What If We Actually Treated Indigenous People as People?

When it comes to meaningfully acknowledging the theft of land, or addressing poverty, we would rather not be bothered.

Where are you right now?

ᐊᒋᒧᐢᑕᒪᑫ [achi-mo-stamakee] “Tell a story” (Cree)

Virtually every last inch of North America has a rich, but mostly forgotten, past that predates the Columbian Exchange of 1492. Learning something as simple as the origins of a name gives a place new meaning by revealing an aspect of its history.

Territorial acknowledgements are written so that we may express a sentiment without feeling it.

All is not lost, for symbolic messaging holds value if it can move people’s hearts and elicit political action in other meaningful ways. Yet a glaring weakness remains. Territorial acknowledgements stand all alone on the cultural landscape, like a single scarecrow in an open field, outnumbered by a flock of birds who have little reason to take heed. So long as a society is uninformed about, and therefore uninterested in, the matter of reconciliation with its marginalized members, lone acts of protest will never be more than token gestures.

Mukk wen pepsimaw: “Think before you speak” (Mi’kmaw)

Success is far from certain, however, chiefly due to a tradition of arrogance that has haunted Euro-Christian culture since it arrived on American shores, and probably well before. America, after all, is named for its eponym Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer and cartographer who, unlike his compatriot Cristoforo Colombo, realized that the Caribbean islands known as the West Indies are not, in fact, located on Asia’s eastern flank.

Many people tend to whitewash history in an ingratiating way that abets white liberals’ tacit desire to signal their own virtue.

Slavoj Zizek, a celebrity philosopher, has a charming anecdote to illustrate why political correctness — a darling cause of the far-left — doesn’t necessarily bear benefits. He recounts a conversation with two Indigenous men in Montana who told him that they preferred being called Indians because at least that label is a monument to the White Man’s stupidity.

Eliding the messiness of history in the Americas is a tactic used not to heal old wounds, but to soothe white guilt.

Many people also tend to whitewash history in an ingratiating way that abets white liberals’ tacit desire to signal their own virtue. For instance, although Europeans visited terrible violence on Indigenous peoples, they did not invent it. Like all human civilizations, the numerous tribes of the Americas engaged in both peaceful trade and brutal warfare for eons before Europeans bullied their way into the frame. The men speaking to Zizek allude to this point, too, through their distaste for the term “Native American”: it seems to imply that while real Americans lead the charge through modernity, Natives are backward tree-huggers who have yet to catch up. That is far from the truth.

Bidzï hitsigh: “Her heart is crying” (Wet’suwet’en)

Upon their arrival in the New World, Europeans discovered crops they had never seen before, including corn, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, vanilla, and cocoa. In turn, Europeans introduced much to the Americas that the Indigenous peoples had never experienced: apples, bananas, oranges, mangos, onions, wheat, rice, coffee, and animals such as horses, cattle, pigs, and sheep. The most consequential thing that arrived with the settlers, however, was disease. Old World viruses such as influenza, smallpox, and measles, to which the peoples of the Americas lacked immunity, eventually killed 50 to 90 percent of the Indigenous population.

Europeans were perplexed, offended, and incensed that Native peoples had the temerity to take their goods and return their gods.

— Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America

Episodes like that should give pause to those of us with predominantly non-Indigenous lineage. First Nations communities across North America still bear the scars of the damage suffered in times past. Today 1 in 4 Native Americans, and 1 in 3 Native American children, live in poverty — almost double the United States average in both categories. The situation is even worse in Canada, where half of status First Nation children live in poverty, rising to 60 percent for children on reserves nationally, and 76 percent on reserves in Manitoba. It is so dire, in fact, that poverty for Indigenous Canadians is becoming worse, not better, despite overall economic growth.

Source: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

2018 winner of the Dalton Camp Award for essay-writing. M.A. Political Science. I'll go to the mat for the Oxford comma.

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