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Sam Deloria Responds to Steven Newcomb Column

A column by Philip Deloria in response to a column by Steven Newcomb in Indian Country Today Media Network.

Steven Newcomb wrote a column carried on and on in which he criticized my remarks quoted in Chuck Trimble’s column. In so doing, he addressed important issues concerning our status in the United States and among the indigenous peoples of the world, and the role of Indian public intellectuals like law professors and columnists. I reply in the hope of continuing this discussion and because it appears that Mr. Newcomb or I, or both of us, are uninformed or misinformed about matters upon which we presume to express opinions.

Mr. Newcomb criticizes my use of the word “lucky” in reference to our status in the United States as compared with the conditions in which many Indigenous Peoples of the world live, including especially the Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere with whom we often identify. Indeed, he sees solidarity in shared oppression at the hands of the various governments which, now and for the foreseeable future, have power over us.

We in the US receive billions of dollars a year in programs from the federal government; we are free to criticize that government without fear of reprisal and to sue the government (sometimes winning, sometimes not); we have a gaming industry that amounts to over $26 billion a year, and increasing income from minerals and other natural resources and tribal enterprises. I know that much of the federal money is our due—my generation helped create or at least refine that rationale. Nevertheless, we get the money, and indigenous peoples elsewhere don’t. Certainly we have problems with our neighbors and with federal and state governments, but we have considerable standing to represent ourselves and often the resources to do so as well.

In contrast, thousands of indigenous peoples have been killed by the governments of their countries in the last several decades alone, sometimes with the support and connivance of the US government. In many countries in this hemisphere, being an indigenous leader or participating in efforts to advance indigenous rights puts one’s life in jeopardy. Indian land rights are still unsecured throughout the hemisphere, and the land and ways of life of numerous Indian societies are jeopardized by development. Indian people are being hunted from airplanes and shot down like wild game, a real-time genocide similar to that experienced by many of our groups in the past.

Now, if we had to choose a word to describe the comparative status of Native people in the U.S. and the status of other indigenous people in the hemisphere, is it more accurate to call us similarly oppressed, or lucky? Or another word, perhaps? We may need a scale of oppression, to see where we are and where they are. I recall perhaps the first time Indian leaders from Mexico and Central and South America met with leaders from US and Canadian tribes and nations nearly 40 years ago. I recall especially the exquisite courtesy and dignity of the visitors, and the sometimes condescending and arrogant behavior of the leaders from the US and Canada, regarding themselves as the sophisticated experts and the people from the South as ignorant bumpkins. The people from the South took a risk to be there; the people from the North took none. Can we speculate what would happen if we brought some indigenous peoples from the Amazon or the Andes, or from Central America, to the US and took them on a tour of casinos, and told them we shared with them the oppression by the national governments holding sway over us? I’m sure even their courtesy would be tested—and we would look like fools.

Maybe “lucky” isn’t the right word. But to say that we are “oppressed” as they are oppressed is to make the word “oppression” virtually useless. It dishonors their struggle for survival. And makes us look extremely self-absorbed. And to say that we never win lawsuits is petulant.

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The way I was raised, leaders were expected to represent the values of the society, to attempt to speak the truth with dignity, and help people find the right way to deal with the challenges facing them. Public intellectuals presume to occupy a kind of leadership role in the modern era. In so doing, I believe they need to aspire to meet the same standards. Lawyers and professors are like the watchmen we sent out in the old days. They report back to the community with accurate information, so decisions can be made about what to do, how to meet incoming threats. If they present their own views or wishful thinking as fact, or pander to some groups in the community over others, they are not honestly doing their jobs, and they perform a disservice.

It is simply not the truth to say that Indians never win a case in US courts. I share the disappointment with many outcomes. I am as troubled as anyone that the US Supreme Court has its own Indian policy instead of deferring to the policy branches of the government. I experience underfunded Indian programs, budget cuts and the like, broken promises, government interference and all the other legitimate beefs we have with our circumstances and with the US government. I know that development poses a threat to us, even as we sometimes embrace it. But I think it weakens the legitimacy of our complaints to say anything other than the truth. Just as it weakens our case to say we are oppressed like other indigenous peoples in the world, it weakens our case to say that we never win a lawsuit.

Although we could certainly have it worse in this country, all is not necessarily well, either. Mr. Newcomb may not be aware that we are in a crisis with many of our young people. Our school dropout rates are enormous, our various indices of social pathology—substance abuse, domestic violence, etc.—are extremely high. Our youth suicide rate is soaring. Our public intellectuals can ascribe all these problems to non-Indians, to multigenerational trauma, to colonialism. They can tell the tribes that they are powerless and have no tools available to help them address these problems, leaving them unresolved for another generation or expecting others to address them for us. And most important, they can tell our young people that they are powerless and helpless and destined for failure, even as these children take their own lives in despair. Sometimes it seems we have a whole industry devoted to underrating and undervaluing Indian young people, and telling them so.

I may not pick the right word most of the time. So I am having trouble finding the right word to characterize people in think tanks, policy centers and universities, people with degrees, good educations, tenure or secure jobs – the people who pat themselves on the back for “speaking truth to power”, when they are in no jeopardy whatsoever. I don’t know what to call it when this crowd counsels our young people to reject education and not to aspire to employment, when these people seem content to consign them to squalor in order to perpetuate an abstract cultural and political agenda that obscures the problems and issues that face Indian people today—here in the US and throughout the hemisphere, and indigenous peoples and minority ethnicities throughout the world. Maybe I am the only one who has seen pictures of children in Afghanistan and Africa in their rudimentary schoolhouses, eager for any chance at an education. Yeah, I feel relatively lucky.

I am not putting all these offenses on the shoulders of Mr. Newcomb or Ms. Garrow. But I do believe that they are not fulfilling their role as public intellectuals by encouraging Indian leaders and Indian young people to feel sorry for themselves and to feel hopeless rather than strong, confident and self-sufficient. It is not the role of the people to suffer so that college professors and intellectuals can make their careers with overstatements and easy accusations. It is the role of the professors and intellectuals to speak the truth and help everyone understand how we can meet the challenges facing us.

And finally, I have not seen the official position of the Oneida Nation of New York concerning the lawsuits they have lost in recent years, or their more general views of their status in life. I know that neither Mr. Newcomb nor Carrie Garrow purports to speak for them. But despite their justified disappointment and frustration, I doubt very much that, being one of the wealthiest and self-sufficient tribes in the country, the Oneidas would call themselves oppressed.

Philip S. Deloria is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and is an Indian policy analyst.