, but were not fluent. Others seemed to lack the skill to spontaneously respond at all, speaking only when given the opportunity to deliver recited words. I feel slightly hypocritical considering I do not know more than a dozen words of my own language – a language that is becoming extinct – but I do believe Miss Navajo should be completely fluent in her language. It is the heart of a culture, it is the way a culture thinks, and speaking English in a cultural event is like broadcasting assimilation in the homeland. That is just my viewpoint…but I hope that Navajo children will continue to immerse themselves in their language and their culture, forever, and that Miss Navajo 2060 will be as fluent and culturally immersed as Miss Navajo 1960.

 

 

Northwest Culture and the Recently Pulled Vans Totem Pole Shirt

Recently, a Canadian petition sought and succeeded in removing a t-shirt from the Vans line.  Vans gave a feeble apology online, and so the petition continues to urge Vans to make a bigger statement regarding the offense it caused.  The t-shirt was a drawing of several beer cans taped together in a stack with wooden wings on the side, making a totem pole out of the cans.  Under the picture, “Vans” was spelled with a tipi sketched in as a capital A.  While many Canadian First Nations citizens and allies alike are quite relieved that this product is at least discontinued, many others are retorting with the typical “get over it” statements.  I’ve decided to use this opportunity as an excuse to educate readers – Native and non-Native alike – on the anti-shirt perspective in this case, and the tribal histories involved.

  
RECAP: PAN-INDIANISM

One of the biggest, underlying issues in a lot of Native “imagery” being used on products/mascots is “Pan-Indianism”.  I know I’ve written on this before but, just to reiterate, “Pan-Indianism” is when you call any indigenous person in North and South America an “Indian” and stop differentiating the cultures.  Ignoring the mixed feelings surrounding the continued use of this misappropriated racial title, “Pan-Indianism” has a significantly deleterious effect on the portrayal and understanding of a very diverse racial category of peoples.  Instead of “Indians” being regarded by their tribal Nations and cultural identities, they are classified as one “monoculture” – generally something most closely resembling Plains tribes.  When non-Indians think of “Indians”, therefore, they likely conjure up images like headdresses, tipis, war paint, bows and arrows, tomahawks, and horses.  These images are so prominent because they are the stereotypes portrayed by Cowboys vs. Indians films, largely produced in the 1950s, which portray the western frontier with a largely inaccurate and biased adaptation of culture and the “savage warrior”.  How comfortable would you feel drawing a caricature that represents all European/Middle Eastern peoples from the last 1,000 years?  “Indians” are even more culturally diverse, considering all of these Nations occupy two continents.

NORTHWEST CULTURE

Regions are often the best way to vaguely classify the variances in cultures in the Americas, much like regions of Europe and Africa can be used to loosely categorize kinds of peoples.  Much like you have the Baltic region or Slavic region of Europe, or West Africa, you have the Northeast region or Southeast region of the United States.  A lot of tribes in certain regions have cousin cultures.  Think of the Romance languages, like French, Italian, and Spanish all coming or being greatly influenced by the domineering Romans in ancient history.  Cultural evolution and relationships exist like this all around the world.  In the Great Lakes region, languages like Ojibwe fall under the Algonquin umbrella which covers a lot of the eastern parts of North America.  Certain aspects of Algonquin culture are, too, unique to these areas.

  
Well, we also have what we call a Northwest Culture.  This region is most specifically identified in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and the western coastal region, climbing up into southeastern Alaska.  The Northwest Culture is very distinct from the cultures in other regions, largely on account of the influences and contact the tribes have had over the years and also their local resources.  The Haida and the Tlingit are two examples of tribes living along this coastal area.  Because of their natural resources in this region, they are well-known for their use of red cedar and of their ties to fishing.

  
Red cedar was useful for building plank houses, which these tribes generally lived in.  The lumber resources were also ideal for making dugout canoes for fishing.  In fact, fishing has always been a central part of many tribes’ cultures, depending on their traditional location.  A lot of Tlingit artwork and design, like from other tribes in the region, reflects this by using designs in often red, black, and white of fish and whales.  These tribes do not wear headdresses, not any of their members; however, they are known for their unique, woven basket hats.  

  
Finally, with all the lumber in the area, these tribes are also known for their carving – including their carving of totem poles.

TOTEM POLES

“Totem” actually comes from an Algonquian word odoodem, meaning “his kinship group”.  These poles had many different purposes among the tribes known to use them in their cultures (e.g., Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nuu-chah-nulth).  Sometimes they were used as a welcome sign, sometimes they were placed in front of a residence to shame someone into paying a debt (called a “shame pole”).  Generally, six kinds of totem pole categories are identified that vary by their purpose of construction and placement when erected.  The poles were not regarded as religious artifacts, per se, but they could hold great importance in telling a story or representing important events in one’s life.  

  
Sometimes the stories told might be mythical, and many times they told about the experiences of a living person’s life or a known ancestor’s.  No tribe ever worshipped these poles, as once misunderstood to be the case by settlers, but the specific interpretation of each pole can vary greatly between tribal cultures that use them.

CONCLUSION

After looking over this broad view of Northwest Culture, it should be pretty clear that “Pan-Indian” symbols do not come even close to representing these diverse tribes.  Looking back at the t-shirt Vans pulled, we can immediately pick out the totem pole – a symbol of many of the cultures along the western shores of the country the shirt was produced in.  Yet, there is that tipi again in the Vans name.  Why is that?  It is very out-of-place.  But the real kicker is the totem pole being comprised of taped-together beer cans.  What is Vans trying to say?  Is this a shame pole?  Are all Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nuu-chah-nulth citizens drunks?  Is this a family history pole, telling us that beer was an essential part of all Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nuu-chah-nulth family lives?  Is this a mythical story, telling us that all Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nuu-chah-nulth worship beer?  Are we now disregarding the amazing craftsmanship of carvers from the Northwest tribes (who didn’t have metal knives until European contact) and paralleling their work to made-in-Canada aluminum cans held together with tape?  Seriously, what do you think it means?  What would you think if you were shopping?  Would you even recognize the great totem pole as a cultural identifier of Northwest peoples?

 
Above: Another example of how Clevelanders are taking stereotypes way too far and mocking cultures. 

It is a commonly known fact that whiskey and other alcoholic products were used to trade with many tribes during settler expansion – a tool to addict and manipulate the populations at the time.  This has led to the stereotype of the “drunken Indian”, accelerated by the continued alcoholism experienced in many impoverished tribal communities.  However, a lot of pieces to the modern story are ignored today.  One of these pieces is the connection between alcoholism, as a coping mechanism, and poverty.  With the majority of North American tribal members living in poverty, and the high rates associated with any community’s alcoholism to poverty, this is not strictly an “Indian problem”.  It is a human problem of substance addiction, concentrated by race on concentration camps Reservations and Reserves.  Furthermore, here are two more facts for you to consider, provided by SAMSHA: 1. Natives have the highest rate of ABSTINENCE, and many Reservations forbid the sale of alcohol on tribal land; 2. The highest rates of alcoholism (in at least the United States) occur in white men – not Native, not black, not anyone else, but white men.  Yet Natives bear the stereotype, largely put on them by the historic majority culture – white men.

Well, I hope you’ve learned a little about indigenous diversity today.  I also hope you can see how inaccurate a lot of stereotypes are to indigenous cultures.  Although I understand a t-shirt isn’t going to be the weapon being used to murder indigenous peoples, I do believe the false imagery and associations are a microcosm of traumatic experiences.  Like many other inaccurate depictions, images like these demonstrate how indigenous peoples viewed by dominating society (microaggression) and how the stereotyped indigenous peoples end up viewing themselves in an already often-depressing environment.  Finally, the symbols used on the shirt borrowed from different cultures of a diverse race and labeled that race with a negative characteristic of alcoholism; this, by definition, actually constitutes as racism, regardless of Vans’ statement that it was not Vans’ intention to offend in any way.

What do you think?

“My Indian Name is Runs With Beer”, an example of racism.

Before I even launch into yet another example of mainstream racism, I have to ask: At what point did “political correctness” – or being “PC” – become a pejorative?  By its very definition, it’s a mechanism for cultural sensitivity to protect minorities from being marginalized.  Now I see kids on the Internet every day using it like a slur against one another.  Respect is becoming extinct.

The purpose of today’s piece is to expose an example of racism towards indigenous peoples and why it’s not okay.

This morning, my friend Michelle texted me a picture and her commentary on a cooler design she found on Facebook.  The page is a closed group, called “The Cooler Connection”.  She described it to me as being a page that largely consists of sorority girls sharing cooler designs (presumably for college drinking and whatnot).  She added me to the page so I could see its content: Most posts share designs of coolers people have done, some posts ask for advice on cooler painting, and there are even posted guides to how to paint your own cooler.  Although the idea of college students dignifying all things binge-drinking terrifies me, I also see the page as a neat way to add creativity to ordinary objects.  It’s like an interactive, DIY Pinterest board of cooler art.

Seems harmless, right?

Wrong.

Michelle’s reason for sharing this page with me to day was so I could see a cooler design by student/artist Jess Merry of Appalachian State University.  Miss Merry, from the Raleigh/Cary area, went to school in Boone in western North Carolina – i.e. the heart of Indian Country.  The Tsalagi, in particular, reside in this area on the Eastern Band of Cherokee reservation.  You would think anyone spending considerable time in this vicinity would be privy to cultural sensitivity and the concentration of an ethnic minority in his/her area, but sadly this does not seem to be the case.  I say this because Miss Merry’s design was an example of racism against the indigenous American race:

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“This is gorgeous, but that is INCREDIBLY offensive!!” wrote my friend in a flustered response.  And she’s right: The artwork should be commended, even the Papyrus handwriting, but the truth behind it is none of its content is acceptable.  Well, it shouldn’t be acceptable.  But, as evidenced by the commentary on the post, few people seem to grasp exactly why.  Instead, virtual eye rolls and accusations of “here we go with the PC comments” and “get over it” statements alternated with ones saying “this is not okay”.

“For all of you that don’t understand why it’s offensive [you] are what’s wrong with this country right now,” Michelle continues.  She is referring to the attitude that cultural sensitivity needs to die out and that too many people voice opinions about “getting over it” when there are social-economic-cultural crises so deeply rooted in historic trauma and perpetuated prejudice that there is no “getting over it”.

Not only was Michelle addressing the problem of stereotyping indigenous peoples, desecrating a headdress and chief nobility, and having no respect for one another’s’ culture, she also calls out the unacceptable treatment of ceremony.  “To put it simply, it’s disrespectful because you’re mocking a Native American tradition,” she writes.  She’s referring to “Indian names” – or really, naming ceremonies – which is a very important custom in some, but not all, groups of indigenous peoples.  Mocking this ceremony is not only a religious assault, but it continues the stereotypes through pan-Indianism with which Western film culture has brainwashed the ignorant.  In other words, the design was borne out of a racist interpretation of a homogenous indigenous culture – which simply does not exist.

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Okay, so I’m going to break this down and try to explain exactly why we should be upset about this cooler:

1. Racism.

Before everyone gets all bent out of shape about me using this word, let’s bring up the definition and then see how this fits snuggly into it:

racism

[ ˈrāˌsizəm ]

NOUN

noun: racism

the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

All members of each race meaning we are looking at the overarching, identity-stripped, cultural whitewash that we call “Native American culture”.

Possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race meaning we are using a stereotypical profile (like those being removed currently from mascots across the country), we are blaspheming religious symbols and ceremonies to a limited number of cultures and also applying them broadly and stereotypically (“pan-Indianism”), and we are insinuating alcoholism is an inherent part of “being Indian” (and paralleling it to a religious name-giving custom).

Especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races meaning the ideas entrapped in this cooler design, which are all rooted in outdated stereotypes from Western films and past “Indian policies” (explained in the subsequent points), exist purely as remains from a culture that believed indigenous peoples to be savage, uncivilized, and an amalgamate race far inferior to whites.

So to conclude, this design does in fact perpetuate racism.  What’s even worse: not everyone understands why it is racist against a marginalized race of people in this country, and people continuing to act out of ignorance – that is a very damaging thing.

2. Cultural appropriation.

Cultural-Appropriation3

Race relations is still largely a problem in the United States – in fact, as I experienced through the US’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN this past week, our country is largely frowned down upon for its backwardness in race issues.  In the United States, we tend to look at race rather than at culture and individualism.  This is, in my view, still a product of past, racist policies where someone could be marginalized simply because of his/her skin color.  Slavery is the prime example of this.  So our society still has a lot to learn about culture and cultural sensitivity, which is all exemplified by the cultural appropriation we see talked about more and more these days.

Sure, America might be a “melting pot” and cultures might influence one another, but cultural appropriation takes it a step further.  Cultural appropriation is when a dominant group exploits the culture of less dominant, less privileged groups, often without any kind of understanding and respect for the latter groups’ histories and traditions.  Therefore this cooler, too, is appropriating culture that is not in any way understood by the party-goers who would likely be using this decorated piece.

3. Pan-Indianism.

I will keep this simple: Indigenous cultures are incredibly diverse.  “Indian”, by the concept of “Pan-Indianism”, refers to indigenous peoples from the northern Arctic coast down to the southern South American tip.  Now explain to me how something like a stereotyped “Indian” profile and the contents of the cooler design are not a perfect example of Pan-Indianism?  And the problem with Pan-Indianism?  It washes away cultural identity, eliminates individualism, and allows for stereotypes to branded all over anyone who falls into the category of “Indian” – without any regard for accuracy or respect of someone’s traditions.

4. Alcoholism stereotypes.

If only I could count all the times someone used Cromagnum English to tell me about “white man” bringing over the “fire water”…. Well, actually, alcohol did exist in many of cultures for centuries – maybe even thousands of years – before any “white man” arrived on Turtle Island.  Yet we are constantly making jokes about Natives by building off of these stereotypes of alcoholism in Indian Country.  But none of it is even true.

This is not to say that Reservations don’t face an alcohol problem, because they do – but surely this same trend can be attached to any other traumatized demographic, including those in chronic economic despair (and the majority of some Reservation populations live in poverty).  According to studies by the NIAAA, white people (especially men) are more likely than any other demographic to drink regularly, by a younger age, and drive while under the influence.  A bit ironic since this demographic is also more prone to perpetuate such stereotypes about indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, indigenous populations have the highest rate of alcohol abstinence of any other ethnic group.  Many Reservations and tribal lands forbid the sale of alcohol.

The stereotyping of indigenous peoples in regards to alcoholism, as done by this cooler, is just that: stereotyping.  It is only funny if you believe it is true, and if you have no heart or care about real-world people and real-world consequences of perpetuating such misconceptions.

5. Cherokee royalty defends it.

Any time someone (who does or doesn’t identify as indigenous) states “this is offensive”, a whole slew of people suddenly find red in their veins.  “Well I’m Native American and I’m not offended!” they’ll exclaim, failing to see fallacy in their statements.  I say “Cherokee royalty”, because 9 times out of 10, these people have a great-great-grandmother who was a Cherokee princess.  Well, they claim they do, because there are no “Indian princesses”.  This demonstrates how they either are completely BS-ing, going off of mainstream phrases about “Indian identity”, or they are so disconnected with their might-be culture that their opinion is absolutely 0% indigenous to begin with.

“Indianness” isn’t a costume, a trend, or even a blood quantum – it’s an identity, an identity that includes everything from participating in your heritage, knowing your clan/blood line, enrolling if enroll-able, and promoting your culture.  When you promote your culture, you’re also protecting it.  You understand the true histories about “Indian policy”, you know the current struggles of your tribe and also many struggles of other tribes, and you are familiar with the pieces of “Rez life” that don’t get romanticized by non-indigenous America: commodity cheese, HUD housing, and corruption within your own government.

Furthermore, I consider stating your blood quantum to be a rude attempt at weighting the value of your voice by western society’s concept of how “Indian” you are.  It gives the ignorant a chance to take a stab, saying things like “Well you’re only 50%, so you’re not a real Indian” or “You might be Navajo, but you’re also 50% Lakota, so you can’t have an opinion on anything Navajo”, as an example.  If you’re a dual citizen, you just say your citizenship.  What’s sad is, even when I do this, I find myself inserting “Indian” into my statement to address the blank stares I get.  The flipside to stating blood quantum as a way to identify yourself is when people who are most likely not genuinely indigenous at all (but rather fantasize about the “cool” parts of being Indian, sans marginalization, etc.) make statements like “I’m 6% Native” or “I’m part Native American”.  Umm, what?  Just…just stop.  I already know I have no interest in what you’re about to say.

6. There’s no one left to offend.

You wouldn’t be comfortable making fun of someone to his/her face for something he/she can’t change (physical appearance, religion, etc.), yet this cooler mocks religion, race, and culture.  Therefore we can only assume that this cooler was shared because it doesn’t occur to mainstream society that Indians are not in fact dead, Indians are not in fact savages incapable of technology, and Indians are in fact on social media like any other American sorority girl or other on this cooler page.  This ties directly in to all the studies being done to prove how mascots stereotype and further marginalize indigenous peoples – especially youth – who have to face perpetuated misconceptions of who they are in everyday life, from school to what they see portrayed through national sports team mascots.  Even when these mascots are meant to be “positive”, they still impact these peoples negatively.

If you’re interested in these studies, here are some links to what has been discovered as psychologically damaging to populations that already suffer disproportionate amounts of historic trauma:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2014/07/22/indian-mascots-report-washington-nfl-team/13006145/

http://espn.go.com/pdf/2013/1030/espn_otl_Oneida_study.pdf

https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2014/07/22/94214/missingthepoint/

7. Hate speech platform.

Let’s be real: No one using this cooler has any interest in educating people on why they find humor in it despite the grave realities behind why its humor is rooted in on-going racism.  You’re not going to go to a party and find people saying, “Oh, hey, funny cooler!”  “Oh, yeah, thanks – it’s actually stereotypical, culturally appropriating, etc., but it’s funny because most people don’t know the truth behind why it isn’t funny!”  Nope.  In fact, given my experience, if anything comes from it there will be a following of more stereotypes, like wawawawa, dancing around like idiots, perpetuating this noble savage interpretation of real living human beings.  And, to add to bullet 6 above, all of this would be done as if it were impossible that someone in the room could possibly be indigenous.

examples
Search: My Indian Name Is Runs With Beer for many more examples.

As I conclude this piece, I have learned that the cooler was apparently already removed from the page.  Regardless, I am alarmed that this is not a rare occurrence.  (See relevant post on Newspaper Rock: http://newspaperrock.bluecorncomics.com/2011/01/aim-fights-runs-with-beer-t-shirt.html)  I am also alarmed that too many people have come to defend the racism behind this example.  I hope that the time I have spent writing this piece will speak to two audiences: 1) I hope indigenous friends and allies can identify and roll their eyes at the classic examples of rhetoric used in defending yet another classic example of racism being widely misconstrued as acceptable; and 2) I hope all of the others have found this piece an adequate summary for why we shouldn’t be taking such things so lightly.  Again, I don’t think “political correctness” should be used as a pejorative.  But I also believe such an example steps well beyond the limits of what is or isn’t “PC” and enters the realm of intolerable racial tension.