When people look at me and say “I feel bad for how the whites screwed the Native Americans” it’s that little “ed” that I have to take issue with. It is the ending used to indicate the past tense that really gets me. Absolutely we all use generalizations and turns of phrase, or have slips of the tongue. We all do know in context what others mean, most of the time.
With that said, the view expressed by those two little letters shows that many people consider Native Americans and treatment of them to be in the past. They believe it happened, and that it is now over. When these people are reminded that Natives live in modern times, it becomes obvious that they think of modern Natives as somehow different than the ones in history, and think that they are no longer mistreated. Aside from my distaste for trivializing history, I need to take this time and space to say yes, Natives have always been and still are alive, continually dealing with oppression. They are children growing up, then having children of their own, and grandchildren, then growing old and dying, living generation after generation. They’re not separate, not gone, nor shadows of the past, but actually living – thriving in cities as much as backwoods, in courtrooms and classrooms and waiting rooms and coffee shops and beaches and everywhere.
Many misconceptions have been learned and spread and it’s not out of particular malice. It’s in how people have been taught. Everything is presented to them in historical terms, which makes it seem like it is done and gone; school curricula generally don’t focus much (if any) time on modern Native American culture. Thus, knowledge of modern Native culture is not just limited, but rife with misinformation and spread through community channels which enjoy strong trust from the learner regardless of accuracy.
People often romanticize the past; even, or especially, uncomfortable facts. It makes it easier to deal with when we see it as just a story – even if we use it as a learning tool. History is often reduced to basics and people from the past are painted as simpler, less refined or less capable. Putting things in the past helps people compartmentalize their knowledge and experiences in general. It also fosters emotional distance and learning is best done after the fact and with a clear perspective. As a result, many people do feel bad for what they see as a past tragedy, but they make no connection between that and anything in current events.
Problems begin when visions of future are colored by the past and the present is injected with assumptions, stereotypes, and generalizations, ostensibly just opinions, pity, or humor. These colors and shades throw shadows on faces. There is duality, paradox in the image of Natives and the space they occupy in history and contemporary culture. Thousands of tribes across a continent are handily wrapped up in one name, assigned one past and one demise, one resurrection and yet another downfall. In one little sentence with one little ending an entirety of countless people are reduced to an anecdote. That anecdote dictates the identity they are assigned and by extension their personal worth.
The romanticized martyr sits atop its pedestal looking down in the muck for the demonized delinquent. Just as the wind-blown innocent earth child unwittingly fell to progress, the homeless, drunk, and lazy welfare Indian is also a well-known trope. This is a one-dimensional view of the decimation of a continent of inhabitants that has managed to turn history into a Western movie, just a sob story, or soft poetry set to slow drumming. Past and present have been divorced, future relegated to a haze. In the narrow space in this narrative there’s no place for multi-faceted, dynamic characters.
But it’s not just that Natives themselves are seen as dead and gone, or just caricatures. It’s the deeply damaging view that mistreatment is a thing of the past that keeps Native oppressed today. It’s romanticized visions, and yes the strength to survive and overcome that manages to keep the truth from being told as it is. Today, right now, in 2017, Native people experience the same levels (and sometimes higher) of systemic inequality – like harsher prison sentences, mental illnesses, chronic health concerns, drug addiction, all forms of violence, and extreme poverty, as black people in this country. The difference is almost no one thinks it’s happening. They think it’s over, and that bad as it was, that was back then, or that we just have to clean up an old mess.
The problem with seeing these things as only past is that it means no one thinks they need to do anything here and now. They don’t realize that Native peoples are currently being mistreated by their teachers in school, prospective employers, bosses at work, landlords, judges, strangers at sporting events, and health care workers. Native elders are being mistreated in facilities and Native children are taken away from parents and put into the broken foster care system. Right now Native women are beaten, raped, stolen, and killed at alarming rates that outstrip other races by far. The faces dripping with pity and remorse do not seem to see that it isn’t done yet. It’s not time to cry for days gone by when we’re still living them out.
Like any group, many talented Native figures have come to the forefront of progress – we are not all broken pieces on the floor. Artisans and musicians, writers and activists are bringing us into the future. Native business professionals invest, develop, and compete in the marketplace. Native entrepeneurs start businesses, tribal casinos have become popular, and we have a presence in the media. It’s funny to me when someone says that Natives should get over the past. Natives are the ones who have moved up and on while they are still painted as historical relics or rejects.
The more we are known as complex individuals, the more we can begin to gain true respect. The more people know that we’re people too, the sooner they can treat us as such. Beyond power struggles and differences in values, Natives struggle to be treated as real. Not some construct of history, legend or mystery, Natives are as human as the rest. They put their pants on one leg at a time, wear jeans and old comfy t-shirts. Natives drink coffee, go to work, and pick up their kids from day care. When they go home they cook on a stove, lock the door at night and wear bunny slippers. They read stories to their kids, tuck them in, and watch streaming movies on their tablets afterwards. Yes, many Natives hold on to their culture, practice and even share it. That doesn’t mean they don’t use a bathroom or wash up after they’re finished.
Knowing more about each other helps people realize that we are all the same in some ways. When people can relate with one another, they can begin to see the human experience for what it is, and hopefully share it. Ever changing and growing, we learn by living. Each of us is born, takes in nourishment and seeks out love here and there. We dream of how we want to better ourselves or the world around us in some way. No more or less than anyone else we all came from somewhere, we all live our lives and go our own way.
When more folks realize we are truly alive today, we’ll be able to start turning the tides. When people realize we’re not just talking about yesterday they might be willing to reconcile with deeply complex realities. Natives are still getting screwed on the regular, in various and sundry ways. When we can get folks to open their eyes, we can get them to realize they marginalize people who did not just survive, but who are living each day one at a time.