Tag Archives: Native Americans

Indigenous Peoples Day 2020

“You have to look deeper, way below the anger, the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, the self-pity, way down deeper where the dreams lie, son.  Find your dream.  It’s the pursuit of the dream that heals you”.

Billy Mills (Tamakoce Te’Hila)

Indigenous Peoples Day 2020

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Wendy Red Star – Telling It Like It Is Now

Wendy Red Star in “Winter Thesis” (Photo by Kaelan Burkett)

Attending public school in Montana, Wendy Red Star didn’t learn anything about her indigenous Apsáalooke (Crow) history.  She was taught the usual curriculum of European arrival in the Western Hemisphere, western expansion of White settlers, cowboys-and-Indians tales, etc.  But, as has been common in U.S. history, she and her fellow Crow students saw nothing – nothing positive, for the most part – their people’s presence in what is now the state of Montana.  Years ago, however, she became determined to change that and began researching her people’s history on her own.

Today, the multi-media artist is working to ensure future generations of Crow students – and all American pupils, for that matter – aren’t slighted in the same way.  Mixing her indigenous history with humor and personal research, Red Star creates images of Native American peoples from the past and in the present to help everyone understand they aren’t just school mascots or figures from old black-and-white photographs.

Her latest creation, Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird, is being exhibited at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCa), which is bringing her work to children.

“I think it would be really wonderful to present that history to children because when I grew up,” Red Star said in a recent interview, “I attended public school in Hardin, which is a town that’s surrounded by the Crow reservation and once was part of the Crow reservation.  We never talked about anything having to do with Crow history, even though the student population was a mix of Crow kids and white rancher kids.  So, to me, it’s always been a fantasy to have that history presented in some way.  Then we tried to figure out a way to best engage that age demographic, for the exhibition.”

Righting wrongs and addressing past grievances has never been easy.  But it’s something that has to be done.

The exhibition runs through the spring of 2021.

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Respect in Motion

It’s finally happening!  The Washington Redskins national football team has decided to change their name by eliminating the term “redskins”.  This is a moment for which the Indigenous American community has been striving for years.  It comes at a time of national soul-searching for the United States – a period nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century where we are at long last coming to terms with a lifetime of racial injustice and inequality.

The alteration didn’t come from a moment of sudden spiritual enlightenment from team owner Dan Snyder who had said many years ago that a name change was out of the question; adding: “NEVER – you can use caps.”

Never say never, Danny boy!

Snyder bowed to social and economic pressures.  Several major corporations that have sponsored a variety of professional sports teams in the U.S. for years had vowed to pull their support if Washington didn’t change its name.  When you grab someone by the financial gonads, they’ll follow you with hearts and minds.

But society is also changing.  Despite the old guard claims that it’s “just a game”, American consciousness has seen that proverbial light in the darkness and gone towards it.  NASCAR, for example, recently banned Confederate flags from its events; a move that has upset many White southerners.  Again, the old guard is losing its grip on cultural relevance.

The word “redskin” is equivalent to slurs like nigger, gook, spic, fag, or politician.  It’s seriously debasing and relegates the Western Hemisphere’s native peoples to a skin tone (which many don’t actually have) as well as to a sub-human category.  In all fairness, some people of Native American ancestry don’t care either way.  They don’t view the term as derogatory or racist.  It’s just a word.  Of course, it is!  So is genocide.

Washington is now at a moniker crossroads.  Obviously, they’ll keep the name Washington.  But what to add to it?  Some have suggested “Warriors” or “Red Tails”; the latter a reference to the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) servicemen during World War II who went disregarded and underappreciated for decades.

I recommend the term “Monuments”.  It’s a direct recognition of the Washington Monument, but it’s also a reference to the structure’s form and size.  You know – a large, tall, long, hard, phallic-shaped emblem.  Since football is such a macho sport, I feel it’s appropriate.

Regardless of whatever name Washington adopts, the time is way past due.  And there’s simply no turning back.  Time doesn’t stop and it doesn’t retract.  It always moves forward.  So should we all.

“A Matter of Respect” (2012)

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It’s Still a Matter of Respect

Yesterday, July 3, the Washington Redskins football team made the stunning announcement that they would actually consider changing their name; at least change the “Redskins” part of it.  If there’s a true case of better late than never, this is it.  For decades, the nation’s Native American population and their supporters have demanded Washington remove the “Redskins” feature of their moniker.  As recently as 2013, team owner Dan Snyder scoffed at the possibility of such a move.  Many have expressed surprise that Snyder would be opposed to the alteration because he is of Jewish-American extraction.  But I say it’s because he is Jewish-American that he remained reticent to a change.  From what I’ve seen, many people of Jewish faith and ethnicity feel they are not only the “Chosen Ones” of humanity, but they are the ONLY ones who have ever suffered the horror of genocide.  So much so that the term ‘holocaust’ has metamorphosed into ‘Holocaust’ as a direct reference to Nazi Germany’s attempt to obliterate the Jewish people.  Snyder had spat out the usual Caucasian rhetoric of venerating Native Americans as fierce warriors with the word “redskin”.

In his formal statement, he declared, in part, “This process allows the team to take into account not only the proud tradition and history of the franchise, but also input from our alumni, the organization, sponsors, the National Football League and the local community it is proud to represent on and off the field.”

Not once did Snyder mention the derogatory nature of the word “redskin”.  In the spirit of thick-skin football, I presume Snyder wouldn’t mind me recounting a couple of old Jewish jokes someone told me more than 30 years ago.

“Hear about the new German microwave oven?

Seats 500.”

Or…

“What’s a Jewish woman’s favorite sex position?

Bent over the checkbook.”

In the spirit of racial unity, I wanted to refer to one of my earliest essays, “A Matter of Respect,” in which I address this very issue.  Because, like love and hope, respect never dies.

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Coloring In

We’ve heard it so many times before.  History has always been written by the victors.  It’s a sad reality, yet very true.  It means that much of the history of Africa and the Western Hemisphere has been recounted with a decidedly European viewpoint.  As someone of mixed European and Indigenous American extraction, I always felt conflicted about this disparity.  While trying to find information about Native American Texans in an encyclopedia during my grade school years, for example, I noticed that references to pre-Columbian peoples were treated dismissively.  It wasn’t just archaic history in standard academic circles.  It was irrelevant.  Even mention of the state’s Spanish colonizers – the first permanent European settlers – was dubbed “pre-history.”  It seemed Texas history didn’t actually begin until the likes of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston arrived.  And it didn’t matter that these men weren’t even born and raised in the state.

Only within the past half-century has the truth about various indigenous societies been revealed with advances in archaeological research and detailed forensic analysis.  Lidar, for example, has taken the concept of neon lighting from the banal presence of liquor store signs to the jungles of Central America where long-abandoned Mayan structures remain shrouded by the foliage.  As a devotee of Archeology magazine, I’m constantly amazed by discoveries of ancient settlements across the globe.  Areas once thought to be occupied by nomadic hunter-gatherer types at best are revealing the ghosts of thriving population centers.

Yes, history has always been dictated and composed by those who somehow managed to overcome the locals – usually through the casualties of disease and pestilence or the sanguineous nature of war and violence.  But the blood of history’s victims seeps into the ground and eventually fertilizes the crops that feed the newly-minted empires.  That blood eventually metabolizes into the truth of what really happened – albeit many centuries or millennia later.  Still at that point, it can no longer be ignored.

Here in the U.S. we’re now seeing statues and other emblems of the American Civil War come down by government decree.  Supporters of that conflict have maintained its genesis was the battle for states’ rights, while truth-tellers insist it was a battle over slavery.  They’re both correct, in some ways.  It was a battle over the right of some states to keep an entire race of people enslaved.  I certainly feel removal of these statues is appropriate.  Those who fought for the Confederacy wanted to rip the nation in half over that slavery issue and therefore, should not be venerated as military heroes.  They’re traitors.

The debate has now shifted to renaming many U.S. military bases.  In my native Texas, one military base is named after John Bell Hood, a Confederate general who – like so many other Texas “heroes” – wasn’t even born and raised in the state.  Hood also wasn’t an especially adept military commander; having lost a number of individual conflicts.  And yet, a military base is named after this treasonous fool?

The U.S. Pentagon has expressed some willingness to rename military bases that reference those ill-fated Civil War characters.  Naturally, it’s upset many White southerners who annually reenact various Civil War conflicts; not realizing how ridiculous they look in their antebellum garb.  I can’t help but laugh at them.  They’ve been fighting the war for over 150 years and STILL haven’t won!

In his usual brusque and toddler-esque manner, President Trump announced last month he would veto a USD 740 billion defense bill if it included an amendment that would rename many of those military bases.  He declared, “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom.”

Remember, the Confederacy lost that war.  A million reenactments won’t change that reality.

Some 30 years ago my father discovered that Spain’s Queen Isabella (who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyage) was an ancestor of his mother.  According to documentation my father found, Isabella learned of the atrocities Spain’s military officials were committing against the indigenous peoples of the “New World” and ordered them to stop.  That’s one reason why Latin America has a stronger connection to its native peoples than the United States and even Canada.

It should be worth noting that, while Italians celebrate Columbus as a national hero, he probably wasn’t even a native son.  For centuries he was considered a Genoese sailor with grand visions of finding a westward route to India and subsequently gain an edge in the then-contentious spice trade.  Contemporary research, however, has declared he was actually the son of Polish King Władysław III; often dubbed the twelve-toed king because allegedly had 6 toes on each foot.  And I have to emphasize that Columbus couldn’t get Italian leaders to finance his ventures, so he turned to Spain.  In the 15th century C.E., Italy was actually a conglomeration of city-states.

In one of my earliest essays on this blog, I lamented the term “redskin”; a derogatory moniker for Native Americans that has figured prominently into the names of many sports teams, from grade school to professional.  Just this week the Washington Redskins football team announced what many previously considered unthinkable: they might change their name.  Team owner Daniel Snyder conceded he’s bowing to pressure from its largest corporate sponsors (big money always has the loudest voice in the corporate world), as well a growing cacophony of socially-conscious voices demanding change.  Snyder said the team has begun a “review” of both the name and the team’s mascot.  Detractors, of course, moan this is political correctness at its worst.  But, just like Civil War reenactors still haven’t won, Eurocentrics still won’t admit they didn’t obliterate North America’s indigenous populations.

Change on such a grand scale is always slow and painful.  But, as with time itself, change will happen; it can’t be stopped.

We can never correct or fix what happened in the past.  Nothing can ever atone for the loss of millions of people and the destruction of the societies they built.  But we can acknowledge the truth that is buried.  It’s not rewriting history; it’s writing the actual history that remained entombed in that bloodied soil for so long.  It’s adding the needed and long-absent color to reality.

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Tulsa and June 19th

Page 1 of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863.

“And so when this terrible thing happened, it really destroyed my faith in humanity.  And it took a good long while for me to get over it.”

– Olivia Hooker, survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots

It’s a typical story: White woman claims Black man assaulted her; mob of White men become enraged and launch a hunt for said perpetrator; any Negro male is automatically presumed guilty; exact details supposed incident are unknown.  This was the scenario in May of 1921, when a young White female, Sarah Page, in Tulsa allegedly screamed after a young Black man, Dick Rowland, entered the elevator she operated.  Even today the circumstances of the exchange between Page and Rowland remain unclear.  But, in 1921, scores of hate-filled White men didn’t need to know such minutia.  The White woman’s words were the only details they needed.

And thus, commenced what is now known to be the worst race-based riot in U.S. history.  Police found Rowland and charged him sexual assault.  The sheriff had refused to hand Rowland over to bands of outraged Whites.  The throngs of self-proclaimed vigilantes stormed through Tulsa’s Black-dominated Greenwood neighborhood to exact further revenge.  Greenwood featured a district known as “Black Wall Street;” where businesses owned and operated by African-American residents had become an incredibly independent and thriving economy within a city of some 100,000.

When the initial chaos was over, upwards of 300 Greenwood-area residents were dead and thousands left homeless.  Some Black veterans of World War I (then called the “Great War”) had taken up arms in defense of their community, which surely incentivized the angry White men to continue their violent retribution.

The same madness would occur in Rosewood, Florida two years later.  A White woman reported that a Black man had entered her home and attacked her.  The woman’s husband gathered a group of about 500 Ku Klux Klan members and began a hunt through the area for any Black man they could find.  They learned that a Black member of a prison chain gang had escaped and believed Black residents of Rosewood were helping him hide.  The mobs then systematically tore through town, killing whoever they could (mostly Black men) and driving out most of the survivors.  The entire community of Rosewood was decimated.  The story of what happened remained largely unknown until at least the 1980s.

The story of Tulsa still remains largely unknown.  I’d heard of the horror some 30 years ago and wondered why such a calamity would be so obscure.  I now know why.  Like much of Native American history, true aspects of the African-American experience are often overwhelmed by the cult of American greatness; the “Manifest Destiny” myths stained heavily with Eurocentric viewpoints.  The Tulsa Massacre has received greater attention in recent months because of the tragic deaths of several African-Americans.  Its significance has grown even more within the past couple of weeks, as Donald Trump was set to stage a campaign rally in Tulsa today.  But that’s been postponed to tomorrow.

COVID-19 concerns aside, the event would have been held on one of the most historic dates in American history.  On June 19, 1865, news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the state of Texas – more than two years after then-President Abraham Lincoln had signed it.  The decree established “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Known as Juneteenth, the event is now celebrated as a turning point in the U.S. Civil War; bringing an end to one of the bloodiest conflicts on American soil.  The Emancipation Proclamation forcibly freed millions of people from the carnage of slavery; granting them the dignity of their humanity; something that had been stolen from their ancestors ensnared in the traps of slave traders on the beaches of West Africa.

That Donald Trump – one of the most cognitively-challenged and covertly racist presidents the U.S. has ever had – would hold a reelection rally on this date and 99 years after one of the single worst racial holocausts in modern American history speaks to an incredible level of ignorance among the historical elite and certainly of its arrogance.  Knowing Trump, this shouldn’t be surprising.  But the partiality of U.S. history also shouldn’t be surprising.

Many factors of our history – some dating back thousands of years – have been absent from the historical account.  For decades, myths persisted that Native Americans willingly bowed down to Christianity and that Blacks lived happily within an enslaved existence.  Even now, for example, many Americans believe most Hispanics are Latin American immigrants; when, in fact, the history of Hispanics in the U.S. goes back further than that of other Europeans and is tied inexorably with Native American history.  In other words, it IS American history.

Anger over Trump’s June 19 convocation forced organizers to reschedule it for the 20th.  But that won’t solve the dilemma of deliberate ignorance – just like civil rights legislation didn’t make all racial transgressions moot.  The 1965 Voting Rights Act eliminated many of the barriers to voting obstruction.  But, since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, we’ve seen Republican-dominated state legislatures try to roll back some of those protections under the guise of preventing voter fraud.

A photographic overview of Tulsa’s Greenwood area after the 1921 race riot and massacre. (Greenwood Cultural Center)

Much of the anger among Whites in 1921 was that Tulsa’s Greenwood section was prosperous and independent.  The same happened with the Tigua community 18 years ago, when the state of Texas shut down their casino under the ruse of combating illegal gambling.  The Tiguas had become wealthy and independent with proceeds from the casino; thus, lifting most out of poverty and off of welfare.  But they hadn’t gotten permission from the conservative, predominantly White state legislature; an affront of unimaginable proportions the latter.  Therefore, then-Governor Rick Perry and then-State Attorney General John Cornyn forced the casino to close.  Many of the Tigua have now slipped back into poverty and back onto state assistance. Even as of last year, Texas is still trying to stop the Tiguas from becoming self-sufficient.

Again, anyone with a clear mind shouldn’t be surprised.  Economic independence and wealth translates into political power.  The voices and experiences of those communities are no longer silenced.  That, in turn, upsets the self-appointed power elite – and the oppression begins.  It used to come at the end of firearms and sticks.  Now it comes with legislation.

It’s too easy to dismiss the ignorance of people like Donald Trump.  But it’s also dangerous.  And it does a disservice to the American conscious.

We can never truly make amends for incidents like Tulsa.  We can, however, honor such brutal transgressions by remembering them; remembering exactly what happened and not deleting any feature of those accounts because some are uncomfortable with it.  Again, that’s a disservice to the American conscious.

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Retro Quote – Jay Leno

“Thanksgiving began in 1621 when Native Americans sat down with a bunch of undocumented pilgrims.  They had dinner, and the pilgrims never left.”

Jay Leno

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You are on Indian Land: Acknowledging the Traditional Homelands of Indigenous People at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

For some 500 years the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere have struggled to prove a simple fact: they and their ancestors were the first human occupants of this massive region. They weren’t members of the wildlife and they weren’t features of the various landscapes. They were real people who constructed real communities with the resources available. It’s taken a while, but they’re starting to gain that recognition. As someone of part Mexican Indian ancestry, it’s significant to me.

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert is a Professor and Head of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. A member of the Hopi Indian community, he is also the author of a number of books on the Native American experience in the contemporary United States; most recently Modern Encounters of the Hopi Past, in which he analyzes the ways the Hopi operated within and beyond their ancestral lands, including their participation in the U.S. military, American film industry, music ensembles, and higher education.

It’s a mission and a challenge that may not be fully realized in our lifetime. When one considers the brutal scope of the ongoing discrimination and oppression faced by Indigenous Americans, it’s not difficult to see why.
In 1998, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, nationalist Brazilian politician told “Correio Braziliense” newspaper, “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.” Bolsonaro is now president of Brazil.

What he and others of that bigoted mindset don’t seem to understand is that the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere never were completely “exterminated”; neither in Brazil nor here in the U.S. The colonialists and their descendants tried, but even after half a millennia, they still haven’t won that war.

Beyond the Mesas

[The following land acknowledgement was part of a keynote address I gave at the Annual Celebration of Diversity Breakfast at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The event, which had over 400 people, took place on November 9, 2018. Over the years, people have approached Indigenous land acknowledgements in various ways. This is how I did it, and I am hopeful that my approach will be of some help to others.]

You are on Indian Land

Good morning everyone. It is great to be here. I am so honored by this opportunity.

I was told earlier this week that I had about 8 minutes at the mic.

And so in true Hopi fashion, I am going to keep my remarks short and sweet.

In recent months, officials and others on campus have started their public gatherings (including this gathering) by reading an official statement that acknowledges the Indigenous people who were…

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A Land Called México

They have experienced the glory and the pain.

They have weathered through generous pride and torrid shame.

They have felt the hate and the love.

They have lived through peace and seen blood.

They worshipped then, as now, both sun and moon.

They have guarded their temples and slept quietly in their tombs.

They have fought savage invaders and their very own.

They have been dragged through dirt and scraped their bones.

They have suffered through individual and collective emotions.

They have seen painful strife and been betrayed by unwanted notions.

These are the people who looked down from the mountains and built a nation on a lake they named Texcoco.

These are the people of a land called México.

 

I wrote this poem in the early 1980s and had it published in 1984 in “Our World’s Most Beloved Poems”, a compilation of poetry by the World of Poetry Press.  There’s not much information available now on WPP.  They published my poem for free, but – of course – I had to buy the gigantic book in which it appeared.  Yes, it’s amazing how naïve people can be at the age of 20.

Odd, but I never considered myself a poet.  A writer, obviously; yet poetry generally ranked somewhere between Reader’s Digest and the local classified ads, as far as I was concerned.  Still, outside of my blog, letters to a newspaper editor and a couple of anonymous romance inquiries circa 1990, it’s the only thing I’ve officially had published.

 

Image: “El Mercado de Tlatelolco” by Diego Rivera, c. 1935.

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Wrong Right

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No sooner had the group taken control of the tiny town than various branches of law enforcement – from local police to the U.S. Marshalls – arrived fully armed and fully prepared for combat. The group expressed anger towards the federal government and decried a system of oppression and brutality. But both the federal government and the police viewed them as mere renegades whose goal was destruction, not revitalization of a battered community. The day after the siege began both entities exchanged gunfire. Seventy-one days later it ended.

The 1973 occupation of the small South Dakota hamlet of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement (AIM) startled most other Americans and garnered international attention. It really shouldn’t have surprised anyone, but many non-Indians believed then their Native American counterparts were content to live in isolation on land carved out just for them. Who outside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation knew things were so bad? The history of Wounded Knee had already been written in blood. In December of 1890, a violent clash between the Oglala Sioux nation and U.S. federal troops left some 150 Indian people dead. That cataclysm was fresh in the minds of AIM members, including co-founders Russell Means and Dennis Banks, when they overwhelmed Wounded Knee on February 27, 1973. Things hadn’t changed much for the residents of Wounded Knee or all of Pine Ridge, for that matter, in the period since the 1890 event. Poverty, sickness and infant mortality were high, while employment and opportunities were low. The U.S. federal government had failed the entire community. But it didn’t fail to react to the sudden occupation by AIM. If you study that fiasco from the vantage point of AIM and residents of Pine Ridge, you should get an understanding of their angst and the long brutal relationship Native American communities have had with the federal government. If you look at it from the U.S. Marshalls’ view, it was a military success – albeit one that lasted too long for their liking.

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AIM members literally readied themselves for battle when they overran Wounded Knee in 1973, exacerbating the fears of many White conservatives: Indians with guns.

I thought about the 1973 Wounded Knee quagmire, when a group of anti-government activists seized a federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon two weeks ago. They’re protesting the treatment of two local men, Dwight Hammond and his son, Steve, by the federal government. The Hammonds had been charged with starting two fires – in 2001 and 2006 – on their farmland that ultimately encroached upon federal territory. The Hammond property has been in their family for generations, but it interlocks with publicly-owned territory managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The government allows Hammond-owned livestock to graze on the federal land. The Hammonds claimed they set both fires on their land strictly as a clearing method and had informed the government in advance. But U.S. officials deny receiving any such notification and claim the family was trying to cover up evidence of illegal deer hunting. The 2001 fire burned 139 acres of BLM land, while the 2006 blaze burned only an acre. Dwight and Steve Hammond were arrested and charged with destruction of federal property and sentenced to three months and 366 days, respectively, in prison in 2013. A series of appeals resulted in early releases for both men. But the government recently backtracked and ordered the men to serve more prison time. By the time they peacefully turned themselves in to authorities, the occupation of Malheur had begun.

The rebellious group’s leaders are the sons of another land owner, Nevada’s Cliven Bundy, who was the crux of a federal dispute two years ago that resulted in another standoff. Bundy, a wealthy cattle rancher, had been using federal land in Nevada to feed his livestock. The government allows people to do that, but the farmers must pay fees. Bundy hadn’t paid his share of fees since 1993, and in 1998, a judge ordered him to remove his cattle from federal land. He refused and in March of 2014, federal officials tried to seize some of his livestock. In no time, a large contingent of supporters descended upon the Nevada ranch, armed and ready to fight. The government backed off and returned the cattle to Bundy without further incident. Bundy apparently still hasn’t paid his fees. Shortly after that incident concluded, Bundy showed his true colors (pun intended) when – recalling his experience driving past a Las Vegas housing project – he said, “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. [A]nd in front of that gov­ern­ment house the door was usu­ally open and the older people and the kids — and there is al­ways at least a half a dozen people sit­ting on the porch — they didn’t have noth­ing to do. They didn’t have noth­ing for their kids to do. They didn’t have noth­ing for their young girls to do. And be­cause they were ba­sic­ally on gov­ern­ment sub­sidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young chil­dren, they put their young men in jail, be­cause they nev­er learned how to pick cot­ton. And I’ve of­ten wondered, are they bet­ter off as slaves, pick­ing cot­ton and hav­ing a fam­ily life and do­ing things, or are they bet­ter off un­der gov­ern­ment sub­sidy? They didn’t get no more free­dom. They got less free­dom.”

Looking at the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff and the current Oregon mess, two facts are obvious: the protestors in both situations are White and that the federal government hasn’t fired a shot. At least they haven’t done so yet in Oregon, and I doubt they will. Unlike the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff, the government has been patient.

Oregon protestor, Jon Ritzheimer, displays a family picture on his phone and a copy of the Constitution to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.  He needs bottled water and Ramen noodles, too.

Oregon protestor, Jon Ritzheimer, displays a family picture on his phone and a copy of the Constitution to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. He needs bottled water and Ramen noodles, too.

What would happen if a group of Indians took over the Malheur site and demanded the U.S. federal government stay away for good because it had been Indian land for thousands of years and should remain that way? How would the government react if a group of Mexican-Americans descended upon the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas and ordered the state and federal governments to cease making it a tourist attraction? What if a group of African-American Chicago residents, tired of rampant poverty and police abuses, overwhelmed city hall and demanded the mayor and police chief resign? Can anyone honestly see the U.S. federal government reacting with patience and diplomacy if any of these scenarios actually occurred? If you do, I have a box of gold bullion I’d like to sell you for USD 100.00 a bar; just give me the money (cash only) and I’ll ship it to you postage paid.

The people at Malheur are just a few members of a larger anti-government contingent here in the U.S. While the state of Oregon overall has a reputation as a bastion of liberal ideology, its eastern sectors are much more rural and conservative. The same holds true for its northern neighbor, Washington. For its southern neighbor, California, the northern half is the rural, conservative portion with strong anti-government sentiments. (On more than one occasion some northern California residents have launched concerted efforts to secede from the rest of the state; most recently in 2014.)

There have always been anti-government insurgents in the United States. From 19th century abolitionists to 1960s-era Black Panthers, various groups have organized and protested against what they view as an oppressive regime. The modern-day militia movement spawned from anxiety over tumultuous civil rights protests. Blacks, Hispanics, Indians, women and gays and lesbians form the bulk of their frustration (fear?), as they call for a rebirth of core American values. The militia movement is comprised mostly of devout Christians of European extraction. Publicly they trumpet their concerns about a federal government out of control, but many of their actions shout White supremacy. Any would-be social cataclysms are the stuff of pure hysteria. In other words, these clowns are conjuring up shit that hasn’t even happened.

The U.S. federal government, however, isn’t so left-wing. Cliven Bundy’s oldest son, Ammon Bundy, leads the Oregon militia and has promised his fellow Americans that “we are not terrorists.” The crop of loudmouths seeking the U.S. presidential nomination in the Republican Party have denounced President Obama for not using such terms as “Islamic terrorists” or “Muslim militants.” But they haven’t applied similar monikers to Bundy’s gang in Oregon or to the young White man who shot and killed 9 Black people after a Bible study session in a Charleston, South Carolina church last year. They were quick to slap the terrorist label onto a Muslim couple who ambushed a Christmas party in San Bernardino, California last month, killing 14 and injuring 22. But they offered their usual “thoughts and prayers” after a mentally deranged man opened fire in a Lafayette, Louisiana move theatre last summer, killing 2 and injuring several others, before taking his own life. The Lafayette killer allegedly praised the Charleston killer in a written screed that displays the “angry White male” syndrome in all its raging effervescence. More importantly, both men had purchased their guns illegally.

In 1968, thousands of law enforcement personnel swarmed into Chicago in advance of the Democratic National Convention. Emotions were still raw for many after the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. Police swiftly targeted unarmed protestors; part of their paranoia over rumors that leftists planned to spike the city’s water supply with LSD. Mayor Richard J. Daley had the Illinois National Guard in place, as convention participants arrived. The sight of police beating the crap out of unarmed protestors, while business proceeded as usual in the convention center horrified most Americans.

In November of 1969, 89 AIM activists sneaked onto Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and demanded the federal government turn it over to them, so they could convert it into a Native American cultural center. The island had sat mostly untouched, since the government closed the Alcatraz federal prison six years earlier. The AIM occupiers claimed they had rights to the rocky island under the terms of an 1868 government treaty allowing Native Americans to appropriate any unused federal land. And, of course, we all know how great a job the U.S. government has done in honoring those treaties. Officials tried in vain to get the occupants to give up peacefully. Increasingly squalid living conditions and some infighting, however, led to AIM’s complete desertion of Alcatraz by April 1971. Perhaps it was AIM’s reluctance to give up immediately that led to the government’s more virulent response to the Wounded Knee occupation.

The federal government had kept a close watch on Martin Luther King, almost from the moment he became known for his peaceful resistance against American apartheid. The government did the same with the Black Panthers, but they went further and tried infiltrating the group. In 1967 then-California governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which barred citizens from publicly displaying firearms. It was the closest thing to gun control the future conservative icon ever did, but it was a direct response to Black Panther activities; they had begun patrolling many all-Black neighborhoods to fight crime and stand against police brutality.

The government also kept track of civil rights activist César Chávez who led a series of farm worker strikes in California, beginning in 1962. Documents in the archives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) prove they had him and his followers under surveillance. He, too, was a target of Reagan who bore a dislike of organized labor. Reagan appealed to White conservatives in his first run for the presidency by promising to do as much as he could to return America to its pre-1960s period; before all the non-Whites had the audacity to demand equality, voting rights and other such anarchist claims.

The whole world was watching the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:

Fights even broke out inside the convention hall, proving how nasty politics and media can be.

 

In contrast, the government reacted slowly to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s, which naturally corresponded with the rise of Black civil rights. Despite frequent lynchings, church bombings and other violent acts, the FBI didn’t even consider infiltrating the Klan until after the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.

Although conservative voices slam government overreach with such things as the Affordable Care Act, the feds have treated mostly-White anti-government groups with care. Two 1990s-era events – Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas – are often cited by conservatives as hallmarks of government gone awry, but actually show just the opposite. In August of 1992, a standoff erupted between government agents and a family of White separatists, headed by Randy Weaver, in Ruby Ridge; a mountainous region of northern Idaho where many fellow White separatists had established themselves. The siege resulted in the deaths of one federal agent and Weaver’s wife, Vicky, and son, Sammy. The FBI had the Weavers and family friend Kevin Harrison under surveillance for months; in their native Iowa, they had ties to White supremacist groups that the government suspected were responsible for a series of bank robberies throughout the mid-West, beginning in the 1980s. Authorities didn’t believe the Weavers were tied directly to the robberies, but that they served as a conduit for firearms trafficking. Randy Weaver had been charged with selling two sawed-off shotguns and was scheduled to appear in court. When he didn’t, the family and Harrison came under greater scrutiny.  While still in Iowa, the Weavers allegedly sent their kids to school wearing Nazi armbands.

Conservatives equally slammed the government over its response to the Branch Davidian siege in Waco in the spring of 1993. As with the Weavers, the feds believed the group was stockpiling weapons and ammunition, which ultimately proved true. Moreover, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh was suspected of child molestation. When agents approached the Davidian compound, they were met with a hail of gunfire. A lengthy standoff ensued whereupon the government tore into the compound with military-style precision; killing 76 people, including 23 children.

However, social conservatives haven’t been so quick to condemn the actions of law enforcement during the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. Established in 1972, MOVE (much like their White counterparts) is an anti-government group whose members all adopted the surname “Africa,” in symbolic protest of the Atlantic slave trade that stripped millions of Africans of their identities. The group came under federal surveillance from the moment of their inception. In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, May 13, 1985 (Mother’s Day), police literally dropped a bomb of C4 explosives on one portion of a section of row houses in West Philadelphia. The resulting conflagration killed 6 adults and 5 children, injured several others and destroyed 61 residences. Like the Weavers and Branch Davidians, MOVE members were no angels. They had more people living in one house than city rules allowed; windows were covered with plywood; and they blasted the neighborhood with loud music and vociferous protests. Police also suspected – rightfully – that the group possessed a large cache of weapons and ammunition.

Aftermath of the 1985 MOVE disaster.

Aftermath of the 1985 MOVE disaster.

Still, in a recent editorial, Jesse Walker questioned the legitimacy of denouncing the Oregon protestors as “terrorists.”

“The occupiers do have guns, and they have said they’re willing to use them if the cops come storming in,” Walker opines. “Yet they have no hostages, they haven’t fired at anyone, and if they do fire, they will almost certainly not aim at a civilian but at someone professionally charged with removing them from the premises. You can call that a lot of things, but it’s absurd to call it terrorism.”

In typical right-wing fashion, Walker goes on to point to the Ruby Ridge and Waco affairs as reasons the government is taking a cautious approach with the Oregon group. Anyone who views Randy Weaver and David Koresh as heroic figures isn’t just misguided; they’re assholes. One of them was Timothy McVeigh, mastermind of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which he said was revenge for Waco. McVeigh was videotaped near the Branch Davidian compound during the standoff holding a sign asking observers if they felt their religion met government approval.

White supremacists and serial pedophiles are essentially terrorists. What else should they be called? People with “emotional issues”? While many White conservatives still refer to Ruby Ridge and Waco with anxiety, many Blacks view the MOVE bombing more as a blatant example of the usual police brutality. But I haven’t heard any African-Americans refer to MOVE members as heroes.

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My tweet to Jesse Walker after reading his editorial last week.

More recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement was practically halted before it gained any real traction. The group of racially diverse upstarts launched reasonable protests against the same government as others; theirs, however, were directed towards the affluent bankers and hedge fund managers who almost destroyed the U.S. economy and plunged the nation into the worst recessionary period since the Great Depression. The protestors were mainly peaceful and non-violent, yet police from New York to San Francisco plowed into them with mace and batons. Scouring the news about Tea Party rallies – where racist diatribes and threats of violent insurrection are common – I can’t find one incident where police even tried to stop them.

I don’t know what will happen next with the Oregon standoff. Malheur is primarily a bird sanctuary, so I hope no avians are harmed. The interlopers have put out a call for much-needed supplies, such as bottled water and toiletries. In a strange sort of way, I support their frustration in that I have no faith in the U.S. government to do anything right. The years since 2001 have pretty much proven that. Along with bottled water and deodorant, I’d provide a copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which the group surely has. But, my copies would highlight this essential passage:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Even though the term “men” can now be easily translated to “people,” I want them and their supporters to understand they are no more deserving of this thing called the “American Dream” than anyone else. We all possess that inalienable right to “life” and “liberty” – whether we drink bottled water or not.

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