This election cycle has been a shameful joke that has exposed how America has slid backwards to the "goot ole daze." San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the national anthem when others stand; I don’t find that disrespectful. Yet he took it in the groin for his peaceful acknowledgment that some things about America are just not true. He is not proposing anything violent. He is just an American citizen employing his right to free speech, even it is in the work place in front of millions.
Couple weeks ago I was watching South Park, a show that I was turned on to by my son in his wee years. The character de jour was Colin Kaepernick and his taking a knee his way of pointing to the fable that the United States is the “home of the brave and the land of the free.” If Americans once could have laid claim to that aspiration it is a dim idea now. We are in some kind of weird vortex, so strong it has confused, baffled and led astray the best attributes of this country’s sensibilities.
I believe Kaepernick’s approach is stern yet respectful to those he wishes to educate. Back in my day, African-American athletes used a more aggressive in your face protest. Two formidable runners raised black-gloved fists in the air while America’s anthem was played during the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony for track and field. What a spectacle it was! And what a national discussion it initiated. Is it rude? Not in my book. I was excited about Kaepernick’s action and the response it engendered. He furthered a national discussion on the issues of African-American equality.
How far will our understanding of these issues go? Will today’s generation of African-American activists come to terms with the Papal Bulls of the 15th Century that annointed white Christians to conquer and seize resources of non-Christian infidels and savages? The Pope’s edicts in these Papal Bulls provide the legal rationale for slavery and the colonization of their African homelands. Through the decades, Black clergymen have been at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. There seems to be an inherent conflict in turning to the very institutions that emerged, however schismatically, from a religion that produced the Papal Bulls. Can one tear down the Master’s house using the Master’s tools? I don’t think so.
My point of view is informed by the life of my great-grandfather Col. Louis Cook, a half-black and half-Algonquin fighter. He was saved by warriors of the Mohawk Nation near Albany and kept from being seized as a slave by a French officer during the French and Indian War.
Once in Mohawk territory, Louis Cook was raised as a Mohawk. He spoke four languages, French, English, German and Mohawk and the five other national dialects in the Confederacy. This made Cook an asset in business, diplomatic and military negotiations. George Washington appreciated his talents as a diplomat and warrior leader. Cook helped protect our Akwesasne territory the best he could against the American’s greed, the British need for Native allies and the French need for resources, primarily animal hides and food at the time.
My point is that we were a cunning people. We took advantage of the pilgrim’s need for protection and military intelligence. We played our cards according to the immediate diplomatic and military situation. We played the European warring nations against each other all the while maintaining trade with them, supplying the munitions and food they needed for their wars. And our warriors were deployed throughout the belligerent parties to help out, but more so to accumulate intelligence that we would use in future negotiations.
Our alliances shifted with the political winds. Just like any other nation on earth with needs not found in their respective territories. We never dropped or let go of our nationalism. We were a nation then, and we are a nation now, separate from any other nation on earth.
Fast-forward to 1962 and my introduction to Mohawk nationalism. At the time, there was a big shift brewing in the American political panorama. As a people we observed that these changes were predicted by our prophetic, gifted elders and medicine people.
My father and mother, and portions of their families, were Mohawk patriots and diplomats in the eyes of their people; radicals according to the state and Feds. They always projected the idea that we are our own peoples, with political, cultural, agricultural, economic and health concerns. If we were left alone and respected, these issues would be something we can handle for ourselves.
In 1962 my family was living outside of Baltimore, Maryland. My Dad, being an avid baseball fan, began taking us to Orioles games. I was in second grade and went to school close to home. This was one of the first times I noticed that everyone stood up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I really did not know what to do. Since everyone was standing up, so did I, not knowing why.
This was the second time in my young life I had lived among the pilgrims. What a frightful experience. For the second time in my life I saw more varieties of Asian families, Black families and others. I thought I was on another planet.
In my country, before anything important happens, we sit while grateful and holy words are said to give thanks for what the Creator and Earth provided for us. That is our Pledge of Allegiance. No one had to stand up or cover their hearts with hat or hand. It’s about the words, and your understanding of them that is sacred.
One day, my dad and mom decided to take my sister and I to an Orioles game. At this gathering, unlike the one at school, they sang a song before the game. I later learned it was the American national anthem. This song was not like our thanksgiving songs.
Everyone in the stadium stood up, hats off and hands over hearts, and lots of singing of words. Weird. (It was about 20 years later that I learned all the four verses of that song the Americans worshiped.)
Then my Dad threw us a curve ball.
He refused to stand up with the rest of the people. My family were the only people that did not stand. And, no one bothered us. It was like they knew we were Native and had a right to question the American paradigm.
After the game we had a great time meeting fellow fans and watching how these Americans behaved, which was different from the Americans where we live. Rural folk, meet urban folk. They were loud, happy and in a party mood all the time. Why not? Things were good in post-war America—for the Americans that is. In school and at the stadium I felt like we were an island floating in the sea that had drifted into a whole different planet, nay, galaxy. I had vertigo the whole time we lived in Baltimore.
At the end of 1962 we moved to Brentwood Long Island in NY. Everywhere we moved it was the same. We never stood for the national anthem, not in the stadium and not in the classroom. I went from second or third grade till my high school graduation not once standing for the national anthem. No one ever questioned our actions, because we were Natives. I think they figured if anyone had a legitimate beef with the U.S. of A. it would be Native people, the people who have long known America’s deepest evils.
After high school I needed to get busy and make a living. The U.S. Military in 1975 was hungry for men. The pay was not bad, and the benefits were great and long lasting. I got paid for a college education, got a V.A. loan to buy my first home, and they are taking care of my health needs right now. Joining the U.S.M.C. was the best thing I did. I joined the Marines knowing I was not breaking any of my people’s rules. I was like my ancestors, a mercenary. What we learn from America’s military system can only benefit us. So, part of the job was to salute the flag. For what they were paying me, I felt I could at least adhere to their rules.
Where the American flag flies, so does the rights and constitution fly with it. That is what the flag really represents. A government, not a country. It represents the best of America—American law and policies. As we all know, a law can be unjust, and a policy can be poorly thought out and implemented to the disadvantage of the unity of the citizens the flag has also come to represent.
Kaepernick taking a knee while the Star Spangled Banner plays is a peaceful way to express his freedom of speech and to point to some crucial realities.
I honor Colin for his bravery, commitment and his willingness to research and understand the nature of his expression. I support #VeteransForKaepernick. I also recommend that every American citizen memorize all four stanzas to the national anthem, with special attention to the third verse.
Take a knee America, you might learn something about yourselves.
Ray Cook is ICTMN's op-ed editor.