“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” – Chief Seattle
It’s sad to gauge the ignorance central coast residents possess regarding Native American history and present day activities: education, culture, arts, language and political engagement.
The month of November is mostly the only time K-12 students learn about Native Americans, and even then, it is most always in the past tense and lessons about Indians as helpless “wards of the state.”
Most of my students over four decades have had trouble with the concept that hundreds of books — especially textbooks — can lie. That first week of class, we research students’ family lines — those not native come from myriad of places. We then make up a passport of those countries they or their ancestors came from.
Accordingly, I steal them for a few weeks. Eventually, we see this theft as a process of stealing their own pasts, their histories and their very identities.
I run into people daily in Lincoln County who most vociferously display ignorance and outright racism when discussing Native Americans. However, I’ve clashed with this ignorance in other parts of the U.S. — Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington and Oregon.
I’ve confronted college students’ parents who wanted to give my department heads a piece of their mind about the materials students in my research writing, composition and literature classes were asked to read, view and discuss.
I am embarrassed at the ignorance of who and what Columbus was and represents to many millions of people who are not Anglo Americans. Many college students do not know when the Civil War was fought (or why) or what James Madison or Frederick Douglass did.
Most do not know which Native lands their schools or neighborhoods are built upon. For sure, though, they enter the classroom with this myth of a brave fellow named Christopher Columbus “who discovered America” (sic).
Again, school textbooks have, by omission or otherwise, lied to them.
Today, more than five hundred federally-recognized Indigenous nations comprise nearly three million people. Today’s doctors, lawyers, educators, nurses, construction workers and, yes, homeless, sick and substance abusers, are the descendants of the 15 million Native people who once inhabited this land.
I’ve utilized interviews of and essays by historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to enlighten students (and de facto, their parents/the public) on a history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples.
The original peoples did resist expansionism and genocide. In “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” Dunbar-Ortiz takes readers into a deep dive debunking the official founding myth of the United States.
Part of the book and teachings give students a sense of how policy against Indigenous peoples was colonialist and designed to seize their territories, displacing or eliminating them.
This gives students who might be watching (or attending) COP26 (climate change summit in Glasgow) a sense of a worldwide effort by Indigenous activists to stop the pollution, water theft, elimination of ancestral lands through outright criminality.
Teaching about Native American history, I can challenge students to reflect upon their future, whereupon the youth understand they must act locally, learn deeply their own regions but also think and respond globally.
Global Witness’s, “Last Line of Defense,” looks into land defenders around the globe who have been murdered for fighting for their right to water, land and liberty. Teaching about Native American present day issues, we will broach these larger issues.
We don’t have to go far back to see how the fight in the U.S. for Native American sovereignty is a constant reckoning with racist roots:
• In August 2011, environmental and Indigenous groups launched a massive campaign designed to press President Obama not to approve Phase IV of the Keystone XL Pipeline project that would run through and near tribal lands, water resources, and place of spiritual significance.
• In 2013, the Havasupai Tribe files a lawsuit to stop the operation of a uranium mine.
• On April 1, 2016, citizens of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation and ally Lakota, Nakota, & Dakota citizens, under the group name “Chante tin’sa kinanzi Po” founded a Spirit Camp along the proposed route of the Bakken oil pipeline, Dakota Access. They are dedicated to stopping the Dakota Access pipeline, illuminating the dangers associated with pipeline spills and the necessity to protect the water resources of the Missouri river.
The educators I have met in the Lincoln County School District who work with the youth of Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians on the history, culture and current struggles of the central coast original people are amazing and should be regarded as cultural heroes.
Paul K. Haeder is a novelist, journalist, educator and author of “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” Cirque Press.