Native Americans

It is not easy for non-Native Americans to write intelligently and truthfully about Native American issues. So I am glad to have found this piece of writing that explores a very painful area of the experience of Native Americans living within the US. This is a very sad story but it must be told in “white America,” and here is the link:

 I would like to comment in several ways.

1.    I have written a number of times about the horrible history of our treatment of Native Americans, so I won’t go into that here. You have to have a certain knowledge of that in order to fully appreciate what this author is saying. However, I would like to add this: “European/white America” has some very good reasons for closing its eyes to the misery of the Native Americans. When I was a little kid in the 1950s I watched a lot of Westerns–they were very popular then. Even as a kid, however, I was less taken by the actions and persons in the stories than by the majestic backdrop of the stories, the deserts and mountains, the wilderness. It all seemed so marvelous! As I grew up and developed a critical mindset, I watched more Westerns because I was still fascinated by them, but this time I recognized the mythological nature of the stories and presentations. The “mythology of America” is almost totally captured in these depictions, whether it be in cheap, almost laughable dramas, or in artistic masterpieces like some of the John Ford movies, or Lonesome Dove, or Peckinpaugh’s Wild Bunch, or Eastwood’s I would venture so far as to say that you really don’t have a grasp of the mythology that imbues the American self-identity until you begin to understand the role these Westerns played in all that.

Now the depiction of Native Americans in all these Westerns, almost without exception, is ludicrous, offensive, demeaning and just plain false in all kinds of details. So often the Native American was portrayed as an enemy to be conquered, or as an “obstacle” to progress, or as some simpleton who needed White Man to take care of him. These kinds of images deeply infected the mindset of all of us non-Native Americans. The result was the Reservation and “life on the Rez” with all its problems.

 2.  The trouble for Native Americans has been compounded by the fact that some tribes and some parts of some tribal leadership has sold out to white culture and white ways of doing things. Thus you have this strange phenomenon of “Indian Casinos”–which are not even run by Native Americans in most cases–simply that the tribe gets some of the money made because the casino is on Indian land. You also have this phenomenon where certain mining companies have been able to extract various minerals from Native American lands with very little regard for true environmental responsibility. They should not even have been allowed on that sacred land, but, alas, pay-offs are made, and so it goes… This kind of sell-out is like a cancerous tumor within the modern Native American culture, and it has had a destructive effect on its spirit, even as yes some have been made economically well-off to a certain degree.


3.  There is an eerie similarity between what happened to the Palestinians and the Native Americans. In both cases you have disposession and subjugation–and at times outright murder, better called “genocide.” I think the author of this piece is quite correct in emphasizing it as “spiritual genocide”–yes, a lot of Native Americans have been brutally killed by “whitey” but the ones that are around now have been mostly the target of what is truly a “spiritual genocide”–a total evisceration of their religious consciousness and self-understanding via their culture and language.


4.  One of the sad things about the Native American situation is that they don’t have spiritual leadership now on the level of say a Gandhi or even a Martin Luther King. They need to unify against the oppressive culture and find resources within themselves and within their culture to overcome that “spiritual subjugation.” It is not simply an economic problem with an economic solution–like jobs on the Rez–no, in fact that leads to some of these other distortions like casinos and mining. What happens with some of these young Native Americans is that they take in a white culture set of values in part without realizing it in some cases(like a poison pill) and then are driven to depression as they cannot fully realize these values. In that regard they have to re-vision their life completely differently and not be afraid to move in a completely different direction. Gandhi tried to break the hold the British power structure had first of all on the minds and souls of the Indians; then came the political freedom. Without profound spiritual leadership (and that means seeing things beyond one’s own tribal concerns), young Native Americans will either sink into a cancerous depression or else completely sell out to white culture and become just like them. In either case, the genocide that started in 1492 will be complete.


5. What is especially sad for me in reading this piece is to see the really horrible kind of Christianity that has been inflicted on these people. Just like centuries ago, this Christianity is a “tool of the oppressor.” It comes from the outside as an intruder into the Native American psyche and cultural values and has no inkling of the language needed to speak to and to LEARN from these people. And, PLEASE, this means a lot more than a priest putting on feathers to celebrate Mass or smoking a peace pipe. The situation is very analogous to the situation Abhishiktananda encountered in India where so many priests and religious, even Indian ones, wanted to be “more Roman and European” than Indian. What this story hints at is the enormous problem that Christianity has when it meets a new culture and a new–but thoroughly valid and profound–religious consciousness.