Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent rant about Native people reminds us once again of the abhorrent power of stereotypes.
Bloomberg’s vision of Native Americans is that of an uncivilized race stuck in a mythological Old West alongside Indian fighters, where disputes are settled at the end of a gun barrel.
On Aug. 13, Bloomberg told the New York Daily News: “I’ve said this to David Paterson, I said, ‘You know, get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun. ... If there’s ever a great video, it’s you standing in the middle of the New York State Thruway saying, you know, ‘Read my lips – the law of the land is this, and we’re going to enforce the law.’”
The newspaper sarcastically wrote that the mayor, “channeling his inner Wyatt Earp, shot himself in the foot.”
Worse than hurting his own reputation, Bloomberg’s words struck a blow to the efforts of countless Native and non-Native leaders seeking to mend generations of repression and violence against Indians.
Bloomberg’s words struck a blow to the efforts of countless Native and non-Native leaders seeking to mend generations of repression and violence against Indians.
In the same vein as Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and Gen. Phil Sheridan before him, Bloomberg has proven himself an Indian fighter who ascribes to an antiquated vision of tribes as an obstacle to progress, civilization, and in this case, “lost” tax revenue.
Ironically, Bloomberg’s racist rant came about a month after he criticized former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for saying a Muslim community center and mosque should not be built near Ground Zero.
“Sarah Palin has a right to her opinions, but I could not disagree more,” the mayor said July 19. “Everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness.”
So much for tolerance and openness.
While Bloomberg demonstrated compassion in supporting Muslims in his city, he demonstrated ignorance and blunt racism in his rant against Indians.
The mayor’s comments were related to a Sept. 1 state deadline for a crackdown on untaxed tobacco sales at the Seneca Nation in western New York. In 1997, a dispute over the issue led to Seneca activists erecting roadblocks on the Thruway.
The Seneca Tribal Council passed a resolution the day after the Daily News story, condemning Bloomberg’s comments and calling on him to resign. The National Congress of American Indians has urged him to apologize.
“The image of a cowboy and a shotgun on the highways of New York does not represent law and order, but a history of repression, violence and cultural genocide,” said Chief Harry Wallace of Long Island’s Unkechaug Nation.
On Aug. 23, nearly 100 citizens of Indian nations in New York state rallied on the steps of the Big Apple’s City Hall to demand an apology.
To date, Bloomberg has said very little in response, except to cite an Aug. 20 U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision supporting the city’s request to stop Unkechaug cigarette dealers from resuming sales after the city won an injunction against further sales last August.
When asked again for a statement specifically on the controversial remarks, Bloomberg’s deputy press secretary insisted the city’s favorable Second Circuit ruling is what “is at the heart of the issue.”
The mayor’s comments were related to a Sept. 1 state deadline for a crackdown on untaxed tobacco sales at the Seneca Nation in western New York.
While rhetoric related to the cigarette sales issue has been heated on both sides, the fact remains it is a diplomatic conflict over taxes. To suggest the answer to that political dispute is a shotgun-wielding governor straddling the Thruway is not only poor statesmanship but a civil rights violation of the worst sort.
Paterson has called the mayor’s comments “inappropriate,” and is said by his press office to continue “his policy of negotiation, litigation and implementation of the laws of New York” when it comes to dealing with sovereign Indian nations.
At the very least, Bloomberg’s outburst deserves an explanation. Or have state and tribal relations really devolved to the point where errant political leaders can expect to remain unaccountable for their actions and words?
When will our call for justice be heard? Who is going to speak up in support of Native people?
These are questions sorely in need of an answer. Indian people and tribal governments are not invisible, and not without voice or advocates. And it’s time our voices are heard and our advocates stand up for what’s right.