NATIVE AMERICAN STRUGGLE [Hunter Gray]

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Sat Apr 20 14:18:11 MDT 2002


Published on Portside April 20, 2002



NATIVE AMERICAN STRUGGLE:    ONE CENTURY INTO ANOTHER

By Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]

Published in Democratic Left      Spring 2002


I come out of a racially and culturally mixed background.  My father was
an essentially full-blooded Indian [Micmac/St. Francis Abenaki/ St. Regis
Mohawk] and my mother was an Anglo from an old Western American
"frontier" family.  Our identity has always been on the Native side.  I
grew up in Northern Arizona  and Northwestern New Mexico where our family
was
extensively involved in Southwestern social justice campaigns and has
always had a very close involvement with the regional Indian nations.

I state categorically that, while certainly very cognizant of the broad,
multi-victim effects of racism and cultural ethnocentrism and all of the
other poisonously anti-people knifing isms -- and, very much aware also
of all vitally necessary human rights activism and movement  on those
critical fronts  --  I have always seen the social class dichotomy and its
interactive dynamic of  struggle as the only fundamentally enduring --
long haul -- river of progress.  The one area of  exception in this
hemisphere, both conventional and unique, are the Native tribal nations
where the basically classless social structures and the essentially
communalistic
cultures -- generally land-based and, in the United States and Canada,
usually treaty-fortified -- continue to command the primary national
identification/commitment of the Native people.  This deeply rooted
"distinctive" situation may not always be obvious to non-Indians, but
the primary identification with one's tribal nation and the continuation of
the respective tribe's traditional structures  and its basic culture do
stand as a very enduring reality.

But every Native nation, whatever the particular nature of its
geographical proximity to the mainline and essentially dominant society, is
directly and consistently and adversely affected by capitalism and all its
works.

And increasing numbers of Indian people, while always maintaining their
fundamental place and bond within their respective tribe, are being
drawn out and onto the rough and rocky trail of the workingclass.

The interests of these consistently exploited and repressed Native
nations -- with their people -- certainly fall out on the side of all of
the other dispossessed.  The really meaningful self-determination of Native
people, genuine respect for Native cultures, the effective  protection
of Native land and water and other resources, and  the maximum well-being
of the Native people,  will certainly be very strongly enhanced in a
democratic and genuinely socialist context.

Almost 80 million Native people have died in the Western Hemisphere as a
result of the European incursion.  In addition, Euro-American
governments, especially that of the United States, have made every effort --
quite unsuccessfully -- to assimilate  Indians in the socio-cultural sense.

The U.S. census of 2000 indicates that 2.4 million people identified
themselves as Native Americans: up 25% since 1990. This is a clear  and
unequivocal statement of basic Indian identity -- although  almost all
of these would be of some mixed   [ Native and non-Native] ancestry, a very
common situation throughout Indian country in this day and age.  [In
addition, slightly over four million other people indicated some Indian
ancestry -- but this category is  not accepted by many Native people as
indicative of basic Native identity.]

There are almost 600 tribal societies in the United States which are
rightly perceived by their members, though not by most Anglos,  as sovereign
nations.  About two-thirds of our people are from "Federally-recognized"
tribes, covered by treaties and/or other special Federal ties, and hold
about 55 million acres of reservation land.  Also, 40 million acres have
been set aside for Alaskan Natives under the Alaska Native   Claims
Settlement Act of 1971.  If physically resident on their Indian lands,
Federal Indians are eligible for Indian trust services [such as they
are]: health, education, welfare, socio-economic development, criminal
justice.

Mostly in the East, the other one-third, through historical and social
circumstances, are not Federal Indians, receive no special services from
that perspective, and in most cases have no reservation land. In a few
instances, they may receive minimal Indian services from the state in
which they reside.  "Urban Indians" -- more than half of all U.S. Native
Americans -- receive virtually no Federal Indian services, even if they
are from Federally-recognized tribes.

Despite several centuries of physical genocide, forced removal and
relocation, and attempted socio-cultural genocide [all of this designed
to secure remaining Indian land and resources];  despite racism and
cultural ethnocentrism; despite the pressure of the urban/industrial
juggernaut, so many of whose values run counter to those of the Indians;
despite mixed-blood and bi-culturalism -- Indian tribal nations, Indian
cultures, and Indian people are very much around.  The  commitment to a
cohesive family and clan, to one's tribe [essentially one big family],
remain
strong as do the basic values inherent in tribal cultures: strongly
religious;
a pervasive identification with the whole Creation; no coincidence or
happen-chance in the Universe; an essentially communalistic view of land
use; democracy; egalitarianism; classlessness.  And, very much under-
girding and pervading the ethos of all tribal cultures is the ancient and
enduring principle of tribal -- or mutual -- responsibility: i.e.,  the
tribe has an obligation to the individual and the individual has an
obligation to the
tribe; if these two conflict, the tribal perspective prevails; but there
are always clearly defined areas of individual and family autonomy into
which the tribe cannot intrude.

Euro-American theft of Native land and disruption of the traditional
tribal economies, coupled with consistent governmental failure to live up to
solemn treaty obligations [part of the "Supreme Law of the Land"], created a
perpetual economic depression for Indian people long before the
Industrial Revolution.  As a people, Native Americans have been consistently
characterized by the highest unemployment and the worst economic
deprivation, the poorest health conditions and the lowest life
expectancy.

The great social upheavals of the 1960s, which had numerous Indian
ramifications -- Wounded Knee in 1973 and many other examples -- saw
some promising legislation and hopeful policy trends.  But beginning with
Reagan and the cruel forces around and behind him, much of this slowed,
dried
up.

Although there has since been spotty progress on a few fronts, the
promising momentum of more than a generation ago has not -- in the context
of
continued minimal appropriations and budget cuts --  returned.

The  relatively recent development of casinos -- over three hundred of
them -- in Indian country is often seen by outsiders as much more of a
positive and beneficent economic phenomenon than they are;  the cold
reality is that, while the casinos have helped the economic picture of the
tribes involved to some extent -- but not all that much -- they have also
engendered  no small amount of corruption, skim-offs from outsiders, and
much venomous intra-tribal factionalism.  In addition,  since tribes are
not covered by Federal labor laws, it's been very difficult for almost all
tribal casino employees to unionize --  and pay and conditions are often
extremely poor.  And, further, however slowly, the states  themselves
are beginning their own legalization of  non-Indian casino gambling.

Whether Federally-recognized or not, reservation or urban, the Native
American situation is  characterized by severe economic marginality and
frequently outright desperation.  Unemployment on the reservations,
always high, is now -- depending on the particular setting and
circumstance --
between  50%  and 90 %.  Urban Indian unemployment stands between 50%
and 60 % -- with many additional people working only part-time at odd jobs
and day labor.  The average life expectancy for an Indian person is,
depending on whichever of the current estimates, 6 to 10 years below that of
other Americans -- with the Native health situation marked by, among other
things, the highest diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and suicide rates in
the U.S. The death rate for Native people via alcoholism is seven times the
national average. And alcohol also frequently figures into the extremely
high Indian suicide rate which is almost 75% above that of all other
races -- and 2-3 times higher than the national average for Native males
in the 15-34 age range.

To some extent, the extremely deplorable Native situation is part of the
overall  commission/omission campaign against Americans of "the fewest
alternatives."  But in the case of the tribes on some western
reservations, the special motivation is obviously to force these tribes,
whose land includes very substantial "energy resources," into collaboration
with
the thoroughly exploitative oil and mining corporations.

This tactic has old roots.  A half century ago, the generally Eastern-owned
oil and mining corporations, utilizing their considerable influence with the
ever-
obliging U.S. Department of Interior [which contains the Bureau of Indian
Affairs -- committed in theory and only partially in fact to the protection
of the interests of the Federally-recognized Native people], began to
systematically maneuver their way onto Indian lands.  As the 1950s
progressed, the corporations -- whose royalties to the Indians have been
modest at best [even despite the more recently-secured tribal right of
taxation of non-Indian, on-reservation business enterprises] --
entrenched themselves in Indian country with uranium as a major target. They
mushroomed like the clouds produced by their explosive offspring at Desert
Rock, Nevada, a prime nuclear site -- whose "peace-keeping" activities were
officially proclaimed around the globe with as much vigor as the solemn
assurances given the curious but uneasy local residents.  The fall-out
from Desert Rock, eventually leaving a trail of death in Northern Arizona
and
the southern portions of Nevada and Utah, has affected Anglo, Indian,
Chicano; and has struck down rancher, farmer, soldier, herdsman, hunter, and
worker.

This particular situation and the great anger emanating from it has
never been really publicized.

Much less known nationally, always,  has been the predominately Native
situation on and immediately adjacent to the reservations.  Many, many
hundreds of Indian uranium workers -- mostly Navajo, as well as some
Laguna tribesman in north central New Mexico -- have now died because of
both
the inherently and insidiously destructive nature of uranium  and the
corporations' lack of meaningful safety procedures.  Given the remoteness of
much of the Navajo country especially -- it is bigger than the state of
West Virginia with relatively few roads -- it is likely that the death count
is considerably higher than any formal records indicate.

Most of these deaths have been from lung and stomach cancer -- unknown
among the Indians until uranium mining began -- and now called "the sores
that
will not heal."  Some authorities predict that virtually all of the
Native [and other workers] involved in uranium mining, milling and refining
will eventually die from those or closely related causes.  The very air over
much reservation land has been poisoned by uranium and other energy
industries.

The random dumping of uranium wastes has produced dangerously high
radioactivity levels in Indian water supplies -- killing people,
livestock, and wildlife.  The life-span of uranium's  "ghost dance
spirit" ensures that this multi-faceted ghoulish legacy will last for
several thousand years.

In related catastrophes, coal mining carves the earth and erodes most
lungs; hard-rock metal mining gnaws all lungs and vitals and its smelters
and
refineries destroy any vegetation.

Meanwhile, despite the profound contradictions and spasms within the
capitalist economic system, the expansion efforts of the mining and
other resource corporations continue.  Increasing Native opposition to this
deadlyincursion has mounted steadily with some people feeling that resource
development should be very carefully done under the communalistic
auspices of the tribes themselves and others being against any mining
whatsoever.

And, in the waning days of the already blood-dimmed 20th Century, a new
front  opened:  The Federal government began pressing  many tribes --
with great intensity --  to serve as dumping grounds for deadly nuclear
waste.

This is being resisted by Native people and their allies with rapidly
mounting and sharply increasing vigor and militancy.

>From Native American perspectives, these basic issues stand very much to
the fore -- issue/goals which warrant the full support of every person
of good will and certainly every person of the Left:

Federal adherence to treaty and related obligations.  Treaties between
the United States and the Indian nations are, however occasionally mangled
by the Federal government,  part of "the Supreme Law of the Land" --
completely in the context of Article 6, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

Although Congress ended treaty making  with the tribal nations in 1871, the
hundreds of treaties then in existence continue with full legal validity.

Federal protection of Native land, water,  and other natural resources -
- and substantial Federal funding to build back the badly shrunken
reservation land base.

Federal recognition of the non-Federal tribes.  This was supposed to
have been effected by the 1921 Snyder Act which guaranteed Federal Indian
services to all Native Americans in the U.S. -- but the Act's coverage
and Indian services were restricted immediately to only those
Federally-recognized Indian people resident on reservations.

Removal of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the Department of Interior
[perennially dominated by the corporations] and its elevation to cabinet
status.  The B.I.A. is presently under very heavy fire from the tribes
and their advocates for massive mismanagement of Native trust funds and the
mishandling of other trust responsibilities.

Substantial Federal funds for Indian-controlled and  Indian-directed
programs -- in the areas of health, welfare and education, among others
-- on reservations, in non-reservation rural settings, and in urban areas.

The 1975 Indian Self-Determination Act involving Federal reservations is a
promising first step.

Substantial Federal funding for tribally-owned and tribally-controlled
development of natural resources and other economic programs.

Correction and reinterpretation of the 1988 Indian Gaming Act in such a
fashion as to allow tribes to operate their casinos without non-tribal -
- e.g., state -- interference.  As it stands, the Act  and a subsequent
1996 Supreme Court decision [Seminole], force tribes to reach agreements
with
states, thus undercutting Worcester v. Georgia [1832], the key [Cherokee
Nation] case blocking state jurisdiction over Indian tribes.

Establishment of full tribal civil and criminal jurisdiction on Indian
lands.  Most of this is now held by the Federal government.

Cessation of Federal and state attacks on Native activists and immediate
freedom for persons such as Leonard Peltier.

Elimination of racism and cultural ethnocentrism wherever they may
exist.

These are critical issues for Native people in any setting but are
frequently -- and often brutally -- to the fore in police, employment,
housing, and education situations involving urban Indians.

None of these, and other necessary measures, will come into existence
easily.  The enemies of the Native American people are many indeed:  the
corporations, much of the national government regardless of
administration, state governments almost totally, and a plethora of Anglo
"back-lash" organizations.  These latter are  essentially racist groups
[mostly but
not exclusively in the West]  which seek to end the Federal obligation to
the Indian tribes and, as examples, prevent anything which would be, from an
Indian standpoint, relatively successful land-claims settlements -- as
welln as ending the protection of treaty-based Native hunting and fishing
rights.

And, in the final analysis, the basic goals of all of the enemies of the
Indian people are -- as always through the bloody, genocidal centuries -
- Native land, Native water, Native natural resources.

Like all humankind, Native Americans have resisted tyranny and
exploitation.

Crushed militarily, resistance has continued to the present moment --
and will certainly continue all the way through:  Pan-Indian [inter-tribal
efforts]  which began in the very early 20th Century; mounting and
increasingly creative litigation thrusts; militant grassroots protests -
- e.g., anti-river dam campaigns in the '40s and '50s,  fishing rights
campaigns from the '60s onward, Wounded Knee in '73,   continuing
anti-uranium and anti-nuclear movements, and much more.

Although most Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924,
the right to actually register and vote remained generally very much
inhibited -- via  terror and fear,  literacy tests  and related devices,
and  even some state laws explicitly preventing Native voting in state
and local elections -- until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

This opened the door to widespread Native voter registration and political
action. However, there is still much Indian wariness of voting in the
"white man's elections" and, other than a few geographical areas -- most
notably parts of Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, and South Dakota -- the Indian
vote in state and Federal elections is often relatively small. And it is
generally hard for any Indian candidate to draw much Anglo support.  The
Democratic party has more Native support than the Republican -- but  most
Indians are not especially  enthusiastic about either.

What about socialism and related radicalisms?

Both the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s and 1920s [its
martyred Cherokee executive board member and organizer, Frank H. Little,
lynched at Butte in 1917, should always be well remembered]; and its
radical relative, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers
[Mine-Mill] in the Rocky Mountains following World War II did have very
substantial grassroots Indian involvement. Significantly, each of these
visionary organizations was characterized by  minimally rigid  ideology,
a vigorously democratic ethos, and an extremely strong and tangible
commitment to full rights for all minorities.

But, frankly, there really hasn't been much effort on the part of
American radical organizations to do more than pay lip service to Indian
rights.

Too often when they've tried to do more, they've failed to understand [or
even try to understand] the uniqueness of the Native aboriginal/legal
situation as well as the primary commitment to tribe and tribal culture and
overall Indian identity.  Some non-Indian radicals and reformers [not all by
any means] impress Native people as being too similar to the wrong kind of
Christian missionaries: ethnocentric and dogmatic, self-righteous, and
sweetly conniving. Indians need dependable and supportive non-Indian
allies.

In fairness, it has to be conceded that Indian people are sometimes too
reluctant to listen to worthwhile ideas if they come from non-Indians
and are frequently too wary of entering into association with them.  Many
fear that alien ideas and associations could somehow threaten one's
aboriginal identity.  Growing numbers of Native people, however, are
becoming aware that that essential of tribalism -- "an injury to one is an
injury to
all" -- has to be extended to the dispossessed of all humanity and that
loss of socio-cultural identity will not occur in the framework of healthy
political association and coalition.  The multi-ethnic anti-nuclear
direct action groups, involving many Indians especially in the West,
represent
a significant step -- as does the consistently on-going  inter-tribal and
multi-racial  international effort to secure freedom and life for
Leonard Peltier.

The Nader/LaDuke 2000 campaign did stimulate significant
Indian interest and support since it conveyed clear empathy with the Native
situation and Winona LaDuke is, of course, a Minnesota Ojibway.

Non-Indians certainly need Indian allies.  Whether radicals or
reformers, the non-Indians ought to be aware by now that it takes much more
than mechanical arrangements and presumably altruistic politicians to build
and maintain bona fide humanistic socio-economic democracy -- especially in
a predominately urban/industrial context.  They can learn much from the
First People about faithful commitment to economic communalism, to
equalitarian democracy and classless societies, to a practical recognition
of the spiritual foundations and interdependence of every component of the
Creation -- and to a very fundamental ethos which, despite all of the
surrounding temptations and vicissitudes, continues to produce  far more
Native people whose primary commitment is that of serving their
communities rather than simply serving themselves. All of this should be of
considerable help in steering through the political, social and
technological storms now sweeping across our country and the world from the
Four Directions.

______________________________________________________________

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear], who presently lives and works in Idaho, has
been active in Native rights, radical unionism, and civil rights since the
mid-1950s: full-time organizing and part-time teaching and full-time
organizing and full-time teaching.  He is the author of  Jackson,
Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism [under the
name John R. Salter, Jr.] and numerous articles on social justice.

E-mail:  hunterbadbear at earthlink.net     Website: www.hunterbear.org




__________________________________________________________________


Hunter Gray  [ Hunterbear ]
www.hunterbear.org  ( social justice )
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