What if Native Americans were active parts of the US political process?
First, let me begin by stating that we (Natives) aren’t dead. We are very much alive and in large numbers. However, our absence from platforms such as the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention make me wonder how we would be integrated and why we continue to be displaced. I think this sad phenomenon revolves around two main issues: the politics and rhetoric of immigration and the more subtle (but just as important) instability of racial types (or what some may call “multiracialism”). In the latter, despite our all coming out of Africa several thousand years ago, the public consciousness in the United States revolves around the placement of Native people in the blood of its citizens. Everyone has the “Cherokee grandmother”. This makes being Native American a symbiotic relationship. Native America needs otherwise Black and White bodies to host it in their blood. In the former (which I focus on in this post) we must understand that the U.S. is incessantly drawn along lines of immigration and its control and promise. That is the very basis of the U.S. as a historical and political entity. In essence, if we are to discuss being Native American, we must discuss it as it sits between the rock and hard place of the evolution of the U.S. – that is, between the never dying notion that Native blood is forever captured in the average American genome and the politics of immigration to define the U.S. as a political entity.
Discussing immigrationalism is difficult, even to the point of being taboo. The notion of immigration is the legitimizing element in the crafting of the United States. Deny the immigrant and you deny the liberty that we all supposedly enjoy. The United States is paraded as a “melting pot”. Yet, despite all the immigration that this land has endured over the last 600 years, everyone has Native American ancestry.
If you remember, it was in 2008 that former Republican National Convention that vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin introduced us to her family. I remember being quite interested when she introduced her husband as partially Native American (part Inuit, I believe). To my knowledge, it was the first time that being partially Indian was a mantra that was used to win over votes in National politics. Outside Winona LaDuke, Native America had been significantly absent in any conversation about presidential politics. But, important here, I was enamored by the ease of the Palin family proposition, especially how being Indian (in this case partially Indian) stood starkly juxtaposed to the RNC’s hard stance against “illegal immigration” that Sarah Palin and John McCain ran on. In 2008, at the DNC, Barack Obama was a presidential candidate who happened to be Black (half Black because of his Kenyan father).
Fast forward to the 2012 RNC and DNC conventions and the presence of immigrationalism sits in stark, stark contradiction to the more subtle use of racial pandering in the 2008 election. In 2012, on the DNC side, there was a concerted effort to bridge the gap — Bill Clinton’s statement said it all: “I want a President who is cool on the outside, and burns for America on the inside”. Clinton, the ever-masterful puppeteer of words, utilized a metaphor that could be utilized according to the psychology of a particular individual: “cool” could mean “personally collected”, or it could easily mean that particular racial coding pushes us to appreciate a particular individual (eg. Being Black is beautiful and cool). The DNC paraded racial beauty across the board. They invited many people to speak: from black Civil Rights leaders to up and coming Asian and Latino leaders.
On the RNC side, the diversity was not as present, but there nevertheless. For example, Senator Rubio of Florida discussed his awareness of challenge and fear in his home country of Cuba. (I think it was comedian Dave Chapelle who mentioned that Cuban immigrants are treated much differently than Haitian or even Dominican immigrants because of pure racism. This cannot be forgotten. See short clip here) In the candidate acceptance speech, Romney hammered the idea that “we are a nation of immigrants.” As my good friend stated on Facebook, “Since when do we forget the chains that Black people came in…and the people who were here first?” I agree…the descendants of African slaves and Natives still suffocate under the fat derrière of democracy.
But let’s look at why the immigrant story is so powerful. The immigrant experience is alive. It is cutting edge. The immigrant story successfully ushered in the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The early assembly lines at Ford would have been non-existent without the resources of immigration. More recently, scholar and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz writes about it with freshness. He was recently showcased on National Public Radio, and his texts, many of which are personally derived tales, are stories of immigration (of its successes and discontents). Immigration is unlike other stories – ones of tradition, insularity, and historical rootedness. In these other stories there is really nothing to change political opinions, whereas the immigrant story is stimulating and serves as the lungs (the breathing apparatus) of the U.S. as a nation.
Watching the Republican and Democratic Conventions this year, it is obvious (though unstated) that the story of newness isn’t found by bringing Native American people or any other thematically decrepit American element to the stage. For example, if the Civil Rights movement is used as part of these convention platforms it is framed as the conduit through which contemporary politics were born. President Obama invited one of the “Little Rock Nine” to the White House to tell her how she paved the way for him to become President. After Obama’s inauguration in 2009, there were several news articles about how the living members of the LIttle Rock Nine took pride in his being elected.
Insularity and death – that which frames everyday life for Native Americans – aren’t motivational. It makes no sense to talk about the incredibly high rates of suicide and homicide among Native Americans. If Native America in any way ushered in Obama’s presidency, it is buried deep in the facts of colonialism. What is Obama to say, “Thanks for giving up lands, dying of disease, and suffering in many other ways so I could take advantage of the ‘American Dream'”? No other president has.
In that sense, I think of Native America as that deep marrow of the U.S. body politic – alive but invisible and not appreciated until it becomes cancerous. Major news networks televise programs that attempt to depict the death and decrepit situations on Native lands and in Native communities, and there is probably collective “awws” and other sighs before the “average” American family turns off the television, takes their nightly vitamin, and goes to bed. They wake up to CNN Headline News discussing political debates around immigration. You go to bed with your guilt, you wake up with your future. It’s ironic.
There is no denying the viability of immigrationalism as it defines U.S. politics, and it is often the antithesis to neoconservative fear mongering that often parades certain brown and black immigrants as un-American. There is something to be said about how immigration extends across the U.S. consciousness and across racial lines. Yet, there is also something to be said for its inability to properly showcase what ought to be present on the political stages of American politics.
This is not a nation of immigrants. It is a nation built upon tyranny and manipulation, which has been recently pressured by the politics of immigrationalism. What makes Rubio’s parading of Cuban suffering different and possibly more effective than a Native American parading the weekly hanging of an Indian on the Lakota Reservation? It is the fact that this inspiration, tucked softly away in another nation, is just present enough to inspire. To speak of Native realities in the same way would have much broader (and unwelcomed) implications.
We must understand this if we are to offer inclusion to all of our communities. We must understand this if we are to understand the politics on the Left (who parade the supposed diversity of its base) and the Right (who, as witnessed in the Tea Party organizations, seem to think its right to consider themselves the “Natives” of this land).