I think there's a visceral reaction that prevents some people in the non-Indian community to find solidarity with today's Native American issues.
Whether it's gaming, Indian children in the foster care program, religious freedom, sacred sites, or quality of life issues where the public must take the time to understand our perspective, we often find ourselves in the losing battle for understanding and acceptance.
Not to say there haven’t been significant victories in these areas in the modern era, it’s often come in the Federal Courts in the 1970s when there was greater political activism to march, rally, and file suits in federal court to address these injustices. In those days the Judicial Branch of the U.S. government embraced the notion of tribal sovereignty, treaties, and had the courage to issue decisions in favor of tribal rights on a number of issues close to the hearts of Indian people. These decisions are still binding on today’s activities in Indian country and U.S. law. Protection of sacred sites, religious liberty and a Trust responsibility of the U.S. to individual Indian people were chief among them.
These decisions were in concert with federal policies and statutes that were restating the Federal Trust relationship with tribes and Indian people. U.S. recognition of the vast poverty that existed in Indian country as well as the neglect of the rest of the country into thinking the Indian wars were over and tribes and Indian people were assimilated into the fabric of this country. This lack of understanding led to the activism in the streets and the prairies of this country which rekindled a spirit of correcting the wrongs of the past and restating a new vision of what it means to be Native in the 20th century.
At the close of the 80s, the 20 years from Alcatraz to the Indian Self Governance Act, ushered a time of federal acknowledgment of modernizing the way the world of Indian country works. From the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Indian Minerals Development Act, Indian Child Welfare Act, are just a sampling of the laws which empower tribes and Indian people to take greater control over their tribal governments to carrying out more federal programs that improved the capacity of tribal governments to be more effective and prioritize their limited resources to areas of greatest need.
Despite these achievements the rest of the country was still looking at Indian country as a remnant of the past and/or largely forgotten. Back east, they didn’t think we still existed. Then when you add to what Hollywood, Madison Ave, public education and the news media failed to do by not only acknowledging our accomplishments or success but also by neglecting either deliberately or by accident that millions of Indian people still exist and hundreds of tribal governments still exist. Our identity existed as something from the past and anything occurring in present time was irrelevant.
As a result, our present condition was ignored.
Setting aside who is to blame for the lack of understanding of our issues, let’s fast forward to today’s action going on in North Dakota where the largest gathering of Native people in opposition to the construction of a massive pipeline project going on near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Officials there claim the project threatens the only water supply for the impoverished reservation which adversely affects the quality of life for Indian and non-Indian people in the area. To add insult to injury, the Tribal leadership’s concerns have been ignored by Army Corps of Engineers who failed to properly consult with the Tribe prior to the approval of the pipeline project. Now we are learning that sacred sites have been identified in the path of this project and again no acknowledgment of what Indian country has to say about it.
In the last year, thousands of Native people have traveled to Standing Rock’s reservation to join their brothers and sisters in what could be a long sustained presence to resist the construction of this pipeline project. In recent months, over 150 tribal governments across the U.S. have passed letters of support, resolutions and have sent tribal delegations with provisions to the reservation to assist the “Protectors”. This kind of commitment is unprecedented in the modern era. Even during the height of the 70’s, there never was this level of support both politically and in resources to help another tribe in their time of need.
Armed with an improved economic condition of many tribal nations around the country in law and policy, a new generation of Native people who have a grasp of the power of social media we now have a chance to flip the script that’s been written in the past. But there is where the challenge lies. What was the point in all of these gains by Indian people and tribal governments in the past 50 years if the rest of the country isn’t aware of our story? If it’s news to the media, then it’s time they started paying attention.
But it’s also time we started telling our story.
The mainstream media and federal and state governments must take this revolution seriously, these activists in North Dakota are speaking in a language that is larger than the Indian community itself. If their message is carried over the national news cycle in the same way that the protests in Eastern Block countries at the end of the Soviet Union were covered, or the Middle East spring just a few years ago, it would be easier to see why the pendulum needs to swing back to protecting our water against the pursuit of corporate interests is a message that resonates with people all over the world.
What is America’s response to the crisis in Standing Rock? I don’t mean just the news media, or the government, I mean the people of America. Mainstream media needs to go to North Dakota, set up their mic in front of the people trying to protect their water and sacred sites and let them speak. You don’t have to be an expert in Indian law or policy to understand what’s going on, because their cause is universal to the human condition.
Jack booted private security personnel with attack dogs may be the enduring image to this effort, but if we want things to change in this country, we must resist the temptation to sink into an eye for eye mentality. That’s why we need to broaden the message to a larger audience while we tell our story.
How long do you think you can survive without water? What would you do if your only source of water was threatened? So what if these questions are raised by a Native person? You don’t have to be Native to understand it. You just have to be human.
Jim Gray, (Osage) is the former Principal Chief of the Osage Nation, former Publisher of the Native American Times. He’s been a consultant in Indian country working in government relations, government contracting, communications and government reform. Today, he is the Chief of Staff of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma. He resides in the Osage Nation in Oklahoma with his wife and family.