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Native American Heritage Month – Honor or Shame?
The Pencil Warrior
By Dave Wheelock
for Mountain Mail
SOCORRO, New Mexico (STPNS) -- From the White House, a Proclamation by the President of the United States of America, Oct. 31, 2007: “National American Indian Heritage Month is an opportunity to honor the many contributions of American Indians and Alaska Natives and to recognize the strong and living traditions of the first people to call our land home.”
What a coincidence that Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and National American Indian Heritage Month should be observed at that time of year when hundred of thousands of pilgrims take to the woods with guns.
“Indian season,” it is sometimes wryly referred to by natives upon whom the irony is not lost. An annual triple opportunity to safely put the Indian back into the cupboard of history amidst the dust of fine words.
If George Bush, or any of his predecessors dating back to Jimmy Carter, had really cared to honor and recognize the contributions and living traditions of the First Nations, they would have made themselves aware of a message delivered to the non-governmental organizations of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1977. The NGOs were meeting in response to international awareness that most nations, including the United States, had failed to give formal recognition of indigenous peoples’ right to exist as distinct populations, let alone determine their own fates.
The “Basic Call to Consciousness” was brought to Geneva by a delegation of Haudenosaunee representatives in the form of three papers commissioned by the NGOs on the topics of the economic, legal and social realities of the various Indigenous nations of North America. The French gave a new name to the Haudenosaunee nations – Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora – the Iroquois. Basic Call to Consciousness, later combined with related writings in book form, is a written political statement from the most politically powerful and independent non-European political body surviving in North America.
The Haudenosaunee, who have lived democratically for longer than 500 years, are regarded by many as inspiration for “American” democracy.
Their penetrating message emanates from the perspective of a people with living traditions spanning thousands of years and relating to modern “Western” man as a destructive infant in the world; for example, “taking without asking is attributable to both children and immature cultures alike.”
Life for the Haudenosaunee entails constant respect and gratitude for the life inherent in all things. Basic Call includes this passage: “the soil is rich from the bones of thousands of our generations. One walks with great respect, for the Earth is a very sacred place.”
Basic Call contrasts this respect for place through a critique of pre-Colombian European civilization.
“We believe these people ceased their respect for the world a long time ago,” enabling the rise of exploitation of the earth and oppression of each other, John Mohawk wrote in the Basic Call. “They are burdened by the weight of centuries of racism, sexism and ignorance, which has rendered their people insensitive to the true nature of their lives.”
The Haudenosaunee message criticizes precisely in order to offer remedies. Within the prescription lies the relevance of Indigenous cultures.
The Basic Call was prophetic in this passage: “The roots of a future world that promises misery, poverty, starvation and chaos lie in the processes that control and destroy the locally specific cultures of the peoples of the world.”
In other words, replace the long-range technologies of distant colonialism – factory farms, oilfields, giant power plants – with “liberation technologies,” like windmills, woodlots and fishing nets.
Further, Basic Call to Consciousness counsels in favor of “liberation theologies” in place of those that promote ecological suicide – or welcome apocalypse, depending on your perspective.
Again from Basic Call, “Liberation theologies are those that challenge the assumption ... that the Earth is simply a commodity that can be exploited thoughtlessly by humans for the purpose of material acquisition within an ever-expanding economic framework.”
On September 13, 2007, 30 years after the Haudenosaunee clan mothers and sachems had carried their message to Geneva, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, setting standards for the treatment and rights of the 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide.
The Declaration carries no power to override national law, but rather exerts moral leverage on a country tempted to fall below the new international standard of respect for indigenous communities, and as we may now appreciate, their associated technologies and theologies of liberation.
The non-binding quality is made abundantly clear in the Declaration’s final article, yet that did not prevent four nations of the world body from claiming a concern for that very point as their reason for voting no. Which four countries objected? Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
Dave Wheelock is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin who lives in Socorro. He can be reached at email@example.com. Mr. Wheelock’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the Mountain Mail.
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