Like so many Americans, my husband and I have a family tree with roots drawing from many, many nations. In combination, the two of us are Celtic, Scandinavian, Slavic, Hispanic and the list goes on with an ancestor here, an ancestor there, hopping on a boat or jumping on a wagon, all ending up here in America. Here, our European forefathers met up with our American forefathers. My husband is Cherokee and Comanche. My own family traces back to Chief Powhatan of the Powhatan Confederation in Virgina as well as a very confusing intermingling of South American Indigenous and Spanish ancestors dating to the fall of the Inca empire. A customized Google map depicting the sources of our DNA would be enough to bewilder a professional cartographer!
To me, having such a varied family background means having the responsibility of celebrating all of your ancestors, to honor all of their lifeways. It also means an unprejudiced reckoning with the truths of the power struggles of the past. When my Viking ancestors landed in Ireland, they not only pillaged and plundered, they also imprinted my Irish antecedents with their surname which has now lasted for some 10 centuries. When my European Ancestors showed up in North and South America, they not only caused unintentional genocide with germs and intentional genocide with guns and greed, but they also married the very people from whom they usurped the land (more ancestors).
This history of exploration, exploitation and amalgamation is the family story of nearly all modern Americans, and when your life is the culmination of such a mixture, there should be no prejudice – only an attempt at vast understanding and truth-telling. Unfortunately, the percentage of Americans who are willing to admit the truth about this country’s story remains a minority at this point. Let me ask you a couple of questions.
As an American, do you consider yourself living as a conqueror amongst a conquered people?
As an American, do associate apartheid with our nation, or only with South Africa?
As an American, do you think of the U.S. government as a world-famous example of freedom and justice, or as a promise-breaker and murderous oppressor?
Who you are, who your ancestors were, may have a great deal to do with how you answer questions like these. The truth Americans of Europeans descent must face, if they have any real loyalty to truth and justice, is that they are living in the midst of the descendants of the victims of a terrible Imperial takeover that resulted in the loss of as much as 90% of many native populations. The great grandchildren of these colonized people are very much here alongside of us all, many of them living in conditions of poverty second only to the living conditions of a country like Haiti.
The bleakness of our country’s poorest reservations is conveniently ignored by major media. The millions of people who visit Mount Rushmore every year go home in total ignorance that they were standing just a stone’s throw from Pine Ridge – America’s 2nd largest reservation and one of the poorest. Life expectancy here is around 44 years of age for men, infant mortality is 300% higher and youth suicide rates are 150% higher than the national average. 70% of the people are unemployed and 90% live below the poverty line. Imagine 17 people crammed into a 3 room house with no electricity, no plumbing and no clean water and you will have a startling picture of the bad side of life at Pine Ridge. It’s something many people would like to turn their eyes from, just as so many show no interest in the historic and ultimate fate of America’s earlier people, but the polite silence is being broken now, and the Internet is helping to facilitate what I see as an important and very positive change.
Indigenous peoples and news sources have websites. They have blogs. The people are telling the truth of their story and offering all Americans, and all of the world, the chance to reckon with the reality of the country’s story. I have come across 3 remarkable projects recently that impress me as so important, I would like to share them with you as a chance to learn something about the America too many of us have been encouraged to overlook.
The Buffalo Field Campaign
Most of us feel a stirring of the heart hearkening to the days when the majestic buffalo roamed these lands, free and populous. Now, the last of the truly wild buffalo live within the confines of Yellowstone National Park. The last few thousands of these amazing creatures, unaware that they are no longer free, make an attempt every winter to leave the park boundaries to forage for food. The Park Service, funded by the Beef Industry, has made the choice to respond to this natural instinct of the buffalo by corralling them with helicopters and shooting them. In 2007, alone, these people killed more than 1600 of the last buffalo.
A group of Native peoples have founded The Buffalo Field Campaign to protest this extermination of the buffalo, and they have good historic reason for outrage. In the 19th century, the U.S. Government decided that the best way to destroy the native way of life was to destroy the buffalo, thus forcing the indigenous peoples to become ‘civilized’ ranchers rather than hunters. Over the course of 3 years, the government slaughtered 4.5 million buffalo. The remnants of this once-great species dwell now in Yellowstone, but, as in the 1870s, the government is bent on their slaughter in order to serve their own special interests.
The people of the Buffalo Field Campaign have vowed to physically keep a watch over the buffalo, standing side by side with them morning and night, armed only with video cameras in order to document what is being done in Yellowstone. Unsurprisingly, but totally unacceptably, Native Americans are being beaten and arrested for daring to film what the government would like to keep a secret.
The web, and tools like YouTube, are perhaps the most powerful weapons available to the Buffalo Field Campaign members. By documenting their effort, they are opening up the chance for you, living in California, or Sweden, or Morocco, to become furious that the American government is still acting like the conqueror, still killing buffalo, still abusing Native peoples. I’ve been following this campaign closely, and looking through the eyes of a marketer, I concur that the power of shame is likely the best hope the Buffalo Field Campaign members have of stopping this totally unethical extermination of a sacred animal and an American icon.
The Republic of Lakotah
Did you hear about the secession that occurred on December 17, 2007? Yes, secession. Some 8 months ago, the People of Lakotah informed the U.S. government that they were tired of all of the historic treaties being ignored by the White House and were therefore withdrawing from all treaties and declaring themselves a separate nation. As the people put it:
In the face of the colonial apartheid conditions imposed on Lakotah people, the withdrawal from the U.S. Treaties is necessary.
Visit their informative website and you’ll quickly see a very long list of compelling reasons why the Lakotah have decided they’ve had quite enough of living under U.S. rule. The new Republic of Lakotah is located in South Dakota, and it is the intention of the people there not only to govern themselves, but to become a major green energy power in the world. They’ve got more wind than anybody, and they’ve also got solar and geothermal resources at their disposal which will enable them to attain exceptional self sufficiency.
This astonishing move by the people of Lakotah has received almost no major media attention, but again, the Internet has come into play to make up for what I see as an intentional hush-hushing of the situation. So far, they’ve got a static site and some videos on YouTube. I would absolutely love to see a blog brought in here to provide a weekly document of the efforts of this new nation within our nation. What is happening at Pine Ridge Reservation and in the state of South Dakota has got to be one of the most noteworthy people’s movements in modern history. The web is ready to record every step along this new journey for one of America’s oldest families of people.
The Native Languages Project
Popular media has created a popular depiction of Native peoples as having walked off into the sunset. Despite incomprehensible population devastations over the past 3 centuries, the earlier peoples are very much still with us. Whether living in the heart of busy cities or in the quiet of this country’s 300+ reservations, our land is still very rich with indigenous peoples who continue to struggle with the concepts of homogenization and the retention of culture. It’s a well-documented reality that language is central to culture. When people lose their native idiom, they tend to lose the heart of their lifeway. And this is why I have been inexpressibly thrilled and impressed by the massive undertaking of the Native Languages project.
Founded by a Cherokee/Muskogee/European gentleman named Orrin Lewis, this grassroots endeavor is striving to document all Native American languages of the entire Western Hemisphere. They’ve recorded 800 of them so far! Lewis is the first to admit that his website is far from beautiful, though it is ranking quite well for numerous searches. I like its plainness. As a web designer, I confess I’d love to see a bit more work done on the usability of the site, but really, they are doing a tremendous job and I consider this work a dream project and perfect example of the Internet’s power.
Whether used as a tool for breaking dark silences or for illuminating the teaching of language, the web offers tremendous opportunities for bright minds. As a web designer, I would consider it an incredible honor to work on the projects I’ve outlined above, and many others like them. One of the most obvious uses of the Internet is as a source of income. A different, and grander, use of it is as an instrument of truth, a vehicle for connections, a chance for once-voiceless people to speak up and be heard.
Ultimately, I would like to believe that the Internet has the potential to act as a peacemaker. Journeying from site to site, from blog to blog, how can we fail to recognize the common threads of all humanity? To realize that we are all responsible, accountable and equal? Beyond the trivial, the financial, the peculiar, the Internet may be the great leveler of the playing field which all of us inhabit. In the course of our evolution as one species, perhaps this is what we’ve been waiting for.