At the moment there has been a flurry of news reports about an unfortunate gesture by a U.S. Senate candidate in California who caricatured an Indian war cry. Apologies are already being made and the dust will soon settle.
But two things: First, she is hardly alone. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently compared American Indians to the “bad guys” in “’a 50s western.” I once heard a U.S. senator introduce their tribal guests as “my Indians.” The New Yorker just published a so-called humor piece using the word "squaw”—a profoundly insulting racial slur.
Second, what’s really important here is not a casual remark or the need to be politically correct. That’s far too superficial. Everybody has said something in the moment that upon later reflection they wished they could take back. That’s only human.
The stereotypes and slurs that sometimes echo through the rough and tumble of contemporary American culture simply reveal the reality that candidates, like most people, rarely have a genuine understanding of tribal governments and Native issues.
So here we are with a spectrum in the national dialogue that spans between the careless and the hate-filled. But these comments can actually serve a purpose. National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby points out, “… this is an opportunity to educate” and he’s right.
American Indian tribes are a vast and complicated universe that has grown even more complex in the past quarter century. There are 566 federally recognized Indian nations—variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities and native villages—in 34 states. They are ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse entities.
Those differences are important because the time when many tribes’ geographic isolation kept them out of sight and mind is long gone. The last 50 years has especially seen dramatic growth of tribal governments and their ability to provide services to their communities. Their communications and interactions with local, state and federal government agencies have expanded accordingly.
The total American Indian/Alaska Native landmass—100 million acres—right now would make Indian Country the fourth largest state in the United States. There are 19 tribal nations each larger than Rhode Island and 12 tribal nations larger than Delaware.
The tribal governments comprising this network don’t just deal with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They work regularly with the departments of Justice, Defense, Health & Human Services, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Interior, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing & Urban Development and Homeland Security. They work daily with city councils, state legislatures and members of Congress. Tribes are serious, active participants in the American political, legislative and policy-making process.
The bottom line? Anyone who seeks or holds public office in the United States today needs to be more informed about this country’s first Americans – their history, policies and issues. Focusing on political correctness is a disconnect. It’s a smaller, more inter-connected world that we live in. The future we share depends on forging a real and lasting understanding.
Mary Ann Andreas is first vice chair of the Native American Caucus for the California Democratic Party and tribal council vice chair of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.