Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Indigenous View on Palin's Alaska

Below is a letter I was forwarded by Michael Leon Guerrero from the Global Grassroots Justice. I've been waiting weeks for something like this to emerge, a Native Alaskan perspective on Republican VP choice Sarah Palin's record in Alaska. I'm glad that its finally here, because the lack of this perspective has been horrifying, especially amidst all the pro-Palin exuberant coverage.

Although the erasure of the indigenous people of the United States is the norm (as they represent histories, legacies and contemporary realities that your "average" American citizen or politician refuses to deal with), I've been surprised at the lack of coverage of Native American opinions on the Republican Presidential and VP candidates.

For McCain, coming from Arizona and being for several years the chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has a long relationship with Native American tribes, and has helped write numerous laws regulating their gaming industries and their "sovereign" relationships to state governments.

For Palin, there is plenty to attack, especially for Democrats looking to tarnish her record. The criticism of her on her poor environmental record is obvious, but the ecosystems that she is planning to sell off and open up for drilling are used by Native Alaskan communities for survival. Actually, now that I think about this, I'm not surprised that Democrats aren't using this as an attack, since the criticism of Palin is one that you can make towards almost every single state government and its treatment of Native Americans. There is far more to "Native America" than just casinos, and if you don't know about the fragile relationships that reservations or tribes have with their state governments in your state, its probably not because it doesn't exist, but its either because of the metaphorical erasure of Native Americans from American consciousness, or its because they were physically erased and displaced from your area or state.

If the Republican primary had lasted longer then we might have heard more positive or negative news about John McCain from various tribes. Obama received some initial negative press from Native Americans last year, but this year has been much more positive for him. Both him and Hillary Clinton came out in support for the Akaka Bill in Hawai'i. Whatever your opinion on it, the willingness to at least allow for some debate or some Federal policy on the matter is something. Besides, the support of Obama is far more interesting than the bland and weird rejection by John McCain that he gave in a Honolulu Star-Bulletin interview last month:

Q: "Proponents of the Akaka Bill see the measure as overdue federal recognition of the rights of native Hawaiians to form their own government. Opponents see it as a 'Balkanization' of America. Please explain your views on the bill."

A: "I recognize the importance of preserving both Hawaii’s indigenous culture and its unique island culture. Hawaii is the most diverse place on earth, and I honor the extraordinary blend of races and cultures that have made the state such a special place. The Akaka Bill would compromise that special blend of peoples and cultures by creating a race-based separate nation that would differentiate treatment for the inhabitants of Hawaii based on blood type. The Hawaiian government has never been a race-based government, as a kingdom, a constitutional monarchy, a republic or a territory. I believe it would be a violation of King Kamehameha’s principles that — “All men are of one blood” — to divide Hawaii and Hawaiian families along racial lines.

I believe the Akaka Bill would be bad for the economy of Hawaii, all the people of Hawaii and for indigenous Hawaiians. Dividing people by race inevitably leads to racial discrimination and conflict. I am committed to helping those of every race who need assistance, and deeply committed to federal programs that preserve Hawaiian culture and identity for the benefit of all."

The Obama campaign in the final days of the Democratic primaries became very engaged with Native American tribes in Montana and South Dakota because of the large voting blocs they represent. A visit tot he Crow reservation in Montana culuminated in Obama being adopted into the Crow nation and given the names "Obama Black Eagle" and "One who helps all the people across the land."

Finally, before getting to the essay itself, I wanted to share a small bit of Native Alaskan info from the Democratic National Convention, that sadly got overshadowed when Palin got picked the next day. This info came via Brady Braves, who is a very good resource for tracking Native American mentions in American popular culture and political fights. Apparently one of the 10 lucky Obama supporters that got to join him backstage before his big speech on Thursday was a first time voter and Native Inupiaq from Alaska.

"Holly, a 20-year-old Alaska Native Inupiaq, is spending her summer break from Stanford University at the First Alaskans Organization interviewing native elders about their experiences with segregation. Holly is passionate about improving healthcare access for Native Americans, and protecting Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling. The 2008 presidential election is Holly's first as a voter. She says: "This was the first campaign I felt I needed to support. I don't have a lot of money, but I donate what I can because I believe in [Barack]." She will attend the convention with her mother who is the first Native American woman to pass the Alaska bar."

I hope that Holly, and other Alaskans such as Republican Mayor of Fairbanks Jim Whitaker who support Barack Obama, start making their voices heard and help to tear down the myths about Sarah Palin that John McCain's campaign is working to create and maintain. Palin is powerful so long as no one knows anything about her she is a powerful adversary and could help McCain win in November. But on the other hand, the more that her record that they are trying to assert is revealed to be false, or in the case of her "national security/foreign policy" credentials, proven to simply not be there, the less potent of a figure she'll be. This is the genius of McCain's pick, is that Sarah Palin has done so little, that all there really is to go on is what she appears to be. She is assigned huge titles like "reformer" and while there is so incredibly little evidence to support this, there is just as little evidence to contradict it. That's why its crucial for those who support Obama to constantly be putting out there, and in my case today, evidence of her poor relationship to Native Alaskans, what they can get their hands on, in hopes that in the next few weeks of campaigning, some of it might just stick to her, and might just help reveal the truth behind her lies.


An Alaska Native speaks out on Palin, Oil, and Alaska
By Evon Peter
evonpeter@mac. com

My name is Evon Peter; I am a former Chief of the Neetsaii Gwich'in tribe from Arctic Village, Alaska and the current Executive Director of Native Movement. My organization provides culturally based leadership development through offices in Alaska and Arizona. My wife, who is Navajo, and I have been based out of Flagstaff, Arizona for the past few years, although I travel home to Alaska in support of our initiatives there as well. It is interesting to me that my wife and I find ourselves as Indigenous people from the two states where McCain and Palin originate in their leadership.

I am writing this letter to raise awareness about the ongoing colonization and violation of human rights being carried out against Alaska Native peoples in the name of unsustainable progress, with a particular emphasis on the role of Sarah Palin and the Republican leadership. My hope is that it helps to elevate truth about the nature of Alaskan politics in relation to Alaska Native peoples and that it lays a framework for our path to justice.

Ever since the Russian claim to Alaska and the subsequent sale to the United States through the Treaty of Cession in 1867, the attitude and treatment towards Alaska Native peoples has been fairly consistent. We were initially referred to as less than human 'uncivilized tribes', so we were excluded from any dialogues and decisions regarding our lands, lives, and status. The dominating attitude within the Unites States at the time was called Manifest Destiny; that God had given Americans this> great land to take from the Indians because they were non-Christian and incapable of self-government. Over the years since that time, this framework for relating to Alaska Native peoples has become entrenched in the United States legislative and legal systems in an ongoing direct violation of our human rights.

What does this mean? Allow me to share an analogy. If a group of people were to arrive in your city and tell you their people had made laws, among which were:

1. What were once your home and land now belong to them (although you could live in the garage or backyard)

2. Forced you to send your children to boarding schools to learn their language and be acculturated into their ways with leaders who touted 'Kill the American, save the man' (based on the original statement made by US Captain Richard H. Pratt in regards to Native American education 'Kill the Indian, save the man.')

3. Supported missionaries and government agents to forcefully (for example, with poisons placed on the tongues of your children and withheld vaccines) convince you that your Jesus, Buddha, Torah, or Mohammed was actually an agent of evil and that salvation in the afterlife could only be found through believing otherwise

4. Made it illegal for you to continue to do your job to support your family, except under strict oversight and through extensive regulation

5. Made it illegal for you to own any land or run a business as an individual and did not allow you to participate in any form of their government, which controlled your life (voting or otherwise)

How would this make you feel? What if you also knew that if you were to retaliate, that you would be swiftly killed or incarcerated? How long do you think it would take for you to forget or would you be sure to share this history with your children with the hope that justice could one day prevail for your descendents? And most importantly to our conversation, how American does this sound to you?

To put this into perspective, my grandfather who helped to raise me in Arctic Village was born in 1904, just thirty-seven years after the United States laid claim to Alaska. If my grandfather had unjustly stolen your grandfathers home and I was still living in the house and watching you live outdoors, would you feel a change was in order?

Congress unilaterally passed most of the major US legislation that affect our people in my grandfathers' lifetime. There has never been a Treaty between Alaska Native Peoples and the United States over these injustices. Each time that Alaska Native people stand up for our rights, the US responds with token shifts in its laws and policies to appease the building discontent, yet avoiding the underlying injustice that I believe can be resolved if leadership in the United States would be willing to acknowledge the underlying injustice of its control over Alaska Native peoples, our lands, and our ways of life.

United States legal history in relation to Alaska Natives has been based on one major platform - minimize the potential for Alaska Native people to regain control of their lives, lands, and resources and maximize benefit to the United States government and its corporations.

While the rest of the world, following World War II, was seeking to return African and European Nations to their rightful owners, the United States pushed in the opposite direction by pulling the then Territory of Alaska out of the United Nations dialogues and pushing for Statehood into the Union. Why is it that Alaska Native Nations are still perceived as being incapable of€&½ governing our own lands, lives, and resources differently than African, Asian, and European nations?

Let me get specific about what is at stake and how this relates to Palin and the Republican leadership in Alaska and across this country. To this day, Alaska Native peoples are among the only Indigenous peoples in all of North America whose Indigenous Hunting and Fishing Rights have been extinguished by federal legislation and yet we are the most dependent people on this way of life. Most of our villages have no roads that connect them to cities; many live with poverty level incomes, and all rely to varying degrees on traditional hunting, fishing, and harvesting for survival. This has become known as the debate on Alaska Native Subsistence.

As Alaska Governor, Palin has continued the path of her predecessor Frank Murkowski in challenging attempts by Alaska Native people to regain their human right to their traditional way of life through subsistence.

The same piece of unilateral federal legislation, known as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, that extinguished our hunting and fishing rights, also extinguished all federal Alaska Native land claims and my Tribe's reservation status. In the continental United States, this sort of legislation is referred to as 'termination legislation' because it takes the rights of self-government away from Tribes. It is based in the same age-old idea that we are not capable of governing our people, lands, and resources. To justify these terminations, ANCSA also created Alaska Native led for-profit corporations (which were provided the remaining lands not taken by the government and a one time payment the equivalent of about 1/20th of the annual profits made by corporations in Alaska each year) with a mission of exploiting the land in partnership with the US government and outside corporations. It was a brilliant piece of legislation for the legal termination and cultural assimilation of Alaska Natives under the guise of progress.

Since the passage of ANCSA, political leaders in Alaska, with a few exceptions, have maintained that, as stated by indicted Senator Ted Stevens, 'Tribes have never existed in Alaska.' They maintain this position out of fear that the real injustice being carried out upon Alaska Natives may break into mainstream awareness and lead to a re-opening of due treaty dialogues between Alaska Native leaders and the federal government. At the same time the federal government chose to list Alaska Native tribes in the list of federally recognized tribes in 1993. Governor Palin maintains that tribes were federally recognized but that they do not have the same rights as the tribes in the continental United States to sovereignty and self-governance, even to the extent of legally challenging our Tribes rights pursuant to the Indian Child Welfare Act. What good are governments that can't make decisions concerning their own land and people?

The colonial mentality in and towards Alaska is to exploit the land and resources for profits and power, at the expense of Alaska Native people. Governor Palin reflects this attitude and perspective in her words and leadership. She comes from an area within Alaska that was settled by relocated agricultural families from the continental United States in the second half of the last century. It is striking that a leader from that particular area feels she has a right, considering all of the injustices to Alaska Native people, to offer Alaskan oil and resources in an attempt to solve the national energy crisis at the Republican Convention. Palin also chose not to mention the connection between oil development and global warming, which is wreaking havoc on Alaska Native villages, forcing some to begin the process of relocation at a cost sure to reach into the hundreds of millions.

Our tribes depend on healthy and abundant land and animals for our survival. For example, my people depend on the Porcupine Caribou herd, which migrates into the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge each spring to birth their young. Any disruption and contamination will directly impact the health and capacity for my people to continue to live in a homeland we have been blessed to live in for over 10,000 years. This is the sacrifice Palin offered to the nation. The worst part of it is that there are viable alternatives to addressing the energy crisis in the United States, yet Palin chooses options that very well may result in the extinguishment of some of the last remaining intact ecosystems and original cultures in all of North America. Palin is also promoting off shore oil drilling and increased mining in sensitive areas of Alaska, all of which would have a lifespan of far fewer years than my grandfather walked on this earth and which would not even make a smidgen of an impact on national consumption rates or longer term sustainability. McCain was once a champion of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and it is sad to see, that with Palin on board, he is no longer vocal and perhaps even giving up on what he believes in to satisfy Palin's position.

While I have much more to say, this is my current offering to elevate the conversation about what is at stake in Alaska and for Alaska Native peoples. Please share this offering with others and help us to make this an election that brings out honest dialogue. We have an opportunity to bring lasting change, but only if we can be open to hearing the truth about our situations and facing the challenges that

Many thanks to all those who are taking stands for a just and sustainable future for all of our future generations.

*This essay is a personal reflection and should not be attributed to my tribe or organization


zencomix said...

This another example of the Imperial Ambitions of the United States that gets scrubbed from the national dialogue, much the same way the U.S seizing of the Philippines in 1898 has been scrubbed from history curricula in American schools.

I remember reading an article in the past couple of years regarding the Canadian Government returning tribal lands.I don't remember which land and which tribes. Do you have any insight on that developement?

Michael Lujan Bevacqua said...

Thank you very much for your comment. I agree that almost all forms of American imperial expansion have either been excused as "manifest destiny" or have been scrubbed from history.

I'm sorry to say that I don't know much about Indigenous and Federal relations in Canada, so I can't help you with that question. If I come across anything I'll post another comment.


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