Do you know your Native history? I knew less than I thought.
Last week, I had the great experience of being with a multiracial group of organizers and activists who were gathered to learn together and discuss the state of the world. We met in New Mexico at the Tamaya Resort, a Hyatt owned and operated by the Navajo Nation about 40 minutes north of Albuquerque. The place was beautiful, and so peaceful. I spent time every time pondering the Sandia Mountains, the desert, and the moon (full on day 2) with Saturn nearby. These sights were important to ground me, because the rest of the time my mind was blown from being in Indian country.
On our field day, we visited the Coronado Historic Site, an ancient pueblo that has been excavated by local community members with expert instruction. The Kuaua pueblo dates back to the 14th century, before the conquistador Coronado ever arrived there to lead his portion of the genocide of indigenous people. The village was sophisticated and matrilineal, but ultimately died out due to the death and removal of its people. The thing I remember most, besides the feeling of being in their sacred Kiwa and looking at wall paintings created some 700 years ago, was this line in the Spanish side of the museum exhibit:
“The soldiers labored mightily to convert the Indians to Catholicism.”
Labored, really? Other words would be so much more accurate than “labored,” which brings to mind industrious organizers going house to house to introduce people to an awesome new way of life – murdered, killed, kidnapped, forced, imposed upon, coerced, all come to mind. There are so many words for forcing people to hide their existing spirituality and adopt your new one so that you won’t kill them.
Laura Harris of Americans for Indian Opportunity was kind enough to come and conduct their Indian 101 session for our group. They started by handing us a sheet of Indian bingo. Our group’s Native members were disqualified, and I can tell you that not a single other person got bingo – that is 4 or 5 answers in a row. I thought I knew a lot, but of almost 30 questions, I only knew 3 full answers. I knew that NCAI stands for the National Congress of American Indians; that Leonard Peltier was convicted of first degree murder (If you need anymore critiques to remove the rose color from your Obama glasses, he refused to commute Peltier’s sentence despite the feds admitting that they didn’t know who had actually shot the two FBI agents at Pine Ridge.) And I knew that 65% of Native people in the United States live in urban and suburban areas.
Harris was super kind to say that knowing so little was not our fault – the US education system does a great job of keeping facts about Native people from entering our brains. But still, a 35-year racial justice person should do a lot better on a test like that. This may be dumb, but the fact that I grew up with people constantly asking me, “What kind of Indian are you?” feels like I have extra responsibility.
I learned things I never knew.
I never knew that when Europeans slaughtered 90 percent of the 65 million indigenous people in such a short time, the massive drop in CO2 caused a mini ice age around the entire world.
I never knew the name of Fort Sill, which was first built for the Indian Wars of the mid-19th century before later being turned into an internment camp during WWII. This past Saturday, Native Americans, Japanese Americans and current immigrants converged at Fort Sill to protest the kidnapping of migrant children, and the incarceration of migrants, including children kidnapped by ICE today.
I never knew that President Andrew Jackson ordered the removal of the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral homelands in the southeast to Oklahoma despite a Supreme Court ruling that found the Indian Removal Act unconstitutional. The Act itself had passed Congress by a narrow margin. Jackson simply ignored the ruling and refused to enforce it. Whites swarmed Cherokee towns throughout the Southeast, which were modern and prosperous, and simply took it all. A lesson: the three branches of government don’t work if one branch ignores the others.
These are just the things I learned from one presentation. I do appreciate that AIO is willing to do an Indians 101 session with us, and I plan to make a donation to reciprocate their generosity.
In addition to this wonderful presentation, we went to visit with my old friends at the Southwest Organizing Project, who I met in my earliest days as a community organizer. This 40-year-old organization has bought a small compound of buildings in Albuquerque, and it was thrilling to find Red Nation, the country’s first Native American comic book store. If Comic-Con is not your scene but you love comics, sci-fi and fantasy, you might want to check out their IDIGIPOP conference.
I was experiencing all of this a week after 45 told “the Squad” to go back where they came from, a thing that no one said to a white person ever, unless they were Jewish and/or socialist. Having just been in her home state, I was excited to read Rep. Deb Haaland’s OpEd in the New York Times, where she writes that Native people, who could most justifiably tell all the rest of us to get out, don’t share Trump’s feelings.
As a 35th-generation New Mexican and a descendant of the original inhabitants of this continent, I say that the promise of our country is for everyone to find success, pursue happiness and live lives of equality. This is the Pueblo way. It’s the American way.
Laura Harris shared an extensive list of resources to educate ourselves. Below are some highlights and a few suggestions of my own. Check them out and make a donation to AIO.
- An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann
- Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask, Anton Treuer
- The Round House, Louise Erdrich (my favorite living American author)
- There There, Tommy Orange
- Almanac of the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko
Native America, PBS
We Shall Remain, PBS