At the moment there has been a flurry of news reports about an unfortunate gesture by a U.S. Senate candidate in California who caricatured an Indian war cry. Apologies are already being made and the dust will soon settle.
But two things: First, she is hardly alone. Presidential candidate
Mike Huckabee recently compared American Indians to the “bad guys” in
“’a 50s western.” I once heard a U.S. senator introduce their tribal
guests as “my Indians.” The New Yorker just published a so-called humor piece using the word "squaw”—a profoundly insulting racial slur.
Second, what’s really important here is not a casual remark or the
need to be politically correct. That’s far too superficial. Everybody
has said something in the moment that upon later reflection they wished
they could take back. That’s only human.
The stereotypes and slurs that sometimes echo through the rough and
tumble of contemporary American culture simply reveal the reality that
candidates, like most people, rarely have a genuine understanding of
tribal governments and Native issues.
So here we are with a spectrum in the national dialogue that spans
between the careless and the hate-filled. But these comments can
actually serve a purpose. National Congress of American Indians
President Brian Cladoosby points out, “… this is an opportunity to
educate” and he’s right.
American Indian tribes are a vast and complicated universe that has
grown even more complex in the past quarter century. There are 566
federally recognized Indian nations—variously called tribes, nations,
bands, pueblos, communities and native villages—in 34 states. They are
ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse entities.
Those differences are important because the time when many tribes’
geographic isolation kept them out of sight and mind is long gone. The
last 50 years has especially seen dramatic growth of tribal governments
and their ability to provide services to their communities. Their
communications and interactions with local, state and federal government
agencies have expanded accordingly.
The total American Indian/Alaska Native landmass—100 million
acres—right now would make Indian Country the fourth largest state in
the United States. There are 19 tribal nations each larger than Rhode
Island and 12 tribal nations larger than Delaware.
The tribal governments comprising this network don’t just deal with
the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They work regularly with the departments
of Justice, Defense, Health & Human Services, Agriculture, Commerce,
Energy, Interior, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental
Protection Agency, Housing & Urban Development and Homeland
Security. They work daily with city councils, state legislatures and
members of Congress. Tribes are serious, active participants in the
American political, legislative and policy-making process.
The bottom line? Anyone who seeks or holds public office in the
United States today needs to be more informed about this country’s first
Americans – their history, policies and issues. Focusing on political
correctness is a disconnect. It’s a smaller, more inter-connected world
that we live in. The future we share depends on forging a real and
Black, Brown, White, Yellow - what difference does it make? We are all citizens of the world we share. Solidarity with all working for a colour-blind world in common.