Sunday, 6 May 2012

Not Yet Ready to Face the Past in the Present

How many Americans have heard of Dahlonega, Georgia? How many know that it was the site of the first large scale gold-rush in the United States? How many people know that in order to get access to that gold, forced removal of several indigenous tribes became the policy of the United States government? How many people know about the horrible conditions of t forced removal that resulted in the deaths of women, children, and the elderly from starvation and disease? Without knowing this, how is it that mainstream America has enough knowledge about indigenous peoples and the Cherokee peoples to offer any comment as to whether or not Elizabeth Warren is “an Indian”?

As I have blogged about in prior posts, the controversy kicked up in the mainstream American press about whether or not Elizabeth Warren is or is not an “Indian” has revealed several unpleasant realities about American society. It has revealed the deeply racist views that are held in mainstream America towards indigenous peoples. More than that, it has revealed that it is also apparently acceptable and even seen as humorous and good jolly fun to express those racist views—good journalism even. And it also reveals the deep ignorance and apathy that mainstream Americans have about the indigenous peoples in their midst, both past and present. But the Elizabeth Warren situation with its racist and disrespectful depictions of indigenous peoples is hardly an isolated incident in modern America.

A government that has created secondary status for indigenous groups to which it does not grant federal recognition leaves those groups with little recourse within the United States. These groups have rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But what good do those do with a government that is deeply unresponsive to these people? Take the failure of the US Forestry Service to respond to the requests of the Winnemem Wintu peoples to close a part of a river so that their coming-of-age ceremonies can be conducted without drunken white people disrupting the ceremonies by, among other things, women flashing their naked breasts and mocking the ceremony? (see story and video of disturbance at this link )
For mainstream America to get to grips with what it means to be indigenous, who is indigenous and how things got to be the way they are in the present day means confronting a past that has been largely airbrushed from the historical memory of mainstream America. It means confronting and acknowledging the harms done by government policies of assimilation ( there is a video clip at this link that brings tears to my eyes—this is the living face of devastation that was wrought by government policies determined to make indigenous peoples disappear). But confronting and acknowledging that is a step that mainstream America hardly seems ready to take—it is not yet ready to face the legacy of the past that reverberates in the present.

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