After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11,
2001, millions of Americans became more fervent in their patriotism toward
the United States. In this era of the Patriot Act, those who dare to
question "patriotism" are made to feel that they may be "treading on thin
ice." One American Indian leader even suggested that you can tell who a
"real" Indian is because a "real" Indian is patriotic toward the United
This made me wonder about my own thoughts on patriotism. After considerable
reflection, I have decided that because of my spiritual beliefs, and
because of all that our Native ancestors have suffered at the hands of the
United States, I consider myself to be a "matriot." A matriot is someone
who loves, is loyal to, and promotes the interests of Mother Earth. I
consider myself deeply matriotic.
Matriotism is based on an appreciation of the fact that the source of life,
air, food, and water and our very existence is Mother Earth, not the
political construct known as the United States. When people talk about "a
country" in relation to "patriotism," they are talking about a political
entity, not the Earth.
Matriotism and patriotism are worlds apart, as revealed by etymology. Mater
(from which "matriotism" is derived) is the Latin word for "mother," a term
that means "a woman who has given birth to a child." Matriotism, like
motherhood, suggests nurturing, warmth, affection, closeness or "one to
whom a filial affection and respect are due." A mother is also "one that
has produced or nurtured something; source."
The word "patriot," by contrast, is an extension of the Latin term pater,
meaning "father." Patriot refers to "one's father; of or characteristic of
one's forefathers," but it is also defined in terms of "a person who loves
his country and loves and promotes its interests." These meanings are, of
course, patriarchal and full of testosterone, with none of the
counterbalancing feminine influence so vitally important and essential to a
As a result of those who had a patriotic dedication to promoting the
patriarchal interests of the American empire, entire Indian nations no
longer exist: their ancestral lands that made their way of life viable were
taken over by an imperial country. Look east of the Mississippi River,
where highly intelligent and vibrant Indian civilizations once thrived on
hundreds of millions of acres of land, with their own languages, cultures,
economies and spiritual traditions. How many of those Native civilizations
still exist there?
Thanks to U.S. patriotism and the Indian Removal Act, relatively few Indian
nations exist east of the Mississippi, on extremely small areas of their
once-vast ancestral lands. Almost all Indian nations west of the
Mississippi have been squeezed into smaller areas of land, the vast
majority of their ancestral lands stripped from them.
Look at all the lands where my matrilineal and matriotic Delaware ancestors
once lived, in what is now known as Manhattan Island, Delaware, New Jersey
and eastern Pennsylvania. With patriotic fervor, first European colonists
and later the United States took over our lands, thereby destroying our
traditional world and spiritual way of life.
Think of the many thousands of years in which our respective indigenous
languages evolved, accumulating knowledge and wisdom over eons. And think
of all the patriotic effort that U.S. government officials and Christian
missionaries dedicated to destroying our respective Native languages, right
down to their cognitive roots.
In their patriotic fervor, such people had no regard for our rich heritage,
only contempt for our cultural and spiritual knowledge. Their patriotic
work involved an ardent and greed-laden desire to destroy us in order to
fatten and enrich themselves, as "God's chosen people," on our lands and
resources, to which they felt eminently entitled based on the "promised
land" narrative of their "good book."
Because our indigenous languages reflect our own indigenous conceptual
systems, which are rooted in our brains, the systematic abuse of American
Indian children by the United States in an effort to destroy our Indian
languages affected those Indian children to their core. Those children were
our ancestors, our aunts and uncles, our mothers and fathers, our sisters
and brothers - relatives of all the members of our respective nations.
One of the things U.S. boarding schools beat into American Indian children
was patriotism toward the American flag and devotion to the Bible, in part
by working to make Indian children ashamed of their own Native
spirituality. As a spiritual matter and as a matter of conscience, how can
I feel patriotic toward a political entity that worked so hard to destroy
us as distinct nations and peoples that have existed in this hemisphere for
thousands and thousands of years?
However, I am extremely matriotic toward Mother Earth. Matriotism is
entirely consistent with our traditional cultural and spiritual way of
life. I believe that a society dedicated to the values of matriotism would
honor and respect motherhood and "the motherland." It would acknowledge
women as a source of life. It would support women and help them to thrive
and excel by powerfully nurturing their innate intelligence. It would not
abuse them emotionally, physically or sexually. A matriotic society would
not regard women, or men, as a kind of property.
A society dedicated to matriotism - a sacred regard for the Earth and all
living things - also would not allow poisons, such as pesticides, petroleum
and toxic nuclear wastes, to leach into the veins of Mother Earth.
One example of Mother Earth being poisoned is found in the town of Moab,
Utah, on the edge of the Colorado River where, according to a recent report
in the San Diego Union-Tribune, some 58,000 gallons of radioactive liquid
leach each and every day into sacred waters upon which animals, fish and
millions of people rely.
Another such example is the Columbia River. For generations, highly
radioactive liquid has been leaching from decomposing steel drums at the
Hanford nuclear facility into the groundwater that runs into the Columbia
River and the fish that live there. Now the U.S. government plans to bury
77,000 tons of radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain in the Western Shoshone
Given such patriarchal desecrations, I am content to be matriotic like my
Shawnee and Delaware ancestors. As they and all our indigenous ancestors
knew, we only have one Mother Earth, and we are all her children.
Steven Newcomb is the indigenous law research coordinator at Kumeyaay
Community College on the Sycuan Indian Reservation, co-founder and
co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian