Indigenous and Invisible
Indigenous people are invisible. I know, it’s hard to believe because Native images are everywhere, from the backs of nickels to recycled toilet paper packages, from butter containers to sports team mascots, from attack helicopters to ads offering shamanic power in a weekend for a fee. This pervasive imagery contributes to the invisibility of Indigenous people as real human beings because people are led to think by images (and education alike) that they know the Indigenous of this country, but this kind of “knowing” is without serious or honest examination.
Let’s take a look at the academic world as a culprit in making Indigenous people invisible, through a few direct yet simple questions. Do we study generations of boarding schools designed to strip the Indian of his/her culture in our sociology classes? “Kill the Indian: Save the Man” is what they called it, and this one policy among many falls clearly under the international definitions of Genocide formed in Geneva. Isn’t this worth a serious discussion? Do we examine and discuss the intentions of those who formed the boarding school policies in a course designed to understand societal constructs forming the individual psyche? What Indigenous issues are put under the microscope in our political science classes? Are the purposes and effects of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 standard curriculum? Do we talk about international law, and the concept of “full plenary power” adopted by the U.S. regarding Indigenous nations and the “treaty,” one of the highest forms of rule of law consistently and unilaterally abrogated by the U.S. government? Do we discuss the issue that Indigenous reservation communities are under the final say of a presidential appointee, rather than that official being elected through a democratic process? Further, how does this lack of democratic process affect the real autonomy of what treaty law defines as autonomous nations, bringing us full circle to international law and the notion of “full plenary power” over “sovereign” nations? What are the causes and effects of these practices? In our history classes, are the current wildly varying accounts of the numbers of Indigenous present at first contact discussed or juxtaposed to the known population at the beginning of the twentieth century? Are the implications of those startling numbers, representing a roughly ninety-eight percent population decline, fuel for a vibrant class discussion?
What is the reason for and nature of the silence on these few simple questions? Are we afraid to enter into an academic critique of what a great many people think of as genocide? To Indigenous people living today, these are fundamentals, basics, beginnings of a much needed, long-awaited conversation. This is not a lightweight issue, something to be swept under the rug or avoided because it’s messy. More, it is a matter of the power of active reflection and the refusal to take the opportunity to do so.
Before we explore a few possibilities of why the silence is so pervasive, let’s look at its effects. From my own experience working in the Indigenous community, I see powerful effects beginning with Indigenous children. I see it in their eyes in grade school, on Mission field trips, when their history and very being is erased, taken out of the colonial story, which is deemed more important, more central to society understanding itself. When Indigenous people are dealt with at all, it’s in the past tense, a numbing and dominant placement that confuses a child, rendering that child insignificant today as part of a vibrant culture struggling for continuance. The past tense separates the Indigenous child from the non-Indigenous child as well, and both children lose in this removal. An alienation begins, and they lose each other. Images and expressions of Indigenous people as simple and primitive, even when primitiveness is strangely exalted, cause distance between the children, and they move away from each other, both losing a tremendous amount. The noble-savage dichotomy so present in the American psyche takes form in young minds, a strange and old transformation into dehumanization. The Indigenous child then retreats from who he/she really is, hiding from him/herself and the other children. The separation becomes fear, a sense of abandonment, and this fear and separation finally emerge as anger. As the child matures, those feelings may well turn into many destructive forms that do not serve the young person, the community, or anyone else. Only if the Indigenous child is lucky enough to be immersed in his own culture will he be able to turn that anger into something productive, through his own reflections on all the dynamics affecting him, guided by those in his community who confront the issues.
For the non-Indigenous child, maturity within the school system includes a dangerous comfort with educational denial, an effect contributing equally to deeper problems. The youth knows something is amiss because of all the images or stereotypes of Indigenous people in his society, because unless he lives near an Indigenous community, he sees almost no real Indigenous people, to his mind. Where have they gone, and how did this happen? He wonders this, even if subconsciously, but it is not talked about directly. It is put in oblique, vague terms if mentioned at all, so unasked questions linger somewhere in the mind. Did the Indigenous people simply disappear out of some kind of social or genetic inability to survive in the real world, today’s world? Is that the implication, and if so, what is the underlying message? This is only one question among many, and the effects of not asking them can be profound. The silence of years piling up through grade school and high school is a powerful force in shaping the mind, and when the student finally encounters a living Indigenous author telling his/her experience in the colonial story, the student’s reality is severely challenged. Without going too deeply into the dynamics of societal denial and personal depression, as well as the forces of silence and oppression, it is clear that all children and young people are robbed of understanding their society and thereby themselves by the creation of the “disappeared” Indigenous. This is a deep study in contradiction, a modeling and creation of dysfunction across the board.
Why does it happen? As students begin to hear Indigenous voices, they talk about shame as a possible silencing force, and guilt. Shamelessness is brought up, lack of conscience, institutional denial, and what emerges is a lack of faith or trust in what they’ve been taught as the American story. Perhaps “story” is the key word here, so let’s set ethical questions to the side for a moment and look purely at the mechanics of academia. As we look at an educator’s job we see a packed curriculum (story), a great deal of material stuffed into a semester of college or a year of grade school. In a history class, there is so much to get through, where is the room for the Indian story? Can we squeeze the Indians in here or there, in time slots that mirror the reservations the people have been relegated to? This is a continuingly perfect metaphor, but time and space are not the only factors in this overwhelming storytelling process. Another force that comes into play is the lack of expertise on Indigenous history or social or legal issues. An instructor may have only gotten the colonial story him/herself in college, so simply repeats what has been taught, with ones own personal slant present through humor or irony, or subtle advocacy of a certain position. In these cases, the crux of the matter is that the same story is being told over and over, without the presence of the Indigenous voice. The issue to confront here is the fact that when a person has a higher degree in education, a profound ability to gain knowledge is inherent, and it should be exercised. To do so, one needs to see the importance of changing the present story’s content, to broaden it, expanding it to include the voices of all the participants relevant to understanding who we have been, and who we are today as a society, but there are long-standing dynamics standing in the way.
We are a racially and culturally divided society, so we ask through our silence that only the people “themselves” teach classes pertinent to “their” issues. This is a huge problem when the academic world, a reflection of the whole society, leaves the original people’s story aside as a result of inherently divisive factors. The numbers of Indigenous people available are horribly small, and one percent of the country’s population cannot be expected to provide enough educators to fill the gap. Further, when we consider the nature and duration of the decimation of Indigenous people, the silence is extremely dismaying. But this is our dynamic in a racially divided society. Blacks are given the right and obligation to tell the Black story, Latinos the Latino story, and so on, hence the silence around Indigenous issues. However, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see that the Indigenous story weaves through the heart of all other ethnicities’ stories, in both simple and very complex ways, so the obligation belongs to all Americans.
This is the important thing to focus on. Everyone loses when the true Indigenous face is invisible, and when the voice is not heard. Everyone. If one listens to the elders standing on the steps of the White House, the message is clear: “America will never be free until it comes to terms with us.” When traditional Indigenous people go into ceremony here in America, they pray for all people, not just for their own. They pray for the Earth, our habitat, and for intelligent action on the part of all people. They do not proselytize or insist or even desire that all people practice their “religions,” but only that people find a way that works, a way that is pragmatic along the lines of right action, compassion and respect. The voices of Indigenous artists and authors ask only that people listen to their stories as part of the whole of humanity, and almost all of them chronicle the problems alongside the hope for what we are all capable of, which is ultimately survival in the best way possible. Traditional Indigenous people believe in humanity because they believe in life itself as a process of beauty, a gift to be treated as such. When this ancient and persistent vision is made invisible, the loss is incalculable. It is time to reverse the situation, and the responsibility to do so belongs to all of us.
First published in Breaking All Barriers Social Justice Journal,2012 (ISSN-7697) Santa Cruz, Ca.