Thursday, July 23, 2009

Is the President Listening?

The fantasy of "democracy" fades away. Standing with the Winnemem shows me how very very little life changes from one President to the next. President Obama has surrounded himself with a BIA people who keep out many of his Indian constituency, perhaps because Obama is not familiar with Indian politics, perhaps because he doesn't want to be. Indian affairs is complicated in this Empire.

The BIA gatekeepers are big names like the Echo Hawks. I remember the name Echo Hawk when the family of lawyers first started NARF back in the day. And now they are part of the establishment guarding the little piece of cheese earmarked for tribes for government stamped, government regulated, sometimes even government created tribes. In California, and this is the rub, 90 percent -- a great majority -- of the historical Native American tribes, are dismissed by the federal government as "unrecognized tribes." That means 400,000 California Native people have no relationship, no rights in relation to the US government. They are not seen, not heard. I know the Winnemem are not quiet people. They work hard to speak up as sovereign people whenever they must. But they are not respected, no more than the living waters, sacred places, the salmon are nowadays. Of the 10 percent of the California tribes who are recognized, only four percent are historical. The others are groups created by the US government and called rancherias, many of them wealthy casino tribes.

You know about the President's stimulus package. Supposedly, he has not forgotten the Indian people. However, like the President before him, the funds to help California Indians with health, education, economic stimulus will be going to the most wealthy of the native peoples of that state and zero, nothing will go to the historical tribes who have historically been treated with the greatest of human rights violations -- a policy of ethnocide. These 400,000 tribal people will have nothing.

By nothing I do not speak only about the stimulus package, which would be put to such great use. But I also speak of the nation's commitment to these so-called "unrecognized" traditional, indigenous ways of life. Each tribe stands on the brink of destruction and in Washington, the city of great change with this last election, there's a guy, a lower level government bureaucrat, to whom all letters to the President, nation to sovereign people, is detoured -- no matter the question or concern.

If the Winnemem inform their President "about the promises made to the Winnemem by the Indian agent of 1851 and were never kept, and if the Winnemem further inform him that these and other violations were stated by a letter by Norel Putus (1889) to President Harrison, a letter which served as the basis for the US sending Indian agents to investigate the claims of Norel Putus about the plight of all the California Indians," the they are answered by a form letter from bureaucrat Lee Fleming "have you applied for recognition yet?"

If the Winnemem ask their President about the promises made of the drowning of their lands and the promise of like land which is yet to be kept, they get a form letter from bureaucrat Lee Fleming says "have you applied for recognition yet?"

If the Winnemem notify their President "did you know the cemetery we were given for the cemetery which was drowned under Shasta Lake to re-bury our ancestors and to use for our people has, with no explanation, been transferred from the BIA to the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM statute does not allow burials. This change doesn't make sense because now by BLM regulations it has made it illegal to inter our loved ones in our tribal cemetery," Lee Fleming writes "have you applied for recognition yet?"

How does Lee Fleming, whoever he is, keep getting letters addressed to the President about treaties and laws which have been broken?

Lee Fleming wants to talk about forms to fill out for recognition. Let's talk about recognition. Sacramento lawmakers have asked the federal government to recognize the Winnemem Wintu as the State of California does. Last year, at this time, they passed AJR 39 saying that in California, the Winnemem have always been recognized as a tribe and asks the Federal Government follow suit. But Feinstein and Boxer will not carry sponsor recognition of the Winnemem to Congress.

They don't want to step in front of Congressman Herberger from Shasta Lake County who seems to have a long time grudge and ax to grind against the Winnemem and will not support recognition. Mr. Lee Fleming, filling out your forms will not be enough. Beyond that, filling out your forms do not answer the questions the Winnemem are asking their President.

If the President cannot hear his people because as Indians they are funneled to a bureaucrat who says they need to be on a particular list that they are prevented from by their Senators in order to have a question answered, what is that saying? The Winnemem, a tribe of 120 or so people, people who voted in this last election, have no President, no Senator, no rights, no respect -- no one cares.

So I haven't blogged for a long time because I am grieving right now. My tongue is thick. My throat is tight. Only one thing as bad as having an ignorant man for President and that is to have an intelligent man of color who does not have the information, can't get the information, or could it be he chooses not to see his people of the Winnemem tribe. Are only the "children of immigrants" visible to the President in California? Is his heart moved only by the Native people of the Crow Nation, the Navaho Nation, the Cherokee Nation. What about the nations who were encountered and violated, and met with treachery another century or half later in what is now known as the state of California? And Senators Feinstien and Boxer. Do you care about your people who are Winnemem? Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma -- all those states who are proud to be states who have not eradicated their tribal people. Can you be proud that 400,000 Indian people remain invisible? What does this say about California -- that in a mere 160 years you have hardly any Indians that are valued by you and traditional and sacred lands are not valued as well.

Since I follow the Winnemem and they are my family, I see a side of America now that breaks my heart, not the America of immigrants, but the America built on the bones of tribal people and broken treaties, and a world hurtling toward ecological disaster fed by wasteful policies toward the land and waters . Obviously, America is not a country with a national policy informed by tribal input. And in California, sad to say, there is horrific evidence of egregiously arrogant policies silencing and erasing the very people who know and passionately advocate for the land and water. How is this injustice, this blatant violation of human rights carried out? With a tool called "recognition." That's what democracy looks to me now, government by the people, for the people EXCEPT FOR the Winnemem people and the hundreds and thousands of the original people that this government refuses "to recognize."

The Winnemem chief is a young leader. Her aunt whom she succeeded and who lived to be almost 100 years old, into the 21st century, is part of the generation who was kidnapped and put into boarding schools. She survived that. Her parents are the the generation who were chased down like animals and killed for bounty, given diseased blankets as friendship gifts, invited to feast on poisoned meat. The Winnemem have been Winnemem for a long time before the violence and injustice and having survived, they keep being Winnemem even today. Those living now carry on the old ways. The elders taught then. Despite all interference, that line between generations was never broken. Their homeschooled children still do the ceremonies to keep the old way going. They still sing to their sacred springs. They still use the old medicines, and make the acorn soup. They still talk to their Mountain, and take care of their rivers. They are still seen by tribal traditionals all over this country as powerful Indian people.

The lawyers for the Winnemem tribe worked hard on the lawsuit listing the many-layers of broken promises, a human rights case, and as traditional people, the leaders and war dancers took the papers around the Sacred Fire end of April, before going up the Mountain and prayed over beside the sugar pines where the warriors fast. Then the papers were taken to Sacramento along the river on tribal land and prayed for at that Fire and the War Dancers danced into the night and early morning before they assembled to walk to the state capitol.

In July, we weren't surprised that the US Government's response was to ask the court to dismiss . . . . because the Winnemem were not federally recognized!

Our President does not see them, hear them. He is surrounded by tribal people who act as gatekeepers for the federal government's "recognized" tribes and turn a back on their brothers and sisters who came under US government focus after the 1850's. By then the US Congress was secretly hiding these treaties and did not ratify them.

Lee Fleming is the only one who sees the Winnemem letters to President Obama, and I wonder if he even reads them before he shoots out the form letter "Have you filled out the papers for recognition."

Actually, the President who loves all the children of all backgrounds and the First Lady do not even see the Winnemem children. The three girls going through the puberty ceremony were so excited about the "change" Obama's election promised that they sent Michelle, Sasha and Malia an invitation to their "coming of age" ceremony, talking on film shyly asking them to come. Marissa (who will be the next Chief) said excitedly when the letter and dvd invitation was sent in January, after we were assured the Obamas were safely esconced in the White House, "I'm so anxious. What if they don't come?" We laughed, at that time. But I never dreamed that the girls would not get even a small letter congratulating them and wishing them well from the President's office. No Senator to usher the letter through and advocate that three young women receive some kind and supportive words, the next generation of Winnemem leaders were summarily ignored. I don't know why, of all the snubs, this one stung so much. Maybe it's because as a Winnemem tribal member, the children, the future leaders are treasures. Maybe it's because during DNC the Winnemem youth referred to Michelle and the girls like they were acquaintances. Maybe it's because Marissa's excitement was wasted and yet another generation learned they don't matter to Washington even if they mean the world to us. Maybe because the girls never mentioned it when June came and went with not a peep from the White House. Perhaps for me it felt harsh that part of "coming of age" for Marissa, part of becoming adult is to experiene she and her people mean nothing to an American President, no matter how historic the election, how sweet that moment's possibilities.

I am so saddened. I have never met young people like the beautiful spirited Winnemem youth. I have never met a family or tribe like the Winnemem. They are and will always be Winnemem, recognition or not. Their life is hard; it is suffering, but as their former leader said, and as they say today, and as all tribal people who meet them say, "they have a hard life but it is the best life." The Winnemem have something to say and so much to contribute to the quality of the land, to the body of intelligence and wisdom regarding stewardship of the land and the earth, to the proud history of California and this country, to morality and ethics of justice, to exemplary statesmanship and leadership, to the great challenges and priorities facing this nation. But no one who should seems to give a damn.

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.