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Italian Insult: Comparing Their Troubles to 'Living on a Reservation'

Julianne Jennings
12/22/13

How American Indians became concentrated on reservations is a complicated story that most Americans know only very little about, let alone Italians, who have recently compared their economic crisis to that of “living on an Indian reservation.” Granted, Italy has had one of the most sluggish economies in the world for more than a decade. But what do they really know about reservation life when their assertions are based on Hollywood’s early cinematic incarnations. Take Geronimo for example, usually played by an Italian actor wearing bronze shoe polish, and was among antagonists of manifest destiny that helped feed vivid images of the state of American culture at that time. Yet, Geronimo’s action packed exploits and chronic reservation jumping, are from which great movies are made, but far from historical reality—the bedrock frontier faith that the West needs “civilizing” came at the point of a gun.

Starting with the first armed conflict in Colonial America against the Pequot at their Mystic Fort in Connecticut in 1636-7, and again, with the bloody King Philip’s War in1675-6, crushing New England Indian autonomy forever. In both tragic events, Indian heads, arms and legs were chopped off; others were sold as concubines, indentured to serve in colonial households, divided among other tribes, or shipped out of the region to be sold as slaves to remote areas such as Bermuda’s Island chain or elsewhere. By confining Indians to narrow limits and resources would “allegedly” bring them under control by the new English. Eventually, the policy of removal and isolating Indians would be inaugurated by the United States in 1786, and soon followed by Canada under both French and English control, but received its first legal justification during the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to avoid disputes in regard to boundaries attributed primarily to increasing white settlement.

Subsequent to the passage of this legislation, most Indians living east of the Mississippi were forcibly relocated to areas to the west of the river. These groups included the Seneca, who were forced to leave the state of New York and ended up in what is now northeastern Oklahoma; the Saulk, who once occupied lands in the Midwest, now live in a small area in northern central Oklahoma; and the Cherokee, who were marched out in a “Trail of Tears” from the Southeast for eastern Oklahoma. In accordance with this plan the present Oklahoma, with the greater portion of what is now Kansas, was soon after constituted a territory, under the name of “Indian Territory,” as a permanent home for the tribes to be removed from the settled portions of the United States.

American Indians who did not move west of the Mississippi, had to give up large portions of their ancestral homelands over which they had previously occupied, and now concentrated on increasingly small and geographically isolated areas to which they had no connection causing radical changes in their habits and customs, and was the initiatory step toward the treatment and management of the “Indian problem.”

Even Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide was owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. “He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the Wild West; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.”

Italy’s use of the word reservation maybe scornful at best, but worthy of serious consideration: In a recent article written by Lorenzo Totaro (2013, October 31), Unemployment rate soars to record high on recession, Italy News reports, “The unemployment rate for people between the ages of 15 and 24 rose to a historic high of 40.4 percent in September from 40.2 percent (Internal Organization of the Italian National Institute of Statistics, 2013). It had originally reported an August unemployment rate of 12.2 percent. “Youth unemployment is the true nightmare of our country,” Prime Minister Enrico Letta said in October and warned of the risk of a “lost generation.” Letta’s government projects the country’s unemployment rate will reach 12.4 percent next year, according to the Treasury in a report in September.”

In addition to unemployment concerns, Italy’s tax burden climbed to 44 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, compared to 42.5 percent in 2011, according to the Bank of Italy. This means the country has the fourth-highest tax burden in the Eurozone, alongside Finland, and the sixth-highest in the European Union as a whole. The people are being squeezed like lemons, and are struggling to soldier on.

Lee Crowchild (TsuuT’ina Nation, Canada) asserts, “Well I can see that they can compare those things to a reserve, but they don't know the strength that rises up out of reserves either.” Lee continues, “If we say stuff like that it’s because we have learned to accept our reality and can laugh at it. When it is said from people who at one time represented and still act as our oppressors then it is just another way of putting themselves above us, inferring that being like us makes them less human and that they will rise above our perceived ideas of poverty and be better than us.”

Jason Evers Johnson (Cherokee), originally from Atlanta Georgia, now living in Perugia, Italy says, “Well, it’s amusing and sometimes cringe worthy, but I'm pretty certain if you look at the chromosomes of Italians, there’s one dedicated solely to hyperbole.” Lorraine Baker (Nottoway) adds, “The Italians are oppressed by their own people. The American Indian has a history of being oppressed by invaders and themselves.”

“Ridiculous that they would say such a thing,” says Allan Finnegan (Mi’kmaq). “Have they ever experienced the taking away of their homelands, or their religion? What about the demoralization of the family unit through alcohol and alcoholism, which was first introduced by the conquering Europeans. Have their women experienced forced sterilization, or had their children taken away in the dead of the night? No.” And Bill Martineau (Abeniki) asks, “Wasn’t Columbus an Italian? Wonder how that situation would really work out . . . genocide amongst their own.”

Simply stated, “Oppression in any language is oppression” says, Basma Samira (Hopi-Caribe); and she’s right.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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jomullen's picture
Perhaps such comments as those made by Italians can be explained by ignorance. Thinking about it, the only movie I remember set on a reservation was _Smoke Signals_, Other movies alluded to reservations, but did not go into the day-to-day activities. That movie played in town only a few days and there were not a lot of people in the theater when we saw it. In the course of my work, I've been on reservations, pueblos TJAs and other NDN land, but I have never lived there. (I'm Irish). I think the problem is in conveying to the vast majority of people living in the US what it is like. It is a lot to absorb in a single article or a series of articles. What is probably needed is something like _The Jeffersons_ in a reservation setting so that the uninformed can learn the story bit by bit.
jomullen