American Politics and Indigenous Thought

Each lie you embrace means you blind yourself to a truth.

— John Trudell

We are well disposed, as Native People, to stress and express our indigenous heritage. We display our crafts, speak our language, dance our dances and share our stories.

Of course, all these vital expressions of our culture and their continuation are essential to our survival as a distinct and separate people. What I fear we neglect too often, however, is to take the additional steps necessary to promote the real foundation of all of this and the true key to our survival — Indigenous Thought.

How do we think as Indigenous People and how does that thought process affect our world view and our value system? Is an indigenous existence about more than just the physical manifestations of our culture? What is the true foundation of our identity?

These are indeed questions with far-reaching implications and they would require a great deal of time spent in honest reflection to answer, which is precisely the point. This is an exercise we need to engage in.

More than an exercise, this is a journey that we must embark upon both individually and collectively with the ultimate destination being a place of consensus. Like all journeys it must have a beginning and a path ahead which we can more easily find by determining a point of reference. To begin here we will use a point of reference that has been the topic of much discussion lately and is familiar to most — American politics.

As an Indigenous person, I’ve been asked my opinion on the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, and to these inquiries I have expressed a “cautious optimism.” I explain that this optimism was not based on a party affiliation or political philosophy. I understand that Native People have not prospered in the two hundred plus years of this country being ruled by a singular ethnicity, so the monumental shift in just that reality was enough to give space for hope.

But as Indigenous People what were we hoping for, what do we look for beyond the rhetoric and the promises? If we are indeed a Native People with an indigenous world view, then we must look to the issues that affect us here and around the world. Indigenous Peoples have a relationship to each other and to the land that birth us and sustains us, relationships that are at the core of our identity and value system. It is these relationships that we need to make the foundation of our political evaluations also.

So if Indigenous People are going to evaluate the Obama presidency or any other political leader, then we must use our own value system to do it with. To us the opinions of Air America or Fox News should never be as relevant as the continued effects of government policies and actions on Indigenous Peoples here and around the world.

The Christian bible tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for” and indeed that is exactly where our attention needs to be focused, on the substance. No matter how much we long to hope we must temper that desire with a commitment to truth.

There is an old story among Indigenous People that is meant to caution us about the merits of clear thinking. The details vary from tribe to tribe but the core message is always consistent.

Many years ago a young hunter was making his way through the swamp in search of game with which he could feed his family. He had been gone from home several days and thus far all the deer had eluded him.

As he stepped around a large Cyprus tree directly in his path, there was a particularly large rattlesnake, sante’lo in the language of the hunter. The snake and the hunter eyed each other suspiciously as the snake began to rattle and the hunter notched an arrow to his bow.

“Let us not get carried away here young warrior,” cautioned the sante’lo. “I see from your appearance that both our hunts are not going well.”

“My belly is empty, perhaps your flesh will provide enough substance to keep me going for another day,” replied the hunter.

“I’m sure my underfed body would be of some use, but if you will spare my life I can offer much more. I know of a place where there is more than enough game for both our needs, but I have not the strength left to get there on my own. If you will carry me there, I will show you the way,” offered the sante’lo.

“And if I let you near me, you will not bite me?” asked the hunter, well aware of the natural instincts of the snake.

“I am so hungry,” replied the sante’lo, “for now we are allies.”

The hunter weighed the offer, fearful of letting his guard down but also willing to ignore his natural cautions to relieve the pangs of hunger.

So together they traveled many miles to the west till the sante’lo led him to a large chênière, an oak-covered ridge of high ground in the swamp.

Seeing the countless deer that inhabited the place, the hunter absently set the snake down. Facing away, with his guard down, he was caught by surprise when the sante’lo stuck him on the leg. Looking down at his still bleeding wound he then looked to the snake in astonishment.

“Why do you look surprised” asked sante’lo, “I am, after all, a snake.”

So has the election of November 2008 brought about a seismic shift in the paradigm of American politics or are the changes merely “skin deep?” I believe by examining the new, seemingly benevolent, face of the empire we can know with some assurance what lies in the heart of sante’lo.

Paradigms of Conflict and Identity

From the moment of European landfall in the Americas there has been a consistent, relentless war waged against native people not only physically, socially and culturally but also intellectually.

From the very beginning the two choices presented to Indigenous People were assimilate or die. At the dawn of the American empire these options were the basis for what came to be known as United States Indian Policy.

…In this way our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi.

— Thomas Jefferson to William Henry Harrison, 1803

American history tells us that Jefferson’s vision of a nation of yeomen farmers was the basis for his Indian policy. We are told that he sought to assimilate tribes into this benevolent republic by having them reject their culture and society and embrace the advanced civilization of the man from Europe.

What is not emphasized, of course, is the all encompassing requirements of this assimilating process. Concepts ingrained in Indigenous world views such as collective land ownership, equal rights of women, and environmental stewardship were deemed “primitive” and were to be cast aside.

Of course, there were attempts at accommodation, most notable being the Cherokee People who adopted many of the European lifeways but at the same time sought to protect the inherent sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. Concessions were made with the hopes of peaceful coexistence with the growing American empire but in the end there would be no place for sovereign, independent native people. The fate that awaited the Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears and beyond was foreseen by one of their greatest leaders decades before it actually transpired, a perfect example of the vision afforded by true Indigenous Thought.

Whole Indian nations have melted away like snowballs in the sun before the white man’s advance. They leave scarcely a name of our people except those wrongly recorded by their destroyers. Where are the Delawares? They have been reduced to a mere shadow of their former greatness. We had hoped that the white man would not be willing to travel beyond the mountains. Now that hope is gone. They have passed the mountains and have settled on Cherokee lands. They wish to have that action sanctioned by treaty. When that is gained, the same encroaching spirit will lead them upon other land of the Cherokees. New cessions will be asked. Finally the whole country, which the Cherokees and their fathers have long occupied, will be demanded, and the remnant of Ani-Yunwiya, The real people, once so great and formidable, will be compelled to seek refuge in some distant wilderness. There they will not be permitted to stay but a short while, until they again behold the advancing banners of the same greedy host. Not being able to point out any further retreat for the miserable Cherokees, the extinction of the whole race will be proclaimed. Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences, rather than submit to further loss of our country? Such treaties may be alright for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me. We will have our lands.

— A-Waninski, I have spoken.”
— Tsi’yu-gunsini (Dragging Canoe)
— Chickamauga Cherokee Chief

Dragging Canoe was one of the hundreds of Indigenous leaders who fought for the survival of their people, leaders whose names we still respect and admire today. King Phillip, Little Turtle, Tecumseh, Osceola, Sitting Bull, and many more, are our heroes and our inspiration. But what were they fighting for and how do those struggles relate to our world view today and to our understanding of the concept of Indigenous Thought?

We are taught in school that the various Indian “uprisings” were either massacres perpetuated by renegades or noble struggles of a dying race. The important part of the story, as told by the American education system, is that in the end “we” won. As the story is told, by 1890 the Indian Wars were over and the United States was on the path to fulfill its “Manifest Destiny.” It is of little wonder then why the graduates of this system fail to understand why some Indigenous People within this country still cling to a philosophy of resistance. Indeed they question the very existence of Indigenous Nations in the face of two centuries of assimilation and wonder why there is not the universal acceptance of being American.

And, indeed, the notion of identity is a key pillar in the understanding of true Indigenous Thought. As native people we have done great harm to ourselves and hindered our own intellectual ability by accepting the names and places assigned to us by the now dominate society. To truly see through indigenous eyes we must first truly see ourselves.

Tribal identity was another strong point of the traditional Indians. They did not, in many instances, even bother to use the word Indian unless they used it in a derisive manner; it was too broad and generalized a definition. Uninformative about social and kinship responsibilities, it seemed only an ethnic label that whites had pinned on their tribe. Anyone could act like an Indian; it took a certain amount of self-discipline and knowledge of the customs to act like a Lakota, a Navajo, a Nez Perce, or a Crow.

The Nations Within, Deloria and Lytle

The ongoing debate over whether we prefer to be called Native American or American Indian is an indicator of the confusion among native people over the concept of identity. Both sides have their talking points and their reasoning but neither argument is based on coherent Indigenous Thought.

I realize that in this modern world of paper-work mountains and digital valleys the system has to identify and categorize us. That is precisely my problem; I see both monikers as the ethnic identifiers that are used to distinguish us from the rest of the ingredients in this great melting pot called America. When we internalize these terms we have, in essence, accepted the definition assigned to us.

Je suis Houmas
, I am Houma, I was born to the Houma people, raised in a Houma community, a citizen of the United Houma Nation, and have come to look at the world around me from a Houma perspective. My identity is neither generic nor hyphenated but rather it is purposeful and specific.

In this world of blood quorums and CDIBs an indigenous person quite often hears the question, “How much Indian are you?” Somehow I have a hard time imagining white people being pestered with the “How white are you?” question but the real disappointment comes when these sorts of questions come from Native People.

The proper context for a discussion of my indigenous identity is not centered on my ethnicity or my genealogy. Though I acknowledge and treasure my Houma ancestry, my identity, especially as it relates to the American people and government, is not so much founded in genetics as it is in politics. My indigenous identity, in this context, is based on my citizenship in an Indigenous Nation and that Nation’s relationship to the international community and to the United States in particular.

Where we lose focus is when we concentrate on the concept of the historic Indian or the historic Indian tribe. Nothing is more insulting than to be called a “descendant of the historic Houma” as if I were some walking, talking relic. This is the same mindset that relegates Indigenous cultures to the “Museum of Natural History” as if all that we were went out of existence with the dinosaurs. I am not a “descendant of the historic Houma,” I am Houma!

My identity exists today, I exist today, and my people exist today. Yes, like all people we have a history, but we are still here. We are not sitting in some rest stop along the historic timeline but rather we have made it as a people into the twenty-first century with the rest of the world.

To most Americans those generic Indian identifiers come with images of feathers, pow-wows and teepees. Their concept of the indigenous inhabitants of this continent never rises above the last John Wayne movie or for the real progressives there is the Dances With Wolves stereotype. So when they are confronted with a camouflage-clad Mohawk warrior standing in defense of his land and his people in the present day, they become lost in a sea of preconceived notions.

Unfortunately when we see ourselves as a hyphenated being we cannot clearly and coherently view the world around us as we were meant to. Deloria and Lytle, in the quote above, make the distinction between “traditional” and “ethnic” Indians while the famed Seneca jurist and intellectual, Robert Odawi Porter, in The Demise of the Ongwehoweh and the Rise of the Native Americans, termed the distinctions “Ongwehoweh” and “Native Americans.” Both works see a division among native people reflecting the degree of their embrace and acceptance of the American system in preference to their own traditions.

Of course we must understand that Indigenous Thought is not based in a fantasy world in which we all don fatigues and take up AK-47s and drive the white man back across the ocean. True Indigenous Thought is not now are ever was based on unrealistic assumptions but was rather founded on firm ideals and concepts.

Tecumseh’s goal was to clear space on the ground for the free and unfettered existence of Onkwehonwe. His goal was not to live without white government, culture, and society, but to live against them. To do this today, Onkwehonwe warriors will need to engage the colonizer in a rebellion of truth, redefine the meaning of our renewed world in a mystic vision of struggle and justice, and force a reckoning with our regenerated and unified Onkwehonwe power through rites of resurgence. This is the warrior’s path of spiritual self-determination that has been laid before us by the ancestors and the Brothers and Sisters who share our values and vision.

— Taiaiake Alfred, Wasa’se

True Indigenous Thought gives us the ability to see the world around us for what it is and to help us navigate the path that leads us to the survival of our people. Our struggle is not for civil rights and a place at the table; rather our struggle is for the survival of our Indigenous Nations and for that we must be able to distinguish truth from rhetoric. So let us look at the “new” political reality brought by the presidential elections of 2008 and examine, from an indigenous perspective, the face of American politics.

War is Peace?

There are those who would accuse us of being naive, of not understanding the complexities of the modern world. They would see the philosophy behind our intellectual exercise as flawed because we look at the world in black and white without appreciating the intricacies of grey.

From our perspective it is not a matter of not understanding western thought and philosophy but rather the inverse, we understand very well. We have seen the effects it has had on our people, our culture, our society for centuries and it is that knowledge that inspires us to seek the separation Tecumseh and the others fought for.

The famed Dakota philosopher warned us over a century ago about the effects of internalizing a system that was so foreign to our own in many ways. He had seen how those who had come before him had sought to integrate the economic policies of colonizers and he had witnessed the devastation that had come to indigenous society as a result.

Once we had departed from the broad democracy and pure idealism of our prime, and had undertaken to enter upon the world’s game of competition, our rudder was unshipped, our compass lost, and the whirlwind and tempest of materialism and love of conquest tossed us to and fro like leaves in a wind.

— Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman)

So above all we must be honest with ourselves and look at the realities of American politics through the eyes of our culture and our history. We must examine current events truthfully, not with naivety but with the clarity of vision our ancestors used to guide our people towards a secure future. We cannot deal with political reality as an Indigenous People if we subject our judgment to the whims of our feelings alone. As we said in the beginning hope is a wonderful thing but for hope to be effective it must be founded on substance.

In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

— George Orwell

When lies rule, a warrior creates new truths for the people to believe.

— Taiaiake Alfred, Wasa’se

To lead our people into the century ahead we need a revolution. Not a revolution of violence, however, but rather a revolution of truth. To survive as Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Nations we must face the reality of our existence and make real choices based on those observations.

In 2009 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to President Barack Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” This was said in spite of the fact that he had just began his term in office and was, in fact, the Commander and Chief of the United States Armed Forces that were engaged in two major conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During his acceptance speech the President touched on many subjects including the United States’ well publicized penchant for torturing captives in its war on terror.

That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have affirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions.

— President Barack Obama, Nobel Prize Speech

As the President was affirming these commitments in Geneva, the United States Supreme Court was hearing the case brought against former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld by four British citizens who had been prisoners in the same Guantanamo Prison he spoke of.

While Obama spoke of his appreciation of the Geneva Conventions, lawyers from his Justice Department were arguing against the four British former prisoners. The contention of the U.S. Government is that there is no constitutional right not to be tortured or abused in any American prison abroad. The Obama administration sought and eventually got the Supreme Court to refuse to hear the case. This affirmed the lower court ruling that torture is a foreseeable consequence of the military’s detention of suspected enemy combatants.

During the years of the Bush/Cheney administration we had little difficulty in seeing the living reality of American empire. Indeed the unapologetic embrace of imperialism was very evident as they pursued their Middle East “crusade” against Islam. To a large extent the Peace Prize was awarded to President Obama because he ended the bellicose rhetoric of empire but looking beyond words we see the glaring lack of substance to this new found hope.

While the President spoke in admiration of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he then dismissed their philosophies of peace saying that he could not be guided by their examples alone. He spoke of the necessity of “just wars” and indeed we have heard these sentiments expressed many times before. America is perceived, at least by Americans, as a peace loving nation that only engages in warfare when it must to preserve the peace. While most U.S. citizens can speak of the major conflicts such as the Civil War, World Wars I and II, or Vietnam few realize that their country has continuously been engaged in some sort of military endeavor from1776 to the present day.

Of course, Dr. King saw and understood this, and he expressed this revelation in a manner you will not hear from President Obama or any other governmental official.

Their question hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government

— Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam”

What King so clearly understood, and what we must see as Indigenous People, is that Indigenous Thought is merely the clear, cognitive expression of a human being. It is the understanding that beyond nation, race, and creed there are certain principals that unite us as human beings and give us the foundation to build societies based on real values. This must be the substance on which true hope is based. Indeed in this same speech Dr. King called us to this vision of our common humanity.

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

— Martin Luther King, Beyond Vietnam

We as indigenous people must be very observant of the tendencies of empire to justify its aggressive nature on the activities of the “other.” Today the other is a Terrorist, in days past he was a Communist, a Socialist, at one time he was a Spaniard but even before that there was a time when the other that justified the “just war” was an Indian.

This is, unfortunately, not some obscure historical analogy; the Obama administration is actively postulating a link between the indigenous resistance of the Seminole People in nineteenth century Florida and their modern “terrorist” enemies. In its continued attempt to prosecute Ali al Bahlul on terrorism charges at Guantanamo (yes the same Guantanamo the President vowed to close in 2009) the U.S. Government is again attempting to bathe its imperialistic history in the clear cleansing solution of patriotic rhetoric.

Ambrister and Arbuthnot, both British subjects without any duty or allegiance to the United States, were tried and punished for conduct amounting to aiding the enemy. Examination of their case reveals that their conduct was viewed as wrongful, in that they were assisting unlawful hostilities by the Seminoles and their allies. Further, not only was the Seminole belligerency unlawful, but much like modern-day al Qaeda, the very way in which the Seminoles waged war against U.S. targets itself violated the customs and usage of war. Because Ambrister and Arbuthnot aided the Seminoles both to carry on an unlawful belligerency and to violate the laws of war, their conduct was wrongful and punishable.1

Ambrister and Arbuthnot were captured, tried and executed by the army of General Andrew Jackson. Jackson had been tasked with fighting the Seminole “insurgents” in Georgia but soon used the conflict as an excuse to illegally invade Spanish Florida. It was in the course of this campaign, burning villages and exterminating “hostiles” outside the territory of the United States, that Jackson initiated this conviction and execution. As to the “unlawful Seminole belligerency,” they were indeed guilty of defending their people and lands and seeking to protect the villages of runaway slaves that had sought refuge among them. Despite the high sounding intentions espoused by the U.S. historical narrative what brought Jackson to Spanish Florida was the damage being done to the business of chattel slavery by the runaways and the desire for U.S. territorial expansion.

The above referenced document also tells us that: “A number of leading figures shared the view that the conduct of Ambrister and Arbuthnot was illegal.” These are given to us as President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, both of which sought plausible deniability for Jackson’s foray into Spanish territory but protected him from any punishment for his actions. Both, of course, take partial credit for the eventual annexation of Florida.

So, we are asked, is the basis of Indigenous Thought the rehashing of America’s sins long past? To answer this we would need to make two important observations. The first would be that for Native People the Indian Wars did not end in 1890. At Black Mesa, Newe Segobia and many other places the struggle is ongoing. The second observation would be that the battle is global in nature and goes far beyond the borders of the United States. From the Mapuche in Chile and Argentina to the Ogoni in Nigeria and a thousand places in between Indigenous People struggle around the globe for the same “space on the ground” that Tecumseh died for in 1813.

Opposed to this is a capitalistic free-market philosophy that promotes the ascendancy of the individual and the God-given right to the accumulation of wealth. It is prefaced on the never ending growth of capital that has bequeath on us a world in which twenty percent of the worlds population controls eighty percent of the world resources. Despite all excuses to the contrary, “just wars” are fought primarily to maintain and expand this imbalance. This is the antitheses of Indigenous Thought; it is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of assimilation.

This struggle has multiple degrees and variations between the extremes of the scale but the warnings of Ohiyesa must be appreciated. If we give ourselves to the philosophy of consumption we will eventually be “tossed to and fro like leaves in a wind.” All the paths of assimilation eventually lead to our abandonment of indigenous intellectual capacity and the acceptance of western thought processes. This process has come to us with colonization and has been making inroads into our society for centuries. This is not to say that there are no good, positive influences outside of indigenous society. On the contrary, for a culture to live it must grow and change with the influences it encounters but this can only be accomplished by meeting these influences from a position of strength. In this way, Indigenous Thought becomes the gate-keeper that allows us access to the worlds outside our own while still protecting those attributes that are the foundations of our existence as Indigenous Peoples.

In western culture great importance is placed on the rights ascribed to the individual within his society. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the legacy passed down to them by their founders. In Indigenous society, it is not rights but responsibilities that are passed to us. We who live today must maintain and pass on the legacy left to us. For myself there is an intrinsic value in being Houma that goes beyond mere words. My sense of self, my world view, my conscience, my faith are all linked to the reality of my identity, and it is this value system that I pass on to my children and grandchildren and those that will follow.

I would argue that there is something intrinsically unique about being “Indigenous” that must be sustained into the future. This intrinsic uniqueness is far more than being able to claim that one descended from some Indian that lived hundreds of years ago. It is possessing a bundle of attributes — such as language and culture — that must be preserved, strengthened, and regenerated in order to maintain a collective existence as separate and distinct people. The absence of such attributes is a hallmark characteristic of an assimilated and extinct people.

— Robert Odawi Porter, Pursuing the Path of Indigenization

Indigenous Thought leads us on a path of resurgence that saves us from ethnocide and cultural genocide and guides us towards a revitalized Indigenous existence. This is a foundation for hope that no politician or government official could ever give us but it requires our active participation in the process.

If we embrace the culture that represses us, we can only reflect the thoughts and aspirations of that mindset. We have to make a determined effort to educate ourselves and ground ourselves in our own cultural expression.

To my Indigenous brothers and sisters I say take nothing for granted, not even these words written here. Examine them, debate them, and prove them in the fires of your own native reality. Resolve to face the challenges ahead with the heart and mind of an indigenous person.

If Native Nations are to survive, they have to be lead by people who are not American-Indian, or Native-American, or any other hyphenated ethnic minority.  It must be lead by people who know who and what they are, our hope will be in the hearts of a people who are firmly anchored in their perceptions and identity.

  1. United States v. Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman Al Bahlul, Appellee’s Response to Specified Issues, 11 March 2011 []

T. Mayheart Dardar was born in the Houma Indian settlement below Golden Meadow, Louisiana. He served for sixteen years on the United Houma Nation Tribal Council (retired in Oct. 2009). Currently he works with Bayou Healers, a community based group advocating for the needs of coastal Indigenous communities in south Louisiana. Read other articles by T. Mayheart Dardar, or visit T. Mayheart Dardar's website.

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  1. bdibuz said on March 23rd, 2011 at 6:35pm #

    Mr. Dardar,

    I am not an indigenous person, and not, by blood, your brother, but I do believe in living with the “heart and mind of an indigenous person.” I would, therefore, be interested in what role the descendent of Hungarian political refugees, born on this continent and who has, as long as he can remember, lived according to it’s natural laws and respected its natural (spiritual) forces can play in the revolution that would undo the great damage caused by the “consistent, relentless war waged against native people”? You see, I believe that this war of acquisition never was (and is not today) an ideological war, but is rather a symptom of a illness brought from Europe – an illness far worse than small pox – a desire to profit with total disregard for the earth (our grandmother) and for other peoples. Those who understand the indigenous relationship to the earth are not threatened by it; indeed, they are attracted to it and are in awe of it. I am one of these. I have two goals in my life: to make amends with those on whose land I am now privileged to live and to learn to live as they do on this land – which can never really belong to any one of us. Can you give me guidance on how to accomplish these two humble goals.

    You Brother in Spirit,

    Balazs Dibuz

  2. T. Mayheart said on March 23rd, 2011 at 7:39pm #

    The “revolution” is a revolution of truth, a struggle in which we all, indigenous and non-indigenous have a stake. By living our lives as human beings, cognizant of our responsibilities to the lands and lives around us we do honor to both.