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Assimilating the Terminators

A column by Steve Russell about American Indians and assimilation.

To say that American Indians, First Nations, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians live in tension with the colonial states of North America is both a truism and an exercise in distance by use of academic jargon. One reason academics use such clinical, bloodless language is that we are not supposed to get too involved with our subjects. That’s especially true in the social sciences, where you can savage the career of an anthropologist by claiming he or she has “gone native.”

Academic jargon has an advantage in addition to emotional distance. Precision. It’s a way to isolate one idea—here, “tension”—and unpack it. We quickly understand that “tension” either should not be singular or is a gross understatement.

There are conflicts between what we want and what they want and we see the conflicts as rooted in the colonial relation. They have long since thrown off the colonial yoke of their native countries and do not think much of the land being occupied when their ancestors showed up. Our continued existence forces them to think that thought, even when they no longer have a “homeland” to which they can return.

The only colonists who still want us physically exterminated are a few unhinged souls who think white people are the cream of humanity and they must kill to prove it. In indigenous or colonial terms, they are criminals.

Colonial governments generally have a Holy Grail. They differ only in methods of pursuing it. We know it by the name “termination.”

At first, the conservatives wanted to kill us and the liberals wanted to assimilate us. Which did the most damage is a valid question.

In our times, the conservatives want to declare victory and withdraw. The liberals can’t go along with the predictable and genocidal outcome, so they are willing to continue paying for their sins and let their presumed cultural superiority take its natural course.

The leading intellectual of my generation, Vine Deloria, Jr., gave us a clear analysis of where we fit in the principal conflict of the times, the Civil Rights Movement.

African-Americans, Deloria held, are fighting the good fight for their people. While they are not our people, discrimination against people of color is our fight, but it’s only part of our fight. As Indians, we have to wrap our minds around conflicting claims so we can move white people to wrap their minds around the same apparent conflict: African-Americans have a just claim to integration while Indians have a just claim to segregation.

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Those of us who retain a land base have every right to defend it. That’s why many Indians erupt in anger at the idea we should be gifted with the authority to mortgage our land. That’s why the Great Sioux Nation does not find poverty a sufficient reason to sell the Black Hills. Our land and their money are not interchangeable.

If Deloria said the following, I haven’t read it, but it follows from his analysis. When Hispanics and Asians fight for the right to use their languages, that’s our fight as well. The Cherokee Chief at the time came out against the “English-only” crusade in Oklahoma because he understood that when the government shoots at Spanish it hits Cherokee.

I’m using moral language but notice how this plays out in politics. When you are less than one percent of a population governed by elections, you need allies. We have natural allies.

Because these fights can get nasty and because we come from a history of overt ethnic cleansing, it’s easy to dehumanize our foes. We should resist that feeling and understand the legitimate part of their argument and why the Holy Grail of termination is rational.

You cannot be both rational and Manichean about assimilation, because that begs the question who is assimilating whom? There is no human culture that cannot be improved by adopting something from another culture.

We obsess over what we have adopted from them—says the citizen of an Indian constitutional republic older than most republics in the world while writing on a computer. This obsession feeds our children a narrative of inferiority when we neglect the myriad ways the dominant culture has adopted from us.

Conservatives prattle on about not owing Indians a living, so the U.S. and Canada should walk away.

Liberals accept responsibility on what Colin Powell called the Pottery Barn theory—if you broke it, you bought it. That responsibility is pegged to dependence that government action caused, and so we are owed the support necessary to regain independence within the federal systems of North America.

Termination of responsibility for our welfare is the Holy Grail of colonial politics. If we really intend to decolonize ourselves, it should be our goal as well, but in our own time and on our own terms.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.