Palermo: Native America is being defined by others


“Of all the things we lost after contact, one of the most important and overlooked was our loss of agency; the ability to speak for ourselves, to say, ‘This is who we are. This is what we believe.’”

– Kevin Gover,

National Museum of the American Indian

The history of Native America was not written by American Indians. That is why the public believes the Americas before European contact were a largely uninhabited wilderness.

The story of contemporary American Indians is also being told by non-Indians. That is why tribes today are perceived not as culturally rich, sovereign nations, but as wealthy “groups” of Native American descendants formed why? Well, to operate casinos, of course.

“More than any other people, we have been defined by others,” Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, told an audience at RES09, the economic conference recently held in Las Vegas. “Thus, the Americas were wilderness, awaiting the industrious hands and minds of Europeans to make it productive. Indians were just bands of nomads, wandering the woods and prairies, picking berries and hunting deer.

“In this narrative, civilization arrived with the Europeans,” said Gover, a Pawnee/Comanche. “This insult, this tragic lie, became the justification for the enslavement and murder of Indians, for the appropriation of their lands and resources, for the wanton destruction of their cultural materials.”

Indigenous peoples of the Americas lived as industrious civilizations, societies of scientists, astrologers, artists, mathematicians and philosophers all producing in excess of their needs. Native peoples engaged in feats of engineering and agricultural science, creating potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, squash and maize, all foods that would eventually feed half the world’s population.

Indigenous peoples farmed the same land for 4,000 years without benefit of fertilizers. “They did this not by accident,” Gover said, but through knowledge and experimentation, studying what corn, beans and other plants give and take from the soil.

It is the mission of the national museum, “to present the history of the culture of Native America. Indian history did not begin in 1492, when Columbus arrived, and it did not end in 1890, at Wounded Knee.”

Most of 560 federally recognized tribes and Native Alaskan villages are not wealthy from gaming. Seventy percent of gaming revenue is generated by 15 percent of the casinos operated by small tribes near big cities.

Vast Indian nations in the Great Plains and Southwest have not benefited greatly from government casinos. Their citizens continue to live below the poverty line. Unemployment is 50 percent or higher.

Native America is largely comprised of sovereign governments with limited resources, struggling to provide housing, roads, utilities, education, health care and other services non-Indian communities take for granted. Tribes are victims of federal policies that failed to deliver on treaty promises made in exchange for indigenous lives and land.

The history of indigenous peoples and the story of contemporary Native America were topics of speeches by both Gover and Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

“This is the most powerful country in the world, yet we suffer as indigenous peoples,” said Garcia, a citizen of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo of New Mexico. “There will come a time when Indian tribes across the land are no longer dependent on the federal government for their needs.

The history of Native America was not written by American Indians. That is why the public believes the Americas before European contact were uninhabited wilderness.

“The federal government is obligated by treaty agreements to provide for these needs. We shall not let them forget that federal Indian policy was not written by Indian people. It was written by the dominant society.”

The speeches were compelling. If the U.S. Supreme Court had heard Gover, justices may not have ruled as they did last month in Carcieri v. Salazar, which limits the ability of Indian tribes to take land into trust.

If the U.S. District Court of Appeals had heard Garcia’s remarks before making its 2006 ruling on tribal-labor relations, it may not have regarded the San Manuel casino as a commercial casino instead of what it is, a government enterprise.

If elected representatives in Congress knew the truth about contemporary Native America, it may not have weeded out a $400 million appropriation for tribal law enforcement and health care from an omnibus spending bill.

Both speeches were well-received by conference attendees, drawing long, deserved ovations. But Garcia’s words extended no farther than the walls of a Las Vegas conference hall and Gover’s speech was handwritten. He was unable to share copies with those who approached him as he left the hall.

Gover is right, of course. Native America is not speaking for itself. It is allowing non-Indian media and policymakers to craft a false image of indigenous peoples.

Tribes and tribal associations are doing a miserable job educating the public about Native America and confronting false perceptions that result in damaging court rulings and harmful congressional action.

If Gover believes Native America needs to speak for itself, transcripts of his speeches must be sent to the tribal press and Web sites. Most important, his words need to be rewritten as opinion page articles and mailed to every newspaper in the country, particularly the non-Indian press.

The same is true for Garcia and NCAI. Every tribe and tribal association dealing with Native culture, education, housing, gaming, education, energy, tourism and other issues must aggressively reach out to the non-Indian media and tell the true story of Native America.

The truth can only make a difference if it is heard by those in power.

Dave Palermo is an award-winning former newspaper reporter and editor. He currently is a freelance writer and media consultant. He can be reached at