Monday, October 12, 2020

against both Columbus Day and Indigenous People Day, the statue toppling in Portland of Lincoln and Roosevelt can be a reminder that no American heroes will be heroes to all Americans

Complaining that Columbus was a bad man is more than merely a fad because the vices and hubris of Columbus and the Spanish royal family would be hard to argue against in the twenty-first century ... but I don't see that alternately proclaiming an Indigenous Peoples' Day has any value since it is, of necessity, parasitically dependent on the pre-existing federal holiday. That Columbus Day is paradoxically a victim of its own success probably doesn't matter to people who have settled in their hearts that Columbus' legacy in the Americas is only bad and yet, well, here we are. If you live in the United States right now and you're not 100% Native American able to chart your ancestry down to an unbroken line of never-married-non-Native-peoples-even-once-in-five-centuries then you exist in the United States because, at some point, people who are now identified as "white people" show up.  

Not that they were necessarily that kind of white back then since the concept of whiteness has evolved and changed to the point where Italians and Irish got added into the mix which would not have been taken seriously in the days of, say, Abraham Lincoln or even Teddy Roosevelt, whose statues have been knocked down by protesters, apparently, in Portland as of last night. People from the Mediterranean didn't get viewed as white for quite some time.  Not that anyone has any reason to care what I think but I suggest the day get retired, whatever it is called.  

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/12/us/portland-lincoln-statue-roosevelt.html

A "day of rage" is a useless gesture and, if anything, gives 45 even more ammunition to agitate his supporters into action. This is the kind of thing that John Halle seems to have referred to off and on as "gifts to the right" made by progressives or people who think of themselves as left. Tawna Sanchez and others could point out, besides the fact that tearing down statues and damaging property isn't the same as going through democratic processes, there's also another point, which is that now is not the best time to take a symbolic action that, we're talking about tearing down a Lincoln statue, could just as easily have been done by neo-Confederates who think Lincoln was a power-made bloodthirsty war criminal.

That the Spanish empire did the worst of the European colonial powers as they expanded into the Americas was a point David Treuer mentioned almost in passing in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Treuer's perspective is unique inasmuch as he openly stated he regarded Leonard Peltier and Russell Means as better at publicity than at accomplishing anything in terms of political reform. For a swift and deliberately iconoclastic take on post-1890 Native American history Treuer's book is only partly iconoclastic. You're not going to read someone who thinks Chief Joseph was a bad guy (and those who think the Nez Perce were indisputably involved in the Whitman massacre are likely to never read a book by Treuer anyway).  But what he does mention, often in passing sentences, are the extent of alcoholism drug use and sexual abuse that permeates reservations in the present.

Talking about the real sins (I'll just call them that because that's what they were of Columbus may be necessary, but Sherman Alexie had maybe too much fun pointing out that the noble Native American who was in touch with the land and communed with nature and never sold out neighbors to white settlers to settle disputes of resource access and certainly didn't own slaves was a figment of white progressive imagination.  

That the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest practiced slavery has been pretty well-documented.  That when Americans discuss slavery they tend to only discuss the chattel slavery of Africans brought across the Atlantic and not Native Americans enslaving each other, blacks, or even errant white sailors (a tribe in the Pacific Northwest enslaved some Russians, for instance) is, perhaps, to be expected.  The Hollywood version of American Indians has more use for them now as victims of white colonialism than as having played any role in any kind of slave trade.  

The tribes of the Pacific Northwest are of some interest to me because my father was from one. I did not end up learning about the slavery practices of the PNW tribes through my American Indian relatives.  I found out about it through a lengthy article over at Slate.  

I am openly skeptical of all variations of the idea that "racism=prejudice plus power".  The prejudice is sufficient unto itself.  Am I really supposed to believe that, say, a Native American man who habors contempt towards migrant Latino agricultural works and views them as job-stealers is only racist if he has power?  The verbal sleight of hand that would say "yes" as the answer to that question is dishonest at best.  That Native Americans have been screwed over by the United States through every branch of government, but particularly by Congress and even more, in some ways, by the Supreme Court, can be looked up.  That, as David Treuer pointed out in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, Nixon turned out to be one of the most pro-Native American executives the United States has ever had doesn't often come up in mainstream discussion.  That  may be as good a transition as any to get to why protesters would, on the eve of Columbus Day/Indigenous People Day, decide to topple two specific presidential statues.

First, Lincoln, the Dakota 38, for those who don't know ... 

https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/28/us/dakota-38-anniversary-trnd/index.html

That the number to be executed went from 300 down to 38 is likely never to be the point of a protest in which someone topples a statue of Lincoln.  Whatever heroic status Lincoln may have for African Americans on account of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was not necessarily a hero to Native Americans.  The "Five Civilized Tribes" sided with the Confederacy because they were concerned about rumblings post 1860 that slavery was under threat:

Pres. Abraham Lincoln may have offered "charity for all" in his second inaugural address, but the federal government showed little of that disposition when dealing with the Indians. U.S. officials tried to force a harsh peace on the tribes at the Fort Smith Council in September 1865, but it was rejected by the tribe's leaders. Treaties were finally signed in Washington, D.C., in 1866. The Five Tribes lost the western half of Indian Territory to Kansas tribes, slavery was ended, freedmen obtained citizenship and property rights, and the tribes had to permit railroad construction in the area. Indian Territory was now unofficially called Oklahoma, and while the government did not impose a territorial organization upon the land, the tribes agreed to work toward having a governor and an intertribal council. The pre-war status as separate, independent nations was expected to end.

The tribes unsuccessfully attempted to reclaim the advances made between 1840 and 1860. Although wartime animosities flared between the old Confederate and Union factions, new governmental entities were formed as a spate of constitution making occurred between 1867 and 1872. Railroads penetrated Oklahoma in the 1870s, but in some ways their arrival was a curse rather than a blessing, for they brought whites seeking land.


As noted years ago in another context:

Indian Slavery in the Pacific Northwest (Northwest Historical Series XVII)
Robert H Ruby and John A Brown
The Arthur H Clark Company, Spokane, Washington
copyright (c) 1993 by Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown
ISBN 0-87062-225-0
from footnote at the bottom of page 35
...
In early October 1861, at the beginning of the war, part of the Osages, Seminoles, Shawnees and Quapaws signed treaties with the Confederacy as did the Cherokees on October 7, 1861. William G. McLoughlin writes that all southern tribes practiced slavery and, that they allied with the Confederacy, and "seeking desperately to maintain a social status above that of Negroes, had rapidly developed the same attitude toward them as [did] ... white[s]." The United States, which had provided protection of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chicasaws and Creeks, withdrew its troops. Few tribesman retained their loyalties to the Union, most having espoused the Confederate cause. Yet, influenced by the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) the Cherokee Nation severed ties with the Confederacy and abolished slavery.  The subsequent 13th Amendment, which prohibited slavery in the United States, included persons of African and American and mixed descent.  "The Choctaw Slave Burning: A Crisis in Mission Work Among The Indians," 124-126; Cohen, Handbook of Federal Indian Law, 181-182.

... and they got screwed over anyway.  Then again, if you read the Oklahoma history link noted above the loathing full-blooded Cherokee had for the half-bloods was (and likely still is) a point of tension that will also not come up in the back and forth between advocates of Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, although as my dad once told me, there was never really a pan-Indianist movement that really took shape.  David Treuer has proposed that Native Americans haven't needed a Martin Luther King Jr. and that lawyering up and learning the laws the better to get them overturned or finally enforced has been the more profitable (literally and figuratively) way to go. 

To making a glancing allusion to Adolph Reed Jr's The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, someone like Jackson could draw upon the role of the black churches and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to parlay that history into a platform for political activism and agitation.  But such a gambit presupposed a monolithic black identity that Reed, for anyone who has read his work to almost any extent in the last forty years, questions.  To put it favorably, a pan-Indianist movement has lacked an inspirational and singular figure. To put it unfavorably, a pan-Indianist movement has not taken shape because the hundreds of Native American tribes all got screwed over by the federal government, state governments and local municipalities in myriad ways that are not amenable to being simultaneously addressed by a single charismatic demagogue.  

Do Native Americans need such a singular figure?  Since I'm at most half-Native American because of my father and half white I suppose that pure-bloods, whether by blood quantum (its own story I won't get into here) or association, might venture to say "no".  But then, in the Pacific Northwest, purity of racial lineage was not exactly the highest priority since Alexandra Harmon chronicled that inter-tribal and inter-racial marriage as a form of diplomacy was fairly commonplace.  Native and non-Native relations with the "King George men" (i.e. British were a little fickle but peaceful and stable, certainly compared to Native relations with "Bostons", United States speculators and land developers who sought to build up and build out into the Pacific Northwest.  I've picked up a couple of Harmon's books that I plan to get to.  Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History is on my to-read list, as well as Reclaiming the Reservation: Histories of Indian Sovereignty Suppressed and Renewed (Emil and Kathleen Sick Book Series in Western History and Biography).

In many respects, the more I learn about Pacific Northwestern Native American tribes the more it seems their history, fraught as it is, was not necessarily the stereotypical or Hollywood-makes-movies-about-this level of atrocity or tragedy.  Sure, Smoke Signals got made but Smoke Signals was a road movie and a buddy movie and a comedy with some dark undertones about drunk fathers and racism and "White man's independence day" added. But Alexie's star has dimmed in the last few years. It may be that our celebrity-making system can make ... celebrities of all sorts of people ... .

So we've looked at why Native Americans from a particular range of tribes might find Abraham Lincoln to be a villain rather than a hero> What about Theodore Roosevelt?  

https://www.history.com/news/teddy-roosevelt-race-imperialism-national-parks

https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/theodore-roosevelt-the-only-good-indians-are-the-dead-indians-oN1cdfuEW02KzOVVyrp7ig

Roosevelt's public track record on Native Americans was not exactly shiny. Theodore Roosevelt's meeting with Booker T. Washington was, of course, the subject of Scott Joplin's first and lost opera, A Guest of Honor.

For a survey on what an author proposes are the highs and lows of the executive branch of the United States with respect to Native Americans and associated policy you can read here.

https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170123

https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/barack-obama-and-richard-nixon-among-best-presidents-for-indian-country-bJnChvj2_EKI5u8jISt1Hw

Or as some relatives reminisced, Nixon may have been a paranoid power-hungry racist SOB who disliked blacks and Jews but for American Indians he was actually one of the best Presidents the United States has had.

But that's the kind of history that doesn't necessarily matter in Portland, Oregon.  Nobody is going to celebrate Richard Nixon's Native American policy legacy because within the grand schemas of American civic religion Nixon, if he has any good points, isn't to be remembered for his Native American policies and if he doesn't then his racist views toward blacks and Jews, his and his cabinet's handling of military actions in southeast Asia and corruption mean that there's nothing good he might have done that could be considered like setting up the EPA or OSHA or firming up Native American sovereignty. In other words, in terms of America political mythology as civic religion, Nixon was stil going to be the devil until ... well, probably now.  At least one of my liberal friends expressed some paradoxical nostalgia for the Nixon administration for having 1) set up the EPA 2) OSHA and 3) showing some diplomatic acumen opening up talks with China and 4) at least having enough of a conscience, however seared, to resign rather than have a "bring it on" attitude to impeachment displayed by subsequent executives.  

So I can understand, having a half Native American lineage, why protesters in Portland very specifically targeted Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt statues for toppling ... if we're only considering why two presidents who would normally be considered among our best presidents could be singled out as evil.

The problem is ... well ... at the risk of writing as someone born and raised in Oregon, this is Portland.  Portland is the city full of assholes compared to many other places in the state.  It's the mean city, if you will.  There's a joke that old hippies don't die they just move to Eugene.  That the whole state was founded as a kind of white supremacist zone that simultaneously banned slavery and denied blacks citizenship is its own whole separate topic but there was nothing surprising about a big uptick in white supremacist violence in Oregon after Trump got elected.  Perhaps too many Portlanders have never actually grown up in Oregon to get around to learning that there were plenty of racists from Missouri who made there way to the Oregon territory.  But that's the thing about racism, what kind held by which people toward which group?

It might also be as bad a time as any to consider that from some Native American experiences the whole idea of reparations is kinda terrible.  Take the land, try to exterminate the people, deprive them of their languages, ban their religious practices, compel them to assimilate and when they don't assimilate rework all of the laws at hand to make sure that they're simultaneously denied any legal right to probate processes and compelled to fractionate what lands they do have so as to make an acre of land owned in the early 20th century by Native Americans owned by so many people that land ownership is categorized in percentages such as "2% or less" and "5% or more". And after all that folks might discover that the EPA has declared whole swaths of land to be federally protected old growth so that logging or mineral extraction aren't even legal but, hey, the Indians "own" the land.  But where the reparations came in was in the policy to terminate the reservations and pay out a lump sum to people whose lands would just become part of the United States.  There are some who believe the reservations should no longer exist.  Well, as Nixon put it, the policies of termination and reparations were disastrous and harmed Native American people and involved avoiding honoring treaties made by the United States with sovereign tribes.  

In other words, there's room within Native American experience to point out that reparations are what Uncle Sam pays you after having taken everything else.  If someone were to propose, for instance, that reparations were paid to slave owners after the Civil War that does not exactly mitigate the point.  The sharp edge of the knife is that the federal government paid reparations to people whose position was not regarded as legally significant enough to matter beyond a one-time payment that "settled" the past injustice.  If even Nixon could see that this approach was morally dubious as policy with respect to Native Americans it may be some background of interest to more contemporary debates about reparations.  The history of racist policies in the United States has often been cast in literally and figuratively black and white terms but there are other ways of examining the history of racist policies and legacies.

Which ever nexus of racist policies we're looking at, a "day of rage" is an idiotic thing to do in connection to Columbus Day which, as I've said at the start, is a federal holiday I don't really see needs to exist but I don't see a need to transform the day into a pretext for a "day of rage".  Still less do I see any need for people who dissent from 45's take on just about anything to take the bait by denouncing Columbus.  Look, as I wrote earlier, unless you're 100% Native American with unbroken ancestry going back for centuries and you live in the United States the reason you're even alive and here has at least something to do with Columbus.  None of us chose to be born. Other people made the decisions that led to us existing without even necessarily being able to think of us. Presidents are like that and they can simultaneously be monsters and heroes.  

To be a President of the United States is to take a role that by definition involves the power to make decisions that can kill thousands and tens of thousands of people right on through to potentially rendering the entire planet uninhabitable for human life. That's what is involved in being Commander in Chief.  The older I get the more delusional it seems that anyone, male or female, who would actually want that role should be someone we should regard as heroic. That would be a reason why some Christians consider it not only dubious but terrible for Christians to even want access to such power, let alone actually use it.  

I don't mention that to invite a debate about that set of topics, I mention it to highlight that people who want to topple a statue of one president for crimes can topple them all but the question that cannot be answered with any affirmative is "Who on earth can be expected to do better?" Does knocking down statues accomplish the civic religious exorcism that people may or may not believe can be accomplished by vandalizing or knocking down statues?  I remember the story of Dagon cast down with his head and hands cut off from Samuel-Kings ... so I can get why for some hurling down statues, even in an ostensibly secular time such as ours, can be people who believe in their true civic religion casting down the evil old gods in favor of ...  whose statues are going to inevitably be erected in those vacant places?  

Given the legacy of Native American slavery practices I just don't see, even being half Native American myself, that merely celebrating an Indigenous Peoples Day as an "opposite day" counter to Columbus Day accomplishes anything other than the kind of feel-good-ism that Americans could probably have a whole lot less of.  The one could not even exist without the other. The blood on the hands of Columbus would seem like a reason to never have a day commemorating him to begin with rather than a day that is supposed to subversively "flip the script" by being Indigenous Peoples' Day.  

Getting back to those toppled statues, Lincoln and Roosevelt have been, for understandable reasons, regarded as heroic presidents.  Even if I know about the Dakota 38 and TR's racist views about Native Americans I can see how and why they could be regarded as heroes and not in some excusing "they were men of their time" way.  Years ago I threw a little haiku into a post.

heroes are monsters
whose use for their cause outweighs
observable vice

Now maybe we're in a moment where the vices of even our heroes can't be overlooked ... but if that were true ... so, no, I don't get a general sense that's where people in the United States really are at this point.  We still venerate monsters because their usefulness for whatever cause outweighs their observable vices.  That is, when we speak of human flesh and blood, what any hero or heroine or heroic monster is.  Where Indigenous Peoples go we've reached a point where David Treuer could ruffle feathers by pointing out that Leonard Peltier was a violent man and that even if law enforcement did handle his case badly the reasons for Peltier to be on law enforcement radar could still be very real.  He could also declae on page 354-355 of Heartbeat) that: 

To me, the shootout at the Jumping Bull compound and Anna Mae Aquash's murder can't be justified as an expression of AIM's (often violent) direct action, their street theater, their agit-prop. It was just violence, the result of violent men who didn't want to go to jail. Many Indians muttered under their breath that "AIM" really stood for "Assholes in Moccasins." Nevertheless, a kind of cult worship, largely by white people, grew up around the AIM leadership. Also, partly as a result of Peter Mathiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, [Leonard] Peltier was transformed into a sympathetic warrior whose only crime was defending himself agianst a tyrannical government. Russell Means, who was charged with domestic abuse by his Navajo wife (and who also allegedly beat his father-in-law), went on to write a book, Where White Men Fear to Tread, and to play Pocahantas' father in the Disney movie and Chingachgook in The Last of the Mohicans. Dennis Banks continued to work as an activist and published a memoir, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement. Shortly before his death from pneumonia at age eighty, Banks was asked by a reporter about whether he ever advocated for killing someone he "knew for certain" was a traitor to AIM. He said, "I don't know if I would participate in some sort of getting-rid-of-the-person. But I would say, `Take care of this.' Or, `Take the guy out, and I don't want to see him again." The reporter followed up and asked specifically about Ray Robinson's murder. Banks said nothing. ...

Men who were lionized as heroes by an earlier generation of Native Americans and whites could be viewed in a more recent time as violent men who wanted to avoid going to jail for their violence. Whatever you think about Lincoln and Roosevelt as heroes in American civic religion does anyone on earth have a plausible case for why, in place of their statues, we should put statues of Peltier, Banks and Means as being more "worthy" of statues?  People make statues of heroes, that's what people always do. If someone admires Chief Joseph that's great.  He's got a statue.  Do the AIM leaders even come close to measuring up to someone like Chief Joseph?  Not likely. David Treuer's perspective may be a dissenting on on the subject of AIM leadership but his dissent sticks with me the day after statues of Lincoln and Roosevelt have been toppled with "Dakota 38" painted at the toppling scene. 

Should we talk about the Doctrine of Discovery as a background to Western European colonial and imperial expansion?  Sure!  I just alluded to a book I plan to get to reading discussing that topic.  Writing as a Christian with Native American ancestry I'm aware that there have been Native Christian authors who have proposed that there are ways to follow Christ that don't involve a colonial default, such as Richard Twiss.  The uses of religion for the sake of civic religion has a lengthy history everywhere and that often civic religion warps religious practice toward brutal geo-political ends is something that can be affirmed from left to right and center.  All of that said, I don't see the value in "a day of rage" and I don't see the value in toppling the statues of Lincoln and Roosevelt, either.  Ecclesiastes 7:20 warns "Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins." There are better people and worse people and there are even monsters but no one who never sins.  As Treuer's book reveals, and he's admitted that among Native Americans his is a minority opinion, the heroes of the AIM movement are simply not people we should regard as heroic. If we're not going to celebrate violent men who used violence to get things done then if we're not going to celebrate Lincoln or Roosevelt, okay, I get that ... but then let's not celebrate Peltier or Banks if we have Native ancestry, either. Not everyone, or even many, among Native Americans and Native-descended people agree with Treuer's withering appraisal of the AIM celebrities as publicity seekers who were basically thugs ... but such a dissenting voice from within Native American literature is something on my mind this particular day.  

It wasn't that long ago Sherman Alexie was a literary hero among Native Americans and now?  There's been talk of how he had an outsized and harmful influence in Native American literature but who made him the star that he was?  Who made him the literary idol he was before people decided his work was problematic in light of his conduct?  A whole lot of us who have alternately been disappointed by how he decided to use his celebrity or concluded that, for instance, somehow, white patriarchy was behind his being able to have such outsized influence.  For the record I think the former explanation makes more sense of how BIPOC celebrities abuse people than theories about white patriarchy.  Or as David Treuer has put it, recognizing that Native Americans have been royally screwed over by white people in the United States doesn't change the reality of how rampant alcoholism, drug addiction as well as domestic and sexual abuse are in Native American communities.  Or as Sherman Alexie quipped in response to a question about whether any American Indians complained about his depiction of alcoholism on reservations, "No sober Indian ever complained about it" to paraphrase.  

And now that it's come to light what a former literary hero among Native Americans decided to do with his celebrity that seems like a chastening realization that when the shoe is on the other foot "we" are not guaranteed to do better than "they" did.  People can knock down a Lincoln or a Roosevelt but are the designated heroes of Native American groups really an improvement if, per Treuer's dissenting voice, a Peltier or a Banks are still viewed as heroes over against the FBI?  It's possible to look at what happened and to have an Ecclesiastes 7:20 take that there were definitely villains and victims but perhaps no heroes to praise.  

There aren't any arrests as yet of the people who toppled the statues in Portland but the weird and kind of terrible irony of toppling a Lincoln statue over the Dakota 38 is that many a Klan member probably wanted to topple a Lincoln statue for very different reasons.  Whatever form of protest against Lincoln's treatment of Native Americans involves, knocking down a statue is the kind of performance art I'm afraid I've come to expect from Portlandia, whether done by Portland residents or others. Keep Portland weird if you must ... but even Klan members and white supremacists have their own reasons to view Lincoln as a villain.  At least try to find a way to protest the lethal policies the U.S. enacted toward Native Americans without inadvertantly invoking political theater that can overlap with an anti-Lincoln stance that you would object to if you knocked the statue over for anti-racist reasons.  

The internet being what it is ... I'm going to exercise the liberty of not allowing comments on this one. 

No comments: