Indigenous Peoples Day

Tomorrow, Monday, 11 October 2021, is Indigenous Peoples Day.

Read that again: Tomorrow is Indigenous Peoples Day. This is the first time in our history as a country, as a nation of disparate people from all colours and creeds, from all backgrounds and origins, that we will celebrate, together, the cultures and people who were on this land before us. And it is truly about time.

There is incontrovertible proof that the First Nations, those indigenous cultures and communities who inhabited North America prior to European Invasion, have been here for millennia. From the Kensington Runestone‘s establishment of late-Viking-era trade with North America to the radiocarbon dating of the Bluefish Caves, there is well researched, well-presented evidence of the establishment of indigenous society on the continent. It is troubling, however, that the “mainstream” scientific community seems unwilling and/or unable to accept this research and rewrite the predominant story that we tell ourselves. Our white, European ancestors were not “settlers.” They were invaders.

Not only did Christopher Columbus not “discover” the Americas, the man never set foot on the mainland. Yet, we still teach our children that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue” from the 1991 poem by Jean Marzollo—which itself acknowledges that he was not the “first American” in its last line!

Now, as an Irish, white man, it is hardly my place to speak with any sort of assumed or implied authority of indigenous, Native American history, issues, or cultures; but, as an Irish, white man—someone from a culture which itself has experienced discrimination, imperialist colonialism, and oppression and with a long, storied history of solidarity with indigenous communities and communities of colour—I feel that it is incumbent on me to act as an ally and further, as well as I can, understanding of real history. And that’s why I am writing today, because so many Americans do not know and do not acknowledge the plight of indigenous communities and the struggles they have faced for more than 250+ years under the boot of the United States Government and its predecessors. Our collective boot.

The first and most, in my opinion, onerous misconception we need to defeat is that indigenous communities, Native Americans, are somehow “extinct.” They’re not. These nations, these peoples still exist in North America. They are very real and very much alive. There are well over 5 million Native Americans—which, for my purposes of this essay, includes all indigenous communities with Alaskan Natives, American Indians, and mixed individuals covered by the term—very much alive and accounted for in the United States of America as of the 2010 Census. To somehow suggest that “Indians died out” or that the very aggressive and prolonged campaign of obliteration on behalf of the US Government was successful is to, very literally, deny the existence of these people, their cultures, and their history.

The second, and by far the most important, issue we need to tackle is tribal sovereignty. For too long, far too long, treaty rights and national sovereignty have been ignored, overlooked, and pointedly abused by the United States Government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is, quite frankly, derelict in its duty to advocate for and champion the issues of indigenous nations and peoples. The stated mission of the Bureau is to “enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.” [Emphasis mine.] But as we have seen time and time again—most recently with respect to treaty rights concerning land trusts and pipeline construction across the continent—the Bureau of Indian Affairs is either underfunded and underpowered, or completely inept at a leadership and bureaucratic level. This must change.

Map of the United States without Tribal Lands.

Map of the United States without Tribal Lands.

The third, in my unqualified opinion, is media erasure. Indigenous communities are rich, vibrant, and exuberant, but they are all too often overlooked, ignored, and disregarded when it comes to inclusion in media, news, and political life in America. Take, for instance, missing persons reports. When was the last time you heard a national news story about a missing white woman? ProTip: It was Gabby Petito, just last month. And while that case is tragic and valid, pause for a moment to think of the last time you heard a national news story about a missing indigenous person, male or female, young or old, gay or straight, cis or trans… at all. I, for one, can’t think, off the top of my head, of a single one in the last 35 years. That’s media erasure. Take, as another example, any other national news story you’ve recently heard about indigenous communities, issues, or struggles, let alone any uplifting, positive stories. When was the last time? It was probably—unless you count Deb Haaland’s appointment—a brief mention about how important indigenous communities were to Joe Biden’s election in the midwestern states. But, frankly, that would technically be a story about Joe Biden, not about the indigenous communities themselves. So… maybe some brief media coverage of the Water Protectors protests against DAPL and Keystone XL? Or the story (or two) written about how, like, half of Oklahoma is lawfully part of tribal lands? It’s hard to believe such a vibrant society has so little going on… But the indigenous community, as a whole, has robust and extensive media coverage from the inside. That it never gets picked up by national news media and is effectively hidden from the rest of us in a diet of national news is a gods damned tragic injustice. (Though, I will give a small kudos to the New York Times for aggregating stories in it’s very under-promoted Native Americans Section.)

Until we combat and successfully defeat these anti-indigenous issues, there’s no amount of holiday proclamations from the White House that will even begin to sooth and heal the—often violent—division between non-native Americans and indigenous, Native communities. President Biden has taken some important first steps in the last nine months, like increasing the budget of BIA and naming Secretary Deb Haaland to the Department of the Interior. But these are minuscule first steps in the grand scheme. It is incumbent on all Americans—you; me; our brothers, sisters, friends, and cousins; our parents, aunts, and uncles… everyone—to champion indigenous issues, support the proper observation of treaty conditions, and advocate for indigenous communities and peoples.

We must do better.