Friday, August 16, 2019

an older piece by Melanie Benson Taylor at LARB on the ways in which liberals and conservatives use Native Americans as a political football without regarding more detailed histories

Melanie Benson Taylor wrote a piece a few years ago at LA Review of Books that sparked my interest in books by Alexandra Harmon, a scholar who has written books about Native Americans and law with a considerable specialization in Pacific Northwest Native American groups.  Her book Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History is on my to read list.  MBT wrote about how there is a stereotype regarding Native Americans liberals tend to have and it would be hard to do better than quote her.  If you've read Sherman Alexie's old riffs on how white progressives fabricated an imaginary perfect Indian who was in touch with the earth and didn't own slaves and wasn't killing rivals for fishing and hunting resources you will already have a general idea but ... :

Indians have simply functioned far too long and incoherently as ciphers for anti-establishment and anticapitalist idealism, and not just for white liberals. The phenomenon has been a national tradition of sorts at least since the Boston Tea Party, when the aggrieved subjects of a fledgling nation donned Mohawk disguises to toss their pecuniary burdens into the sea. Twenty-first-century Tea Partiers similarly protested Obama’s tax plan while garbed in homemade headdresses, warpaint, and signs that read “On Warpath Against More Taxes!,” “Paleface Taxes Too High,” and “Let Little Brave Keep Wampum” (this last directive affixed strategically to the shirt of a protester’s young child). Indians have been irresistible victim-symbols for anybody who wants to join a struggle against colonial-capitalist aggression.

But Indians have always been held to unfair standards of representation — expected to function as foils for not just our hopes but our deepest fears as Americans. While liberals have understandably partnered with the indigenous cause at Standing Rock, conservative pundits leaped at the chance to condemn Native Americans for their inveterate decision to stand as outsiders of polite society.

That Native Americans can be treated like a political football whose utility more or less begins and ends with their relevance to white establishment figures finding them useful is something I've noticed over the last twenty years to slow and steadily increasing annoyance. I'd write more about that if I felt like it but I don't, not for this post. 

...Our unwillingness to see these histories clearly prevents us from more balanced acts of contemporary witness and coalition. We have barely acknowledged the fact that many Native Americans and their tribes did not board charter buses to North Dakota, but have instead hitched their own wagons to the new administration, eager to see if the president’s commitments to self-determination will extend to Indian sovereignty. [emphasis added] Tribal leaders from the Navajo Nation, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and the Tlingit-Haida of Alaska have all voiced enthusiasm for the administration’s stated goals of energy development, job creation, and educational reform. Several Oklahoma nations have requested meetings with the new president to discuss ways to work toward their common objectives.

Trump’s own history of casino ownership has proven especially appealing for tribes keen to launch their own gaming enterprises, such as the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts, who have struggled to develop their first casino since winning a protracted federal recognition battle in 2007. In a statement posted on the tribe’s website, Chairman Cedric Cromwell announced, “The president has vowed to put America first. We are poised to assist the president in turning his words into action.” Jason Giles, member of the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma and executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, likewise announced, “We’re going into this with open arms.”
These open arms have managed to shrug off Trump’s abundant incendiary remarks about Native Americans, including repeated references to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.” More insidiously, Trump’s advisors have announced a plan to privatize oil and mineral extraction on reservation lands, which would essentially eradicate nearly a century of federally protected tribal sovereignty. Such a move promises a legal firestorm far more sweeping and enduring than the DAPL conflict. And yet, despite obvious opportunities for exploitation, the increased competitiveness could actually benefit many tribes’ coffers.

One of the proposal’s main supporters is Markwayne Mullin, co-chair of Trump’s Native American Affairs Coalition — himself an enrolled Cherokee tribal member. What drives such partnerships, ultimately, are the more immediate and tangible prospects of economic and social development in indigenous communities plagued by inordinately high poverty and crime rates, or very simply looking for their belated opportunity to take back and get ahead in ways that privileged Americans cannot always comprehend, and certainly should not judge.

Whether those tribes still find the Trump administration promising here in 2019 ... would have to dig a bit on that.  I'm reminded of something a relative once said about family land on a reservation ... the short version is that thanks to federal prohibitions on developing rainforest/old growth forest, there was basically nothing much that could be done to cultivate the resources.  That might be for reasons going as far back as the Burke Act and Dawes Act in terms of fractionation of land ownership but I digress. 

I recognize that there are a variety of cases to be made that Trump is a racist and so he may be ... but Native Americans could still, with a somewhat long memory, point out that Woodrow Wilson sure was a racist, and so was Theodore Roosevelt when it came to Indians.  It's not that racism is some positive thing as that contemporary criticism of Trump for his racism can present it as if it's more unique than it has historically been, on the one hand, and on the other the real sting in the assessment has more to do with the mind-numbing power of surveillance and executive power available to the President in our era ... although at that point the question as to why it's terrifying for Trump to have such power that Obama had tends not to come up ... which is one of a variety of reasons why I have begun to distinguish between liberal, left, and progressive writers and thinkers since 2016. 

Even though I've tended to think of myself as moderately conservative (and a friend of mine in my early college years went so far as to tell me I was a conservative in an Edmund Burke form) I can be sympathetic to progressive writers and thinkers who argue that the United States should embrace the application of the ideals expressed in the founding documents..  Contemporary narratives that put a great deal of emphasis on the white supremacist aspect of the founding of the United States are not wrong to point out that aspect ... if we're talking about pressing for the implementation of policies that let American citizens benefit from a more just and consistent observation of policies that express egalitarian ideals ... but if the rhetoric starts and stops at America being founded upon white racism because slavery this roughly half Native American will disagree. 

There was plenty of slavery practiced by Native Americans for centuries before whites showed up.  It's not even exactly the case that all processes of Native and white trade and relationship played out in the Hollywood tragic sense of mythology.  A lot of bad happened but, here in the Pacific Northwest for instance, Natives could practice forms of slavery that whites found ghastly but whites and Natives, in the earliest stages of interaction (aka in the Bostons and King George men phase, for those who have read on this topic) people could sorta mostly get along, give or take some tense confrontations. 

All that is to say that I have found it annoying that the kinds of folks I've run into online tend to be red state or blue state in ways where all too often the often implicit reason they bother to invoke Native Americans at all is as a trump card for their own ideological and political commitments.  Or as Adolph Reed Jr. has been putting it, there's a type of anti-racism as ideology that is not concerned with practical policy goals or political activity so much as expressions of righteousness on the part of people sufficiently enmeshed in establishment strata to want to feel good about themselves.  Reed was writing about how a Ta-nehisi Coates can be annointed as a thinker for his case for reparations regardless of whether or not the policies even happen, but I'm thinking of how the relevance of such a criticism could be applied to white liberal and conservative invocations of Native American history as a merely axiomatic rationale for commitments they are already settled on even if there was no Native American history to consult. 

In sum, conservatives annoy me by invoking Native Americans as a case study for why government involvement is prima facie bad.  A bit too often it's a specious nature of the invocation--there's a difference between saying that the United States government ignoring and violating treaties is bad and saying that the United States government taking any regulatory action of any kind is automatically bad. 

Liberals, however, are not necessarily any better.  Native Americans who exist at such times as Democrats are angry about voter suppression activities that they believe could cost them elections are not necessarily expressing anger because they have necessarily done things for Native Americans.  As Sherman Alexie used to complain, the average Native American can be much more socially conservative than the most socially conservative white guy, it's not a foregone conclusion that people of color will lean Democratic because the party machinery assumes such should be the case.  Native Americans were willing and able to fight in most of the wars conducted by the United States even when they had neither citizenship nor legal rights other groups were, from time to time, able to bring to bear on court cases.  In other words, it's one thing for liberals to say it's awful the United States broke all its treaties with Native American peoples and another to actually let them cut down their own trees and mine their natural resources that may be barred from extraction due to environmental protection policies.  As recently as the 1970s American Indians got arrested for fishing and hunting on their traditional lands in the Pacific Northwest, i.e. Washington state, one of the bluest of blue electoral regions. 

Now there can be stuff from the realm of critical race theory I find interesting to read from time to time.  There's a piece at Mere Orthodoxy with a title that invites readers to consider an irony, that white supremacist ideology began to be formulated by Spanish and Portugese imperialists and colonialists in the fifteenth through sixteenth centuries, but their forms of whiteness and white supremacy steeped in a Catholic cultural milieu of colonial expansion were overtaken by more Anglo-Saxon forms of whiteness and white supremacy, leading, over the centuries, to an ironic development in which Latin Americans and Latino populations are viewed as not white whose forebears first formulated why they thought whites were superior to aboriginal Americans and Africans.

But this gets into a blunt, indelicate matter, that when people argue that America's original sin involved native genocide and mass slavery this is lately cast in literally as well as figuratively black and white terms, per Adolph Reed's criticism of the ideological cast forms of anti-racism take in his reading of Coates.  There's a propensity to view racism within the binaries of oppressor and oppressed which has some value but which can ignore that the legacy of the Spanish as imperialists and colonizers is the most ghastly when it comes to Native Americans--the English and the French could be bad but compared to the Spanish they were far from the worst.  The trouble is that accounts of racist animus against Latino populations on the part of Anglo-Saxon whites in the United States can't entirely ignore the Spanish legacy of attempting to exterminate Native Americans along the southwest coast of North America, or can they? 

The victims of racist ideology in one context can be ghastly perpetrators of it in another context and it is this aspect, in particular, that can seem to get glossed over in popular level journalism that aims to have a conversation about race.  One of the pastors at my church shared in a sermon how he grew up hearing that whites treated blacks terribly and though that was assuredly true he was confronted with the reality that black animosity against Asian Americans was also something real needing repentance from.  In my own experience I've heard Native American relatives regard Mexicans as more or less job-stealing rapists so as unsettling as that kind of talk is it's important to remember that being part of a people historically exploited by people in power shouldn't exempt us from examining racial prejudices in our communities.  We can replicate the evils brought upon us in how we attempt to address what we regard as evils.  I want to avoid that.  I can affirm both that Native Americans in the region I've lived in were treated badly by whites via state and federal government while also affirming that their practices of slavery were ghastly and inhumane and that I'm glad those practices were ended.  But I can also have some appreciation for how white-Native relations here in the Pacific Northwest are, in some good ways, not like the stereotypical understandings of white-Native relations so often recounted in popular imagination and popular culture from the legacies of other Native groups in other regions.  More on this, I hope, later.

The older I get and the more I read the more I find myself annoyed by liberal and conservative whites attempting to shoehorn Native American histories spanning the continent over the course of millenia into a one-size-fits-all age of Trump master narrative.  I couldn't be a pure-blooded Native American or white person if I wanted to and I emphatically don't want to.  Fortunately that's moot.  But within the context of contemporary racial discourse, to borrow from Adolph Reed's work a bit more, there's a sticky wicket in that Native American people from the Pacific Northwest don't necessarily always "read" as that to people acclimated to discussing race histories in terms of plains Indians or Indians from the Texas region or Indians from the New England area or California.  As I've been slowly getting into some of the scholarly work on Pacific Northwest tribes in the last few years I might end up writing other things later but, for now, this is more of a simple post of frustration that when I look at how white liberals and conservatives make use of Native Americans it's ... just shameless. 

As John McWhorter has put it about the kind of anti-racism he's been seeing in the last few years, the problem with this approach is that it time and again shows that it's not people really being involved in concrete ways to make things better for people who have been discriminated against as it is about certain types of white people wanting to feel good about themselves and their current political commitments.   American Indians lived through the era of Woodrow Wilson and they'll make it through the era of Trump ... and it would be nice(r) if white liberals and conservatives could dial back the apoplectic apocalyptic panic mode a bit in invoking Native Americans for causes that ... I sometimes feel are mercenary clickbait. 

There's a book or three I hope to write about later after I've finished some more reading but tonight it's about time to wrap this post up. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Inspiration porn" is a term used by people with dwarfism to describe the phenomenon of being out to dinner or whatnot just living their lives, and someone who doesn't have dwarfism will come up to them and clutch their heart and tell them they feel so inspired to see them out. It's probably a term used by other groups as well. Being part Lakota and painfully aware of all I have been saved from by Jesus, I'm ready to use the term myself when I encounter non-natives who "feel inspired by" things in my community and background that need redemption, not enshrinement.

Some of the thoughts here made me think of this, even though "political footballing" is a different animal. The bottom line is using others is always wrong, for whatever purpose. The law and the prophets all hang on the two greatest commandments. Love doesn't ever use.