Friday, June 23, 2017

Indians, African Americans, and the Persistence of Racism in America

I think a lot about the Euro-American treatment of Indians. It’s impossibly complex—from the “noble savage” to the “savage savage”; from the Mohawk chiefs paraded before painters and courts in England, named “King Philip” and “Prince Hendrik,” to Squanto, captured off the Atlantic coast and sent to Europe as a slave; from conquest by war and by meticulous—and quickly broken—treaty making to reservations and boarding schools; from admiration to forced assimilation through missionaries and schools forbidding of religion, dress, language, and even hair style. As Alvin Josephy said, prior to the Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978, what Indians in the United States had was not religion, but “mumbo jumbo.” That is 19 and 78!

Euro-American treatment of African-Americans is often lumped together with the treatment of Indians. Even by sympathizers. Josephy said that liberals who had worked hard during the Civil Rights campaigns of the 60s sometimes offered to help Indians secure civil rights—and the Indians often told them that they were not as interested in civil rights as they were in their treaty rights.

For all its complexities, and for the complexities wrapped around the Euro-American enslavement of African-Americans (Indians were enslaved by the Europeans prior to importation of Africans, but this “other slavery” is a story too big to address here), the routine discrimination and occasional brutal racism against Indians and African-Americans shares much. Today brought two reminders. One, a quote from Sherman Alexie talking about his new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me:

“So my mother and her mother, in being raped physically, were also raped spiritually. They had salmon taken away from them by the Grand Coulee Dam. They had their entire history shrunk by being placed on a reservation. And despite all that, their love shone through despite all that. I'm here. My siblings are here. And we're pretty good people.”

The other, from a NYT op-ed piece by Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture:

“The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.”

I think that what all Americans can continue to learn from African Americans and Indian Americans is resiliency in the face of discrimination. And, in these times, when overt racism is loose again, it is important that all Americans acknowledge this history of racism and discrimination, from the slave sales of Jamestown to today’s nooses in Washington D.C.; from the treaty breaking at Standing Rock in the 1800s to the disregard for treaty and water rights at Standing Rock today.

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