Thursday, July 22, 2010

None More Invisible -- Native Americans

Before the Iroquois' recent catapault into local news, I'm not even sure it made it to the national realm, when is the last time I heard anything about any Native American in this land?

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man surely captured the experience of African-Americans in his day and in new forms today. But there is simply no competition in invisibility when it comes to the Native populations. It is astounding. Not once in my graduate or undergraduate studies, my teaching of graduate and post-graduate trainees have I encountered a Native American, or one identifying her/him self that way. Where are Native American students? The next to last time I heard something on the news about Native Americans it had to do with them taking revenue from New York State because they sell tax-free cigarettes on their reservations. We do have ads about Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos but the Native American association is not particularly, if at all, visibible. And how informative would that be, if it appeared?

The recent news story involving the Iroquois lacross team centered on the use of their tribal documents as their passports. Though they are apparently granted American citizenship by virtue of being born in the U.S. they and the land they occupy are considered sovereign. Lacrosse is a game that originated with Native Americans and the Iroquois lacross team was set to go to England to participate in an international competition. However, England would not accept their Iroquois passports, even though the U.S. issued a special waiver that recognized them as valid for travel. The Iroquois are quoted as saying it is a matter of identity, and they did not go. They would not barter with it.

Who knows when we'll hear again about them or any other Native group living in NY State or any state for that matter.
Sure, we have the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, but these are mere holdovers of relegating a group of people to team mascots. No honor.

How many Native American creative writers do I know? One, Sherman Alexie.

How many Native Americans do I know, period? Two, a Hopi/Havasupai colleague in the mental health profession, also one of the 13 indigenous Grandmothers, and a good friend who is Native and African-American. Though I have Native blood running down from three generations back I don't identify as Native. I do feel a connection though, to the suffering, to the collaboration on survival in our histories, to the beauty of their understanding and reverence for Mother Earth and to the artistic craftsman/womanship they continue to pass down through the winters of the generations.

Keeping Native Americans invisible means that we do not have to face the way the trauma of genocide has decimated so many, the way that many reservations are populated with high numbers of suicidal teenagers, drunken men, victims of sexual abuse, and diabetics. Keeping Native Americans invisible means that our Nation does not have to face its own shame. But denial and amnesia will not make it go away from the soul of this country. We need to remember and to see the legacy that lives and dies among us.

If we remain silent, we collude in the invisibility. So, let's ask where the Native American students are in unviersities, diversity programs, theories of psychology and family functioning. Let's ask about Native Americans in mental health, morbidity, life span, college graduation statistics. Let's learn about the Native American tribes that live in our state and invite them to speak to us of their lives, their concerns. Let's ask our government about its current policies in regard to Native Americans, how it is meeting its accountability. Let's stop using the term 'caught red-handed' to refer to discovering someone in the act of malfesance. Let's talk about the history and present of oppression. Let's change.

1 comment:

  1. I live in Oklahoma where Native Americans are the largest minority. I was a medical officer with Indian Health Service for 25 years hence my experience with and relationship to American Indians (some prefer AI to NA) has been very different from that of someone from a state where AI are likely the smallest minority. I have as many friends who are AI as I do AA. I have art work by Indians; some I bought and some I was given.
    There are 39 tribes in Oklahoma including several of the largest tribes in the country. Three of the largest tribes: Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw have become very proactive in their efforts to enlighten the community about their past and current contributions to culture and history. They have some very effective and informative public service announcements during primetime. There are no reservations in Oklahoma hence the visibility of Indian contributions to some communities is inescapable. These tribes have a variety of successful economic enterprises and they share their profits with the community. The casinos in Oklahoma last year were still the fastest growing in the country, profit wise. The state received $58 million in taxes. In addition, locally, there are contributions to public schools, fire departments, roads, etc.
    From a political perspective some may say that AA in Oklahoma may be adversely impacted by AI.
    There are some interesting dynamics within AI communities. A few months ago during a conversation with a close friend, who is 1/2 Choctaw and part Osage, she shared with me the heritage discrepancy that exists among her siblings with the same parents. She is the youngest of six and she and her two closest siblings refer to themselves as Choctaw. Her two older sibings are "of Choctaw heritage". The younger three don't know their reason.
    There is no doubt there is much that we all could learn from Indians about a lot of things. A major reason I retired from IHS when I did was to try to allow myself an opportunity to implement in other communities, especially AA, effective approaches and methods of diabetes management that had been developed and used within some Indian communities over the past thirty years. There are still many Indian communities that don't have effective programs. The United State Government is still quite remissive in fulfillment of it's promise to provide health care to Indian people.