The most prominent civil rights headlines emerging from the American media today focus on issues surrounding gender equality, police brutality, racial injustice, and LGBTQ rights. Twitter has given due attention and an effective platform to movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, but Native American activism rarely hits the headlines.
Our visits to America this summer were both enlightening and impactful. Kristina’s experiences with Indigenous communities and individuals in the North-East through the Matariki Programme highlighted the continual severity of contemporary issues facing Native Americans today.
Unfortunately, Lois’ experiences with non-Indigenous people and the youth of America revealed the extent to which these issues are misconstrued in the American media, and the rampant insensitivity exhibited by non-Indigenous Americans.
After sharing our personal experiences with each other, we realised the necessity of deconstructing misconceptions, countering appropriation and raising awareness of Indigenous America.
This is our platform for their story.
Contemporary Issues: Kristina’s insight
Addressing Stolen Land
During the time I spent with the Abenaki community in New Hampshire, I was introduced to an incredibly welcoming group of people who have managed to maintain, only through their communal and personal will, a connection to their indigenous culture and spirituality. I was fortunate enough to be in the presence of prayers to their Creator; to hear traditional songs sung over the powerful beat of the community’s Powwow drum; and to experience being smudged by sweetgrass, which induces an emotional and spiritual cleansing, as the afternoon came to a close.
Photo by Hunter Desportes via Flickr
Maintaining this active community has not come without significant challenge, due to the tribe not being federally recognised. Consequently, they are unable to make a claim to recover any of their ancestral lands spanning across the North Eastern U.S., forcefully taken during the colonial era. Tribal members have therefore had to acquire communal land themselves in order to provide a space for social gatherings, and to comfortably practice their culture and spirituality.
The issue of indigenous groups lacking a land base is innately tied to the difficulty of obtaining federal recognition for their community. The whole process is incredibly flawed, with tribes having to submit physical evidence for every year they ‘existed’, demonstrating that they have been a continuously politically active community.
As well as being an incredibly arduous and expensive task, it is almost impossible for communities whose existence was intentionally hidden to submit evidence. Such are the consequences of the federal government’s assimilation policies in the late 19th and early 20th century, which have been characterised as aiming to ‘Kill the Indian and save the man’. In the process, the policies also acted to eradicate Native American self-determination, culture and induce physical and emotional trauma to the community.
In addition to the monolithic federal acknowledgement process, the authority that the federal government claims to possess over determining which community should be recognised as a tribe or nation is questionable.
This sentiment is expressed most clearly through the words of Monacan Council Chief John L. Johns, whose tribe received federal recognition in January 2018:
We are who we are because that’s who we are. And nobody has to tell us that’s who we are. The only people that can really give us sovereignty is ourselves. The federal recognition thing … is kind of ironic, because if anyone ought to be doing the recognizing, we ought to be recognizing them as a government … And to me, the only thing the federal government does is divide people
Despite the magnitude of these issues, indigenous people continue to persevere through direct action and efforts to litigate. During my time at Dartmouth College, I befriended some exceptionally resilient individuals. Despite still being undergraduates, they had a wealth of experience with indigenous activism both at university, in their successful petitioning to remove the racially insensitive Hovey murals, and also nationwide. Polimana Joshevama, a young Hopi woman from Arizona, opened up to me about her experiences with activism, including her participation at Standing Rock as a Water Protector Medic for three months. During her time there, Polimana witnessed and experienced the use of water cannons in below-freezing weather, tear gas canister explosions, and worked tirelessly to aid her fellow protestors facing severe injuries. Although DAPL never legally acquired the land the Water Protectors were peacefully protesting on, many activists, including Polimana, were arrested on trespassing charges.
Fortunately, she is now able to vocalise her experience without violating her parole conditions.
I cared for probably hundreds of people out there who suffered the effects of police militarization and brutality first hand. But because the Water Protectors maintained the framework of a peaceful, prayerful protest, our spirits remained strong enough to repel the negative energy being shot at us
Although the severity of these issues should incite public outrage, Lois’ experiences with non-Indigenous people demonstrated that Native American history, culture and spirituality is misunderstood and misappropriated continually in order to avoid confronting the ongoing legacy of colonialism.
Despite the psychological operations performed by the private security companies, camp remained strong to the indigenous Lakota values of that place. Despite the long-lasting effects of PTSD from the psychological and physical warfare I experienced out there, I would make the same decision to go out there and help my people.
Ignorance and Apathy: Lois’ insight
American Summer Camp: Cultural Appropriation
Summer camp is an $18 billion industry in the US with more than 14 million people attending each year. Having been popularized by films such as The Parent Trap and Camp Rock, summer camp has come to epitomize the so-called quintessential American experience.
Camp means spending several weeks with friends, participating in hours of fun at daily activities, and eating smores around the campfire. Most often described ‘the summer of a lifetime’, summer camp is seldom associated with the term ‘cultural appropriation’. It is a disappointing reality that summer camp, in fact, exposes so many susceptible children to the appropriation of Native American cultures.
Throughout my time working at a summer camp in Pennsylvania, I was encouraged to participate in an array of activities, including a three-day competitive event known as ‘Tribal War’. During Tribal War, children are assigned to one of two teams referred to as tribes, and each tribe is led by a teenager referred to as Chief.
These colloquialisms, as innocent as they may seem, hold deep and profound meaning in Indigenous communities.
Traditionally, the title ‘Chief’ is an honour restricted to leaders of Native American tribes who have received the title through tribal selection or inheritance. Appointing and addressing a teenage camper as ‘tribal Chief’ is racially insensitive and ultimately trivializes Native American culture.
The question is often raised whether using these Indigenous motifs is a form of appreciating and honouring Native traditions and communities. Despite the intent not being to offend, mock or misappropriate indigenous cultures, there exists a clear difference between respecting and appropriating Native American traditions. It is the general lack of knowledge among people using the culture which undermines the claimed reverence for it.
Ignorance fuels cultural appropriation at summer camp. During my time at camp, children received gemstones for admirable behaviour, and were told that they were emulating a ‘tradition’ of rewarding tribal members with gemstones from the bottom of the lake. This supposed ‘tradition’ is historically inaccurate, thus falsifying and mystifying Native American culture.
Clearly lacking true understanding and knowledge of Indigenous cultures, some campers who were asked to explain the Native American ‘traditions’ being emulated, made reference to ‘African tribes’. Cultural appropriation is incidentally encouraged by the evident absence of historical awareness surrounding Native American cultures. Particularly concerning is the fact that within a summer camp environment, such ignorance, historical inaccuracy and consequent cultural appropriation, is imposed upon young, impressionable children.
Tourist Destinations: A Lack of Historical Awareness
Following my time at summer camp, I continued my travels across the United States and visited sites that unbeknownst to most Americans are rich in Indigenous history. Among the millions of tourists who visit Alcatraz each year, genuine knowledge of the 9-month Native American occupation of the island is rare. Among the island’s visitors, there is very little acknowledgement or understanding of the graffiti which reads ‘Indians Welcome’ and ‘Peace and Freedom Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land’.
Popular destinations such as Alcatraz and Summer Camp teem with white ignorance and consequently foster cultural appropriation. Educating an ignorant America is desperately necessary if appropriation of Indigenous cultures is to be avoided.
Our collective experiences reveal the disparity between the reality for Indigenous people, and the popular misconceptions permeating wider society. The issues affecting Native American communities and individuals today, however, are not limited to those discussed in this article. It is imperative that more effort is made by non-Indigenous people to educate themselves about the multitude of ongoing issues facing Indigenous people, in order to confront the legacy of colonialism and avoid perpetuating ignorance and appropriation.
Remaining images were taken by the authors