Next month a researcher named John Sanchez will be in Helena explaining the way the media represents American Indians (spoiler alert: they present them as existing primarily in the 19th century). However, two recent news stories, one symbolic, one practical, may remind people like Coobs that America’s first people are still here, and they still have rights.
First, the symbolic: Obama has reversed the Bush position opposing a UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. How can we as a people oppose the cultural destruction of Tibetans or Kurds while at the same time tolerating calls to fully assimilate our own natives, whether they like it or not? I fully support easing the road for those Indians who do wish to assimilate, but this declaration, though non-binding, reminds us that we nonetheless have obligations to those American Indians who choose to take advantage of the cultural autonomy granted them in their peace treaties with the United States.
Speaking of our legal obligation to American Indians: on Dec. 8, Obama signed the settlement of Cobell v. Salazar, a case involving the chronic mismanagement of Individual Indian Money accounts. The money won’t go out right away, but when it does it will be real money – 3.4 billion dollars. Moreover, the majority of that seems like it will be used to improve the efficiency of tribal resources; 60 million will also go into a scholarship fund.
This is also important for another reason – it points out to people who argue for treating Indians just like anyone else because what’s done is done and after all, we won the wars, that there were two levels of immorality in the USA’s dealings with American Indians. There was the standard storyline – a strong culture encounters a weaker one and takes from them everything they can. In this way we are hardly unique, particularly for the time period.
But the Cobell case exposes part of our second layer of misdeeds towards the American Indian tribes – we cheated them in ways that violated our own laws. From the Trail of Tears to our broken treaties and mismanagement of Indian funds and lands, the United States has consistently violated its own laws, principles, even the Constitution in our dealings with the tribes. It brings to mind words Frederick Douglass spoke about African Americans that apply equally to Indians: “We shall neither die out, nor be driven out; but shall go with this people, either as a testimony against them, or as an evidence in their favor throughout their generations.”
Hopefully with these developments we can start to build some evidence in our favor in the face of the overwhelming history of allowing greed to trump even our most cherished principles in our dealings with American Indians. We can only claim loyalty to rule by law and a written constitution if we take seriously our own transgressions of the same and do everything we can to rectify them.