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Myopic commentary: bigoted assertions belong in the past

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Two profound examples of commentary myopia in Indian country followed on the heels of the season's national gaff story: Trent Lott's praising of a segregationist candidacy as America's lost dream.

The Lott rhetoric celebrating Strom Thurmond's 100th year was about the yearning for a trouble-free America, where everything and everybody is in its or his or her place. It got Lott in trouble serious enough to jiu-jitsu his career. It appears at least one liberal idea, the racial integration of American society, has won widespread agreement with both major parties. Certainly, the Bush political team recoiled at Lott's brazen embrace of race politics and his exploding of the not-so-secret Republican strategy for wooing its southern base. Lott made the code too public. It was a clumsy mistake. He has paid.

Racial and ethnic identity sensibilities have a basis. They call out the elephant in America's living room. America can not work if the racial and ethnic bases do not have equal or at least fair chance at developing economic foundations and cultural respect. It gets complicated otherwise, and it should, because it is. As white blends into the ethnic variety of America; as migration from the brown south explodes and as voting consciousness finally blossoms in diverse communities, a demographic change of major proportions confronts political parties and social movements. Shooting from the hip, easy talk does not cut it. The browning of America is a fact of life; wary eyes are cast on racialist blunders that belie a negative prejudice.

As 2002 ended here were two profound examples of North American Indian myopia:

oDavid Ahenakew, whose public anti-Semitic tirade with direct pro-Nazi pronouncements, left him plucked to the nub. Ahenakew was quoted as saying that Hitler's genocide against Jews and others constituted an effort to "clean up the world."

"That's how Hitler came in," the hapless Indian spokesperson told the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. "He was going to make damn sure that the Jews didn't take over Germany and Europe. That's why he fried six million of those guys, you know. Jews would have owned the goddamned world. And look what they're doing. They're killing people in Arab countries."

Mr. Ahenakew, 68, once headed Canada's largest Indian organization, the Assembly of First Nations. He made the remarks after addressing a meeting of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, a group he once led.

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We all know people who make irrational or insulting remarks that seem designed to provoke a reaction. Ahenakew's ad hominem attack on a race and religion of people, its lack of balance and fairness, caused a furor that has cost him his whole political standing. It augurs well that this was so, that many major Indian leaders denounced the bigoted statements and that Ahenakew has been forced to resign all his posts.

oIn the U.S., a column by Native writer and commentator Delphine Red Shirt, Oglala Lakota, now a resident of Connecticut and affiliated with Yale University, has raised serious concern. Red Shirt directly attacks the Indian peoples and nations of that state. Red Shirts lets it be known she doesn't "like Connecticut's definition of 'Indian.' It "offends" her to have come east to find "how an Indian is defined" in her new home state. "Why? Because I am an Indian. I grew up Indian, look Indian, even speak Indian."

Delphine Red Shirt's approach is troublesome. The flurry of responses has begun. Hers is not an unusual opinion about racially mixed Indian members of federally recognized tribes, in eastern states as well as in western states. Ms. Red Shirt may have an attitude formed in the particular definitions of Oglala districts and political affiliations, still sometimes dictated by degree of full-blood to mixed-blood relations. But she bemoans and dismisses a reality - inter-marriage - that has already come to her tribe and all Indian peoples.

Rather than besmirch another Native people and enlist on the side of denial and anti-Indian forces, a more proper question might be: who ultimately will have the right to define our grandchildren, whether they will belong to us or not, regardless of "race?" Will it be us, as grandparents in common, or will it be a racist federal policy designed to divide and conquer nations of human beings like so many cattle breeders?

Ms. Red Shirt's approach would also appear to break a well-established traditional rule: be careful how you judge tribes other than your own. Denial of another people's identity is always dangerous ground. Red Shirt paints with a wide brush. Eastern tribal leaders who have delivered on the aspirations of several distinct tribes and who have sought federal recognition since way before the gaming era, she describes as, "speculators and opportunistic individuals forming ? questionable 'tribes' ? for mutual gain."

Indian commentators, from Navajo Nation to Oklahoma and Washington, have denounced Ms. Red Shirt's approach. It has not washed well that an Oglala, particularly one carrying the respected Red Shirt name, would come into another Native people's territory and - under her own construction of a blood-quantum guidebook - declare them to be frauds, to the astonished glee of every anti-Indian politician in Connecticut. Kevin Gover called it, "the unkindest cut," as unnecessary as it was mean-spirited.

The Connecticut tribes' fortuitous success does not in itself cause problems for other tribes - including the Oglala. Ms. Red Shirt could just as easily focus on the positives such as the potential visibility, economic opportunity and added political clout that Indian tribal peoples are gaining in common.

We urge the greatest caution upon Indian commentators. Indigenous identity is complex. We must fight vigorously for our own, but we should uphold universal human values that respect all peoples. We can not tolerate or perpetuate bigotry on another people, if we would not have it perpetrated against ourselves. Words hurt. And ignorant ideas can cause a lot of pain.