Thursday, September 04, 2014

Forgotten Tragedy

Fall is in the air. Tomorrow is supposed to be the last AC-day of the summer around here and professional football arrives this weekend. It's the time each year when I'm ready to admit that the catastrophe of US race-relations reached it's absolute nadir in our treatment of African-Americans - then the NFL kicks off and I'm snapped back into reality.

Think of it this way: I can't even type n----r on the internet without getting onto some terrorist watch list, let alone emblazon it on the premier sports franchise in our nation's capital. The same is simply not true for Native Americans.

Yes, yes, I know some native people aren't offended by the name and are proud to have their legacy and tradition remembered in Washington (although I thought that was what the beautiful and profoundly moving National Museum of the American Indian was all about). But seriously, when do we let democracy (or even a small minority) dictate the words we consider appropriate or polite?

Yes, that previously mentioned n-word fell out of favor largely through public pressure. It turns out when segregation ended and lots of people were regularly having conversations and relationships with angry black people, it was more difficult to use insulting, offensive names for them. Go figure.

I suppose a similar campaign would have worked for Native Americans, except while we were busy raising the percentage of Americans who were black from zero to fifteen percent, we were also making the native population 99% smaller. Most of us don't know any Native Americans because we've largely confined them to small tracts of otherwise useless land, which we proceed to ignore, allowing the reservations to languish in poverty and substance abuse in out of the way places we'll never have to go. And this is the best our relationship with Native Americans has ever been. Let me repeat:

And this is the best our relationship with Native Americans has ever been!

I'm young enough to have lived through a relatively fair portrayal of the native place in US history throughout my education (which includes a top-notch undergraduate degree - in history, no less - from a great institute of higher learning). Thing were not whitewashed.

Still, when reading the under-appreciated classic, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I was faced with a more intimate and detailed portrayal of this sad relationship. It should probably be required reading for Americans at some point in our public education (it's at least as important as Romeo and Juliet, which I had to read three times in school). This episode in US history recounts only the third generation of engagements between white settlers and Native peoples (the first two were, in order, virtual extermination and a series of forced death marches).

I'm not sure what spurred my desire to write a lengthy post about our forgotten national embarrassment - probably guilt - I mean, I feel so woefully incapable of even beginning to figure out how to address such injustice and perhaps telling others about it helps in some strange (largely selfish) way.

We lost Richard Twiss last year - a great Christian leader and advocate for Native American reconciliation - when I was only beginning to discover his wisdom and hope. I have at least one friend working on initiatives with and among native peoples - but it really isn't like we can just walk down the street and volunteer. It's one of those problems that deserves more attention than it gets, but is also so incredibly wrong that hope seems distant if it exists at all.

We live in a world where reparations for slavery are largely dismissed as fantasy; just imagine similar compensation for Native Americans? We might as well just hand over all the shares of the Fortune 500.

At the very least, it seems like we could put the most visible symptom of this ongoing tragedy in better perspective. It's great that a few writers and broadcasters will try hard not to say the nickname of Washington's professional football team on the air. It really is. But, honestly, given the history (and I mean the full history, not the history which only goes back to the team's founding - I think we can all agree the name was far more culturally appropriate then than now), couldn't we hold ourselves to a slightly higher standard? The vigor of the owner's intransigence is really more Donald Sterling than crazy uncle. Shouldn't this be more of a thing?

Think about it this way: if Uncle Ben can get a makeover, if Aunt Jemima can go from this

to this,

then surely we can do better than Chief Wahoo.

(Who is, somehow, impossibly, MORE racist than the original.)

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