For most residents of the District of Columbia, Inauguration Day is a good
time to stay off the streets or get out of town, especially during the ramp
up when security is being tested and Capitol Hill is overrun by
The closest I got to the official events was on Inauguration eve at Union
Station, site of a huge gala, where my train pulled in just as the party
broke up. Republican bigwigs and wiglets who paid at least $250,000 to be
part of the quadrennial celebration were clutching their baby blue Tiffany
boxes as if the future depended on the etched mementos inside.
Those of us who weren't met by stretch limos shivered outside in a taxi
line for nearly an hour. To pass the time, I tried to calculate the
cleaning bill for the long silk and velvet gowns and sable and fox coats
trailing in three-inch deep filthy slush. (But, as the Harvard president
can tell you, we women don't have much of a head for math.)
The men in my sight line were dressed in leather, camel and cashmere coats,
and footwear ranging from black patent tuxedo pumps to crocodile cowboy
boots. The women wore strappy gold or black heels, all open-toed, and put
on their game faces as frostbite set in.
Four blond Yalies behind me sent their beautifully turned-out dates back
inside the station to get warm. Before I could compliment them on their
courtesy, the young men began rating their dates. One wasn't serious about
his, because she was only a seven. Another dismissed his as a six, saying
she was just a family friend. Some friend.
During 45 minutes of snarky talk, the boyfriends only referred to the young
women as girls and chicks. It's long been considered rude and ignorant to
refer to women as girls, and girls stop being girls when they're mature
enough to have babies.
And "chicks," really? I hope that throwback term isn't making a comeback
beyond New Haven.
The young men amused each other with little asides about local people
taking cabs to Anacostia - a section of unofficial Washington that is
predominantly African American and mostly poor - but sexism was their
By the time I got a ride, I was looking forward to the day after
Inauguration Day, when the rich and careless would be on their way home or
sleeping off the parade and balls, and Washington would be a bit more civil
and a little less smug.
Like all inside Washington outsiders and everyone beyond D.C., I watched
the Inaugural address on television. The speech was well written and well
delivered, invoking the rule of law and protection of minorities, and
respect for institutions in unnamed locations with "customs and traditions
very different from our own."
President Bush pronounced "freedom" and "liberty" dozens of times, as if
repetition of the words would hypnotize tyrants and the tyrannized into
states of liberation around the world. The speech also was designed for
consumption at home, so that Americans would have a way of thinking about
this country and its relation to the world community of nations: "The
United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors.
When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
He made it all sound so good that I wanted to rush right over to the White
House and ask to borrow a cup of that liberty.
But the part of the speech that really caught my attention was a line
written for the crowd at Union Station and the other Bush boosters freezing
on the National Mall: "And our country must abandon all the habits of
racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of
bigotry at the same time."
I would love to read the various lists of racist and bigoted habits
identified by the White House staff and federal agencies, and to know which
ones they argued should be abandoned and which held sacrosanct. Judging
from past practices of ignoring and excusing racism against American
Indians, they may have missed ones dealing with federal Indian policy, or
split on whether or not to put them aside.
Here are some habits of racism that the Bush Administration can schedule
for abandonment right away.
Destruction of Native sacred places is a vile habit of racism that
continues to feed the avariciousness of developers and to keep religious
freedom beyond the reach of traditional American Indians. Over 15 years
ago, the Supreme Court urged creation of a statutory cause of action to
protect Native sacred places, but all presidents and congresses have failed
to enact one.
President Bush can ask Congress to send him a sacred places protection law
and then sign it. This will send a powerful signal around the world that
America's commitment to freedom extends to Native nations whose customs and
traditions differ from the mainstream.
President Bush can instruct those Smithsonian and Interior scientists who
are undermining repatriation laws to cut it out, and to abandon the habits
of racism that lead them to treat dead Indians as their property. He can
commit resources to stop "collectors" from robbing Indian graves.
President Bush can instruct the National Park Service to show respect for
the dead and the living by providing complete data to enable Native nations
to identify those Native human remains which are held in federally-assisted
repositories and classified as "unidentifiable."
President Bush can use the bully pulpit to tell all owners and
administrators of American athletic programs that it's time to give up
their toys of racism and stop using Native references to promote sports
teams and sell their paraphernalia.
President Bush can tell Justice and Interior to break the racist habit of
fighting Indian people who want government accountability for management of
Indian property. He can instruct the White House to start working with
tribal people on a fair and just settlement of the Indian trust funds
President Bush can urge the California and Minnesota governors to abandon
the racist habit of threatening Native nations into turning over Native
resources to the states.
President Bush can instruct his Justice Department to vigorously pursue
cases against the white men who commit the overwhelming majority of violent
crimes against Native women.
All these things the president can and should do, if only to convince the
world that the U.S. message of freedom is real.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D. C., and a columnist for Indian