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Enemies within Indian country

In Shakespeare's "Othello" ? a play about jealousy, envy and treachery ? the title character is an acclaimed military hero with a loving wife and dedicated friends. By the last scene, he has strewn the stage with loved ones killed in a fit of jealousy enflamed by lies of his false friend, Iago.

The treacherous Iago understands jealousy all too well and defines it memorably as the "green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on."

Even though Shakespeare was English (and as smart and eloquent about jealousy and envy as anyone has ever been), these afflictions are not particular traits of the British or Europeans or white folks. From the plains of Africa and Asia to the islands of Polynesia and the Mediterranean, every culture the world over has a good-luck charm, an animal's foot, a magic potion or some other medicine to ward off the evil eyes of envy and jealousy.

Jealousy and envy are diseases that metastasize into disloyalty and betrayal over love, land, money, talent, looks, position, fame, recognition and mostly just stuff. They are so pronounced in Indian country that many Native people talk about them as indigenous to our hemisphere and cultures. While they are not unique to us, they are intensifying, not lessening, in their severity.

In every Indian gathering, large and small, even the most casual observer can see jealousy and envy at work:

? In the sideways glances of aging aunties at their favorite nephew's too-flaming flame.

? In the pursed lips of beer-bellied uncles when fancy dancers stop right on the beat.

? In the folded arms of people in a crowd who resent not being the center of attention.

? In the way the begrudging clap ever so slowly when a rival is being applauded.

? In the squint-eyed glares of the spiteful who covet the gifts of the talented.

? In the self-sabotage of those who are afraid they might not get the credit for a victory.

? In the clenched teeth and fists of those who suspect infidelity.

The jealous, says Iago's wife Emilia, "are not ever jealous for the cause, but jealous for they are jealous: 'tis a monster begot upon itself, born on itself."

I watched a stark example of jealousy ? inexplicable, illogical and uncontrolled ? some time ago at a conference gathering. A tribal leader stood in a room filled with his peers, extended his arm to point at a brilliant, hard-working Native man and thundered, "You stole my international reputation and I want it back."

The tribal leader was inconsolable when he realized that everyone understood very plainly what he really meant: if the smarter, more industrious man did not exist, the thicker, lazier one would be famous. He might as well have been Iago explaining his envy of Othello's closest aide: "He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly."

For us (and probably for all colonized peoples), jealousy and envy are tied historically to the politics of food, starvation and hunger. This comes to us through oral history, but functions like imprinted cellular memory.

We still watch for the well-fed families among the starving people. How many "Hostiles" did these "good Indians" have to name in order to get good food when everyone else was eating rancid rations or nothing at all? Whose secrets did they sell? Whose land? Whose children?

In the "starve or sell" policy era, which was actually articulated on the floor of Congress, the goal was to get Native land and gold by any means necessary. Food was a lethal weapon in General Philip H. Sheridan's "total destruction" war game. The key to winning the west, he said, was to kill the Indian commissary (the buffalo).

When Sheridan heard that white hunters were slaughtering the great buffalo herds of New Mexico and Texas in 1873, his public reaction was, "Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilizations to advance."

Native Peoples were separated from buffalo, elk, salmon, beans, corn and other traditional foods and were made dependent on lard, white flour, sugar and other government handouts. Penalties for Indian offenses were open-ended sentences of confinement and starvation.

Food was used as both an inducement to inform and a reward for collaborating. The betrayers justified their disloyalty as being practical and provident for their families. When they turned on their relatives, they spoke of the good of the tribe. When they betrayed their people, they spoke of throwing off the blanket and floating down the mainstream.

Here we are, more than a century and a quarter past genocide and we still are admonished from childhood to be very careful of the guests we invite to eat, lest the enmity of the envious poison the food and water. We still vie with each other for the last of the Indian agent's beef issue and carry on blood feuds over a neighbor's extra pinch of salt.

Still today, we equate the smallest measure of success or prominence in the most modest of settings with eating too well (meaning, selling out the people). Even more today, our envy sits in the back of the throat and bottom of the stomach, growing with our desire for what we do not have and finishing off what the Indian wars started.

Guard against these enemies within Indian country, jealousy and envy that gnaw like hunger from the inside out and consume all in their path.

Stay loyal and true, good friends, and be generous with your admiration and compliments and compassion and kindness and love.

Or, as Shakespeare put in the mouth of Iago: "Good Heaven, the souls of all my tribe defend from jealousy."

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.