Remembering Indigenous History: The Past Is Never Over

T. Lulani Arquette

Over the years, when discussing Indigenous history and many of the injustices perpetrated upon the Native peoples who populate what is now Hawai’i, Alaska and the continental U.S., I’ve often heard people say, “That’s history and things are better now” or “What’s [in the] past has passed; its time to move forward.”

I believe Native peoples have moved forward and are thriving in many instances. Cultures and languages are being strengthened, Native businesses and organizations are numerous, and a path has been laid for a whole new generation of tech savvy Indigenous leaders. There are Native lawyers, doctors, Ph.D.s, teachers, athletes, entertainers and artists.

It’s important to remember that our progress as Native peoples has been gradual and each generation is furthering the work of the last. Our progress is the culmination of 50 years of marches, protests and lobbying. My generation experienced the unrest of the late 60s and turbulent 70s. In the 80s and 90s, there were endless nights of deep discussion and debate about self-determination, Native rights, land and resource issues, and subsequent testimony and legislation.

The importance of one’s ancestry and culture was profound. Many of us sought out and listened to our elders speak about values and community; we participated in sacred ceremonies. Questions were pondered such as what it meant to be Native Hawaiian (in my case) or a member of another particular tribe or Indigenous group. If we didn’t speak our languages, we learned enough to understand the deeper knowledge of our cultures, and we encouraged our children to learn their language. Always, always, always, we sought out and remembered our history that came before us, no matter how painful and traumatic.

Through remembering, we didn’t seek to punish others, or even ourselves for our own inadequacies. The remembering created a space for deep emotion and reflection. It honored all the sacrifices of those involved, both heroes and ordinary people, some who died early in the struggles. We wanted those governments and institutions that had continued to uphold the wrongdoing to apologize, to denounce the horrible mistakes of their forbears, and agree to stop destructive practices that dehumanize the Indigenous peoples of Hawai’i, Alaska, and the Americas. We wanted them to change and work with us to make it right. The remembering is empowering and provocative…it is also brutally honest and gut wrenching.

This remembering is necessary for every Indigenous person, every citizen of this country, and others with an interest in the truth. Through the remembering, we all gain knowledge and are able to take action. The remembering allows us to heal and move on, and to create positive change collectively. We feel more fulfilled and aware.

Just as important, if we allow it, the remembering fosters sublime creativity. The remembering brought my generation of Native peoples (baby boomers in Western terms) to where we are today. With immense courage we fought for the passage of new laws, sat at boardroom tables, and ignored the naysayers. Our creativity poured forth in literature, films, and music that influenced the world. We championed our cultures, values, and languages in the education system and in the workplace.

Respect, humility, and service to others were always there amidst the conflict and struggles. So when I hear someone imply, “The past is over…Native peoples need to move on,” I think to myself, “The past is never over, it’s part of the very fiber of my “being.” The truth is we are moving on and will continue to do whatever it takes to make this country and world a better place for everyone.

Part of this “moving on effort” involves telling the truth about history. What many in America don’t realize to this day, both Native and non-Native, is the sordid influence of the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD) which laid the groundwork for over five centuries of colonial oppression and still influences American policy and actions toward indigenous peoples today. Ask people if they know what this is, or what it stands for. While there are groups such as the Seventh Generation Fund and others rightfully working to educate people about the DOD, most people do not realize how pervasively destructive it has been to indigenous peoples and other ethnic groups worldwide.

The DOD is rooted in history, yes the “deep past,” that some people say we should “get over” and forget about. Its false precepts are imbedded in the subconscious of every single person who has grown up in this country, regardless of race or citizenship, because it is the very root of the fundamental philosophy on which Western Europe and America were founded and expanded. The Doctrine of Discovery is one of the most damaging philosophies ever created in the history of mankind.

T. Lulani Arquette (Native Hawaiian) is President and CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Vancouver, Washington.

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smartphoenixnavajo's picture
"Our progress is the culmination of 50 years of marches, protests and lobbying." I think you meant, 'your progress'. Certainly not my progress, as a full Navajo, and certainly not my mother or grandmother's, who is well over 90 years old and out of your 50 year time-frame. This issue for me is, time and time again, we have one, maybe more native people(s), speaking or writing, for all. This is not, nor is it ever the case. Each group, tribe, nation, person, etc., faces its own destiny, for many reasons. I would be more than pleased, if native people(s) would stop writing and talking about, losing this and that, and begin or continue to be a role model, by practicing your respective cultural ways. By following and practicing 'your way' given to you, you can heal and still remember. There is no walking in 'two-worlds' or 'moving on' about it. If you are unbalanced, heal. Its better than talking and writing words. As a Navajo, I continue to be with and speak with the Holy People, who have been with us since time began. I have not desired to assimilate into other native or non-native cultural practices. They, Holy People, have given me everything, I am them and they are me, simple. Most of all, being a role model, in my opinion, is the best way you can carry on your tradition and cultural ways, materially and non-materially. Then the story can be of some, we read and see here sometimes, of native peoples doing their 'thing'. Being in balance and showing the world, how we really are, at our best and when we practice and not preach about 'our' ways.
tmsyr11's picture
In response to “Remembering Indigenous History: The Past is Never Over”, it isn’t just the Tribes anymore but the United States as a country. Particularly in the past 10 years following the internet sensation, much of what was traditional, standard, American commonplace is quickly being replaced with re-interpretations, redefinitions, and reanalysis of communities, livlihoods, and principles. Like the impact to the indigenous history, the changes in the US aren’t always for the common good of society. Changes in the name of “Progression” are apparent more and more as “Regression” particularly to our primitive instincts. With NO MORAL COMPASSES as in living in accordance with common, greater belief on history/traditions/practices, the United States is left in empty state/vacuum; void of any history OR tradition. By looking at future of Indian tribes today, as an indicator of how regressive American society has become, other than those exceptions, the future doesn’t look bright not account of just the younger indian generation anymore but on the increasingly irresponsibility behaviors of the older indian generations. But like the vast majority of UNHEARD/MEDIA-IGNORED collective Americans crying foul and holding onto traditions, there is still hope and some future for Indians and Americans alike for true and honest progression mired in “Remembering Indigenous American History: The Past is Never Over”.
michaelmack's picture
..."the TRUTH about history... this concept is largely absent in the consciousness of the Euro-American mindset when it comes to examining U.S. history. The truly unfortunate thing about this absence is that it robs the U.S. of the reflections necessary to learn from our past. Does any American today not look across this nation and not see the messes we have gotten ourselves into - the political circuses, the declining churches, increasing random violence, the time and wasted resources squabbling over universal health care, same-sex marriage, etc. etc. etc.? Why are we so at odds with each other as other nations move forward? Because the U.S. has never taken the time, nor has it ever considered worth the effort, to examine our REAL history. All sides in contemporary America are behaving like spoiled, self-indulgence adolescents trying to bully their opponents, shut them up, or resort to name calling. These are not the attitudes and actions of mature or maturing nations. The U.S.'s failure to take an honest look at itself, starting from the very beginning, only assures our continuing social, economic, and moral decline. Strangely sad that a nation that prided itself on being the world leader of all things good, cannot see its' need to learn from the ENTIRE truth of its past. Mature individuals only become mature because they have taken the time and effort to assess themselves accurately - positive and negative. Likewise nations need to do the same. World history is full of examples of nations that refused to take accurate assessments of themselves and put for the effort to change. Until the U.S. becomes willing to grow up, willing to examine the entire TRUTH of its history and not settle for some sanitized “feel good” version, it is guaranteeing that it will join the ranks those nations that set themselves up for failure.