Chris Rock once said that however bad Black-people have it in this country, Native Americans have it worse—when was the last time you saw 2 Natives … at the same time?
It works as a joke because it’s true. Huge numbers of the once abundant Native American tribes and languages have gone extinct, and those that are left have been disenfranchised, marginalized, and left with little of the institutional frame work from which to succeed in the modern world. It’s ugly.
The Willamette Weeks’ article “Urban Indian: A tight-focus lens on Portland’s invisible minority” is a look at a particular case of this in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. But, the cause is a national one. And in every local community, Native Americans are on the brink.
In a time when immigration policy is under the microscope, and anti-Latino sentiment is high, it is ironic that the one group of people who didn’t immigrate are being largely ignored by the largest group of people that did.
Here in Portland, Native Americans make up around 10% of the homeless population. For a city infamous for it’s large numbers of homeless, laying around all over brickwork at Pionere Square and panhandling on Hawthorne, 10% is a significant number. But, that isn’t the bulk of it. Natives have double the rates of sexual assaults of other races. They have the lowest average income. And their suicide rate, rate of binge drinking and poverty, are the highest in the nation. Clearly something has gone wrong. And to shy away from the problem with only make it worse.
In school, Native American studies is an afterthought at best or flat out ignored. Worse, is the study of Manifest Destiny—the idea that white men were destined by God himself to the land of the Americas—as though it was a actually true (I remember this well from my own school experience). Not scrutiny, no analysis. Just declaration.
When I was in the 5th grade, I did a large report on the Aztecs. To a young kid, let’s face it, Aztecs were cool: Human sacrifice, war, a monstrously large city build upon the water, serpent Gods. In researching, I discovered that there were far more Native American tribes than just Aztecs and that they were remarkably varied as a people in what they believed and how they saw themselves in the world, in the universe. I succumbed, quite naturally to what would become a perpetual life-long problem—I sat in the library reading anything I could get my hands on about Natives generally, and because of that, took 5 times as long to get the report done than was necessary.
I found myself entranced, and looked forward to learning much more about Native America as my schooling continued (I was after all only in the 5th grade). But, that didn’t happen. Instead I got trite snippets, and watered down bull-shit analysis about what Native culture was like, and what had happened to them.
But, it was when the Manifest Destiny “discussions” appeared in middle-school and High-school that I finally began to understand what kind of crap was being passed off as history in school. It is little wonder why the voting populace doesn’t have Native American issues on their mind—they’ve never even been exposed to them, outside of the child-hood games of cowboys and Indians, or through the remarkably misleading fuck-off 6th-grade play about the Thanksgiving Story. Sure, we read about the Trail of Tears, and a bit about Geronimo. We had a sexy Pocahontas, and a small section on the reservation system. But, these read like fairy tails, removed from the harshness of their reality.
There was a definite theme in the classroom that the westward migration of white people was not only OK, but destined. Most of our history discussions never took seriously the impact of the Gold Rush, or of the Rail Roads, the Oregon Trail, or industrialization on the original inhabitants of the land. At every step, Whites were stepping on Natives.
It is ironic that much of the current immigration debate centers on how best to assimilate Latinos into our preexisting culture, to teach them English, to Americanize them. And yet, White people didn’t assimilate into the preexisting culture of the Americas when they immigrated. We imposed. We didn’t learn a Navajo language. We didn’t start living in Long-Houses. We certainly didn’t respect the Buffalo. And instead of learning to live with the current inhabitants, we did everything we could to completely exterminate them.
Here in Oregon we have 9 different Native-owned casinos. But, not all Native Americans in the state are entitled to even a dime of that money. It is a common misconception that Casinos are there to help the native populations. But, in fact they are there for the same reasons all business are: to increase the profits for those who own the business. If casinos are our model for how best to aid a group of people we nearly wiped out, it’s not working.
I’m not sure what would work. But, bringing up the issue must be step one. Native Americans are not all gone. They’re still here. And they were here long before we were. 400 years ago, White Europeans began immigrating to a land that was not their own. They came like Latinos are coming now, to start a new life, and to leave a world that was preventing them from moving ahead, that was keeping them down institutionally, and was full of a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle oppressions. But, they took over, and left the Native Americans with little to nothing.
What are we gonna do about it?