New Passports for Native Americans

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The brazen nerve of President Trump in having the painting of Andrew Jackson, not so affectionately known as "the Indian Killer," moved into the Oval Office for prominent display set my mind working on why this would happen now.

I have thought long and hard about a fitting response to the pain caused by the newly displayed Jackson painting in the oval office.

It seems to me that if we are serious about honoring the treaties we made with Native Americans in good faith and obeying our own laws, it is time for Native American tribes to carry their own passports as sovereign nations within the United States.

This is not a new idea. The Haudenosaunee people, better known as the Iroquois Confederacy, have carried their own passports for years, with mixed results. The Six Nations of the Iroquois invented the game of Lacrosse and, while the game is now played all over the world, they are still among the very best players on earth. They participate in world championships and though some countries accept and honor their passports, the U.S., Canada and the U.K. do not. This has caused them considerable pain and inconvenience but they have no intention of backing down on this and continue to carry their own passports.

There are some 40 Indian nations whose tribal lands were crossed and divided by the U.S. and Canadian borders. The Iroquois homelands are found in the present-day state of New York, and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario in Canada. They should not have to worry about passing back and forth to visit their own kin.

The Tohono O'odham are among southwestern tribes whose territories straddle the present-day U.S.-Mexican border. The border passes through 70 miles of their lands. Why should they have to produce American passports to visit family members a living only a few miles away? Tribal members are often picked up and harassed by immigration authorities while returning home from family visits that cross over the U.S.-Mexican border. President Trump’s wall, if it is ever built, will make life even harder for them.

The long-standing plan for assimilation through government forced boarding schools and termination have failed. The phrase "kill the savage and save the man" was used to justify the process of repressing the language and culture of Native American children through forced stays at government supporting, Christian "residential schools," often for years on end. But, fortunately, Native Americans cannot be seen as "the vanishing Americans" of the Eisenhower era in the fifties. Their tenacity and will to survive has turned their road to extinction into a road to hope. Today, in spite of many badly neglected areas, they are moving toward recovery and even to a brighter future.

While certainly not nearly enough to atone for the agony of the injustices they have suffered, having their own passports would signal a change in direction for U.S.-Native American policies and would acknowledge their unique situation in the modern era.

Let me explain my reasons for this idea of passports for Native people. I acknowledge that we are all weary of the negative and tragic narrative as concerns the treatment of America's indigenous peoples but it does bear repeating here.

Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii used to say that every treaty signed by the U.S. government was broken by American settlers. Every one of them. Sometimes it was the gold fever or the need for grazing land or the need for water for the herds. And sometimes no reason was needed…. the settlers just wanted the Indian land.

In the 1860 and 70's after years of military struggle had failed to remove and subdue the plains tribes, a conscious effort was undertaken under the direction of General William "Tecumseh" Sherman to destroy the resistance of the horse cultures of the northern plains by killing off 50 million buffalo over three decades. This, in the end, effectively broke the resistance of the Native people once and for all by removing their ability to survive through buffalo hunting which provided them with food and shelter. But for the efforts of a handful of Native people who hid some animals in the badlands of South Dakota, the American Bison could have been rendered extinct.

Furthermore, Indian land today does not belong to Indian individuals but belonged to the so called ‘trusts’ set up by the US government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Unlike incoming settlers who were given land, Native Americans continue to watch their land base and rights diminish.

The Christian establishment set up a system to steal children from the tribes in proximity to the major cities of New York, Philadelphia and Boston. This system resulted in providing free labor settler farmers in the western U.S. (look up ‘orphan trains”). 250,000 children were sent westward as free labor to the new farmers from Europe.

Notwithstanding all this history of repression and violence, thousands of American Indians have served in the U.S. military in all of the American wars, the most famous among them being the Code or wind talkers, whose efforts played a major role in winning World War II and were featured in the movie Windtalkers.

Unlike the present Museum of American Indians, which caters to nothing serious about Indian history, an American Indian passport would make a real difference in the everyday life of Native peoples.

A gesture of reconciliation now would only strengthen the fabric of America. An effort to address past wrongs by acknowledging the contributions of Native peoples would be well received and well deserved.

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