There is this magical made-up time between Columbus Day (or Indigenous People’s Day for the enlightened) and Thanksgiving where white Americans think about native people. That’s sort of our window.
November is Native American Heritage month. Before that, of course, is Halloween. Until about three years ago, one of the most popular Halloween costumes was Pocahontas. People know nothing about us, but they like to dress up like us or have us as a mascot.
We are invisible. Take it from me. I travel a lot, and often ask this question: Can you name 10 indigenous nations? Often, no one can name us. The most common nations named are Lakota, Cherokee, Navajo, Cheyenne and Blackfeet—mostly native people from western movies. This is the problem with history. If you make the victim disappear, there is no crime. And we just disappeared. When I travel, I get this feeling someone has seen a unicorn in the airport. That would be me, in my Pendleton jacket. I often get that awkward question if I am Navajo or Cherokee. But here’s what I want people to know today about native Americans: There are over 700 indigenous nations in North America. In Guatemala and Bolivia, we are the majority population. Two indigenous presidents have been elected—Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. We are doctors, lawyers, writers, educators, and we are here. We are land-based, and intend to stay that way. I hear Minnesotans talk about how the Americans gave us land. America was stolen or purchased for a pittance. President Andrew Jackson forced the removal of thousands of our people, and then sold our land. Historians point out that Jackson’s Louisiana Purchase knocked U.S. debt from $58 million in 1828 to $38,000 in 1834. Good deal, except for us.
Of the 4 percent of our land base which remains, we intend to keep it. Of our treaties, which were signed between our ancestors and yours, we intend to stand by them. We are not you. There is said to be more than 7,000 languages in the world today, and those are primarily indigenous. Some are very close to disappearing. At least 52 North American indigenous languages have disappeared. Forty-six are known to have just one native speaker, and 357 have fewer than 50 speakers.
The United Nations has declared 2019 the year of languages, and Lakota and Ojibwe are two of the strongest living languages in North America. We intend to keep our words.
And we intend to keep our spiritual and religious practices. I am not a Christian, and it was not until 1978, with the passage of the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act, that native people could freely practice our religions. That is, unless someone wanted to mine your sacred site or put a golf course on it.
Native women are here, and we birthed this nation. We created the agro biodiversity of 8,000 varieties of corn, and a multitude of beans, squash and melon varieties which are now touted by big agriculture and the foundation for most crops.
We are also at risk; been that my whole life. I, like many other Native women, have been beaten. I have a female relative who was murdered and ended up in the Mississippi River. Over a thousand Native women have been reported missing or murdered in the past decade.
I am tired of being invisible to you all. I am tired of the lack of compassion from a president who slashes health care. I’m tired of the state of Minnesota, which seeks to contaminate the remaining wild rice with sulfide to keep a dying mining industry afloat. And I am tired of North Dakota pretending that Standing Rock does not exist, and balking at a forum on Standing Rock at the University of North Dakota. What I want to say is that we are beautiful, amazing, tough-as-can-be people. It would be nice if we thought of each other kindly and with compassion. I am certainly not too tired to battle, but I would really like us all to do our part, beyond Native American Heritage Month.