Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
Roxanne Dunbar- Ortiz: You know, it’s part of the genocidal mentality of still hoping somehow the Indians will disappear. It weighs heavily on the conscience, but even if all the Indians disappear, it won’t change anything. It will still be a fact that this country is formed on genocide and land theft and slavery and it has to be dealt with. You can’t keep avoiding it, so I think that’s where we are now.
Suzanne Kryder: Roxanne, you have in your book a short quote I’d like you to read. It’s actually the leader of the Powhatan and he’s speaking to John Smith who threatened to kill all the women and children if the indigenous people didn’t give him their food. Read what the leader of the Powhatan said.
Dunbar-Ortiz: Yes, the Confederacy. It was a Confederacy of the Virginia area and the leader of that Confederacy, Wahunsonacock, he was puzzled and he asked the invaders – and John Smith actually wrote this down in his journal making fun of it kind of, but it tells a lot. He said, “Why should you take by force that from us which you can have by love? Why should you destroy us who have provided you with food? What can you get by war? What is the cause of your jealousy? You see us unarmed and willing to supply your wants if you’ll come in a friendly manner and not with swords and guns as to invade an enemy.”
So this is what I meant by the trade, the peaceful trading. This was something completely familiar and fine with the Native people, so they couldn’t figure out the intentions beyond that; why this violence? And of course we know historically and the Native people came to know that behind it was this huge system building up of European colonization that was already extremely powerful and had been in operation for several centuries. No one could guess, how would anyone guess that this was behind these people coming and showing up? So it was very confusing at first and the Native people and I think farmers in general, they’re very conservative. They really don’t want to fight. They don’t want to send their children to war. They want to plant food and raise it and feed people and so it’s not their first instinct, to fight back, but to make peace and sometimes that really worked against the Native people because of the advantage that was taken of their ways, their generosity of their gift-giving and their desire for conciliation and good relations.
Kryder: It seems hard to be in a culture where violence is so important to people. It was for hard for Native people to do what they wanted to do when settlers had a gun at their head.
Dunbar-Ortiz: The thing about all these settler projects, colonizing projects is they always had a mercenary, military contingent whether it was Plymouth, the founding of Plymouth or Jamestown and John Smith was a primary person involved in leading the military aspects of those ventures and just taking his biography; he was typical of crusaders. He had been fighting all over Turkey and the Ottoman Empire from a young person to his death. He was a person of violence. He was a soldier of fortune. He was a mercenary. And they were not that much different from the Special Forces of the United States today. In my book Indigenous People’s History of the United States, I link up this setting right there in Jamestown with all those factors and John Smith as the core of our military today and the world.
Kryder: Yes. Let’s look at the conflict solution in two ways; the past and the future. I’m curious, what do you think is the path or solution to that conflict that exists between the indigenous [people] and colonists?
Dunbar-Ortiz: Well back then, Native people had always traded with each other throughout the hemisphere up and down and across. There were roads that crisscrossed all over the Americas for trade. They had thriving civilizations based on corn production.
Most of the foods that feed the world today were innovated by Native people in the Americas. They mined copper and they had things to trade.
When the British and Spanish and Portuguese and different traders showed up, even before that the Vikings a few centuries earlier and perhaps even the Irish and perhaps the Chinese on the West Coast, there was never any problem of trading (this is when they first came to Jamestown) this was exactly what Native people thought. They would have their ships out at sea and the Native people would go out with their goods they wanted to trade, go onto the boat, they would trade even and this was completely acceptable. There really were not the kinds of cultural clashes because trade is universal. People trade commodities. For Native people it was a way of peacemaking. That’s how trade had been prior to, well, I would say the Crusades, but certainly prior to Colonialism.
Kryder: Is that the solution then that we should have just kept the colonists on the ships and go out to see them but not have them come on the land?
Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, with their project of conquest, we had changed what they did. I think we should though look at it not as history, but as progress. We’ve had a very short time on this planet. I really think that those various choices that were made in Europe at that time, 500 years ago, very complex choices, led to a path of destruction and we’ve been going backwards ever since rather than forward. I think it was certainly a backwards step and if you look at where the world was at a certain point, say in the 2nd century or so, that had this way not been taken, what kind of world would it be today? I think we can imagine that; what kind of world it would be with the Americas, the people of the Americas developing on their own. We can’t change what happened, but we can imagine a different world.
Kryder: Based on those mistakes, what can we do now, based on how things are now, to reduce conflict between indigenous people and non-indigenous people in the U.S.?
Dunbar-Ortiz: We need more support for indigenous resistance. We need to build that resistance in the other social movements. They’re really getting very strong now. We have to find ways to bring them together, but also with this knowledge of settler Colonialism and what it means in this country and how we can decolonize the United States.
So I don’t think there’s any patchwork that can be done of conflict resolution without getting to these deep roots.
Kryder: When you talk about indigenous resistance, what are things that can improve that resistance or increase the resistance?
Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, it can’t go very far with just indigenous resistance because indigenous people in the United States were reduced to less than 1% of the population. There are more masons in the United States than there are Native people.
Numerically, they have more power than that because they have the only collective land bases of any people in the country, but that’s being eroded now too and it’s very important that that not only be kept, but supported in being built.
It’s the larger movements for peace; anti-war, civil rights, the climate change movement - that come together and understand a commitment to rebuilding robust Native American societies is the positive way to create a different United States and I think that will have to come from the other social movements to make that commitment. That’s not so far-fetched, so I don’t see this as something abstract and not likely to happen, but something that is in the process that should be nurtured by everyone who cares.
Peace Talks Radio Host Suzanne Kryder talks with Greg Grey Cloud, Lakota/Dakota, co-founder of Wica Agli and Valerie Siow, Laguna Pueblo, Sixth Grade Native American literature teacher
Grey Cloud: I call the conflict oppression. How I feel about oppression is just as anybody would feel about oppression. I mean it’s a horrible thing to go through and it’s a horrible catastrophe for our people to go through. It’s like wow, the oppression that is upon us as a people is very difficult, but it’s something that we are overcoming. It’s about Native voices speaking up for social justice and now we’re getting over that. Slowly, but we are.
Kryder: Greg, when you say “oppression” what conflict comes out of oppression that you’ve seen in modern people today?
Grey Cloud: In today’s society, we have adopted a way of being that isn’t ours and that meaning the European or the non-native or the white way of being and it’s something that our people have been fighting for just as long as our brothers and sisters from the black heritage. It’s something that we’re dealing with and even more so on the reservations because rights were only given to our people maybe less than 70 years ago - rights as Native Americans or rights as American citizens and a lot of things were brought to us brand new less than that amount of time ago, so it’s dealing with that. And when it’s forced upon, when I say “oppression” and I use oppression, when a way of life or a way of being or a way of a society is forced upon on normally a peaceful people is how I like to explain oppression onto our people and the roles of men and women have changed completely.
Kryder: Valerie, what do you call that huge conflict?
Siow: In my perspective I call it colonization. A lot of what we’re dealing with are the after effects of colonization; more boarding schools, unfair treatment, policies that have existed to terminate our people and so I see historical trauma too. I see that a lot in my own family.
Kryder: Valerie, when you say “colonization,” what other conflicts come out of that for people today, indigenous people today in the U.S.?
Siow: I think a lot of it has to do with different interpretations. When I think of such things as the way our social structure, our government structures – I’m from Laguna Pueblo and I think about how women have such an integral part in our culture; our clans, knowledge is passed to the mother. But when the Spanish came and later of course Mexican rule and the United States took over, I feel like women were pushed out and so I see conflict in that area; how the traditional roles of women have changed and try to restore that.
Kryder: Greg Grey Cloud, can you talk about being forced into a white way of being? Talk more about that. Is there anything that people can do that’s positive to overcome that feeling?
Grey Cloud: There’s many things to overcome that feeling and that oppression from the United States government and the non-Native society. It comes to our people and our people utilize that oppression and it becomes internalized oppression. We use it amongst one another as well. The positive thing that we can do is learn. It’s the new turn of the century and it’s a new year and we can all learn, learn this education, but don’t forget about your indigenous way of life. Don’t forget about your ancestors and the history that our blood carries, so learn both. I know it’s difficult to learn both, but the non-Natives believe it’s a religion whereas we indigenous people believe no, it’s a way of life. It’s not a religion. It’s not something that’s practiced. It’s not something that’s sold or shown or boasted about. It’s something that we as people take seriously and then we can learn both our Native roots, what our ancestors left us and we can as well learn the non-Native education and we can succeed; succeed in their world and succeed in ours, but never forgetting both sides, so balance.
Kryder: Greg, the idea of success is kind of weird, because I wonder if there is a “white” way of success which is forced on you. Is there a Native way to succeed and if so, what is it?
Grey Cloud: Well I believe the indigenous way of success is – there’s a lot of different things, but being an indigenous person is about what you can do for others, not what others can do for you. I look at both societies; Native and non-Native, you look at non-Native where they’re about what other people can provide for you. What can you take from the overall people? What can you get from them? That’s so not an aboriginal or indigenous way of thinking whereas we think, on the reservations and our people think how can I help you? What is it I can help you to do what you need to do, what you need to get done.
Difficult times or hard times, times of joy, it’s all about helping one another and once you help somebody, you have success.
Siow: Along with that too, I’m also thinking about the foreign concept such as blood quantum. That’s a huge thing for us. Prior to outsiders coming in, we never had that concept; you’re this much of this tribe, and that has caused a lot of internal conflict among our own people.
Kryder: How do people deal with blood quantum?
Siow: Well right now there are 550+ federally recognized tribes and in order to be an enrolled member, you have to meet some kind of either blood quantum, some kind of measurement of that or either have to prove your ancestry and so being an enrolled member of a tribe, they give people what they call “benefits,” and so I think that has caused a lot of conflict because maybe you weren’t raised near your community, maybe your parents moved. There are so many things that can affect that. It’s inclusive/exclusive and you also see people who think: if I’m a certain blood quantum, I can be a part of this tribe and get the benefits. So things like that I would say are results, as Greg mentioned, of oppression and colonization. That’s just one concept that I see that has created a lot of conflict.
Kryder: Valerie Siow, how do you feel about non-indigenous people who may have a problem with you or they may deal with you in a way that you don’t like? Is there some kind of racism by white people or African American or Hispanics towards indigenous people?
Siow: Maybe there’s just not any understanding. Me personally, I’ve experienced racism the summer after I graduated from college and I had gotten accepted to a position with Teach for America (I’m sure you’ve heard of that organization) doing a summer institute in Houston and they had us grouped in groups of four; two other girls besides me and a young white man who was from Boston or went to Boston College and I just remember he was very condescending. He would dominate conversations with people in our group. He would brag about where he went to college, this and that and I don’t often raise my voice, but I had to tell him, “You know what? Just because I’m brown doesn’t mean that I don’t belong here. I went to Stanford and I made it through and whatever I have to say is just as good as what you have to say.” I think in a way, it surprised him.
Kryder: Greg Grey Cloud, how do you feel about other non-indigenous people? Let’s say you go to a store and you’re out [in public], do you feel you’re oppressed by people who are not indigenous like white people, Hispanic people, African-American people?
Grey Cloud: We can look at it that way. Me myself personally, I don’t let anybody else’s feelings bother me and that might be because the Lakota and Dakota man that I am. We often times call that a warrior’s frame of mind or warrior’s thinking; to not be afraid of somebody else’s feelings or words or actions towards you and not necessarily going out and looking for trouble and being that kind of warrior, but when trouble happens to find you, what’s the best way to get around it? We have a lot of brothers and sisters that are non-Native in Nebraska. We formed a cowboy/Indian alliance and we’ve been fighting the KXL pipeline because of the alliance, the strong alliance that we’ve made, the relatives that we’ve made that are non-native, the men and women in Nebraska and the ones even here in South Dakota and all over the United States that come together. The non-Native people whether they be white, Caucasian, European, Spanish, black, Asian, any kind of descent, whatever background you are and if you’re going to not like my people, then that’s okay by you, but by me that’s something that I won’t put up with or deal with.
Kryder: Greg, talk more about warrior thinking. What is included in that?
Grey Cloud: Warrior thinking to me being a Lakota and Dakota man is doing everything that I possibly can to protect the women and children of my nation which is one of the reasons why I chose to sing a song during the Congressional meeting and help lead 400,000 people during the People’s Climate March or different actions that I’ve done, a woman has told us as a people, she’s an activist for many years and she’s a community elder and she’s a grandmother. She said, “Where are our warriors? Our warriors need to protect us.” When she made that statement, I felt it in my heart so now I’m standing up and doing whatever it is that I can as a man and to my ability to protect the women and children. That very grandmother, Marie Randall needs protection. Her grandchildren, the little ones need protection. The frame of mind is to not fearing any man, to not fear any man on this earth and do what you can to protect your people.
Kryder: I wonder about protection though. If you protect people, how do you do that without being violent?
Grey Cloud: By raising the awareness, raising awareness in Native boys, showing and proving to our indigenous people that standing up and speaking out is not shameful. For many years, we were learned and we were taught in boarding schools, our ancestors were, to not speak out. “Your voice does not matter.” “What you have to say we don’t care about.” Nowadays it’s something strong. Our black brothers and sisters went through it as well; social justice and civil rights. We’re standing up and speaking out. If the opposition chooses to retaliate in violence then so be it. If violence comes knocking at my door, I’m not going to run away afraid. I’m going to answer the door like a man and like a warrior would. I don’t go out looking for violence or looking for trouble or causing it, but if it so happens to knock on my front door while I’m standing up and protecting my people using my voice, then I’m going to meet it halfway.
Kryder: What does it mean, “to meet it halfway”?
Grey Cloud: If somebody is going to threaten me or threaten my children, threaten my grandchildren, nieces and nephews, then that’s when I’m going to have a problem with it and do whatever I can possibly do to stop that from happening, to get in between those threats to my generations.
Kryder: I’m also seeing that you have to go out and be in the dominant culture and it’s hard isn’t it?
Valerie Siow, I’m curious: what would you say to our listeners who are non-Native? What do you wish they would do that they’re not doing.
Siow: I think I would just be very open-minded and when you’re dealing with an indigenous person, not to impose Western ideals especially when it comes to things like Western ideals of success. Like for me, I really don’t adhere to money is everything or you’ve made it when you’re got a job and a nice house and you get to vacation here and there. To us, that’s not success. Success to us is that you’ve given back. Success to us may be that “I didn’t go to college and I stayed home to be a medicine person for my community.” “I didn’t go to college, but I’m a silversmith and I’m contributing in that way to my community”. So success is very different. For non-Native people just to think more broadly in terms of not all Western values fit every person.
Kryder: Greg Grey Cloud, I’m thinking of another conflict. Let’s say a Native person had another minority status like they have a disability or they have an affection for people in their gender, they’re “homosexual,” what do people do who have two minorities? Is there a way to deal with conflict if you have two minorities?
Grey Cloud: There are ways to deal with that conflict. Like how you said the gender, whether you’re two spirit. In our culture we have a term we use for a man who is also a woman or a woman who is also a man, but the majority of it is a man who is also a woman and to us, that’s sacred and it’s something that we hold highly and we don’t discriminate and it’s not something that we make fun of, but in today’s society, it is different to be that way and in today’s society, it’s not seen as much like probably a long time ago, but it’s something that we’re reclaiming our history once again. It’s something that’s coming back and talking about. Not speaking up about it, but expressing to our relatives that this is what is normal and this is what our heritage is and this is our history and what our ancestors have done for thousands and thousands of years, so it’s nothing different, it’s nothing new. It’s the oldest way of being; different nationalities even. You’re making it relative. I’m not exactly sure about other tribal nation’s names, but my tribe’s nation name is Lakota Dakota which translates to be a friend or an ally. In other words, people of peace are peaceful people and it’s not just towards our own but towards others as well.
Siow: You know, where I come from, we’re always told the advice that we’re always given is to love one another, to take care of one another. We’re not taught to judge. I think a lot of it is just that Western concept of being different. And so I don’t think we initially intend to exclude anyone, to make their life difficult, but it does happen. I have a sister who is biracial and when she was growing up, she experienced a lot of name-calling from the kids at her elementary school because she was darker. They would call her names just because she happened to be half black and I think that goes back to that whole internalized oppression like Greg had mentioned, but I think as you grow older and you realize that this gift of being Laguna, of being Dakota, I think that you realize that that unites you with the other people who share that same ancestry and I think that is vey empowering.