Skip to main content

‘Words matter’

WASHINGTON – The reviews from Native America are in regarding the inauguration of President Barack Obama, with many having made treks from far and wide to join in his parade; to offer policy advice; to be a proud part of history. Post-inaugural glow is gone, however, now that some have taken time to analyze the intricacies of his words from Jan. 20, and not all reviews are positive.

Many have taken particular notice of the following paragraph from his speech:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

To many, that segment of his address – pored over for hours by speechwriters, advisors and Obama himself – was a poignant call for Americans to come together. But to some Indians, the words, especially “the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve,” were downright jarring.

“I don’t think he was referring to Indian tribes, but I do think the words are disturbing,” said Robert Odawi Porter, a Seneca law professor at Syracuse University. “What the president was speaking to was the erasing of ethnic lines of distinction on a global level – lines of distinction which differentiate humanity – of which indigenous peoples are a part. So, in that sense, I’m concerned about the president’s apparent desire to see the ‘tribal’ lines that distinguish peoples from one another disappear.”

Porter, a senior policy advisor to and lawyer for the Seneca Nation of Indians noted that beyond his reading, some Natives have taken the president’s words quite literally.

Such is the case with elder Kahentinetha Horn, who wrote in a recent column for the Mohawk Nation News that she believes Obama “sneaked in the intention to ignore us when he said that ‘the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve.’”

The newspaper publisher believes Obama’s words to be “all the more devious” because they come “in this velvet glove that claims that it’s being done in a spirit of cooperation.”

When asked by Indian Country Today about the contentious line, White House officials seemed aghast that anyone would suggest a negative meaning behind Obama’s words.

In an official statement, Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman, said: “President Obama was not referring to Native American tribes in this line of his inaugural address. As he said and demonstrated throughout his initiatives during the campaign, the Native American community has a partner in the White House with President Obama.”

That measured response aside, behind the scenes, White House and transition officials did not take kindly to the query – which has become all the more reason for caution from some Natives who are asking, “Does he really get it?”

One of his questioners, Angela Wilson, a Dakota activist and teacher who often goes by the name Waziyatawin, points out that it was Obama himself who made so much of the “words matter” theme during his campaign for president.

“People question if words matter. Words do matter. Words challenge us to reach higher. Words are a catalyst for change and words motivate us to chase our dreams. …” he said in a February 2008 campaign speech.

“I’ve had real issues with Obama all the way along,” said Waziyatawin, in trying to understand the viewpoint of the president and his White House. “While I can really only guess at what is in the mind of the new president, I do think that he would like the world to be color-blind, and I do think that he believes Americans and American values represent the pinnacle of progress and civilization.

“With that in mind, his vision of America seems to be an inclusive vision in which all peoples, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, are all living the American dream with equal access to health care, jobs, education, etc., and equal opportunity.

“In that vision, the lines dividing all ‘tribes’ – whether they are national, cultural, or even corporate groupings – would become irrelevant as we all embraced our common humanity.

“Indigenous populations should be offended by this, just as we should be offended by the celebration of American patriotism exhibited during the inaugural festivities, and just as we should be offended by his recent denial of America as a colonial empire.”

Waziyatawin referred partially to Obama’s often positive invocations of America’s founding fathers and his recent reference of Americans as the “heirs of those early patriots.”

She wrote in a recent letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune that she has specific problems with Obama’s continued celebration of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln – the same man she holds responsible for the mass lynching of 38 Dakota warriors in what she calls “the largest, mass, simultaneous hanging from one gallows in world history.”

That lynching in Minnesota, she noted, “was part of the U.S. policy of extermination and forced removal that allowed for the theft of Dakota homeland and the ethnic cleansing of our people.”

Yet, as many press accounts have noted, Obama was proud to be sworn in on Lincoln’s Bible.

Waziyatawin and others say it is time for Obama to take his “words matter” theme to heart.

Not all Natives – nor even a majority – feel the same way about Obama’s words. But even some who made the great trek to Washington were left with a waft of disenchantment after his inaugural address.

“I thought the speech was appropriate for the Americans given the lean times ahead for the U.S. economically,” said Doug George-Kanentiio, the co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association. “But it left out the drama, the call to action, the summation of that great vision which has compelled Americans to endure and create.”

The Mohawk writer also noted that Obama himself never referred to Native people directly or in the oblique.

“[W]e have yet to register with him as a people who matter,” said George-Kanentiio, who watched the speech from the National Museum of the American Indian, of which he is a former trustee.

“We were eclipsed in every instance at the inauguration except for those few who marched in the parade. We did not intrude and that was sad. But it does reaffirm our separation from the great masses and that is, after all, why we have what is ours and act as we do.”

Scroll to Continue

Read More