commentary: bigoted assertions belong in the past
Posted: January 02,
2003 - 9:56am EST
Two profound examples of commentary myopia in Indian country
followed on the heels of the season’s national gaff story: Trent Lott’s praising
of a segregationist candidacy as America’s lost dream.
The Lott rhetoric
celebrating Strom Thurmond’s 100th year was about the yearning for a
trouble-free America, where everything and everybody is in its or his or her
place. It got Lott in trouble serious enough to jiu-jitsu his career. It appears
at least one liberal idea, the racial integration of American society, has won
widespread agreement with both major parties. Certainly, the Bush political team
recoiled at Lott’s brazen embrace of race politics and his exploding of the
not-so-secret Republican strategy for wooing its southern base. Lott made the
code too public. It was a clumsy mistake. He has paid.
Racial and ethnic
identity sensibilities have a basis. They call out the elephant in America’s
living room. America can not work if the racial and ethnic bases do not have
equal or at least fair chance at developing economic foundations and cultural
respect. It gets complicated otherwise, and it should, because it is. As white
blends into the ethnic variety of America; as migration from the brown south
explodes and as voting consciousness finally blossoms in diverse communities, a
demographic change of major proportions confronts political parties and social
movements. Shooting from the hip, easy talk does not cut it. The browning of
America is a fact of life; wary eyes are cast on racialist blunders that belie a
As 2002 ended here were two profound examples of
North American Indian myopia:
- David Ahenakew, whose public anti-Semitic
tirade with direct pro-Nazi pronouncements, left him plucked to the nub.
Ahenakew was quoted as saying that Hitler’s genocide against Jews and others
constituted an effort to "clean up the world."
"That’s how Hitler came
in," the hapless Indian spokesperson told the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. "He was
going to make damn sure that the Jews didn’t take over Germany and Europe.
That’s why he fried six million of those guys, you know. Jews would have owned
the goddamned world. And look what they’re doing. They’re killing people in Arab
Mr. Ahenakew, 68, once headed Canada’s largest Indian
organization, the Assembly of First Nations. He made the remarks after
addressing a meeting of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, a group
he once led.
We all know people who make irrational or insulting remarks
that seem designed to provoke a reaction. Ahenakew’s ad hominem attack on a race
and religion of people, its lack of balance and fairness, caused a furor that
has cost him his whole political standing. It augurs well that this was so, that
many major Indian leaders denounced the bigoted statements and that Ahenakew has
been forced to resign all his posts.
- In the U.S., a column by Native
writer and commentator Delphine Red Shirt, Oglala Lakota, now a resident of
Connecticut and affiliated with Yale University, has raised serious concern. Red
Shirt directly attacks the Indian peoples and nations of that state. Red Shirts
lets it be known she doesn’t "like Connecticut’s definition of ‘Indian.’ It
"offends" her to have come east to find "how an Indian is defined" in her new
home state. "Why? Because I am an Indian. I grew up Indian, look Indian, even
Delphine Red Shirt’s approach is troublesome. The flurry
of responses has begun. Hers is not an unusual opinion about racially mixed
Indian members of federally recognized tribes, in eastern states as well as in
western states. Ms. Red Shirt may have an attitude formed in the particular
definitions of Oglala districts and political affiliations, still sometimes
dictated by degree of full-blood to mixed-blood relations. But she bemoans and
dismisses a reality - inter-marriage - that has already come to her tribe and
all Indian peoples.
Rather than besmirch another Native people and
enlist on the side of denial and anti-Indian forces, a more proper question
might be: who ultimately will have the right to define our grandchildren,
whether they will belong to us or not, regardless of "race?" Will it be us, as
grandparents in common, or will it be a racist federal policy designed to divide
and conquer nations of human beings like so many cattle breeders?
Shirt’s approach would also appear to break a well-established traditional rule:
be careful how you judge tribes other than your own. Denial of another people’s
identity is always dangerous ground. Red Shirt paints with a wide brush. Eastern
tribal leaders who have delivered on the aspirations of several distinct tribes
and who have sought federal recognition since way before the gaming era, she
describes as, "speculators and opportunistic individuals forming … questionable
‘tribes’ … for mutual gain."
Indian commentators, from Navajo Nation to
Oklahoma and Washington, have denounced Ms. Red Shirt’s approach. It has not
washed well that an Oglala, particularly one carrying the respected Red Shirt
name, would come into another Native people’s territory and - under her own
construction of a blood-quantum guidebook - declare them to be frauds, to the
astonished glee of every anti-Indian politician in Connecticut. Kevin Gover
called it, "the unkindest cut," as unnecessary as it was
The Connecticut tribes’ fortuitous success does not in
itself cause problems for other tribes - including the Oglala. Ms. Red Shirt
could just as easily focus on the positives such as the potential visibility,
economic opportunity and added political clout that Indian tribal peoples are
gaining in common.
We urge the greatest caution upon Indian commentators.
Indigenous identity is complex. We must fight vigorously for our own, but we
should uphold universal human values that respect all peoples. We can not
tolerate or perpetuate bigotry on another people, if we would not have it
perpetrated against ourselves. Words hurt. And ignorant ideas can cause a lot of