A Matter of Perspective – The Overton Window, Reservation Life and a Chain of Sorrow

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I’m not a Native American. I did not grow up on a Reservation. For the longest time, I had only been dimly aware of the extent and level to which Native Americans have been exploited, abused, repressed & discriminated against.

Even now, my awareness likely only begins to scratch the surface, and yet what I’ve learned over the past few years has brought anger, grief & frustration as my awareness of both past and present bureaucratic b.s. and institutionalized standards of cultural genocide has grown.

Recently, NPR put out a 3 part series called Native Survivors of Foster Care Return Home. (You can watch all three which are linked in the title.) Not too long ago, Metro Times posted a story called Chain of Sorrow that also speaks of the impact and legacy of Indian Boarding Schools.It’s a legacy of pain and sorrow that our nation should be ashamed of.

While reading the latter piece, a paragraph jumped out at me which can be read more than one way. The first way it occurred to me is likely due to my less-informed perspective – but, because of that, it may also be a reflection of a more wide-spread misunderstanding.

Here’s the paragraph, with the emphasis on the phrase that stuck out for me:

“It wasn’t just the boarding schools that brought this about. From the time Columbus landed in the New World, the assault on Indians, their culture and their religious ways has been relentless. Their sacred lands taken, the people murdered, the women raped and, at times, subjected to forced sterilizations, the deprivation of reservation life, the scourge of alcohol – all these had combined to cause his people to lose so much.”

[More below]

When I first read the paragraph, it didn’t sit right – I couldn’t understand what was meant by “the deprivation of reservation life” – it first processed in my mind as “children removed from the rez would be deprived of the quality of life on the rez”…which, in the article, was cited as being the reason ~why~ some parents let their children be taken in first place. So, my initial reaction/interpretation was – I hope – incorrect. It wasn’t that a child was being deprived of life among their people on the reservation – it was the fact that conditions on the reservation itself were usually harsh and oppressive, becoming yet another aspect of the type of harm done to Native Americans as part of an ongoing (if not always externally recognized) way to continue the same cultural genocide that had begun so many years before.

In either interpretation, however, the paragraph itself was both damning and dismal.

What dismayed me and prompted me to write this article was the thought that immediately followed: what if my first reading of the phrase was the intended interpretation?

That would be pretty sad – for it would present an unchallenged view of the reservation as false equivalent of a way to preserve cultures and traditions.

Sure, there is some of that in reservation life – but, for peoples who were forcibly relocated to unwanted expanses of real estate and who previously harbored little concept of “personal property” the way the settlers conceived of it – how much of their cultural heritage was already compromised? And how much was destroyed in the process of “re-settling” them, or in the subsequent efforts to get them to conform & integrate?

It may be the only current place where the traditions are able to be upheld, but if the belief that it’s “good” (versus a way to avoid total cultural extinction) is prevalent, then efforts to improve any relations or conditions are doomed…if not to failure, then to any sort of substantial reform without an awful lot of effort.

Efforts to undo (and prevent further) the whitewashing of our national history with regard to the treatment of Native Americans already have a tough row to hoe. If perspectives – and the associated Overton Window that helps frame them – are still predominantly akin to what my first reading of that paragraph came away with, then there’s a very long way to go before beneficial change (for Native Americans, in their perspective) can occur.

A parting thought, also from the Metro Times piece:

“The realization of just how much was stolen from these people begins to set in. It wasn’t just their land, or even their way of life. What was taken was their sense of self, leaving them spiritually wounded.

And it was done, in no small part, by taking their children.”

Help spread the word & increase awareness: share the links to the Metro Times & NPR pieces. And share a link to Native American Netroots, too: there, people can find a great deal of information – both historical and current – about cultures, customs and ongoing issues.

Thank you.

How did you interpret that line in the selected paragraph?

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  1. severe winter heating issues brought to light recently.

    If someone has a great link to show the past pieces and any ongoing efforts to help prepare in advance of the coming winter, please include them here.

  2. …and refuge is not a new one. Dismal and protective simultaneously, though the latter only with great struggle.

    I was not born on a reservation either, but my grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles and many cousins were. For us, living in the modern world has always been a struggle for balance. We seek to achieve balance between tradition/heritage and the 99% non-Indian world, between reservation life and the “outside.” We try but we never quite succeed, but that doesn’t stop us from trying or from each of us coming up with our own unique blend of the two. What is most difficult for those of us who don’t live on the reservation, and for many who do, is imparting the need for balance to our children and grandchildren.

    Just how hard can be demonstrated by recent statistics from the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe and largest reservation in the U.S. Among those over 17, some 83% speak the Navajo language, Diné bizaad. Among those under 17, the figure is only 56%. Compared with other tribes – there are only 200 Creek-speaking Seminoles in Florida, for instance, and they average age 60 – that’s still an impressive percentage, and there are major efforts to keep it from sliding further because losing a language is one of the key components of weakening a culture, breaking bonds.

    As we all know too well, most reservations suffer phenomenal rates of poverty and the associated ills. There is a way to fix that: honor the broken treaties. But efforts to accomplish that, by protest and by legal means, have succeeded only around the edges.

  3. “yes and no.”

    “Yes,” insofar as the passage, as written, is subject to both interpretations.  (Although, reading it, I’m reasonably sure that the writer intended to convey “the hardships of reservation of life,” not “the separation from reservation life.”

    “No,” because it’s a perfect example of how the outside world misses the point.

    Yes, for many – perhaps most – tribes, herding us onto reservations involved significant relocations.  For some, though, it was a more localized event – e.g., confining people to a geographically much smaller section of their ancestral lands.  And for some – the Pueblos come to mind – they remain on lands that have been theirs for millennia (although, again, a smaller land area).

    So for some, the cultural and spiritual ties to the land has never been truly severed.  For others, those ties have been severed, but they’ve managed to rebuild around the land where they’ve been for the last ~200 years.

    But even for those who were completely relocated, ripping their children away now is just as damaging.  And most Indians I know, of any tribe, reject the notion that “separating from reservation life” is a good thing.  It’s why so many folks who do live elsewhere return for gatherings and ceremonial seasons; it’s why those of us who are/were raised outside that environment feel a bit lost without having those essential (in both senses of the word) ties. Indian reservation life is much, much more than the low annual incomes, the freezing, the starving, the health problems, the other issues.  Those make life much more difficult, and yes, sometimes impossible.  But for people whose very identities are tied to each other, to the land, and to the private traditions that have sustained them for millennia, it can very well be much more damaging (on both a cultural and an individual level), to impose change from without the alters those relationships in fundamental ways.  

    This is why I’m so insistent about supporting tribal/Indian-led initiatives for improvement, and NOT those from outside.  Because THIS is the part they miss – and coming from such a culturally foreign perspective, most of them, in my experience, either can’t or won’t really make an effort to understand.

    I guess what I’m saying is that this presents as an either/or, and neither the “either” nor the “or” captures the whole of the real dilemma.  And this is not a criticism of you.  It’s a criticism of the news item (which may be the fault of an editor, not the reporter – or it may be both).  And it’s an attempt to shine a little bit of light on one very small aspect of the cultural misunderstandings that bedevil our relations with the outside world.

  4. that life on the rez is a negative one, completely misunderstanding how important being with our families and living on our land is so important to maintaining our culture.

    Life on the rez is made difficult by the endemic poverty and the grief that comes with that but why are our reservations so poor?  

    Because they have NEVER been rebuilt after our wars.

    We have many people who live on reservations who are dedicated to maintaining our various Indian cultures and fighting against those who continue to rob us of our children or any resources they want. If we could get the help we need to rebuild then life on the rez would not be referred to as deprived.

    Who is depriving us?

    Everyone not fighting to help us.

  5. I’m still learning; the one thing I know is that I have a long way to go, and that I’m not alone in my quest to learn more & to help where I can.

    Meteor Blades: Is there a comprehensive list of the treaties that have been broken, with any specifics spelled out so that the implications of the broken treaties & the impact that has had – as well as the impact that repairing / honoring the treaty would have – anywhere that people could go & read?

    Aji: Thank you for your explanation. I have a sense – not a clear one, but at least a vague generality – of what you are describing. I’d written a piece a long time ago for ePluribus Media that touched upon some aspects (), but the piece that (in my mind, at this moment) which most closely echoes what you’re saying is another one – . It deals with the issue of how outside intervention in the Arab world would only serve to prolong conflict and delay the opportunity of the people there to take control of their own lives – change can’t be forced, but must come from within, in a sense.

    With regard to improving life on the rez, the way to approach it should be determined by those on the rez, while non-Native people simply have one true responsibility if they really want to help: honor the treaties they’d made in the first place.

    Navajo: “if we could get the help we need” – a self-enabling help, not an imposed “help” as others interpret it to mean…and again, I think it still boils down to (primarily?) honoring the treaties.

    Question: does honoring the treatings also ensure an end to forced relocation/seizure of children, as the (among others) still currently do?

    Or is that something which is or would be interpreted as a “loophole” requiring new treaties to close…?

    Would more progress with regard to tribal sovereignty help there? (Recognizing that tribal sovereignty is likely tied closely with honoring the treaties – I’m not sure how much would change if most or all of the broken treaties were suddenly honored & sacrosanct come the dawn, but I wouldn’t mind finding out.)

  6. The following was posted in the comments of the Daily Kos crosspost of this piece:

    I have only one thing to add….

    Currently our History, as taught at the public school level, usually only includes the European-American perspective on the conquest of the lands of this Country. Like GreyHawk, (at least that’s my feeling from above) I was not aware that this teaching might have been seriously flawed until my late teens. In my case, this occurred when I took a college level history class that seriously challenged the bias of what I had been spoon-fed in public school.

    I currently live in a very liberal part of the country. And some public school History classes, at even the elementary levels, teach  what I believe to be a much more truthful reflection of our Country’s history than I received when I was in school.

    Of course, it is not enough, and is inaccurate in its omissions.

    But. What should be done?

    Educating the next generation to historical facts is first in my opinion.

    What is next?

    by peachcreek on

    It’s a good observation, and a good question, but the process of correcting the omitted, and when not omitted then criminally undermined, historical facts is a major issue: it’s not easily corrected.

    I responded with this:

    Even if you live in a progressive area –

    be that a town, county, state or region – the textbooks used in education (“edumacation”) are influenced by the biggest buyers…so, places like TX with their ultra-conservative, history-rewriting conservatively-biased committees that are constantly undermining & dissing the quality of education in our nation.

    Educating the next generation to real historical facts? Much harder than it looks. Right now, conservatives are setting ~that~ agenda, which in turn allow them to gain a mythology-based heads-up on progressives regardless of where they are.

    In a way, they’ve reverse-engineered their process of cultural genocide and created a method to help bolster cultural & generational mind-numbing.

    In order to fix anything at the basic level, we’ve got to interrupt / disrupt their control of our core educational tenets – or the real battle to properly inform people begins far too late in the educational and formative process. And conservatives are working to ensure that public higher education isn’t as easy or as high in quality as private in order to preserve their capacity to control the dialogue – by ensuring that most of the public starts off uninformed, misinformed and unable to think for themselves.

    It’s working, and all too well.

    They are operating with a multiple-pronged approach. We need to disrupt and seize control of the dialogue, as well as eliminate their influence at all levels, if we are to have a chance to help anyone. :/

    Her Final Year for print or Kindle / ePluribus Media / My Store

    by GreyHawk on

    Fixing the problem with education is a major issue. There are many issues, levels and layers that help reinforce the disassociation from historical fact and contemporary racism as well as bolster the cultural capacity to relegate Native issues to a virtual blind spot in our national capacity to look at “ourselves” – leading to the reinforced support of the problems of “the invisible Indian” and a string of broken treaties.

    Public education is only one issue, and yet it’s also a major hurdle that people at large don’t appear to realize the importance of, for the most part.

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