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Heritage Under Fire: Native Americans fight for culture, history, survival

Our nation’s Indigenous people have seen their visibility rise in recent years.

The first Native American Cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland, was appointed to head the U.S. Department of the Interior last year. Last month, Nicole Mann became the first Native American woman to fly into space. Two new television series, Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls, feature Indigenous cast, directors and writers.

But as the nation marks Native American Heritage Month, the struggle for the First Nations to maintain autonomy and cultural identity is as fraught today as it was 10, 20, even 50 years ago. As the U.S. Supreme Court debates whether it should overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978, making it easier for non-Indigenous families to adopt Native American children, advocates worry that an erosion of other tribal rights is around the corner.

“I have a hard time with Native American Heritage Month because learning our history is lifelong,” said Valerie Adams, one of the co-founders of the Alabama Indigenous Coalition and a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Nation. “You’re talking about the history and stories of over 574 federally recognized nations, and that doesn’t count those which are non-federally recognized.”

Carmeleta Clark, a physical security supervisor for the Southern Poverty Law Center, has supported the SPLC’s efforts to bolster those Indigenous tribes and maintain their unique cultures.

“The disparities found in the Indigenous communities are numerous, like many of the other marginalized communities,” said Clark, herself a member of the Cherokee Nation. “And while I can’t speak to them all, as someone with Indigenous roots, I have often and continue to see the way our communities are affected.

“With the SPLC’s commitment to supporting these communities, they can bring focus and education to a group that so often gets overlooked and pushed aside,” Clark continued. “The partnership with the Alabama Indigenous Coalition and our JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) working group has begun with educating staff internally of some of the systemic and current challenges facing the Indigenous communities in our areas and nationwide.”

No good deed

The history of this country’s Indigenous people has been marred by tragedy since the arrival of explorers and colonists on the North American continent centuries ago — starting with the other side of the story of the first Thanksgiving. Instead of the traditional story, in which Pilgrims asked the Indigenous people to share a feast celebrating their first harvest, the Native American version tells that they were not actually invited.

Instead, the story goes that the settlers were firing guns in the air to celebrate their harvest. The leader of the Wampanoag Tribe investigated with 90 of his men and, because a prophesy had foretold the arrival of the foreigners and cautioned that a peaceful beginning would bring harmony and plenty to the land, they hunted and gathered food to share with the newcomers.

Because of their generally peaceful nature, the Wampanoag had no inkling that their kindness would lead to years of strife, including the taking of their lands, the forcing of the Christian religion on their people and the near genocide that would follow.

Thanksgiving Day, Adams said, became a time for “[m]y parents, my grandparents, our family … to enjoy each other’s company, get a day off but definitely not to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was just a time to get together.”

For many other Native Americans, it is a day of mourning. And today, even though laws and treaties to protect the remaining tribes have been signed, their autonomy remains under attack.

“The ICWA debate is not just about adoption,” said Adams. “We are watching Big Oil attorneys line up and ask Supreme Court justices to look at other issues like sovereignty, rights and gaming. They are framing this like a ‘reverse racism’ case, but they are just blowing past the adoption issue to talk about these other things that have nothing to do with it [ICWA].”

At the core of the Supreme Court case is the current requirement that children of Native American families who are up for adoption be first offered to the immediate family members, then to other families in the same tribe, then to families from other tribes before a non-native family can adopt them.

The requirement was written into law after centuries of Native American children being taken away from their families, either through adoption or being forced to attend boarding schools where their culture was not allowed.

“We are already dealing with the legacy of the boarding schools, with having Christianity thrust down our throats and their ‘kill the Indian and save the man’ mentality,” Adams said. “In our history, removing children from the family was another attempt to kill our culture. But they haven’t.”

Those efforts were not from some far-flung past.

“My mom recently passed, and I was thinking about her along with her brothers and other families,” Adams said. “They were sent to boarding schools everywhere. A few are on our reservations still. They were isolated away from what they knew and it affected our language. Even though she spoke fluent Lakota, she would say that sometimes she had difficulty understanding and speaking with the much older members of the tribe. Loss of language is a real issue now for many tribal nations and there are many new language revitalization programs across the country.”

Fighting to survive

Like Clark, Adams has worked to organize and support Indigenous people. A large part of that effort has involved co-founding the Alabama Indigenous Coalition with Tori Jackson Edwards.

“The goal of AIC is to increase awareness of tribal nations’ cultures/history as a whole,” Adams said. “We founded the group because we discovered people didn’t understand or know our true history. It is only through coming to a common memory of history that we can understand one another.”

In her work at the SPLC, Clark is hoping to bring light to the history of the land where the organization’s offices now stand. After three years of work, she said the effort is coming to fruition.

“I’m looking forward to the work and discussion that has begun around a meaningful and respectful land acknowledgment for the land that each of our offices are currently residing,” she said. “I also appreciate the work being done to bring light to the challenges facing Indigenous communities surrounding voting rights. I am also very happy with the work being done by our Mississippi team in conjunction with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.”

Another area of concern to Adams is the loss of the traditional way of living in harmony with the earth.

“We are having conversations on food sovereignty and self-sufficiency,” she said. “Some of the ‘new traditional foods’ like skillet bread or fry bread weren’t a part of our normal diet as Indigenous food. They were a part of rations after the killing of our food sources. It was either make something with it or starve, and now in contemporary times we have issues with diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.

“How do we get back to being healthy? Our land is poisoned. Our water is poisoned. Because of climate change, even our traditional berries are not available due to a lack of moisture. I am constantly thinking of how we were stewards of the land for thousands of years, but now it has gone to waste.”

Glimmers of hope

Despite the toll time has levied on the Indigenous peoples of the United States, there are some investments being made in the future.

In Georgia, the Lower Muskogee Creek Indian Tribe began a Youth Tribal Council to teach the history and workings of the tribe to the next generation of leaders. The program shows children from ages 5 to 17 how they’ve evolved into the tribe’s current role, including how the tribe is being suppressed from rightful claims to its land, culture and voice.

Out of Birmingham, Alabama, Kate Herrera Jenkins (Cochiti Pueblo) launched Native Strength Revolution in 2014. The group is a leadership and wellness training program to help check the decay in diet among Native Americans and to help them become physically stronger as leaders in their communities.

“When something needs to be done, the Creator makes a way,” Adams said. “In 2016, we were having to deal with Standing Rock [where tribal burial grounds and religious sites were demolished to make way for a crude oil pipeline]. The medicine men brought us all into a huge prayer circle. Everyone who had a pipe prayed. One of the medicine men said that our biggest problem is that people don’t know the truth about us. He said that our charge going forward is to educate where you can.”

How effective those efforts are, especially in the courts, will tell how the people of the First Nations will fare in the coming decades.

“Our treaties with the United States say ‘as long as the sun rises, grass grows and rivers run,’” Adams said. “Our relationship with the U.S. is nation-to-nation. Yes, we’re nervous about the outcome of ICWA. My daughter is a senior in high school. I have been letting her know that if we can get through this, don’t doubt that they will come again. They won’t be happy until they erase us so they don’t have to acknowledge what they have done to us all. They’ll do anything they can do to eliminate us and our version of the truth.”

Picture at top: As the U.S. marks Native American Heritage Month, the struggle for the First Nations to maintain autonomy and cultural identity is as fraught as ever. Pictured, a Native American powwow in Georgia. (Credit: Jim Zuckerman/Alamy)