Every four years Americans engage in what they believe is the most sacred of public rituals: voting for president. It’s a time when those who are most marginalized in society believe they have a say in decisions that will affect them. They believe their choices matter, and that it is the fulfillment of a sacred duty. This is faith in a system we are indoctrinated to believe serves us all. Even Native people.
As a younger person I believed it, too. I prided myself on my political activism. My activism began with walking precincts for Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, after Jesse Jackson (who I supported) failed in the primaries. In later years I rooted for Ralph Nader and then Al Gore after Nader was out of the race.
Then the Supreme Court chose George Bush and any illusions that my vote mattered were obliterated.
When Obama entered the scene I felt it was interesting that we would have a black president, and I even traveled across the country to attend his inauguration. But as I stood there in the freezing cold listening to his speech with a million other people, it hit me like a bolt of lightning that this was just another version of the same old tired American rhetoric that celebrates the settler version of colonialism. It just had a new face.
By then I was in college as a Native American studies major with a political science minor. As a Native person my education cured me of whatever belief I had left in the American political system.
Most of us understand that conservative political agendas generally tend not to serve Native interests. Especially with politicians like Paul Gosar whose claim that Indians are wards of the government was used to justify giving a Native sacred site to a foreign mining company notorious for its human rights violations and dismal environmental record. Or Donald Trump whose open hostility toward American Indians is legendary.
Even when conservatives are less hostile to Native people, such as Richard Nixon who in 1975 initiated the government’s current self-determination policy or George Bush’s confused endorsement of the government-to-government relationship, their appearance of support still exists within a framework that presumes the United States’ domination over Indians as subordinated peoples.
They might refer vaguely to historical wrongdoing, but never do they admit to the existence of a colonial system constructed on the elimination of Native people—one that continually benefits from that elimination.
The same is true for liberals. Recent examples from Democrats demonstrate how deeply ingrained the colonial construct is. Hillary Clinton didn’t stop to think about what she was saying when she used the “off the reservation” remark to blast Trump. The invoking of a deeply offensive trope was so automatic she couldn’t even catch herself.
After being called out on it, her campaign staff issued a statement that was supposed to pass for an apology but amounted to a non-apology.
And Democratic Colorado Senator Mary Dodge didn’t even try to hide her denial that a colonial system exists when she referred to a proposed pro-Indian bill as “reparations,” saying that “we can’t fix what we did.” The implication is not only that “we might as well not even try” to “fix” it, but that as something “in the past” it is irrelevant today.
The framing of the injustices to Native peoples as “in the past” is the denial of those injustices as systemic and ongoing. Politicians are woefully ignorant about Native history and current social science theories regarding them, and even about Indian law.
They are certainly attached to perpetuating narratives of American exceptionalism. They have to be. Their ability to be elected depends on their undying patriotism, whether conservative or liberal.
And then there is Bernie Sanders. If I believed in the American system, I might be enticed to “feel the Bern.” As a democratic socialist Bernie does represent the possibility for more radical change than anyone else in the running. And he does have a stronger Native American platform than anyone else I know of.
But it took far too long for him to finally develop it, like it was an afterthought in his campaign strategizing. He didn’t hire his Native American advisor Nicole Willis until February of this year.
I like it that Bernie believes the U.S. must support tribal sovereignty and “move away from a relationship of paternalism and control and toward one of deference and support.” He doesn’t mention, however, exactly how to do that.
Here’s my suggestion, and Nicole, in case you’re reading this, you might mention it to him. If Bernie made a statement in his platform about supporting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples he would show a more sophisticated level of understanding Indigenous issues, one that recognizes the growing international standing of Indigenous peoples, however cumbersome and limited it currently is.
Of all the current presidential contenders Bernie is the best hope for American Indian people. We must never forget, however, that he is still part of a system that is built upon and still depends on our erasure. It doesn’t bring me joy to be a naysayer. But we have to be realistic about the limitations of the American political system.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.