~ Nita Pomeroy
It was about 1978 or ‘79. We were living at
the time in Page, Arizona. My husband had
qualified as an EMT and worked with the
volunteer fire department. This particular call
came in late in the evening and involved
picking up an inebriated Navajo woman who
had been raped. Guests at a motel had
witnessed it and called it in. It was a difficult call to answer.
Apparently, a group of homeless Navajos had been drinking together just outside of the town’s boundary, in an area adjacent to a motel. A woman drinking with them was raped. I no longer remember if she was unconscious or very intoxicated but still conscious. I don’t remember if she fought against the man. What I remember is the consensus that the tourists should have ignored the situation and that the Navajos involved just gave the town a bad name. That they should have gone further from the town limits. That the EMT’s had to use the one way filters on the masks because there was so much TB on the Res. All in all, the concern wasn’t for the “drunk Indian” woman’s welfare, but for the town’s image, the fire department’s scarce and expensive resources, the EMT’s time gong out on a call when the people involved “would be back out there” in a matter of days.
Even now I still remember how disconnected I felt when I heard about it. The strongest emotion I felt was puzzlement: I knew something wasn’t right in my reactions, about the reactions of the EMT’s involved. To this day I cannot summon up outrage over the incident. And this is one of the problems faced by Native Americans as they try to negotiate life both on and off the reservation. The overwhelming and immense apathy and denial of the dominant culture, the Whites, surrounds their lives and holds them hostage. A recent incident occurred which demonstrates this problem of invisibility.
On Saturday, May 1, 2010, a group of Lakota Sioux had gathered on the grounds of Wounded Knee in anticipation of a ceremony to remember their relatives who had been murdered by the 7th Cavalry on December 29, 1890, or who had somehow survived it. Talk was passing among those present that the military was going to show up and the question on everyone’s mind was why the military was coming and what they hoped to accomplish while there. Suddenly, three transport helicopters were flying in a straight line towards the people gathered around the Killing Grounds. One helicopter landed and within seconds people were surrounding it, telling them to leave – which it and the two others did. The people gathered around where the helicopter had landed, determined to prevent any others from landing. Obviously upset by the appearance of the helicopters and the landing of one helicopter on their sacred grounds, some were moved to speak out angrily. Others just watched in silence, a silence with a protective, angry and defiant stance to it. One fellow, demonstrably and understandably angry, loudly denounced the military presence on their sacred grounds.
This essay is not so much about the happenings at Wounded Knee, but the subsequent lack of any news about the incident at all. I happened upon the news about Wounded Knee while I was looking for something else. I clicked on it and listened to a recording from earlier in the day of the wait for and then the arrival of the army helicopters.
What happened on May 1 was of immense brutal import to the Lakota Sioux gathered at Wounded Knee expecting to talk about their relatives who died at or who survived the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Yet there was no mention of it on the national news airing either on Saturday or on Sunday. Early in the following week, on Monday or Tuesday, there was little mention of the incident, and the articles which focused on a Native viewpoint were few. The Denver Post article was written from a pro-military viewpoint. On Narcosphere an article focused on the deterioration of news reporting techniques, used the reporting of the 2010 incident at Wounded Knee as an example. An important point was made that the articles mentioned did not use first hand corroboration of the facts but rather relied on second- and third-hand accounts of the day’s activities. One was an article reported to CNN Online by Sarah Johns (CNN Online allows unverified articles to be posted by the general public). Two articles were in papers with a Lakota focus, and there was one by Russell Means but not printed by a major newspaper or magazine. I used Google and searched “Wounded Knee May 1 2010 helicopters”, using those words in a variety of combinations, and I found nothing in any major newspaper to indicate anything out of the ordinary had happened on that Saturday. All this is to underline the apparent invisibility to the American public of issues of great importance to Native Americans.
Another of these issues is the systematized discrimination to deny American Indians their civil rights. As late as the 60’s and early 70’s the Navajo in Apache County, Arizona, were prevented from voting by being given a section of the U.S. Constitution to read and explain as a test of literacy – yet white people were not given the same test. Such an incident was related to me in the mid-1970’s by a white woman who witnessed it. While at the County Recorder’s Office to register to vote, in line in front of her was a Navajo woman in traditional dress trying to register to vote. The clerk handed the woman a passage from the Constitution and asked her to read and interpret what the passage said. The Navajo woman looked at the document and then turned and left, still not registered to vote. When the White woman stood before the clerk, no such passage was given to her to read and interpret. When the clerk was asked why not, an unsatisfactory answer was given, one which said the White woman was not given the test because she surely was educated. There were many such stories in the media at the time, you are thinking, so what is the point? The stories we read about were about African-Americans being denied the vote. That is what got the attention -- blacks in the south, not Navajos in the West. And especially not Navajos living on or near the Reservation and applying to vote in such small rural counties as Apache County, Arizona.
Yet another example of the problem of invisibility came about when MTV aired an episode of the Dudeson’s titled “Cowboys and Findians.” Native Americans immediately protested the segment, calling the nation’s attention to the racist episode. They approached MTV asking that the episode be removed from viewing and not to be allowed to re-air under any circumstances. MTV’s response was dismissive of their concerns. Even after many letters protesting the episode by AIM Santa Barbara, the NAACP, BICONA (an organization of Black Native Americans), additional AIM Chapters and numerous citizens of many ethnicities, the episode remains a part of MTV’s programming. The only response I have seen from MTV claimed that it was just light-hearted humor. Blackface, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Tonto, Squaw, Frito Bandito, Aunt Jemima, Little Black Sambo were all declared racist and removed from television and advertising, yet MTV failed to understand the same brand of racism when applied to Native people. Interestingly, MTV Canada removed the episode in question when it was brought to their attention.
Another incident movies and actors involved Adam Sandler and his Netflix movie “The Ridiculous Six.” A group of Native actors protested the demeaning and disrespectful names and behaviors in the script. At one point, someone involved in the dispute discreetly caught part of the discussion with the producers, in which a female producer comments that this group of Indians is well-liked, but the other group of Indians is not. This is not at all reassuring: how does it feel to know you are liked but your brother is not? This is the typical “divide and conquer” colonial strategy.
But that is not the only disturbing aspect of the film. Women and elders are disrespected as are sacred ceremonial objects. The female characters are given names such as “Sits On Face,” “Beaver’s Breath,” and “Wears No Bra.” One of the women takes her “peace pipe” with her when she goes behind the Tipi to urinate. As a woman, I am deeply offended at the use of such names for other women. It is not a source of humor but a source of degradation and it is intended to disrespect and minimize persons of the female gender. As a person blessed with some sensitivity to the sacred, to things of a deep spiritual nature, to see an object with such great spiritual power as a Canupa treated with such great disrespect makes me sick to my stomach. When objects of a spiritual nature are treated in a profane way it causes a sickness in our spirits. The entire film, “The Ridiculous Six,” is a demonstration of that sickness.
Native Americans also face apparently sanctioned harassment from the dominant culture. I say apparently sanctioned because the harassment is allowed to continue, it is not prosecuted, and in fact, Native Americans frequently find themselves targeted for increased incidents of harassment not only from the offenders but also from law enforcement if they file formal complaints. An excellent example of this is reported by Wanbli Gleska Tokahe who uses the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, SD, to illustrate the depth of the problem. Native Americans frequently find themselves the target of the motorcyclists’ ridicule, theft, and physical assault ranging from spitting, hitting and slapping, to motorcyclists attempting to run them over. Native persons working on highway crews also find themselves targeted for abuse at the hands of motorcyclists, who seem to consider themselves above the law and who do such things as refusing to wait for the pilot cars to finish leading traffic from the opposite direction and take off or refusing to heed the flag-person’s directions. Complaints to law enforcement have proved not just unsuccessful but have appeared to result in increased harassment from law enforcement. Local officials, excusing their failure to respond appropriately to complaints, have cited the large sums of money to be made from the rally as the reason for their inaction. What price do we place on human dignity and safety?
This rally is held on land that has been held sacred by Lakota people as well as other tribes, and has been in continual use for sacred ceremonies since before contact. During this motorcycle rally men and women expose their genitals and their buttocks indiscriminately. Many are scantily dressed, if they are dressed at all. Sex acts take place publicly. Rape, murder, and lesser crimes increase significantly. And it all happens on sacred ceremonial grounds. This behavior would never be tolerated in any church, cathedral or temple, yet it is allowed to occur repetitively in an area which should be respected for the spiritual significance it has to Native People.
Perhaps the most prevalent invisibility issue is what Blacks referred to as “passing.” This meant that phenotypically, or on looks alone, an individual looks White and out of a desire to fit in, a desire to avoid persecution, assumes the mantle of White culture. It is a way to hide in plain sight. For Natives this meant a denial of Native culture and traditions, language and customs. One friend told me of his Grandmother, who was brutally bullied at school because she was “Indian.” She would never speak of her traditional roots, but he said she showed them her family’s traditions in other ways. For others, it was a total denial of their Native blood. My Uncle’s Mother denied totally and absolutely her Native blood. She was a White woman, who happened to have a maiden name which reflected her true roots. Yet, probably for reasons of acceptance, self-preservation, and to avoid the pernicious racism against Indians which was deeply ingrained in Southeastern Arizona, and which is still active even in today’s “enlightened” times, she absolutely and totally denied any connection to her roots. This is invisibility chosen purposely to protect one’s self against the hatred and prejudice of small minded people who wielded the social power to ostracize and make miserable the lives of those deemed unworthy, as less than.
Recently, there is a very powerful movement near and on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Initially, it was a small encampment of people trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from cutting across treaty land near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, and going underneath Lake Oahe. Lake Oahe is the source of clean water for Lakota on the reservation and surrounding areas. Originally passing near Bismarck, the location was changed due to public outrage at having an oil pipeline pass so near a populated area. So it was moved to within a half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where it threatens widespread contamination of drinking water when the pipeline leaks. For if there is one thing that we can be sure of, it is not if a pipeline will leak but when.
Because this movement is determined to protect their water source, they named themselves the Water Protectors. Many people became aware of through the action of these brave few who started the movement. Many people watched as the few took the stand against the large corporations determined to ignore the needs of the people, to ignore the treaties our government made with the people, just so that they can make billions of dollars transporting oil. Thousands of people came. Over 400 native nations were present during the protection action. Jeanne Dorado goes on to say, “…’ Native folks … [a]re just done. We've played the game… Now we're all sick, now the planet is dying, now we're running out of natural resources. Now I think it's time to listen.” 1
The action at Standing Rock was a big deal in more ways than one. The obvious ways were the numbers of people who became involved and the diversity of those who were involved in an action taken to protect the water. Water that we all need to survive. The dark side to this action is that it seems to have assuaged the guilt of us white people: look at all the things we did to help at Standing Rock! The problem is that there are so many other places that need protection, that need the same kind of action that we began at Standing Rock.
Here is a brief list:
Continue At Standing Rock
Trans Pecos Pipeline
Sisson, New Brunswick, Canada
Keystone XL Pipeline
Restoring Salmon Runs in Washington, Oregon, California and other states in both US and Canada
Uranium Mines And Tailings On Navajo Reservation
Those are just off the top of my head. I am very interested in these issues, yet I don’t hear much about them. I have to proactively seek out information. How many more have occurred, are occurring, will occur without our even hearing about them?
Invisibility, as a tool of social control, is powerful and effective. While the energies of Indigenous People are diverted to the struggle for recognition and acceptance, these same people cannot fight against the tyranny of poverty, unequal access to education and employment, the denial of their civil liberties and the failure of having treaties honored, to name a few of the more obvious injustices faced by Native People.
NPR In Their Own Words: The 'Water Protectors' Of Standing Rock. December 11, 20161:57 PM ET. ARIEL ZAMBELICH. CASSI ALEXANDRA.
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