WASHINGTON -- The leadoff speaker for the March 2 "Hear Our Story:
Communications and Contemporary Native Americans" conference in Washington
set the table with a simple tale from her childhood, when her non-Indian
father would tease her Indian mother with the observation that Europeans
came to America, found a wilderness and turned it into a civilization.
Invariably her mother would reply that no, Europeans came to America, found
a civilization and turned it into a wilderness.
Every bit as stark, but often without anything like family ties to help the
good humor along, are the differences in perception between Indians and the
dominant culture in America today, according to a succession of speakers at
the conference. Hosted and coordinated by the Quaker lobbying organization
Friends Committee on National Legislation, and funded by a spectrum of
mostly Indian organizations, "Hear Our Story" dwelt on reversing the
victimization of Native people in the modern media.
Between the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the glaring light it has
thrown on governing structures and donating practices in Indian country,
the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit over trust funds management and the
frustration it has caused in Congress, ongoing local controversies over
Indian gaming and the antagonism that has caused in Congress, a Supreme
Court in which some of its justices have been known to refer to tribes as
anomalous within an otherwise uniform system of federal law, and a
presidential administration that some tribal leaders suspect of
reconfiguring the federal trust obligation toward tribes, the stakes of
accurate tribal portrayal in the media are high.
Jose Barreiro, Indian Country Today's senior editor, told an afternoon
plenary session, "We're at a moment we have not seen in the last 25, 30
years." He added that when Indians relate their own experience so that
people understand it, Indians win on the issues; but let others get
momentum behind their version of the Indian experience, with all of their
stereotypes and engrained perceptions intact, "and it's a loss every time."
Barreiro advised critiquing reporters and publications when Indian
situations are ineptly depicted.
The most oft-repeated message of the conference seemed to be that Indians
must know their own experience and speak out about it.
Suzan Shown Harjo, president and executive director of the Morning Star
Institute in Washington, said a precondition of speaking out is that
Indians must know themselves to be worthy of speaking out.
"We are socialized to think less of ourselves, and that is why we abdicate
our advocacy," Harjo said.
"We are people who believe in our own victimhood ... At some point, if you
are being treated badly, you have to stand up, no matter what the cost, and
say, 'You can't do that any more to my children.'"
She said victimization is learned behavior among Indians, who were
historically divided by Indian agents (and, in fact, by the full apparatus
of state) into "good Indians" and "bad Indians." The "good Indians" got to
hang around the fort, or later the reservation trading post or the BIA
agency, while the "bad Indians" abandoned those water holes to escape the
wider desert and defend a higher principle; but as a matter of policy, this
choice defined them as "hostiles," licensing non-Indians to shoot them on
sight. So in practice, Indians of the early reservation era were channeled
toward one of two choices: either stoic advancement on a path that led to
"the end of the trail" stereotype, or the stereotype of gutter-dwelling
But it's different today, Harjo emphasized. The "bad Indian" has every
encouragement to realize that badness is an applied tool of colonization, a
ruse of careerists and profiteers, to be thrown off and forgotten. "For the
'good Indian,' pay attention to what the hostiles say."
In addition, Harjo noted on the school mascot issue that enough speaking
out has been done by Indians and others to have reduced the number of
Indian-mascot schools from about 3,000 to about 900 in a decade. Of course,
the favorite sports franchise in the nation's capital continues to be named
the Washington Redskins, "redskins" being, as Harjo noted, a historical
reference to the skinning or mutilation of Indian corpses as proof of a
Among the workshops that took place around the plenary session, a
legislative review panel featured Paul Moorehead, former lead counsel to
then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Moorehead is now an attorney with the firm of Gardner, Carton & Douglas,
which has a thriving tribal practice and, accordingly, clients in Indian
Speaking more freely than he did as legislative staff on Capitol Hill,
Moorehead said that in the aftermath of the Abramoff scandal the question
has arisen in Congress of why are there Indian tribes in 2006 -- in other
words, apparently (and these are not Moorehead's words but a rhetorical
paraphrase, just for clarity's sake), why do tribes still exist at this
so-advanced stage of the American state?
Along with it have come sweeping suggestions for moratoria on everything
from new casinos to political contributions, Moorehead said: "Trying to
advance positive legislation in this environment is harder than playing