This is where I talk about Native American themes. No, I’m not Native; I’m just your generic white guy. That said, I have lived and worked in indigenous communities for a significant portion of my life, so I have a few thoughts on the subject. Whether or not they are worth considering depends on who you ask.
Indigenous communities in Alaska are just like those in the lower 48!
…only not at all.
Seriously, there are some significant differences in the way these communities are defined, along with their relationship to the rest of us. I got an interesting glimpse into the differences one day about a decade back when I and a colleague were asked if we could find a local elder willing to meet by teleconference with a college class from a tribal college in the lower 48. We put the meeting together and it went really well.
But one moment from that meeting has always stayed with me.
One of the students from the outside college asked how the elder and others in the Inupiat community here on the North Slope of Alaska deal with oil companies. The elder said something to the effect that you needed strong leadership that could articulate the needs of his own community to those companies. His terms were pretty general, but the student seemed quite satisfied with his answer.
The thing is; I am pretty sure the student was asking out the local community protests with oil companies. I’m also, pretty sure, the elder was thinking about how the local community negotiates a deal with them. To be sure, that negotiation process too could involve active opposition, but for the elder in question, that kind of opposition was by no means a forgone conclusion. He was at least as concerned about a share of the profits as anything else. I do think opposition was for the student; it was the only thing he could imagine an indigenous community would want from an oil company. I don’t think either of them realized they were not really talking about the same things.
I hadn’t been here that long and so I wasn’t sure about this impression, and I really didn’t think these guys needed a white guy appointing himself as a translater anyway.
So I hesitated.
…and the moment quickly passed.
Over time, though, I’ve become even more convinced that my initial impression was correct. Of course, we can find differences between different indigenous communities in other areas, and even between different leaders in those communities. That’s not entirely new, but at least at that moment, I am pretty sure that the prior assumptions of the students in this class and those of the elder were sufficiently obvious to each that they didn’t feel the need to clarify their intentions.
But I really don’t think they were on the same page.
In my last post, I wrote about the notion of outer space as an extension of the western frontier in American popular culture. I mentioned in passing the connection to Native Americans and the dispossession of their lands. As a follow up, I thought I might comment on a little story connecting all three themes in one narrative.
“When NASA was preparing for the Apollo project, they did some astronaut training on a Navajo Indian reservation. One day, a Navajo elder and his son were herding sheep and came across the space crew. The old man, who only spoke Navajo, asked a question, which the son translated: “What are the guys in the big suits doing?” A member of the crew said they were practicing for their trip to the moon.
“The old man got really excited and asked if he could send a message to the moon with the astronauts. Recognizing a promotional opportunity for the spin-doctors, the NASA folks found a tape recorder. After the old man recorded his message, they asked the son to translate. He refused. So the NASA reps brought the tape to the reservation, where the rest of the tribe listened and laughed, but refused to translate the elder’s message to the moon.
“Finally, NASA called in an official government translator. He reported that the moon message said: “Watch out for these guys; they’ve come to steal your land.”
It’s a great story, but if you’re like me, you have to spend a moment or two wondering whether or not it’s true. Turns out, the answer is ‘no.’ According to Snopes, the joke appears to have come from Johnny Carson. It was part of his monologue on July 22, 1969. Of course it is possible, that Carson’s writers picked it up from an earlier source. There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence for it.. In any event, there is no record of this with NASA or any of the other Federal Agencies that might have been involved at the time. So, the story is very unlikely to be true.
It’s damned telling that the Carson camp thought to put this joke together back during the days of the space race. They clearly got the connection between the western frontier and the space program. They even got the violence implicit in westward expansion. They got all of this in the service of a joke intended for a mainstream American audience.
These weren’t activists; they were comedy writers working on a relatively non-partisan show, and they decided that it would be funny to compare the Apolllo moon landings to the dispossession of Native Americans. Judging by the longevity of this gag, it would appear that they were right.
The thing is, this joke is only funny if people get the connection between exploration and colonization, if they know that someone planting a flag in ‘new’ territory has generally meant someone else gets screwed.
It’s almost as if awareness of systemic racism isn’t limited to critical race theorists.
We celebrate, William Seward, the man who arranged the purchase of Alaska from Russia here in Alaska. We celebrate this man on the anniversary of the signing of the deal he made with Russia.
Not everyone celebrates this date, of course. Some folks question whether or not the Russians could have sold all that land, much of which they were nowhere near controlling in the first place. But in the logic of collective fictions like nation states, it would seem the move has stuck, to to speak. There are those who mourn the consequences, and I’m told some folks in Russia still wonder how the Hell that happened themselves. At the end of the day, this still ends up being a day off work.
Okay, I am still working today, but since a lot of my coworkers aren’t, that means fewer meetings and I can focus on the things I want to, which is a kind of holiday for me. Also, it means I have a little time to knock out a quick blog post.
I’m told the rest of America was doubtful about this purchase at the time it was made.
Something about “Seward’s Icebox” or “Seward’s folly?”
Then again, some folks make way too much of a political cartoon; others have never figured out the difference between a catchy byline and the substance of an editorial. Writers took their shots and indulged in snarky quips back in the day just as they do now. It doesn’t mean they didn’t see the potential. The historian Richard Welch did a pretty good job of showing that public opinion was nowhere near as negative at the time of purchase as people typically assume. Still, it takes a touch of conflict to draw people into a story and the notion that Seward saw something in this state the rest of the country didn’t sure makes for an interesting first act. I suppose the third act in that version of story is statehood.
Or maybe the opening of a Walmart.
Or a Fred Meyers.
There are plenty of other ways of telling stories about the purchase of Alaska. One of my favorites can be seen in the Saxman Totem Park, just south of Ketchikan.
I posted a picture of it last year, right about this time.
…probably not a coincidence.
Okay, so this pole may not be exactly about the purchase of Alaska, but it’s certainly purchase-adjacent. As to Seward’s Day, it’s right on point.
This is known as the Seward Shaming Pole. In fact it’s the third version of that pole, as the first two have succumbed to weather and termites. This version of the pole was completed just a few short years ago (2017). You can google up the earlier versions. As I understand it this one has its critics among the locals owing to the absence of certain features included in the earlier versions. I’m told a coat of white paint on the face was among the expected features. I only have this by word of mouth, so I’m not entirely certain what to make of it, but the differences do seem quite significant. In any event, this is the current version of the infamous Seward Shaming Pole.
What makes it a shaming pole?
Convention of course!
By ‘convention’ I mean the conventions of the Tlingit people. You might think of his piece as fitting into the totem pole genre within their own cultural order.
Hints that this particular pole is meant to shame rather than honor its subject are contained in the box upon which the figure of Seward sits and the red in his ears. (That red stood out more in previous versions.)
The red, I’m told signifies embarrassment.
Well that is loot!
Specifically, that is loot packed away in a bentwood box, one of the varieties of artwork thriving in the northwest coast cultural complex. In any event, the point is to suggest that Seward took a pile of loot off with him in the wake of a visit to the region.
How did he get the loot?
It was gifted to him in a potlatch ceremony, another of the cultural practices common to the southeast cultural region of Alaska.
So, what makes these gifts loot?
Because Seward never threw a potlatch of his own to compliment the one thrown for him.
To say that this is unacceptable is putting it mildly.
Emily Moore tells the story better than I could, but the essential details are this. William Seward came to visit the region in 1869. He was welcomed with a potlatch by Chief Ebbits of Tongass Village. As a leader of the Taant’a kwáan Teikweidí clan, Ebbits welcomed Seward according to local custom, granting to Seward the honors due to a another great leader. A feast was give in Seward’s honor and gifts were given to him. Then Seward went on his way.
It’s the going-on-his-way part that is a problem here.
The trouble is that a potlatch is not normally a one time affair. It is a gesture in an ongoing relationship. Once given, it is expected that a complimentary feast will be given to reciprocate the first. Doing so is a matter of obligation, and failure to do so leaves an imbalance in the relationship. It’s tough to tell what Seward may have thought himself, but for their own part Chief Ebbits and his clan most likely felt they were initiating a permanent relationship. When neither Seward nor any of his family ever showed up to answer the honor given to him, this cast the entire relationship in a negative light.
As this particular potlatch was given in honor of Seward’s role in leadership of the United States, the failure in this instance represents more than Seward’s own failure, it is a failure of the United States to acknowledge to live up to its obligations to Tongass Village and to the Tlingit people.
Some might be inclined to extend that out to Alaska Natives in general.
This is the history commemorated in that pole.
In another sense, this is direct commentary on that question about how two nations could swap lands neither one much to do with. If the purchase of Alaska is a done deal, so to speak, it is a deal done by two nation-states. The pole is a reminder of those not present when the deal was made, those whose own acceptance of the deal we celebrate today has been taken for granted all-too-often by the nation which acquired Alaska by means of it.
What I am talking about here is a landmark piece of legislation, known as the Blue Lake Amendments, which was signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970. The law returned Blue Lake, along with its watershed to the people of Taos Pueblo, in effect placing roughly 48,000 acres under trust title for the benefit of the Pueblo. This rationale for doing this was explicit; this was done because it was deemed the only effective means of protecting the religious freedom of Taos Pueblo and its people.
Congress placed 48,000 acres of land under trust title because doing so was necessary for the protection of religious freedom.
To fully appreciate this, you have two wrap your minds around two things (at least by my reckoning);
it isn’t clear that Native American peoples practice ‘religion,’ or at least that this term with all its Euro-American baggage can be applied to any aspect of Native American society without distorting a few things in the process.
Prior to 1970, Native Americans simply did not enjoy religious freedoms, and the elders of Taos Pueblo had been especially targeted for abuse on the basis of religious practices.
Is that a contradiction?
To say that Native Americans don’t necessarily have religions, then to say that their religious practices have been attacked?
But only because language is a tricky thing.
The first point is a question of social morphology, i.e. the language we use to chop up society into meaningful chunks of related activities. As it has typically been defined in western traditions, religion is a function of what you believe. Your membership in a given faith is a function of your decision to affirm or deny its tenets, and you religious practice is largely a function of prayer. Church may be a good place for prayer, but prayer is something you can do yourself.
As to the role of priests, mileage varies.
My point is simply that the concept of religious freedom has developed in a tradition in which religion is defined largely in individualistic terms. We can see how religion influences art, education, politics, and so on, but we can usually find some means of separating what counts as religion from what counts as the rest. It’s a lot harder to do this with Native American societies in which ceremonial participation was typically a function of community membership. Rather than helping Lutherans distinguish themselves from Methodists, etc. these ceremonial systems were historically much better suited to uniting communities, at least for a moment of social interaction. The practices in question are accordingly ubiquitous. Native ceremonial themes pop up in their politics, their art, their kinship, their hunting and farming techniques, etc. This is why the establishment clause was omitted from the Indian Civil Rights Act. It’s also why the word ‘sacred’ has become a highly over-used buzz-term in Indian-white relations. It’s short-hand for “this is important,” and for; “You guys probably wouldn’t understand.”
I think you could honestly say that Native American societies do contain almost everything we typically convey with the term ‘religion.’ What I don’t think we can say is that they isolate those elements of religious meaning from other aspects of their social life. This makes it kind of difficult to think about religious freedom in the context of Native American social practice.
Course it helps if you try.
Which brings us to point number two, which is that for most of United States history, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thought about any aspect of Native American life in terms of religious freedom. Few in Native American circles seemed to try the argument, and fewer still outside those circles were prepared to respect those freedoms, or even to recognize them as such. When the office of Indian affairs turned its attention to cultural warfare instead of literal shooting wars, one of the first things they did was to formulate the religious crimes codes outlining punishments for Native American religious practice. This was all part of the effort to ‘kill the Indian’ in order to ‘save the man,’ so to speak, but for the present, the point is that government officials deliberately sought to punish Native Americans for practicing heir own religions. They even used the word ‘religion.’
The word ‘freedom’ didn’t enter into it.
It’s hard to say just how much these rules were enforced. It fell upon indigenous judges to do this, and it should surprise no one if more than a few of those judges found reasons not to. What we can say is that Taos felt the sting of these codes well into the twentieth-century, In the 1920s, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Burke had a number of Taos elders locked up on the authority of the Religious Crimes Codes. He was particularly outraged that they had taken children out of the schools for purpose of training in the ceremonial kivas.
Somewhere between the 1920s and 1970, the political climate in America had changed sufficiently that same government which had once locked up Taos elders for practicing their faith (and in particular, for teaching it to their children) was now prepared to protect the religious freedom fof Taos people, even to the extent of making claims on a rather large tract of land.
Significant changes in Federal Indian policy combined with shifts in the national culture may have helped the case for return of Blue Lake, but much of the credit would have to go to the Taos people themselves. Their own response to conflict over the lake forged much of the logic for return of Blue Lake to their land base. Arguably, their decisions also transformed the way that native and non-native alike came to view a range of issues now commonly thought of as involving matters of religious freedom.
The trouble began in 1906, when…
No, it began before that.
The trouble began with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. This treaty concludes the Mexican-American war. Its terms include cession of lands to the United States, including present-day New Mexico, and it also includes guarantees that pueblo land grants within New Mexico would be recognized and protected by the United States. Unfortunately, Blue Lake was not in the land grant for Taos, a fact which had never been much of an issue under Spanish or Mexican occupation. As Americans began settling into the area, the lack of title would soon become a problem.
This brings us back to 1906.
In 1906, the Federal government placed Blue lake and the surrounding lands under the control of the Forest Service. Today, some will tell you this is when the trouble began. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t seen as trouble at the time. An informal understanding with administrators in the Forest Service served for a time to help protect the lake from outside encroachment. It wasn’t until later, with changes in local administration, that this legal status became a problem.
What made it a problem?
It was a problem that the forest service clear-cut a section of land within the watershed.
It was a problem that they stocked the lake with game fish for sport fishing.
It was a problem that they built a cabin by the lake.
It was a problem when they allowed visitors into the area.
None of these things were consistent with the Pueblo’s own use of the lake which was largely centered around ceremonial practices carried out at the lake at specific times of the year. The Forest Service was implementing its own multiple use policies and planning long-term harvesting of the trees, consistent with the conservationist policies of the era. Such practices threatened the pristine environment critical to the significance of the lake in Taoseño cosmology. These changes were already too much. Who knows what could happen next? So, the Pueblo began to seek return of Blue Lake.
The campaign to secure return of Blue Lake was a long haul. It took many twists and turns, not the least of them being an effort to bargain with the Pueblo Lands Board (in effect, conceding interest in lands held by non-native squatters in exchange for a recommendation that Blue Lake be returned, …the concession was accepted; the recommendation was not made). Somewhere along the line, there was a cooperative agreement with the Forest Service, but that didn’t work out. When the Pueblo won a case before the Indian Claims Commission, they side-stepped the financial compensation to which they would be entitled, seeking instead to secure the return of Blue Lake and its watershed. This was not within the mandate of the claims commission, so the Pueblo turned to Congress.
This is where the argument for religious freedom came in.
(Believe me, I am skipping a lot of great detail here.)
In their dealings with Congress, lawyers working for the tribe began making arguments for the return of Blue Lake based on an explicit appeal to the principle of religious freedom. The people of the Taos Pueblo needed exclusive access to the lake and its watershed to perform the rituals central to their religious practice. It was, so the argument went, their church. Even the need to explain all this placed a double-bind on the tribe, however, because much of the religious symbolism of the lake and the ritual performed there was secret, being known only to leadership in the kiva societies. As each of these societies was responsible for different aspects of the ceremonial system, this meant nobody within the Pueblo had full knowledge the matter themselves, let alone some outsider. Explaining the details of the ceremonial sustem to outsiders would violate their religious interests as effectively as preventing access to the lake. This was a problem that cut both directions. If providing this information was a threat to the religious freedom of the Pueblo, failure to do so was a problem for Congress. They had to be sure they were acting on good faith claims. The solution took the form of outside experts. Anthropologist John Bodine, was particularly helpful in outlining the significance of the lake for the Taos people to the satisfaction of Congress.
To be clear, this was a hard sell. Some folks balked at the notion of 48,000 acre church, let alone one that could not be fully explained to outsiders. Additional concerns were raised about other indigenous peoples with sacred sites of their own. What sort of precedent would this set? All of these questions and more stem from the uneven fit between indigenous ceremonial systems and mainstream American ideas about religious freedom, but how was Taos to answer them? How was Congress? A court might have addressed these issues differently. A court would have had to demonstrate its fairness to an opposing legal team, and a court would have had to think quite seriously about that legal precedent they were setting for future cases. But this was Congress, and Congress could set aside 48,000 acres without answering to an appeal or spelling out a precedent for the future. As a legislative body, Congress had more options than a court would, and that meant it could accept the argument for religious freedom as the basis for a one-time decision.
One-time deal, or not, Blue Lake was a precedent in the moral sense. It established the principle that Native Americans were entitled to religious freedom, and if their traditions were more difficult to address within the context of American legal system, this was no longer an excuse for ignoring them altogether. Congress would later pass The American Indian religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), affirming the principle of religious freedom for Native Americans and arguably mandating that federal officials take that freedom into account in their own policies. This didn’t always go as planned. Courts had a way of finding against native claimants throughout the 70s and 80s, a pattern which included several cases involving sacred sites, and of course Scalia took a wrecking ball to the whole damned free exercise clause in the Smith peyote decision. Compliance with the AIRFA by federal agencies has been a mixed bag. Yet, even these mixed results are a marked improvement over previous eras. Lest this seem like faint praise, one has only to remember the crimes codes and the fact that it was once official U.S. policy that Native Americans could be locked up for practicing their own ceremonies. Today, the notion that Native Americans are entitled to religious freedom, just like the rest of us, is now commonly accepted as a given.
It was Taos Pueblo that brought made this possible.
What does a sacred site look like?
In this instance, it looks like a lake that most of us will never see.
That is a kind of religious freedom.
A note on sources: At one time or another, I read everything I could on this topic, but that’s ancient personal history. I wrote this mostly from memory, and from an old grad school paper, but my old files aren’t with me. As far as I am aware, the best single source to get a relatively complete version of this story here was written by R.C. Gordon-McCutchan, Taos Indians and the Battle for Blue Lake.
Regarding the pictures, I am still nervous about them. It wasn’t that long ago that visitors to Taos Pueblo were expected to refrain from taking them. A few years back, I remember being told we could take them for personal use, and the last couple times I visited, we were simply allowed to take pictures with no restrictions mentioned. I think I still refrained from taking any pics for at least one visit, and finally snapped a few pics. It is a really beautiful place though, and if it is now okay with the Pueblo, as I believe it is, I thought I’d like to share the few images posted here.
We Americans really love our independence, don’t we?
Or at least the thought of it!
Independence can be measured in any number of different ways, but in American politics, it typically means you earn your keep. Maybe you start a business and make a profit, or maybe you have a job and earn your pay, or maybe you speculate on the stock market (without or without the benefit of insider knowledge) and turn a profit without really contributing much of a product or service. Either way, the point is that we typically define our economic independence in terms the ability to pay our bills without asking for help (or at least not asking for that help through any medium short of the highest paid corporate lobbyists). Anyway, the point is, we pay our own bills right?
This is an incredibly ironic measure of independence.
This measure enables a real-estate tycoon to say that he built a structure when he didn’t lay a single brick. It also enables the average person to find shelter without building a house, to cloth himself without making the fabric or fashioning it into a shirt and pants, and it enables us to feed ourselves with all manner of meats and vegetables that we neither grow nor harvest ourselves. We have no idea where most of these things comes from or how it got to the stores where we bought it, not our food, our tools or any of the essential supplies we used for much of anything. Some folks may know a thing or two about fixing a car or building a table, but the fact remains that most people in the developed world lives our lives surrounded in mystery at the very nature of the stuff we use to get through the day. This we count as independence!
Because we paid for it!
It is ironic.
Contrast this with the indigenous peoples of the Alaska who until relatively recent history would have housed themselves, clothed themselves, and feed themselves. To varying degrees, many still do. In times past, the skills necessary to do so were common knowledge in any of these communities, and those skills turned what non-native Americans have typically called a ‘wilderness’ into a wealth of resources ready and waiting to be transformed into food, clothing, tools, and even housing. Small wonder that people so often described by outsiders as living in poverty would see themselves as wealthy. To someone without the skills to hunt, a caribou on the hoof is nothing until it finds its way into his freezer. To someone with the necessary skills, it is fine just where it is, at least until it is needed.
I do not mean to paint a utopian picture here, not by a log shot, but my point is that this is a very different vision of what it means to be independent. Here, the question is not whether or not you can pay for your stuff but whether or not your stuff becomes yours by your own hand, or at least that of your friends and family.
I also don’t mean to suggest that this is entirely unique to Alaska Natives. I reckon it would be true of indigenous people all over the world, depending to one degree or another on the impact of colonization.
One sees this conflict between a world of consumerism and a world of subsistence activities and play out quite regularly in the relations between Alaska Natives communities and outside institutions. Also in cultural conflicts between Alaska Natives and non-natives with or without the involvement of government entities. Sometimes, you have to look carefully to see it; sometimes, it is loud and clear for all to see.
The Barrow “duck-in” is one such time.
This story is told best by Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, I think, in her documentary, The Duck In. Michael Burwell’s article, Hunger Knows No Law, is also an excellent source. If the quick & dirty version I am about to offer interests you at all, then by all means, check out either or both of these sources.
In 1916, the United States entered into treaty with Governing governing the hunting of migratory waterfowl. A similar treaty was signed with Mexico in 1937. In 1918, Congress passed passed a law enacting the term of the first treaty into Federal law. This in effect made it illegal to hunt migratory waterfowl in the U.S. from March 1th, to September 1st.
Why is that a problem?
Because that’s when those birds are here on the North Slope of Alaska.
I mean a duck or two may head south a bit late, but no, for the most part, that’s when migratory waterfowl are present in this area. To say that hunting ducks and geese are a substantial part of the native subsistence economy is putting mildly. It does not appear that subsistence hunting was ever contemplated in the treaty negotiations, nor in the Congressional actions which codified the treaties in U.S. law. Both were intended largely as a means of controlling sport hunting, much of which would take place in the lower 48. So, a law passed for the purpose of controlling the leisure activities of weekend warriors who mainly feed themselves store-bought food had effectively banned the hunting activities of people who actually need that meat to get through the year.
Alaska Natives were out of sight and out of mind when the laws were made.
Luckily enough, they were also out of sight and out of mind (for the most part) for many years when responsibility for enforcing these laws fell upon federal officials. Thus selective enforcement helped to correct the errors of selective attention, for a time anyway.
When Alaska became a state in 1959, things started to change.
To make a long story short, state officials decided to enforce the law, even in the North Slope of Alaska. According to Burwell, some of these officials were convinced that the Iñupiat population of the north slope had become less dependent on hunting as local stores made produce available. The prospect that the Iñupiat community might be using the stores in limited ways while seeking to remain self-sufficient in others (and particularly, with respect to food) does not seem to have occurred to them. Resistance, they figured, they could be resolved by educating the population (which reminds me of the Navajo livestock reductions, but that’s a story for another post). In 1961, Wildlife officials began to arrest people caught hunting waterfowl during the proscribed period of time.
As it happens, that was a rough year for the North Slope insofar as the annual whale harvest had yielded only a two catches and other likely sources of game were not yet available.
…just the birds flying overhead.
To make a long story short, one of these agents, Harry Pinkham, emerged from his room at the Top of the World Hotel to find; “every man, woman, and child standing in front of my door with a duck in his hand.” Flustered to find an entire town demanding that they be arrested, he went to the local Magistrate Judge, a native woman, named Sadie Neakok (who provided the quote above). Neakok instructed him to follow the law. In all, 138 hunters self-reported their crimes and Pinkhman ended up confiscating 600 pounds of eider ducks (it took two separate plane trips to transport them out of town). State Senator, Eben Hopson (also a local Iñupiat) wired then Governor Egan to ask for welfare personnel to take care of the children once all the adults were taken into custody. Thus, what wildlife officials had hoped would be a matter of handing out fines and lecturing a few natives quickly escalated into a case threatening to overwhelm state resources.
Nobody actually spent time in jail for this, of course.
Instead wildlife rediscovered the virtues of selective enforcement, providing advanced warning whenever their officials were coming up to the North Slope and staying only for 3 days at a time. With these measures in place and well publicized, they really couldn’t have done much more to help hunters avoid getting caught. In time, of course, the laws and treaties were changed to accommodate the cycles of subsistence hunting.
For the indigenous community of the North Slope, this was a win.
A damned good one!
Don’t get me wrong! Conflicts over subsistence hunting rights are a still common, here and in the rest of Alaska, but in 1961, at least, the Iñupiat community of North Slope successfully fought off a threat to their subsistence activities by means of civil disobedience.
One of more interesting things about Rachel Edwardson’s work on this comes at about 16-minute mark in her documentary wherein she includes a series of public statements on the issue, all of which foreground the different political economies in question. Outsiders, of course, assumed that hunting, or at least subsistence hunting, would simply cease at some point along the inevitable march toward civilization. Was it not time, even past time, for folks to simply give up the hunt and buy their food?
“The Eskimos have claimed that the ducks leave their northern area before the legal hunting season opens. They also use such phrases as ‘hunger knows no law’ to justify their taking the ducks illegally. In this age of assimilation, where is the point at which the natives must forfeit must forfeit their old rights in favor of the rights of modern civilization?”
(Anchorage Daily Times, Editorial, June 15, 1961.)
“These people were from established communities where ample food is available. The basic conflict is the desire of the natives to continue certain primitive customs and yet live in civilized communities. All of us, including the Eskimos, must realize that the development of any country in the world brings with it advantages and disadvantages. This is true in any civilization, and it must have become obvious already to many of the native people of Alaska. Sincerely, Ralph A. Duncan, Special Assistant to the President.”
(Extract from Whitehouse Response to the United Presbyterian Church, Barrow Alaska)
Edwardon answers these statements with Eben Hopson’s statements on the subject (from his wire to the Governor, I believe). For his own part, Hopson begins by telling stories about people who feed themselves, whether by hunting or farming. He then turns the whole issue, on its head, he asks if anyone would accept a law forbidding the buying of meat at the store?
“We have survived from this land by hunting, just as any other John Dick and Harry have survived from the land by plowing the fields where they could raise crops. If there was law enacted without your knowledge making it unlawful for you to buy meat at your local store, and you continued to buy it because you needed it, I can see and hear you screaming up and down about that law being unjust, and discriminatory, the minute you found it out. If the meat was a matter of survival for your, would you stop eating meat for 3 months out of the year and wait for some disinterested person to come along and try to amend it for you without having assurance that the problem would even be solved.”
– Eben Hopson, State Senator.
I really don’t think the different visions of independence could be more clear than they appear to be in these letters. Those expecting the indigenous community of the North Slope to simply accept the laws in question clearly envision a future in which “Eskimos” buy their food at the store, just like the rest of us. This of course means that people will also get a job instead of spending their days out hunting or preparing for the hunt. It is a world in which people satisfy their needs by first first earning and then spending money. Those organizing and supporting the duck-in consistently envision a world in which they feed themselves. The modern world complicates both visions, of course, but this was a moment wherein the outside world appears to have forced the issue; as if to say; “Stop hunting and buy your food at the store.”
Here is an interesting question (to me anyway). What legal mechanism prevents the Federal Government from banning your church?
(Hopefully, they don’t want to, but humor me…)
That would be the First Amendment, right, or more precisely the ‘free exercise clause’ of the First Amendment.
Okay, so what stops your state government from banning your church?
It’s not the First Amendment, not alone anyway. The relevant text of the First Amendment reads as follows; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” So, that prevents CONGRESS, and by extension other Federal entities operating under the authority of Congress, from banning your church. It doesn’t say anything about the actions of state governments.
What would prevent a state government from doing such a thing?
That would be the Fourteenth Amendment, or perhaps the First Amendment, as incorporated into state jurisdiction via the Fourteenth Amendment.
Section I of the Fourteenth Amendment reads as follows (emphasis added):
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
This is significantly more ambiguous, of course, but I do believe most people, and more importantly, most of the relevant legal authorities, generally take this to mean that state governments have been operating under the free exercise clause (or some principle like it) since the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Okay, good fun, right?
Now here is a question, most Americans might not think about. What prevents a tribal government from banning a church on their own lands?
By tribal government, I mean the government of any Federally recognized tribe within the United States. We are talking about American Indians or Alaska Natives here. So, I am asking what legal mechanism would prevent a tribal government representing one of the indigenous peoples of the United States from banning a church under the own jurisdiction?
There is nothing specific in the text of the U.S. Constitution which limits the authority of a tribal government to restrict the religious activities of anyone subject to their jurisdiction. Congress has of course asserted plenary power to alter the relationship between tribal governments and the Federal Government at will since Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903). (At least that is when the doctrine of ‘plenary power’ received its most explicit expression under the Federal courts.) Still, absent any explicit action from Congress restricting the authority of an Indian tribe, indigenous people are assumed under U.S. Law to retain any sovereign powers they had before colonization began. So, in the absence of any clear Federal statement to the Contrary, a tribal government may resolve the matter of religion and religious freedom as they deem fit. (Some would argue, that is exactly how it ought to work.) In any event, the Tenth District of the Federal Courts ruled in 1959 that no such law existed. According to the decision in Native American Church v. Navajo Tribal Council (1959), neither the U.S. Constitution nor any Federal Law obligates tribal governments to respect the free exercise clause or any principle like it.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, some would say that is how it should be. Let indigenous people settle any questions about religious freedom for their own members (or others subject to their jurisdiction) themselves! For good or for ill, it’s their business.
In other words, the answer to my third question is The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.
What stops a tribal government from banning a church is The Indian Civil Rights Act. This was part of a larger Federal Law expanding civil rights in a number of areas (most of which were of more direct concern to African Americans at the time). The Indian Civil Rights Act applies most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the actions of tribal governments. Significantly, it does not incorporate the establishment clause of the First Amendment into tribal jurisdiction. Tribal governments are free to establish their own religions, but they are not free to restrict the religious activities of those subject to their jurisdiction.
You can see this in the relevant text.
“No Indian tribe in exercising powers of self-government shall—
make or enforce any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition for a redress of grievances…”
Note that there is a clear reference to the principle of free exercise, and yet, there is no mention of establishment. So, you can see it in the text. The Indian Civil Rights Act only incorporates 1 of the 2 basic religion clauses of the First Amendment into the context of tribal government. This somewhat belies the thinking of America’s founding fathers who might have suggested that the two clauses work together to ensure that religion will not become a source of abuse, or more to the point, to prevent an establishment of religion from becoming the reason religious freedom is restricted, but of course all of this ignores the context of colonialism here. The power of any religious establishment that might occur under tribal jurisdiction is significantly blunted by the presence of a larger Federal government which has already compromised a great deal of tribal sovereignty,not to mention state governments eager to eat away at what might be left of tribal sovereignty. In any event, the thinking at the time the ICRA was passed is that traditional tribal government is far too entangled with the ceremonial systems and spiritual narratives of the people in question to introduce the proverbial “separation of church and state.”
Of course, the ICRA has other significant limitations, particularly insofar as anyone might attempt to apply it to civil disputes, but that’s another matter.
All of this is to say nothing whatsoever about the religious freedoms of Native Americans facing regulations by the Federal and State governments. That’s a whole other messy history in itself.
Damned ugly one at that!
Finally, one reason I think this little exercise is worth doing is it helps to illustrate the way that religious freedom sits in the context of American law. Most people just think they have a right of religious freedom. They don’t really distinguish the establishment clause from the free exercise clause much less think about how these measures relate to one another. More importantly, folks tend not to think very carefully about the way that concepts of religious freedom play out in different layers of American government. Of course far too many people, think government is government is government, until they are pushed to start making distinctions, but the point at the present is this, religious freedom is not simply an abstract concept under the U.S. Constitution. Religious Freedom takes different forms in relation to different layers of American government.
When exactly do you suppose America was great according to Donald Trump?
When do you suppose it was great in the minds of his supporters?
America is not great now, at least not in the minds of Donald Trump, and it certainly wasn’t great when he ran for office. That much is clear from the very nature of his old campaign slogan. “Make America great AGAIN,” certainly means it’s not great in the present age, at least not when he decided to run.
Perhaps Trump and his supporters might think to claim the economic stats he used to parade as success stories in the first 3 years of his administration made the difference and pulled us all the way from something else to greatness. How those economic trends differed from those under Obama is a different question, and whether or not Trump did anything but coast his way to a good look on paper is another. Either way, I could imagine he and his supporters might see in that enough cause to claim putting his label on the nation had made us all great again, but that would be a thin pretext indeed. Regardless, the moment in which this pretext could be claimed is long since gone at this point, and we are back to the same other-than-great world Trump seemed to see in America back in 2016.
So, when was America great in the minds of Trump and his supporters?
Could it be when Thomas Jefferson said that “all men are created equal?
Or when Martin Luther King challenged us all to live up to that very principle?
Some folks might say ‘both,’ and maybe so, but that is the answer to a different question. I didn’t ask which message you approve or admire? I asked when do you think America was great in the minds of Donald Trump and his supporters?
Maybe the former, but only if we discount the latter. They might well love the promise of equality and freedom, but only so long as that promise remained unfulfilled for a great many Americans. To the deplorables, the gap between American ideals and our political realities is an essential feature of our greatness. The greatness they seek is always gained at the expense of others.
I really don’t see how there could be any doubt in the matter. This man is a bully, and he has a bully’s sense of the world around him. His heroes are bullies. His villains are those that stand in their way. The vast majority of mankind are but cannon fodder by which his heroes distinguish themselves. They are the human sacrifices by which true greatness distinguishes itself from the mere men and women of ordinary humanity. Greatness in the world of Trump is a boot ground into the neck of someone unable to do anything about it.
(Or a knee.)
When was American great according yo Donald Trump and those who support him?
When slaves were sold on the market in Charleston, South Carolina, and when the profits from slavery flowed into all of the United States, North and South alike. This was greatness in Donald Trump’s world.
When Confederate Statues went up all across the south, reminding African-American that those who held slaves in bondage were the real heroes of their time, that was greatness in the world of Donald Trump. The suffering of African-Americans in slavery, and in segregation was (and is) a small price to pay for the greatness made possible by the profits of slavery.
…and the second class citizenship which was to follow.
There are those who would return African-Americans to that very second class status in the most explicit terms possible. Trump is a hero to these people. He would deny it of course, but countless White Supremacists have organized in the wake of his rise to power, encouraged by a dog-whistle here, a slow condemnation there, and of course the occasional glaring statement of racist sentiments by Trump or those in his inner circles.
There were those who thought the existence of a plebeian class in America was critical to republic, the price of greatness for those free enough to enjoy it. Clearly, a number of Americans see in Trump’s rise to power the chance to reconstitute that servile class of Americans who don’t quite enjoy their full rights.
For those who share this vision, every confederate statue is a memorial, not just to history, but to a natural aristocracy. Most, I expect imagine themselves the righteous heirs to that aristocracy, denied their proper station by the corruption of liberals and various minorities who are but pawns duped by the white liberal agenda.
It’s a message driven home every time right wingers tell us about the evils of the “Democratic plantation,” or tell us, as Phil Robertson once did, that African-Americans were happier in the days of Jim Crow than they are now living in the shadow of this very ‘plantation.’
For a good portion of Trump’s base, greatness lies in hierarchy, but only when it’s the right kind of hierarchy. In their world, we are all a little happier with slavery or something as close as they can get to it. Equality just means people end up in the wrong places within that hierarchy. For America to be great, each must be in his or her proper place.
Lest anyone forget this greatness, the greatness of slavery, it is celebrated in the Star Spangled Banner before every ritual in America’s one true religion, professional sports! This celebration takes the form of the star Spangled Banner, a song which triggers in every good American the obligation to display their loyalty and love of the nation by standing with their hands over their hearts for all to see. Any athletes who take exception to this on behalf of African-Americans mistreated by the police become enemies of America itself, and of its greatness, at least in the eyes of Trump and the deplorables.
That the full song includes a stanza celebrating the return of escaped slaves to their former bondage is perhaps a little more significant than this little-known passage would seem to suggest. That great celebration of freedom is also a celebration of slavery.
A point well made every time Trump and his fans demand obesiance of players and seek punishment for those who hesitate.
When Jewish women jumped from the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in hopes of escaping the flames consuming the building and those within it, that was greatness to Donald Trump. It was greatness, because it was the price paid for great profits and a nation of industry unfettered by regulation or those Goddamned unions and all that bullshit red tape that comes with them. Those were days when Captains of industry were free, dammit, free from the death of a thousand paper cuts that require working fire escapes, reasonable work hours, and countless other protections for the safety and dignity of workers. That world without such regulations, that was greatness to the likes of Donald trump. The women who died in that fire? They were the price paid for the captains of industry to thrive, and the success of those men was worth every life snuffed out in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
…and every indignity suffered by any worker ever sacrificed in the name of that greatness.
When Custer died for our sins on the greasy grass, THAT was greatness.
A great sacrifice.
And before that when Custer sacrificed the lives of Cheyenne Women and children at the Washita River, that was greatness, a greatness beautified by the music of Garyowen. Garyowen was the song played by Custer as he attacked Black Kettle’s encampment in the early morning of November 27th, 1868. Still reeling from the massacre at Sand Creek, Black Kettle had come to the Washita River in the hopes that he and his people could camp in peace and stay out of the fighting (just as they had tried to do at Sand Creek 4 years earlier). Custer showed them American greatness!
Lest the lesson be lost on any of us, the Trump administration made a point to play Garyowen at their July 4th celebration at the Black Hills this last summer. Most of America would have missed the message sent to Native American activists that day, perhaps noticing only a slight trace of nostalgia for the old west upon hearing the tune without quite knowing how they had come to form that association. For those that knew the tune, however, the message was unmistakable. What made American great was its willingness to slaughter Native Americans, not to respect them or their lands or anything else about them, but to slaughter them.
Accompanied by a catchy tune!
This message should have been clear enough earlier in Trump’s administration when he honored the Navajo Code Talkers.
With the name ‘Pocahontas’ falling from his sneering lips.
And the image of Andrew Jackson presiding over the whole scene.
Was greatness Abigail Adams telling her husband; “Remember the Ladies?” Or was it John Adams’ response, dismissing her concerns with platitudes about who is really in charge? Does greatness lie in Susan B. Anthony’s efforts to cast a vote in direct violation of the laws of her day. Or does it reside in the fine levied against her for doing so? Perhaps it can be found in Trump’s decision to pardon her? Or in the decision of the Susan B. Anthony Museum and House to reject that very pardon?
Could her greatness reside in the courage to break an unjust law, a greatness only erased by Trump’s worthless pardon?
Or did greatness actually reside in Trump’s pardon itself, a gesture which effectively put Anthony in a league with then likes of Sheriff Arpaio, Roger Stone, or Dinesh D’Souza, all men who have spent their entire lives punching down at those less fortunate than themselves? Some might think these men unworthy of respect. Clearly, they meet Trump’s standards of greatness. I somehow doubt, he’d have thought to put Anthony on par with these feckless whores if she were alive today and ready to give him a piece of her mind. A few a Republicans have indulged in fantasies about taking the vote away from women since Trump’s rise to office. If Anthony really does count as great to Trump, it is for a cause that neither he nor his supporters seem eager to support themselves. I don’t think Trump has suggested taking the vote away from women himself, at least not in public, but it’s easy enough to see how others might see it in Trump’s willingness to trash any woman who stands up to him in public.
…a point driven home withe every humiliation Trump unleashes on any woman who dares to stand up to him in public.
…or when facile deplorables make a point to remind us of the women who Trump always finds to speak on his behalf.
…as he punches down at others.
I could go on of course, but you get the point. If America was ever great in Trump’s eyes, it was precisely when America’s greatness was clearly obtained at the expense of others, and that expense was itself celebrated openly in full view of bystanders and surviving victims alike.
For both Trump and his supporters, it must be said, the cruelty is always the point. If there is anything about America that they well and truly love, that is it.
That is what passes for greatness in the land of Trump.
“You drive back home to Flagstaff every Friday night, right?”
A student asked me this one evening. Sitting as we were in Chinle, well inside the Navajo Nation, and a hundred and sixty or so miles away from Flagstaff, we both knew that he was describing a rather long drive late at night after a long week. Normally, I would be leaving just around 9pm and I could expect to get into town shortly before midnight. I’d been doing this for years, and I think most of my students knew about it. I wondered, why was this student asking me about it now?
“Do you ever see anything strange on that road?”
It seems, I learned that night, that a significant stretch of the road I was traveling was known for skinwalkers. From the reaction of his classmates, I gathered, this student wasn’t the only one curious about my experiences on that drive. I had only recently come to learn that the ghost of a small child was rumored to walk the halls of the school where I taught evening courses. Being stubborn enough to keep class the full time on most evenings, I was frequently the last person out of the building. I hadn’t seem this apparition either. Nor had I ever heard his footsteps in the hallway
It was an interesting moment, a conversation that reached across cultural boundaries, and did so in an unusually personal way. We weren’t discussing official Navajo Educational Philosophy or touching on any of the well known themes of Navajo ceremonialism, economics, etc. Were were discussing neither any part of Navajo culture nor any themes from western education in the abstract. This was a student who actually believed in skinwalkers asking me if I’d seen them myself, knowing full well that I didn’t. It wasn’t just that I was white. He knew, as most of my students knew, that I am an atheist and generally skeptical of all things purportedly supernatural. He knew this, and chose to raise the subject anyway.
This didn’t strike me as a confrontation so much as an expression of genuine curiosity, and an effort to communicate across cultural barriers and well-established differences of opinion. He wanted to hear about my own experiences on a road known for its share of scary stories. For my own part, I was as curious to see what stories were told of the road as he was to see if I had one.
But of course I didn’t have a story. None at all.
…which was a bit awkward.
Don’t get me wrong. Nobody’s world view came crashing down that evening. My students and I just sat there in an odd silence, each contemplating the next step in this conversation. I suppose some of them must have been trying to decide, as I was myself, just how much we wanted to get into this? We could have taken it in all sorts of different directions. Finally, a student offered the following; “Since you don’t believe in skinwalkers, they probably wouldn’t bother you.”
I think I started to put together an argument, even made the first couple sounds of a reply which would probably have involved questions about the meaning of his words or the nature of his reasoning, and then I hesitated. I couldn’t help smiling.
“You know. I think I can agree with that.”
Everyone laughed, and then it was time to say goodnight for the evening.
You never really know when you will find yourself in agreement with people whose thoughts differ so very much from your own.
Moni is trying to brush the sleep from her eyes. Leaning forward as far as the seat belt will let her, she cranes her neck around to see if she can see why I have pulled over. The more she sees, the more she realizes how very right she is. As I recall, this place was already closed over ten years ago when I used to drive through Gray Mountain on my way to work. It’s well past closed now.
“Why are we stopping here?”
After a moment, she realized the answer to her question.
(Click to embiggen. …You know you wanna!)
The reddish figure has been there awhile. Each of the other murals seems to have replaced earlier pieces.