Monday, October 30, 2017

Indians, their land, and refugees

Alvin Josephy said that reservations and the continuing attachment to land they afforded have been instrumental in the survival of American Indian cultures. Reservations were, for the most part, diminished versions of ancient tribal landscapes, but however diminished, they were pieces of those larger lands—particular lands that had sustained particular tribal peoples for millennia.

Policies of removal and assimilation have of course taken many—most—Indians away from ancestral grounds over the last five centuries. There are now more urban Indians than rural Indians, and tribal enrollments are covered in confusion, with each tribe establishing its own enrollment requirements, and individual Indians finding themselves descendants of many tribes and sometimes living on a reservation where they are not, maybe cannot be, enrolled.

There have of course been movements of indigenous tribes through history, brought on by famine, weather, natural catastrophe, intertribal warfare and European colonization. Alvin Josephy began his landmark book on American Indians, The Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, with maps and charts showing language distribution. Before we knew what DNA was, languages were leaving traces of peoples’ histories and movements, even people without written histories. One can follow these movements through the long lens of language, find the Athabascan languages of the north in the Southwest and Central America, the spread of Algonquin speakers east to west across the middle of North America, with Algonquin speakers even now lodged in small spots along the Pacific Coast.

Yet an Indian friend told me that he has a letter from the Danish paleo-genetic scientists confirming his relationship to “the Ancient One,” the man found years ago along the Columbia River and recently determined to have been there for some 9,000 years. Despite conjecture and maybe hope by some American anthropologists that a later, European connection would be uncovered, it was not. The Ancient One, aka Kennewick Man, is related to present day Indians of the Plateau.

When the greatest world-wide refugee crisis since that following WW 2 is ripping people from ancient roots and throwing them together in places totally removed from places of origin, there is something comforting about the people who were always here. Like ancient trees, mountains and rivers, we can marvel at the perseverance of people that have withstood awesome odds to remain in place.

But what about those who must move, those who have been stormily chased from traditional landscapes by hurricane, volcano, drought and other “natural” disasters, and by the tyranny of governments, the force of armies, and the violence of civil wars?

When their world is in turmoil, people move--and others take them in. Joseph and his remnant band of Nez Perce were taken in on the Colville Reservation in 1885, after the Nez Perce War, after years of exile in Indian Territory. Many descendants still live there.

We as a nation can, like Germany and other European countries, acknowledging the difficulties, but with some memory of the post-WW II chaos and its huge refugee crisis, take in the strangers. Or we can further close our borders and hunker down in historical ignorance.

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