Last night at the First Nations House drumming circle it suddenly struck me (perhaps because the shape of the candle on the middle of floor reminded me of the Washington monument)  – why weren’t there a group of Native American drummers at Obama’s inauguration earlier this week? Considering all that talk about reconciliation, wouldn’t have it been appropriate (and necessary) to have some kind of a public recognition of the Native Americans on whose lands and territories ‘the great country of America’ was (alas, often forcibly) established?

It is not that Obama has completely ignored Native Americans, quite the contrary. During his campaign in May, for example, he visited the Crow Nation in Montana where he was adopted into a Crow family and was given the name Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish that translates “one who helps all people of this land.” During his visit, he pledged to  bring in a new era of honest federal dealings with Native American nations. He promised, if elected as the president, to “honor long-ignored treaty obligations and revamp health care and education on reservations across the United States.” He was the first presidential candidate to visit the Crow Nation so he was received by a crowd of several thousand and was also given a smudging ceremony.

See the video (8 min.) ‘Barack Obama in Crow Agency, MT‘ where, in his public speech, he promises to honour the government-to-government relationship with Native American nations and make it a ‘top priority of his administration.’ He also compares himself and his life circumstances to those of many Native Americans and makes the point that he also knows what it means to be an outsider. This is why he makes the promise that ‘I will never forget you’ as the president.

There is also a group called First Americans for Obama which is ‘a community of people dedicated to bringing positive change to American politics and breaking the cycle of partisan ideology.’ On my.barackobama.com website, you can learn about Barack Obama’s principles and plan for stronger tribal communities. The issues range from sovereignty, tribal-federal relations and the trust responsibility to education, health care, religious freedom and cultural protection, economic and infrastructure issues to violence against women and veterans’ affairs.

Under the rubric of consultation and inclusion, the fact sheet notes: ‘In furtherance of the government-to-government relationship, Barack Obama will include tribal leadership in the important policy determinations that impact Indian Country. Obama will appoint an American Indian policy advisor on his senior White House staff so that Indian Country has a direct interface at the highest level of the Obama Administration. In addition, Obama will host a White House “Tribal G8” — an annual meeting with Native American leaders to develop a national Indian policy agenda.’

This is all a significant departure from the previous administration and now it is only to be seen how these pledges are carried out in reality. In fact, he has already made a start before his inauguration. In late November, he nominated 6 Native American advisors to his transition team. So far, 3 have been assigned to work on justice, agriculture and health issues, while three current and former attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund will advise Obama on changes proposed within the Interior Department. As advisers to the Interior transition team, the Indian law experts could inspire a significant transformation within the department’s Indian trust fund system.

Not everyone in the Indian country, however, is convinced. Perhaps the most explicit criticism is expressed by the long-term AIM activist Russell Means who recently argued that “Every policy the Palestinians are now enduring was practiced on the American Indian,” adding that “What the American Indian Movement says is that the American Indians are the Palestinians of the United States, and the Palestinians are the American Indians of the Middle East.”

I refuse to succumb to such cynicism, at least yet. I have to admit I was quite fed up with the hype leading to Tuesday’s inauguration – it just seemed to drag along forever. I didn’t miss the event in purpose, however; I had a class to teach at the same time. I did watch the inauguration speech online right after my class but it wasn’t quite as uplifting and inspiring as his election speech. The shadow of the war in Gaza seemed to be hovering over it all. But my mood started to pick up from there – I have been devouring his acts ever since Tuesday, as if searching more and more evidence and proof that it really means change. And yes, I have been inspired by his whirlwind of executive orders and other activities in the past couple of days. Just last night it suddenly struck me – on Tuesday, where were the Native Americans Obama promised he is going to think every day?

On the Crow reservation in May, Obama stated: “Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, the first Americans,” and continued by saying, “That will change when I am president of the United States.”One truly hopes that this wasn’t just election rhetoric to woo Native votes. Considering the striking absense of Native American representatives at the inauguration, one can only wonder whether and how his promise will materialize in the coming months.

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7 thoughts on “Where were the Native Americans?

  1. I really, really do hope that Obama is the genuine thing – and in the light of the past (but few) days in his new ‘career’ he seems to be – rather than merely just a great speechmaker.
    If there actually would’ve been native americans i.e. drummers in place during the inauguration it would’ve made a great effect: at least 1,5 billion viewers worldwide were watching the live feed on tv!
    But: maybe fellow indigenous ‘indians’ have seen and heard so much and so many hollow promises and empty words in their time that it is hard to trust someone just like that. I mean before actually seeing for what he is are capable of and are his intention really true.
    Maybe they will be there after four years.

  2. Yes indeed – let’s keep hoping Obama is real with his promises and hope, is re-elected in four year’s time and we’ll have an inauguration with Native drummers along others! There is still so much denial when it comes to the theft of indigenous lands and territories and subjugation and genocide of indigenous peoples in the US – denial so strong that Obama hasn’t dared to touch that topic himself. Especially now, he as the first Black president, we can openly talk about the US being built on the backs of the slaves and slavery, but even the most progressive academics rarely talk about and remind the rest of us on whose lands the US was built upon – on the very land underneath their and Obama’s feet.

  3. Well, I am a cynic. I’ve posted, with links to other writers, on how Obama’s change is more of the same. This is true not only for foreign policy, especially Palestine and the Middle East, but so-called domestic policy. Last night on Grit tv, Laura Flanders has a great panel on, discussing O. One of the panelists, an African American, said he is unsettled by this talk of O’s domestic policy being seen outside of his foreign policy. They are not separate. I will give you one example: the military industrial neoliberal capitalist complex. Obama is a war mongerer, despite his rhetoric of a new approach. 3 billion dollars gift of bombs, phosphorus bombs, F16s and other killing technologies given to Israel each year will not change. As I write a 300 ton shipment of bombs and bullets from North Carolina are on their way to Israel. Further, O will increase US presence in Afghanistan, which means there will be more prisoners taken, which means more incarceration, which means, lots of questions, like whose running the prisons in Afghanistan, where is the transparency, who is accountable for abuses that are/will be occurring ? Which means the need to make more bombs, shells, guns and drones.

    I’m with Russell Means on this. In fact, I am going to be organizing (with others) a teach-in on Palestine at Lakehead U for end of next month. Interestingly, I have been thinking that I will present on the similarities and differences of Palestinian oppression and Israeli racism and colonialism, with First Nations oppression and Canadian racism and colonialism.

    thanks for the link to Russell Means!

  4. one more point I wanted to mention, is that O voted in support of expanding and maintaining the US own apartheid wall– the wall built between Mexico and US.

  5. Eight years of the Bush administration was a long time, it lasted an eternity and it was like a nightmare. We can already see some changes, a break from a past. I am still hopeful and I want to give him a chance. Issues you mention Taina concern me too, and I am disappointed with some of his policy decisions and turn-arounds since at least last summer. But there’s just too much blatant, crushing cynicism in the world, around us everywhere. Where does that take us? I don’t mean we shouldn’t be critical – absolutely, that’s our job as citizens. And to see the links where they exist.

    I also wanted to share the link to an Australian Aborigine woman Rachel Willika’s thoughts on Obama: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/01/27/2474855.htm

  6. I too agree it would be wonderful to have more hopeful optimism about real change in the world, as I am sure, do the Palestinians in Gaza who were brutally killed and horrifically injured by American military gifts and world compliance to that massacre, and as do the Palestinians in the West Bank who only see more zionist extremist settlements being built on their lands and the apartheid wall being built deeper in their territory while Mitchell arrives in the ME to speak to the discredited Arab leaders…that is, collaborators, and Israel, the occupier and colonizer.

    Unfortunately, the ME needs real change to lift the crushing cynicism that is the effect of 60 plus years of American support of colonial expansion and military surveillance. Surely, you wouldn’t argue that the people of Sami land accept the colonialist policies and practices of the states of Norway, Sweden and Finland and their false promises of improvements and that optimism is resistance? This puts the onus on the occupied and the victim to respond in a favorable way to oppressive non-changing policies (actually, in the case of Palestine, getting worse), which then lets off the hook the powerful–the oppressors.

    I read the link, and something in her Rachel Willika’s argument (its de-politicized Christianity, heterosexual structuring of “family support” and interest in “boarding schools” closer to Aboriginal communities) reminded of an article that Richard Wagamese wrote in the Ottawa Citizen in which he talks about how neat and clean his aunt’s home is because of what she learned in residential schools.

    http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/views/story.html?id=251542fe-aaba-4062-b676-d641f17b63d5

    The comments to his argument are interesting and (after the first one) bang on, as they find it troubling in its validation of the methods of oppression.

    As As’ad AbuKhalil argues, and I agree, Obama is the representative of the White Man, in a similar fashion as Margaret Thatcher was representative of the White Man. Gender and race are performative, and Obama can play white man, just like Maggie Thatcher played white man; skin colour and gender are not definitive. I am troubled by the CONSTRUCTION of Obama as “the hero” who will be a kind benevolent face of US imperialism. When he begins dismantling the US military industrial complex and really seeks democracy in the ME and rids himself of his racsim towards Palestinians and Arabs, then I may see him differently. Obama’s conservatism, heterosexuality, Christianity, neo-liberalism, and belief in militarism place him clearly in the ideology of the White Man. Further, another point that I find troubling about him is his use of Martin Luther King to construct his own personality and to get himself into power. MLK became increasingly radicalized towards the end of his life and was a staunch vocal opponent of war and AMerican warmongering. SOme have written that MLK died because he was no longer just “sticking to the Negro issue” but was getting dangerous in his anti-war discourse. Interesting to me is why Obama didn’t pick Malcolm X to ride on his coattails into office. Of course not. He chose aspects of MLK that reduce this anti-war man to a Christian conservative just wanting “balance” between African Americans and white America.

    1. I am reading your blog with interest. I am a Canadian Palestinian, I have a strong connection to your discussion and always intrigued to learn more about Native people who were experiencing similar abuses as my people and who were being forced to abandon their traditions and beliefs. The exploration of the Native population continues as I see poverty and despair among the children of occupied Palestine, my home country. They are being killed, starved, terrorized and made homeless and the world is silence to their plight.
      I want to mention that I tried to read the comments to Richard Wagamese article referred above and I could not find them.

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