Young Northwest leaders challenge racism as philosophy
The range of ideas covered by political philosophy and opinion is vast
these days. Sometimes it's hard to predict who will fire at "the Indians"
next or from what vantage point.
Understanding and critically examining the public discourse, which includes
identifying ideologies and groups whose missions include the reduction and
destruction of American Indian peoples, is crucial for tribal leadership in
this age of communication. With the communication of ideas -- even bad ones
-- more prevalent today through the explosion of the Internet and rapidly
advancing telecommunications, it has become increasingly important that
tribal leaders comprehend the nature and ramifications of this new era.
Hence, we were delighted to participate in an intense and innovative
training seminar for American Indian youth this summer. Held on the campus
of the University of Washington in Seattle, the Northwest Young Nations
Leadership Challenge brought together some 40 Native high school students
from that region to nurture and strengthen their leadership potential. The
seminar's central themes included drawing awareness to a seemingly rising
tide of anti-Indian rhetoric at the national level and encouraging the
development of pragmatic communications skills tribal leadership needs to
Veteran American Indian educator Robey Clark, of the Northwest Regional
Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore., in partnership with the
Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the
University of Washington, designed within the program sessions that
examined attacks on Indian peoples that were found within mainstream
newspapers and in columns distributed by organizations such as the Ayn Rand
Institute. The students worked together in teams to conduct research
sessions designed to rebut much of the misinformation contained within the
anti-Indian writings, including one written by a schoolteacher (believe it
if you will) from the state of Maine and another written by Michael S.
Berliner, a board member of the ARI.
Following the research sessions, the students developed theatrical
performances aimed at pointing out the falsehoods, contradictions and
hypocrisies prevalent in the articles. Clearly visible over the course of
the three-day seminar was the growth and development of the students in
their abilities to work together as teams and in their self-confidence and
intellectual awareness. Encouraging and motivating the students were
prominent educators Denny Hurtado and John Pope of WOSPI, along with Nancy
"Lynn" Palmanteer-Holder of Washington University and Indian Country
Today's Executive Editor Tim Johnson. We congratulate all those who worked
to make the seminar a success and encourage tribal educators across the
country to replicate the methodologies of the Young Nations Leadership
Challenge. It deals with building up the skills necessary for encountering
the real world.
Since the seminar, of course, the public discourse dealing with American
Indian peoples and our issues continues unabated. The wordsmith warriors of
ARI, as but one example, continue to slice away with abandon against the
very notion of Indian peoples, cultures and nations.
The ARI is a "think tank" that purports to represent the vanguard of a
movement of adherents of the philosophy of "objectivism," brainstorm of
noted Russian-American philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. It has a wide
circle of writers and commentators who prodigiously produce opinion pieces
and letters to the editor.
Often interesting, if always doctrinaire, ARI's positions grow out of
objectivism, in which reason, individualism and capitalism are central
guideposts. Objectivists appear strongly libertarian about personal
behavior, interestingly against faith-based politics, while being
completely domineering and insulting against Indians and Native peoples as
legitimate communities of human beings. Their arguments are presented in
directly anti-Indian fashion and in the general context of disdain for
multi-cultural concerns of any kind. Willing to rail insultingly against
entire peoples, they do so with facile arguments spoken gravelly as
absolute truths, as if they had no possible response.
So be it -- as many organizations such as this decide purposely to be
divisive, to see no trees but for the forest they would happily cut down to
impose their favored ideology, even if desolate and bigoted. But there is
response. As Vine Deloria Jr. said deliciously once: "We talk, you listen."
Let's consider one argument by ARI writer Thomas A. Bowden, who posits that
"[b]efore Europeans arrived, the scattered tribes occupying North America
lived in abject poverty, ignorance and superstition."
This preposterously all-encompassing statement fails of its own illogic by
lumping hugely diverse situations and cultures together as one.
* "Scattered"? No; the tribes were all very much in place. Even so-called
"nomadic" tribes simply moved for economic reasons, but within specific
territories and within patterns of long-term inhabitation incomprehensible
to most Westerners at the time. These facts obviously remain imperceptible
to the bunch at ARI.
* "Abject poverty"? Oh? Like the overcrowded, squalid and
disease-incubating cities of Spain, England, France, Germany and Holland?
Countries whose destitute peasantry was corralled under lords and kings and
who gladly invaded other peoples' lands, stealing everything in sight,
killing off indigenous peoples and voraciously consuming all means of
Periods of want and famine are natural for hunting and gathering cultures;
but overall, as Stanley Diamond showed in his book "In Search of the
Primitive," the life-supporting economic practices of indigenous peoples
(when free from rapacious settlers and exploiters) often provided quite
well for human needs and build socially balanced interdependency and
inter-support among peoples. This community-building skill is essential for
most human societies still connected to their places of origin. Indian
poverty was the result of contact with Europeans.
* "Ignorance and superstition"? Oh? As opposed to bleeding diseases out of
people, or burning heretics and witches at the stake by the hundreds? Time
and again, history shows how Natives' vast, traditional knowledge of
natural medicines and food crops, reflecting ages-old concepts and
tried-and-true practices, contributed to humankind a huge treasure of
productive achievement. In fact, and as but one example, the folks at ARI
might starve if they were to stop eating Indian foods. Were there religious
excesses in some Native cultures? No doubt. Was there a dialectic of change
and progress in its own non-Western logic? Of course.
Bowden tried to soften his superior attitude by asserting that this reality
of lesser human quality, the inferiority of the Natives, is "not due to any
racial inferiority, but because that is how all mankind starts out
The "science" of the ascendant steps to "civilization" is what all human
societies are assumed to go through. You know, "white man's burden" and all
that. No doubt human societies and cultures grow, shrink, adapt and even
progress. But implicit in Bowden's old-hat argument is that the European is
beyond the "state of barbarism," whereas the Indians were or are not. This
explains the "superiority" straightaway, as inherent in the relationship
between the "developed West" and the rest of the peoples of the world.
He is saying: "We went through the steps of civilization and you did not.
Ergo, we are superior to you." Such an assumption of superiority sets the
rationalizations, and positions the true motivations that follow -- namely,
the legitimization of conquest and the stealing of Indian land and
Bowden argued that America's policies toward Indians, which he described as
"generally benign," only erred by "treating Indians collectively, as
'nations' entitled to permanent occupancy of semi-sovereign reservations."
He went on, in the most brazen language of the U.S. termination policy era,
that "[i]nstead, Indians should have been treated as individuals deserving
full and equal American citizenship in exchange for embracing individual
rights, including private ownership of land." Of course, any serious
student of American Indian history can read between these lines. By
destroying Indian governments, their lands are opened up to non-Indian
ownership, a la the General Allotment Act or Dawes Act of 1887.
The ARI writers, among others, distort how most Native peoples see
themselves. The lesson for American Indian leaders is to notice how these
organizations have proliferated across North America and how often and how
many of them carry -- directly and indirectly -- damaging and often bigoted
positions against American Indians and our rights to self-government. The
fact that across North America most Indians will assert that only through
the right of tribal self-government can their peoples prosper is completely
lost on Bowden and, apparently, the ARI. Or maybe not.
Here is the argument extended to the polemics of today. According to these
would-be followers of Rand: "Multiculturalism is the view that all
cultures, from that of a spirits-worshiping tribe to that of an advanced
industrial civilization, are equal in value."
Pitting the "value of a free, industrialized civilization" against what it
calls "primitive tribalism," ARI writers equate this struggle as between
what is "life promoting [read: civilization] from that which is life
negating [read: American Indian culture]."
This is intellectually dishonest. The proper approach to the understanding
of culture does not ignorantly pit one whole culture against another.
Rather, the question is one of understanding the superlatives as well as
other possible scales of positive and negative (which found in every
society) rather than the racist and decrepit idea of the inherent
superiority of the West.
Here is the ARI's take on Columbus Day: "On Columbus Day, we celebrate the
civilization whose entrepreneurs, men such as Rockefeller, Ford, and Gates,
transformed an inhospitable wilderness populated by frightened savages into
a wealthy nation of self-confident producers served by highways, power
plants, computers, and thousands of other life-enhancing products."
"Frightened savages"? What insult could be next? Rand -- the deep and
talented thinker, whose name and memory are evoked by these racist polemics
-- should be turning in her grave. So too should our ancestors who watch as
Indian country fails to act responsibly to the venom that works its poison
in the public discourse. Strength and courage of conviction to our young