The Tragedy of the (Native) Americans and First Nations

Sometimes you don’t really think about an issue for some time, and then someday someone starts mentioning it, almost off-hand, and before you know it the issue is everywhere. Its weird how that happens.

This happened to me just this week. In passing, the issue of the indigenous people of the Americas came up. I woke up this morning to a Canadian friend bubbling with pride about the actions of the Canadian First Nations, and then I later recieved an email alert about actions in the South Dakato reserve of Pine Ridge, where a group of activists became vigilante and attempted to ban alcohol from the reserve due to the negative impact alcohol was having on their people. The police arrested the activists.

Growing up in Bermuda, which did not have any indigenous people, although two of the Sea Venture shipwreck survivors were natives from the Jamestown colony area, I think the Powhatan tribe, and prisoners of wars between the colonialists and the indigenous people were also sent to Bermuda, famously in St. Davids, I am pretty ignorant of the history of these people. I even used to play ‘Cowboys and Indians’ and reveled in the Westerns. When I went to university I came into contact with these people, and they ceased to be mere abstracted names read of in novels or briefly in history accounts. Trent, my university, has a good program focusing on these people, their history and the problems besetting them. My residence, Otanabee, is taken from an Ojibwa (I think it means a kind of fish), and most of my classes, apart from labs, were in the Wenjack Theatre, named after a Charlie Wenjack, a native student who suffered under the now defunct racist and abusive Residential School System, and died trying to escape them. Trent also has a well-renowned Native Studies program.

So, I quickly learned quite a bit, and was politely but firmly informed by an Iroquois friend that the words ‘Indian’ and ‘Mohawk’ were not politically correct. I generally refer to the indigenous people of the Americas as First Nations or Native Americans, but I mean no disrespect if these terms are not PC; please let me know if they are okay.

I never really took any Native Studies courses, but was friends with several who did, and also covered some of the same material in my Anthropology courses. I also learned some history in my free time, largely as follow up research to Engel’s work ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.’ I also came to get to know a few of the people whose reservations straddled the Canadian/US border, as well as activists who I came in contact with in my general left wing activism. I remember a particular stormy meeting in Toronto between a number of Canadian socialist and student groups discussing a proposed common position on Quebecois sovereignity. Some groups were adamant against Quebecois independence, but were cool with a better federated system, others advocated complete right to self-determination. Naturally, it seemed, the point came up that whatever position taken on Quebec should be the same as that for the groups position to First Nations rights. This right away proved an extremely contentious issue, with some of the most ardent supporters of Quebec independence becoming the most ardent opposition to First Nations self-determination. I don’t recall any consensus resulting from this, and it would’ve gone to a majority vote after three attempts at consensus, but unfortunately I cannot recall the result. It did strike me as an interesting debate though, one I had never thought of before. I recall speaking on the issue, as a delegate from Peterborough. I recall stating that of course the position in relation to Quebec should be the same for the First Nations, I didn’t see that there was any difference. I remember accusing some of those present of unconscous racism in regards to the First Nations in that they saw the two issues as totally different ones. I also remember saying that our issue was to form a common front, our focus was on a socialist federation, but we could not force anyone to stay in the federation, but if everyone was treated fairly, and the necessary systemic reparations committed to to repair the injustices of the past, the issue of separatism would become a non-issue. Thats all I can reallt recall from that event.

On another note, I do recall from that period my discovery that many of the ‘reservations’ in the US and Canada amounted to Third World enclaves within the richest, most developed nations on the planet, and that always really blew my mind. I was reminded of this after Katrina blew into New Orleans. People were shocked to realise that in the US there could be ‘refugees’ (they started to use Orwellian doublespeak after and came up with some other name for them) and Third World conditions in the US. Many people had known there were such conditions, the ghettoes of America for years, but those that knew were mostly the people of the ghetto, and ‘mainstream’ White middle-class America was shocked as they were forced to acknowledge that such things really did exist. Of course, nothing is being done to change the situation in the ghettos, and even less is known, let alone being done, about the deplorable conditions facing the Native Americans there either. Not to mention the essential genocide of the Native Americans over the centuries of European colonialism, the survivors suffer today from systemic poverty, with all the repercussions that go with it (alcoholism, for example), compounded by racism or general indifference from the rest of the North American population.

Anyway, as I’ve said, I really don’t know enough about the issues involved here, but in light of todays events in Canada and South Dakato, and its relevance to a general critique of racism and systemic social oppression, I thought it would be a good thing to see if others had any thoughts on the issue. I look forward to an education, and I will post comments on here as I learn.


One thought on “The Tragedy of the (Native) Americans and First Nations

  1. Good stuff John, as I’ve told you, this is an issue close to my heart, being American Indian myself. If you ever want to know anything more I can provide you with lots of info on the topic.

    I have lots of stuff on the American Indian Movement, of which I am a member, and have lots of stuff on the history, including the book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”

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