Can we honestly tell our beautiful and brilliant Native children that, in 2016, they can grow up and be President of the United States of America?
Probably not. Based upon the evidence (as opposed to optimism or good feelings), America does not seem to fully accept Natives as real-life human beings -- thus it will likely be a few generations before we can seriously contemplate that.
LET ME EXPLAIN:
Politics aside, 2008 was a year of incredible historical import for humanity in the US.
One hundred and forty-three years after the end of slavery, US citizens elected Barack Obama as the first black person to serve as President. Obama’s ascension to the presidency was so unlikely that just a few years before Chris Rock dedicated a full-length cinematic release to the absurdity of a black man being elected president in the US in a movie called “Head of State.” But somehow, perhaps as a sign that the US is evolving, Obama won! President Obama’s election was historic and ended a two hundred and thirty year run of only rich, wealthy, white men serving as the President.
For many people Obama’s election indicated that, a century and a half after the end of slavery, black people achieved full humanity in the eyes of white people. It’s no secret that black people remained second-class citizens within the US in many ways even after slavery. They moved from three-fifths of a person to “human-but-not-quite-full-human” as Plessy v. Ferguson dishonestly proclaimed “separate but equal.” They next moved from Jim Crow laws and enforcement to constantly being admired for their musical and athletic talents but not in the administration and execution of the business. In one way or another, black folks were constantly locked out of the mainstream. Then, in a weird way, Doug Williams winning the Super Bowl as quarterback seemed to be a necessary precedent to President Obama being elected—“Black folks can make responsible decisions!” Previously many folks assumed, as Jay-Z brilliantly said, that “All us blacks got is sports and entertainment until we even…” But in 2008 Americans voted Obama into the Presidency and maybe that singular act changed some of those ugly assumptions. Not completely—we still see the dehumanization of black folks in the constant narratives about police brutality. But maybe white Americans now largely see black Americans as human enough to be decision-makers and leaders instead of only basketball players or entertainers.
Now, eight years later we are on the cusp of another watershed moment in American politics. Irrespective of how a person feels about Hillary Clinton’s politics, it is undoubtedly a big deal for humanity. For well over a century women in America were not considered much more than the chattel property of her husband with no right to enter into contracts or to appear in court (the concept of “spousal privilege” is a modern-day manifestation of that). Less than a hundred years ago, women could not vote. Women were simply not considered human enough for any of these things. Now, in 2016, a woman has an opportunity to be one of the most powerful political people in the world! Women (at least white women—I’m not sure there’s evidence that the US is as accepting of brown-skinned women) are finally deemed human enough to break through those glass ceilings that had only respected men for so long.
I likewise suspect that a Latino/a will ascend to the Presidency in the next decade and a half because of simple demographics, in addition to enhanced recognition of Latinos/as a political force. Latinos/as, despite Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric, have been largely normalized and mainstreamed so much so that it would not be a huge worldview shift for many Americans to vote for a Latino/a for President. Similarly, the Asian-American population is growing faster than any other group in the nation. Moreover, Asian-Americans have moved into areas of management, leadership and visibility (Fresh off the Boat is intended to be for Asian-Americans what Chico and the Man was for Latino/as in the 1970's) so as to further humanize and remove mystique and misunderstandings. Normalize. As a result, we can reasonably see Asians also vying for the Commander-in-Chief position in the near future.
But what about Natives?
Unfortunately, it looks like that’s still a long ways off. Here are a few reasons why.
First, Americans still have not normalized interactions with Natives. This is manifest in many ways in pop culture today—pop culture is very important toward normalizing a group of people. For example, for decades there are have been movies where a black person plays a president on-screen, making folks more comfortable with the idea. There have also been movies where women and Latinos/as, Asians play presidents, and every other role under the sun. That gets rid of the sticker shock of seeing a person of that group in that position. Moreover, it’s also not unusual to see folks from all backgrounds acting as a different ethnicity or in a leading role where race is not contemplated. For Natives, though? Not so much. Natives are still a novelty, a character to be played on-screen and not just an ethnicity that a person happens to be. There is no Fresh off the Boat or Chico and the Man or Blackish or The Jeffersons or The Cosby Show for Native people. Plus, the prospect of a Native playing, for example, a President? Hasn’t been on the radar, even in the most subversive of films.
Natives have largely been only deemed competent to play a Native no matter how incredible that Native actor is. “How well can you be a Native, Native person?”
Similarly, in my work as a writer and commentator, I largely am asked to only comment or write about “Native stuff.” Now, I love commenting and writing about “Native stuff” but I’ve also found that “Native stuff” is a HUGE category. It’s ALL Native stuff! Whether we’re talking about national politics to public school funding to infrastructure and trade policy. Now, similar to acting black folks, women, Latino/a, Asians, etc. are all considered competent to speak about things that are outside their communities and universal. It is not one bit unusual for a black person, a woman, a Latino/a or an Asian to comment or write on national news. For Natives? Not so much. It’s still a novelty and Natives are not deemed competent to have opinions on matters that are universal and aren’t uniquely Native.
We can’t speak about things that are just “human” or “American.” It would be hard enough for a Native person to get a role as a doctor or teacher on TV, much less a Native President.
We also see it in regards to our tragedy. Simply stated, the mainstream largely does not care or cannot relate to Native pain or outrage. The mainstream ignores the structural and institutional barriers, for example, that allow Native women to be raped at a rate exponentially higher than other women. It likewise ignores those same structural barriers that forbid Native nations from prosecuting outsiders who peddle drugs and/or murder our people. Those same structures then, adding insult to injury, refuse to utilize its own resources to prosecute those bad actors, allowing them to prey upon our communities with impunity.
But nobody mentions that outside of our communities. If they do mention our communities, they mention the poverty without explaining how those barriers help to create and sustain that economic poverty.
As shown above, there is a perception that Natives cannot partake in these larger conversations. As we discussed, there is a lack of empathy or understanding about our communities. When those two things are combined with the mathematical fact that Natives are a tiny percentage of the population, it doesn’t bode well for a Native rising to be President anytime soon. At some point, it’s a humanity question as it was for women, black folks, Latino/as, etc.; are Natives reflective enough of America generally to sometimes not be considered “Native” and instead just “human?”
Can a Native person represent America? Stupid question. OF COURSE. The truth is, Natives are the story of America and are more America than America. Natives are America’s dental record and thumbprint and spinal cord. You cannot intelligently tell the story of America without Native people being one of the main characters. Yet, it seems like mainstream America is a ways away from recognizing that truth.
Of course we want to tell our beautiful and brilliant Native children that they can do anything that they’re willing to work for and set their minds to. And that day may come sooner than expected—who knows? They certainly have the capabilities. Yet, for the reasons discussed above we can assume that we probably still have a long ways to go.
Part 2 will discuss how we can work toward changing that.
Wesley Roach, Skan Photography
Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories