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Webmaster's Blog - Native American Resources

A place to put resources of a more ephemeral nature, such as events, recommended new websites, new books, etc.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cherokees flee the moral high ground over Freedmen - News From Indian Country

by Robert Warrior

Cherokee Chief Chad Smith is wrong and Representative Melvin Watt (D-North Carolina) is right. As those who follow the American Indian political world know, earlier this year an overwhelming majority of Cherokee voters decided to deny descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen, freed slaves who trod the Trail of Tears with their Native American owners, rights to political enfranchisement guaranteed to them in an 1866 treaty the Cherokees signed with the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War.

In June, Chief Smith campaigned on this popular issue and won a new term as elected leader of the largest Native nation within the border of the United States.

Watt is among a group of Congressional Democrats that also includes Maxine Waters and Diane Watson who are responding by calling into question whether or not United States taxpayers ought to be funding Cherokee programs. Most recently, the House Financial Services Committee decided to give the Cherokees a month to clear up the Freedmen issue before voting on Rep. Watt’s amendment to an affordable housing bill that would exclude the Cherokees until they are in compliance with the 1866 treaty. Smith and the Cherokees must respond by the time Congress comes back from its current recess.

The politics of this issue are certainly interesting—the embarrassingly low number of Cherokees, for instance, who participate in their nation’s electoral process (less than 8000 in a group of well over 150,000), the predictable way that this decision by one group exposes all American Indian nations to alienating people who have been important, reliable friends (the Congressional Black Caucus most visibly). Morality, however, has been the missing topic in the wrangling thus far, and I would argue is the basis for why it is important for everyone, especially American Indian people who have been silent thus far, to support efforts like those of Representative Watt.

The moral case against the Cherokees is straightforward. As a duly constituted nation in the nineteenth century, they legally embraced and promoted African slavery, a position they maintained after Removal to Indian Territory in the 1830s. The vast majority of Cherokees could not afford slaves, as was also the case throughout the American South, and historians of Cherokee slavery have demonstrated that some aspects of the Cherokee social world gave a different, less negative character to being enslaved by wealthy Cherokees rather than wealthy whites. Make no mistake, though. No one is on record as having volunteered to become a Cherokee slave. History records plenty of Cherokee slaves attempting to escape to freedom, as well as Cherokee slave revolts.

The institution of slavery was for Cherokees, as it has been for all people who practice it, morally and politically corruptive, and many citizens of this Native slaving nation knew it. Stories like that of the children of Shoeboots and Doll, a Cherokee slaveowner and his black concubine/wife, whose father risked his reputation as a war hero in petitioning for their recognition as Cherokees provides a picture of this ambiguity, but the cruelty, sexual violence, and physical degradation of modern slavery under Cherokees like James Vann is just as unambiguous (both are captured magnificently by University of Michigan scholar Tiya Miles in her 2005 book Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom).

The Cherokee Nation officially emancipated all slaves in 1863. The 1866 treaty that subsequently enfranchised these former slaves resulted in an amendment to the Cherokee Constitution that same year. That amendment reads: “All native born Cherokees, all Indians, and whites legally members of the Nation by adoption, and all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months from the 19th day of July, 1866, and their descendants, who reside within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, shall be taken and deemed to be, citizens of the Cherokee Nation.” All of this was as a moral victory for those Cherokees who understood that institutionalizing slavery created moral implications that could only be addressed on moral grounds. That is, formal slaves need not just freedom, but also the protection of citizenship. How else, after all, can those who have lost so much expect to gain their lives without a context in which they can rebuild their lives?

More, though, is going on here, which is the sometimes heart-stopping recognition on the part of leaders of a slave-owning nation that many of those slaves who are so easy to think of as being THEM are in fact US. To be blunt, a history of modern slavery is also a history of rape. To be a slave among the Cherokees was to be sexually available to those who controlled your life. By the 1890s, a legal distinction between the Freedmen and those who were Cherokee “by blood” emerged, but in the moral universe such a distinction was hard to make, and even today the claim of those in the Cherokee majority who say they are primarily interested in maintaining their nation for those who can verify that they have Cherokee lineage rings hollow alongside the murky history of violence that Cherokee slaves and their descendants have inhabited. Such claims fail to rise to the level of those earlier Cherokees who understood that the tragic absurdity of reconciling a nation to its history of slavery requires wisdom and compassion, not insulting and ridiculous appeals to faulty membership requirements and the poses of victimhood.

In spite of being egged on and provoked by the legislated racism of the Cherokee Nation, the vast majority of Freedmen descendants have reacted with impressive dignity befitting their proud history. Melvin Watt and other black members of Congress have likewise responded in a measured, but active way. It remains for more people, including Native American writers, scholars, and artists, not to mention elected leaders, presidents, and chiefs, to stand up and be counted on the right moral side of this question. Better yet, Chad Smith could save us all the trouble by following some of the best examples of Cherokee history rather than the morally corrupting and exclusionary ones he and his supporters have chosen thus far.

Robert Warrior’s most recent book is American Indian Literary Nationalism (co-written with Jace Weaver and Craig Womack). He is Edith Kinney Gaylord Presidential Professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Far-Reaching Policy for Aborigines Draws Their Fury

PAPUNYA, Australia, Aug. 18 — Since he walked out of the vast Gibson Desert in Australia in 1934 at the age of 12, Long Jack Phillipus has spent a lifetime helping his Aboriginal people slowly win rights from the white leadership. Then, this month, he saw the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard abruptly throw the process into reverse. And he is angry.

“We should be the boss of our land, not that fellow from Parliament House,” Mr. Phillipus said.

Mr. Phillipus’s land is the sun-baked heart of Australia. His home is in Papunya, 170 miles from the regional center, Alice Springs, and more than 60 miles from the nearest paved road. For 40,000 years his people roamed free across the surrounding red sand scrub, and ties to the land still run deep.

Like many other towns in the wide reaches of central Australia, Papunya was set up by the government in the 1950s as a distribution point for the rations it gave to Aboriginal people. For its residents, there is still a sense of their being unwilling subjects in a cultural experiment.

There is a temporary feel to the town, with succeeding generations of government housing lying derelict, and plastic bottles and abandoned cars strewn about. Along with the trash, other ills — drug addiction, domestic violence, poor health and lack of education — have grown and festered, magnified by the isolation.

Now the government has decided to address the ills, but critics say it is doing so in the paternalistic fashion it was supposed to have discarded decades ago. On Aug. 17, Parliament completed approval of legislation that, among other measures, requires welfare recipients to spend half their income on food, fines them if their children do not attend school, bans alcohol and pornography in Aboriginal areas in the Northern Territory and clears the way for the government to purchase five-year leases on Aboriginal town land.

The catalyst for the legislation was a government report that uncovered widespread sexual abuse and neglect of children in indigenous Australian communities. But critics note that the problems the legislation is intended to address are not unique to indigenous communities and argue that the fact that it applies only to Aboriginal communities makes it racist.

Aboriginal leaders have made similar accusations in the past. Relations were poisoned by a policy formally abandoned in 1969 in which Aboriginal children, the so-called stolen generation, were forcibly taken from their parents in an effort to assimilate them into white society.

In part because of lingering guilt over those practices, the government has been reluctant to take forceful action about the social problems in indigenous communities.

“It has always been too hard, there were no votes in it, and they were scared of creating another stolen generation,” said Alison Anderson, Mr. Phillipus’s granddaughter, who represents Papunya in the Northern Territory Assembly.

Indigenous people account for 2.7 percent of the Australian population, and by almost every measure they are worse off than the mainstream. Life expectancy is 17 years lower than the average Australian’s. They are 13 times as likely to be incarcerated, three times as likely to be unemployed and twice as likely to be victims of violence or to be threatened with violence. Almost all these indicators have gotten steadily worse since 1967, when indigenous Australians won citizenship.

“It’s good to have rights, but you’ve got to have responsibility too, and I think we lost sight of that,” Ms. Anderson said.

In the dusty streets of Papunya there is a palpable lassitude that many attribute to inadequate education and a scarcity of jobs for those who can read and write. The school has been upgraded, but on a recent Thursday only 25 of the 125 enrolled children turned up.

Many children are being reared by their struggling grandparents, because their parents have moved to Alice Springs, often to feed their alcohol or drug addictions. Of Papunya’s 360 residents, the overwhelming majority are entirely dependent on government money.

Despite these problems, the new legislation has stirred deep misgivings.

“John Howard’s trying to make us into white men,” said Sammy Butcher, a founder of Aboriginal Australia’s most successful rock group, the Warumpi Band.

Indigenous leaders are particularly critical of the stipulation that the government will purchase five-year leases on town lands. That issue, they say, has struck a particularly raw nerve among people whose ownership of the lands their people lived on for thousands of years was only recognized in 1967.

“I feel very sad that land is being taken away from Aboriginal society again and I don’t know why,” Mr. Phillipus said. “We don’t have a fight with John Howard.”

Sue Gordon, who leads the task force overseeing the government intervention, said the government needed the leases to build new schools, health clinics and police stations and upgrade existing facilities.

Almost everyone in the Northern Territory seems to agree that significant intervention is needed. And even if some of the policies are misguided, Ms. Anderson said, having the government engaged is better than the neglect of recent years. “We’re on a merry-go-round,” she said. “Every 30 years we seem to get off in the same place.”

Monday, August 20, 2007

Discovering How the Maya Fed the Multitude

An enduring question about the Maya civilization in its heyday in the first millennium A.D. has been: How did they feed so many people?

As studies have found much higher Maya population densities than previously estimated, scholars suspected that the farmers grew more than corn, beans and squash and developed more large-scale agriculture to feed the multitude. Perhaps they mastered the cultivation of manioc, a root crop common today in the American tropics.

But archaeologists and paleobotanists, hard as they tried, failed to discover direct and compelling evidence for manioc cultivation by the pre-Columbia Maya of Central America and Mexico, or any other ancient American cultures — until now.

Archaeologists at the University of Colorado, excavating this summer at a buried Maya village in El Salvador, reported yesterday the discovery of remains of a field of cultivated manioc that grew 1,400 years ago. They said this was the earliest evidence for domestication of the carbohydrate-rich tuber in the Americas.

The manioc field was found at Cerén, an archaeological site 20 miles northwest of San Salvador that is sometimes called the Pompeii of the New World. Around the year 600, the eruption of a nearby volcano buried Cerén’s buildings, artifacts and landscape under deep ash.

“This field was a jackpot of sorts for us,” said Payson D. Sheets, an anthropology professor at Colorado. “Manioc’s extraordinary productivity may help explain how the Classic Maya at huge sites like Tikal in Guatemala and Copán in Honduras supported such dense populations.”

In previous research at Cerén, just one manioc plant, also commonly called cassava, was found in a kitchen garden. Dr. Sheets said this led everyone to think that manioc must have had a minor place in the diet.

“How wrong we were,” he said, and he was not alone. A 1996 anthology on ancient Maya agriculture made only one reference to manioc, stating that “the role of root crops in the Maya diet is unknown.”

The team led by Dr. Sheets used ground-penetrating radar, drills and test pits to uncover the neat rows of manioc plantings 10 feet deep. Hollows left by decomposed plant material were cast in dental plaster to preserve their shapes and were subsequently identified as manioc tubers. The bush grows as high as six feet, and some of its roots, or tubers, are three feet long. They are usually ground into a high-carbohydrate flour.

The Colorado researchers are working with scientists at the Smithsonian Institution to develop techniques to detect starch grains like those from manioc in the soil of village ruins. “We don’t want to find out that Cerén was unique in manioc cultivation,” Dr. Sheets said.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Far From the Reservation, but Still Sacred?

Yuma, AZ

Squinting against the harsh desert sun, Mike Jackson, leader of the Quechan Indians, looks out past his tribe’s casino and the modern sprawl of Yuma and points to the sandy flatlands and the rust-colored Gila mountain range shimmering in the distance. “They came this way,” he says, describing how his ancestors followed the winding course of the Colorado River and ranged over hundreds of miles of what is now western Arizona and southeastern California. “There’s a lot of important history here, both for the Quechan and the U.S.”

And if it’s up to him, that history will go a long way in determining the future of this corner of the West, one of the fastest-growing parts of the country and a place where developers are increasingly running up against newly powerful but tradition-minded American Indian leaders like Mr. Jackson.

As president of the Quechans over the last decade, Mr. Jackson is leading a new kind of Indian war, this time in the courts. The battlegrounds are ancient sites like the religious circles, burial grounds and mountaintops across the West that Indians hold sacred and are protected by federal environmental and historic preservation laws. After successful smaller battles, Mr. Jackson is now challenging a bigger project, arguing that the construction of a planned $4 billion oil refinery in Arizona could destroy sites sacred to his tribe.

What makes this case different from more traditional fights between Indians and developers is that the refinery isn’t on the Quechan reservation or even next to it. In fact, the refinery is planned for a parcel of land some 40 miles to the east of the reservation, on the other side of Yuma and the Gila mountain range. But Mr. Jackson and the tribe’s lawyers argue that before the land can be transferred to the company building the refinery, Arizona Clean Fuels, or construction can start, an exhaustive archaeological and cultural inventory must take place.

The Quechans are not a large tribe. Also known as the Yuma Indians (they prefer the name Quechan, which means “those who descended”), they number about 3,300 and their reservation on the California-Arizona border covers roughly 70 square miles. That is a small fraction of the size of lands the federal government set aside more than a century ago to better-known nations like the Apaches or Navajos. Mr. Jackson has already stopped two planned projects — a low-level nuclear dump and a $50 million gold mine on the California side of the border — both also well away from the Quechan reservation. This year, he helped defeat the nomination of a Bush administration official who favored the mine to a federal appellate court.

LIKE the land itself, the fight over the refinery reflects a tangle of cultures and centuries of bitterness between Indians and newcomers. Mr. Jackson says it’s about respect for Quechan culture, and a new willingness on the part of Indians to stand up to the local establishment after centuries of not having a say. Business and political leaders in Yuma argue that it’s little more than a land grab by Mr. Jackson, a dubious attempt by the tribe to block much-needed development and assert claims to territory lost long ago.

What’s more, says Glenn McGinnis, chief executive of Arizona Clean Fuels, a preliminary inspection failed to turn up evidence of ruins near the site, which was privately owned for decades by local farmers but was later bought by the federal government to acquire water rights.

In any case, Mr. McGinnis says he’s committed to protecting any sacred remains that turn up once construction begins. But doing the more extensive survey sought by Mr. Jackson and the Quechans now would not only delay the project by months, it would also cost about $250,000, which Arizona Clean Fuels would be obligated to cover.

The dispute is about more than money, though. It has also brought resentment of the tribe’s newfound clout to the surface. David Treanor, vice president of Arizona Clean Fuels, calls the Quechans’ stance “psychological imperialism” and compares Mr. Jackson to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s left-wing leader.

Casey Prochaska, chairwoman of the Yuma County Board of Supervisors, adds: “My grandmother probably went across here in a covered wagon. This country didn’t stop because they walked over this land.”

Indeed, the refinery isn’t even the main issue for some business leaders. “It’s a question of how far does their sphere of influence go,” says Ken Rosevear, executive director of the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce. “Does it go clear to Phoenix? To Las Vegas? The whole West?”

Casey Prochaska, chairwoman of Yuma County’s Board of Supervisors, is skeptical of the tribe’s contentions that relics are on a proposed refinery site.
Mr. Rosevear may be exaggerating, but his fear illustrates just what’s at stake. If the Quechans’ lawsuit succeeds, it would bolster the efforts of other, larger tribes to block development on territory where they also once lived and prayed.