Graduation Miracles

This past Friday, the University of Wyoming’s American Indian Studies Program celebrated the graduation of seven American Indian students from college.

The ceremony was fairly pro forma. Held at the Laramie Hilton Ballroom, flanked by family and friends, each student selected a faculty member to speak on their behalf. Each faculty member shared personal anecdotes about the student, along with a brief biography that the student had put together. It was a nice evening, but far from unique among the many graduation observances across the Nation.  
I think what made the ceremony portion special, though, were the events that followed a faculty member’s remarks: every graduating student was presented with a Pendleton Blanket, long the gold-standard for gift exchange among American Indian communities. Once the ceremony was over, the invited drum group played a closing song, and an invited elder fanned each student with the incense of burning cedar (a process otherwise known as cedaring in Indian Country).

It was a pan-Indian ceremony to be sure, but one that reflected the diversity of backgrounds and tribal affiliations of the Native students who call UW home.

As the evening carried on, there were plenty of laughs and smiles, along with the inevitable tears of pride from families. But as we discussed the achievements of each graduate, it became easy to take their accomplishments for granted. After all, that’s what we do when we celebrate graduates. We celebrate their accomplishments – even if it’s merely finishing the arduous task of a university education itself. No small feat, but it’s expected. As a society, it’s what we do.

Naturally, as I listened to the accolades, the mindset that “of course, students will amass a number of accomplishments” was never far from my estimation. And yet, now that a couple of days have passed, it’s clear to me that this is so very far from the truth.

The article is a bit cold on the wires now, but according to Dr. Dean Chavers, Director of Catching the Dream (Ph.D, Stanford University), the accomplishments we witnessed on Friday night were actually quite rare:

Only 17 percent of Indian students go on to college from high school. And since 50 percent of these high school students drop out before graduation, only 8.5 percent of Indian students enter college. This compares to 70 percent nationally. Thus Indian enrollment in college is only 12 percent of non-Indian enrollment. And 82 percent of these Indian college students drop out before they graduate from college; they never earn a degree. For every Indian college graduate per unit of population, there are 30 non-Indian graduates. And the gap has been getting larger over the past 40 years, not smaller. 

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/06/16/myth-indian-scholarships-and-native-dropout-epidemic-118525

Based on this assessment, a whopping 6.97% of American Indians will actually earn a college degree. Set aside the adversity of losing a family member in the midst of college, and set aside the rigors and stress of student competition at the highest levels of college debate (personal disadvantages that two of our students had to overcome), what we witnessed and celebrated on Friday night was the rare graduation of a group of American Indians.

Far from falling victim of the statistics of Dr. Chavers, our UW graduates joined that narrow 6.97% of their American Indian peers and earned a college degree. Regardless of their GPAs and resumes, upon graduation, our seven students entered a meaningful elite – for who is better positioned to do more, to continue to compete, and to utilize the skills that they have learned to the direct benefit of their communities, than the Native students graduating from college?

Indeed, perhaps, among no other ethnic group in America is a college degree so important as it is to Native Americans.

And so, as our Native graduates move from hither to yon, I wish you all well. Thank you for the years you’ve shared with me. Thank you for the perseverance that you demonstrated, however fraught the circumstances may have been. And thank you for allowing me to witness as close to a miracle as we still have in this modern era – the celebration of your collegiate accomplishments.

And most of all, thank you for the things you will accomplish. May your journal, henceforth, be blank.

The Art of Making Strategic Decisions

In class this week, we walked through a few of the main arguments that set the theoretical framework for building effective tribal governments (See Rebuilding Native Nations).

According to the authors’, one of the key elements for building effective tribal governments is for tribal leaders to engage in strategic decision making. The whole section reminded me a bit of the biblical adjuration, Where there is no vision, the people perish. I think that passage is actually talking about prophetic visions, but divorcing a quote from context has never stopped me before.  
Regardless, the point is the same. In order to run an effective government, organization, institute, non-profit, etc., there has to be some vision toward which the entity aspires. For tribes, some of the questions include, What kind of society do we want to create? What’s our primary objective? What values guide our decision making? Where do we want to be in ten years? How do we get there from here? How do our values inform our policies? And, fundamentally, What do we want? 
While the text applies these considerations, quite correctly, to tribes, the potential applications ofsuch analyses are actually much broader.  In fact, they even lie at the heart of the U.S. Presidential Election:
  • What kind of country do we want? 
  • Would we shut the borders of the United States to Muslims seeking entry? 
  • Would we seriously consider deporting 11+ million illegal immigrants? 
  • Why are we afraid to categorize people who are here illegally as illegals?
  • But, is deportation the best use of our rather finite National resources? 
  • Are we content with a criminal justice systems that disproportionately affects blacks? 
  • Are we content with a nation where top officials can flaunt their violation of our strictest national security laws? 
  • What kind of person would we like to see on the Supreme Court? 
  • How can we provide health care in such a way that we maximize the Liberty interests of citizens, while delivering the best possible service?? etc…

The point is simply that the questions besetting tribes are no different than the kinds of questions that we face as a Nation. The only difference is that tribes must ask such questions not as free peoples exercising their right to self-government, but as wards under the guardianship of an external government that has assumed the authority to nullify their decisions with the stroke of a pen (See Congressional Plenary Power). 

And so the question remains for tribal governments, When will the moment in time be right to challenge the legal presumption that Congress has absolute authority over American Indian tribal nations
Granted, the time isn’t now. But when the time comes, what is the strategy for throwing off the yoke of Washington in order to truly allow tribes to engage in their own exeperiment in government by the consent of the governed?  And make no mistake, consent is key here. Any exercise of tribal self-determination must begin with the will and consent of Indian peoples. 
Even so, what’s the plan? What would that form of sovereignty look like? 
Lots of questions to explore and it’s only week one. Onward…

Blog Reboot, and Today’s Tribal Governments

Today marks an interesting shift for Pax Plena. After years of personal blogging and sharing my thoughts on everything from political questions to parenting, I’ve decided to use this platform as a way to share more of my thoughts on my research and teaching interests. Naturally, I reserve the right to share whatever I like, but I hope to use the site as a way to test new ideas, and hopefully bring a bit of what I do in American Indian Studies to those interested. 


So, consider this an effort to reboot the blog, and take things in a new direction. 

Toward that end, I’m teaching a course on Tribal Governments this semester (AIST 4100). The enrollment is relatively small with only seven intrepid students eager to take on the complexities of America’s fourth form of government. 

This is my third year to teach this course, and it has long puzzled me why a class with obvious relevance to a rural state like Wyoming would generate such little student interest. It could be that students are busy and have to prioritize their course load – an understandable outcome given the reality of the semester schedule and the respective demands of various majors across campus. But I suspect the lack of interest has more to do with the subject matter than it does with any scheduling conflicts.


Part of the problem is that the notion of tribes as governments is something relatively foreign to many students. For starters, the governmental authority of tribal governments finds its genesis in a source of law that falls outside the bounds of the U.S. Constitution. The phrase we use in Indian law is that the governing authority of tribes is ‘extra-Constitutional,’ or one derived not from the efforts of our Founding Fathers, lo so many years ago. Such is the case because tribes pre-dated the U.S. Constitution by centuries, and in their drafting, the Founding Fathers simply did not incorporate tribes into the Constitutional framework.   

So right away, from the very first day of the class, there is a disconnect to overcome. It’s certainly not an insurmountable barrier. But there’s a degree of difficulty in introducing a new form of government within the U.S. after years of civics courses have engrained in a student’s mind that federalism consists of federal, state, and local governments to the exclusion of all others. 

And yet, it’s fascinating course to teach as an instructor. If there’s an area of governance where there is still ample room for innovation, development, and creative problem solving, then the work being done among American Indian tribal governments has to be among the most interesting around. My experience has been that students tend to appreciate this point toward the end of the semester – but at the beginning it’s still a distant concept.

By the end of the semester we will have explored four theme areas: 
  • Tribes as Governments. Here, we explore the nuts and bolts of what tribes can do. Some things will be obvious – tribes can levy taxes, create their own codes and bodies of law, etc. Other things might be surprising to students, like the idea that tribes can issue license plates, or own businesses.
  • Tribes and Other Governments. This theme evaluates the contours of the relationships between tribal governments and the other governmental entities within the American federalist system. Primarily, it addresses questions of jurisdiction. For example, students might be interested to know that in most states, the state government has no jurisdiction over Indian reservations/lands. This may sound find, until students realize the problems this can create in terms of criminal law, given sparse federal law enforcement resources across much of the American west. 
  • Tribes and Development. For many students, this is the most interesting aspect of the course. Unlike mainstream, American governance, where a strong political current actually perceives government as an obstacle to economic progress (a view I’m not unsympathetic toward), when it comes to tribal governance, tribal nations uniformly play a large role in promoting economic progress and development. Often times, a tribal government will find itself in the role of a business owner. Such an action by government in the mainstream context would be rare, and mostly anathema to significant segments of the population. 
  • Critical Analysis. The final theme that I true to imbue in the minds of students is the notion of critical analysis – and the particular challenge of maintaining critical thought when it comes to our overview of tribal governments. While I consider myself an advocate of tribal sovereignty, I believe that it’s equally important for students to understand that tribes are fallible entities indeed. Not every tribe governs well. Not every tribe abides by the rule of law. And not every tribe ensures that its citizens are entitled to equal protection under the laws of the tribal nation. So, while the students will be learning about what tribes can and can’t do, what their relationships are like with over governmental entities, and the impressive innovations that can result from tribal/state/corporate/federal partnership, I also want them to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism throughout the semester, and to consider tough questions that, honestly, may not have an answer.
Functionally, the course has always gone well. It certainly isn’t a required course by any means, so the students who sign up tend to have some interest in the class, which in turn makes my job a lot easier. Suppose we will know more on this score in a few weeks time, but I’m happy to have the students I met on Monday on board. 

For now, I’ll leave it here, but don’t be surprised if additional comments and questions from the class make their way into this space. Truth is, I’ve missed blogging – so, it’s nice to have a way to incorporate my academic interests into our now 11 year old conversation here at Pax Plena. 

More to come…

On Leaving

The hardest part of the holidays is always the ride back to OKC Airport. I’ve made the trip a fair few times now, and while it becomes more familiar, I can’t say that it’s ever any easier.

In my discipline, we often talk about the unique connection that American Indians have to their lands. And I think that’s right.

But on days like today, as we prepare to depart and return to the regular business of busy and hectic lives, I wonder if we’re only discussing half of the issue in the relationship between native peoples and their lands.

For my view, any attachment to place has to be coupled with the family/friends/loved ones who are there. Without relationship, a place is just a place. Land is just land.

But when one adds in family, and friends, and loved ones, and multiplies this across the generations, an attachment to lands makes a lot more sense.

In a way, we call this attachment, “home.” And leaving home is always a hard thing to do.

Silence, God, and Fish

Flowers Beside the Lake
The other day, I read about King Saul and his efforts to consolidate power once he was named the King of Israel. He was a man who ruled with ruthless abandon, harassing his enemies at every turn, driving them out of the lands and territories that the King had claimed for his own. And yet, for all of his struggles, warmongering, and folly, King Saul sought God often. As it happens, however, God did not often answer him back (I Samuel 14.37).

Saturday, I took a break from preparing for classes and ventured into the Snowy Mountains in Medicine Bow National Forest. The past week had found me feverishly reading Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. It’s one of the assigned texts for my classes, because it vividly outlines the plight of American Indian tribal nations during the systematic destruction of their governing institutions. Much like King Saul, the young American Nation consolidated power over American Indian tribes with ruthless abandon, harassing them at every turn, and driving them out of the lands and territories that the budding Nation would claim for its own. As the story goes, the tribes were driven further and further westward, until they were summarily rounded up, and placed on increasingly smaller reserves of land. Or as we call them today, reservations.

I suspect for anyone, the book might make for a bit of a dour read – particularly the early chapters prior to the Government’s major shift in Federal Indian policy. Tale after tale of lost lands, disease, and poverty had left me quite nearly moribund myself, so when the invite from a friend came to head for the hills (literally), I was more than happy to leave my work behind.

Now, when I fish, it’s normally my habit to focus intently on the fishing. I tend to analyze each cast, and ponder over bait options, all in hopes of snagging a big fish. But on this trip my approach was different. When we first arrived, no one was at the lake. The sounds of the waves lapping against the rocks, and the rustle of the wind were all I heard. Every so often, I could glance and see a bald eagle soaring high overhead, looking for an opportunity to demonstrate who the true fisherman was. It was serene, and I allowed the quiet of the mountains to consume my morning.

I asked no questions of God in that quiet sanctuary of nature. Even if I had let my mind wander and permitted myself to conjure up all of the academic questions posed by my textbook, or considered the dilemmas that consume my own existence, I suspect my answers from God would have been the same as those given to Saul: complete, utter silence. I say this not on account of my own warmongerings, but because sanctuaries are fundamentally places for worship and contemplation. The sanctuary of nature I visited, set against the craggy face of the Snowy Mountains was no different. Words would have been an injustice in so beautiful a place.

And so I was silent. And God was silent. And the fish never stirred.

It has taken a while, but gradually I’m learning that the silence of God can be just as tremendous as the voice of God. Silence leaves the questions and matters that beset us wholly open to interpretation. This space provides opportunities for us to create our own solutions to existential quandaries – as opposed to having a determinist God prescribe our every waking moment and then some.

Given this, I think what our collective lot needs is more of what philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich famously described as The Courage to Be – mustering within ourselves a courage to confront life’s ordeals, as much as a courage that allows us simply to be at peace with ourselves. In other words, only when we embrace the silence of our existence, can we find peace amid the chaos of life – a peace that allows us to simply “be.”

An Ode to the Rising Sun

 
It’s a drop past 4pm here at Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. As the canard goes, it’s not lost on me how ironic it is to name a state citadel of aviation after a man who died in a plane crash. 
 
Airborne
 
A few hours ago, I said goodbye to Gwyn, Clark and Fan after a bittersweet farewell in Walters with Dad, Mom, Papa, Andrea, Jacob, Garrett, Seth, Chelsey, and our sister Randi Lynn and her son Drey. I made this latest trip home to see exactly this set of people. If there’s anything one can count on at all in matters of Comanche culture, it’s the opportunity to see family when one comes home. 
 
And so it is at the Comanche Homecoming Celebration, going strong some 63 years after its first incarnation welcoming home veterans following their service in the Korean War. 
 
Last night, sitting at our camp, with a canopy of stars under the dark Oklahoma sky, I was able to sporadically reconnect with friends and family alike – some of whom I had not seen since the last time I attended the Comanche Homecoming Celebration in 2005. Soaking up the moment, I was pleased to chat with long-time family friend, Tom Kavanaugh, a former Anthropologist and Curator of Collections at the University of Indiana’s Mather Museum. Tom is nothing if not friendly and blessed with a keen sense of storytelling, wrought from forty-odd years of accumulating insights into the history and culture of the Comanche People. His knowledge and enthusiasm is infectious. 
 
After listening a good while, I asked what someone with his experience would miss the most about the old days of the celebration and the old ways of doing things. True to form, Tom answered without hesitation, “I miss the people. They Keewainais (keh-why-nighs) who are no longer here but should be.”
 
I didn’t have much of a reply. It’s sometimes hardest to respond when a person is so strikingly correct. 
 
Later that night over cigars with my brother Lucas Davis of Houston, TX (a distinctly Comanche brother who shares neither my tribal identity nor even my ethnicity), I thought about the event and its ability to pull together so many people, from so many places, and allow them to be a family. 
 
While I watched the crowds of people milling about the dusty creek bottom, I found that I couldn’t escape my conversation with Tom. A small place in my heart pinched at the thought of families and friends forever seared into my heart and mind – the ghosts of celebrations past who are forever sitting around the arena in Sultan Park. 
 
My son Clark received a Comanche name earlier in the day, one of the principal reasons hastening my return home. Such events are rare in life, watching one’s firstborn and his ascent into the ranks of warriors past. Fortunately, Clark was well-served in his naming by family friend/relative and my personal mentor Bernard Kahrahrah – a former Chairman of the Comanche Tribe. After much prayer, Bernard gave Clark the name Thaiori (Thy-oh-rē), which translates to the sun is rising.
 
Denver
 
I didn’t realize this at the time, but Clark’s name gives me a great deal of solace as I struggle to make sense of life, and all of the changes and opportunities that lie ahead. I think that even when one becomes melancholic for the ghosts of the arena, perhaps it’s wise to follow their example and pray for the generations that are to come, rising like the sun in the east, calling us to embrace the future of a new day.  
 
It’s always a good thing to come home – no matter how difficult it is to leave. 

Country and Culture

I’m writing today from steamy Carnegie Park, home of the Kiowa Gourd Clan’s annual celebration. While an American flag is prominently displayed in the middle of the arena and scores of veterans line the rows of chairs behind it, the event is decidedly not a celebration of America’s Independence from Great Britain. 

Somewhere around the time that the Kiowa Indians came to call this part of Oklahoma home, the early days of July coincided with the ripening of the skunkberry, indicating that the time for holding the sun dance was near. As Kiowa warriors came to defend their territories in the infamous “Indian Wars” against the U.S. Cavalry in the late 1800s, trophies of battle were proudly displayed in the literal center of the annual ceremony. Given its origins, the event became more a celebration of tribal insurgency than a celebration of American Independence from European powers.

Yet, it is impossible to discount the appreciation for our country here marked by a plethora of red, white, and blue, along with the deep admiration expressed repeatedly for the young men from Kiowa Country who have fought with honor on distant shores. It’s also noteworthy that Native Americans have the highest record of military service per capita of any ethnic group in the United States. It is fair to say that American Indians are a rather patriotic lot all things considered.  

But if there’s a conclusion to be drawn from the Kiowa Gourd Clan celebration and its implications for the nexus of culture and country, it is that America’s relationship with its tribal nations is rife with complexity. And though it may be surprising, it is exactly this complexity that makes the annual celebration here in Carnegie a quintessentially American affair.

A couple of years ago I wrote that America is like a large dysfunctional family. I think this is still mostly true. Consider the hullabaloo surrounding the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby opinion. Proponents of Obamacare and those who generally support the mass availability of contraception have bemoaned the “dangerous implications” of the Supreme Court’s “radical” decision. Meanwhile, faith-based organizations and those opposed to family planning have hailed the ruling as a profound “victory for religious freedom.”

Given our divide, it’s clear that both our internal relationship with other Americans, and America’s relationship with tribes, are complex things. And yet, like a marriage on the rocks, America somehow manages to hold it together year in and year out, providing relative stability for the world and bags of cash when good will isn’t good enough.

It’s true we can do more to cooperate and solve big problems. We can be more united and less inclined to bickering. But as a society we seem to hold our collective paradox rather well.

With our population so divided on so many issues, perhaps celebrating our cultural disconnects really is the best we can do.  

Secular Thoughts and Sacred Conclusions

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It’s a quiet morning here on the farm. My Wife, Son, and Grandfather have all made the trek down the road and up the steep hill to church. I’ve opted for a somewhat less holy morning of coffee and Emails. Not nearly as uplifting but we all have our spiritual needs I suppose. 

Despite my morning of zen, a lot has happened in the past few weeks. Most recently, my baby sister graduated from high school, thereby ensuring my parents an empty nest if they ever permit her to leave. For now, her college plans include attending the local university and commuting from home at their insistence. 

For my friends and colleagues not from Southwest Oklahoma, the graduation ceremony itself would have been somewhat of a surprise. Like the one hundred and five Walters High School Commencement ceremonies before it, my sister’s graduation was punctuated by very public references to God and Jesus with one precocious valedictorian going so far as to share the gospel from rostrum, complete with pastoral inflections and Biblical passages. Naturally, he was a preacher’s kid – the scion of the First Baptist Church minister no less. As if this weren’t enough, the baccalaureate service was also prominently advertised, directly opposite the graduation agenda on the official programs issued by the school. It was enough to make even this God-fearing agnostic’s head swirl. Suffice it to say, Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state is in a bit of disrepair around here. 

On the other hand, such a melding of faith and state wasn’t all bad. After a spirited debate with the powers that be, my sister managed to secure permission to wear an Eagle plume feather from her mortar board. Granted, the permission didn’t not come readily or perhaps even willingly, but we were all pleased nonetheless that the situation didn’t escalate. Last year, a Native American high school senior from Alabama was fined $1000 for her exercise of religious expression. The matter would have been especially ironic given the overt displays of religious expression throughout the ceremony. Perhaps the event will mark a new era of religious pluralism here in sleepy Walters, OK?

First Amendment questions aside, being home has been rather nice in other ways. We returned to America unexpectedly at the conclusion of my contract with the University of Waikato at the end of March. Fundraising had been a perennial problem for my employer, the University Waikato’s new Indigenous Governance Centre. But as you can see in the photo above, we returned to warm temps and mild summer evenings that provide ample time for walks down the narrow lane leading to our house. I enjoyed similar walks with my Son in New Zealand, but the area around our flat didn’t have the quiet, peaceful environs we enjoy here in the country. In a way, the biggest benefit to being home is how simple it really is. 

While I poked a bit of fun earlier at the overt religiosity here in the veritable buckle of the Bible Belt, there is something to be said for the stability and simplicity of life gleaned from the faith that guides most people around here – a faith I once had. This is particularly true when one considers the relative chaos that seems to pervade everything else.

Consider that in just the past week alone, people much more tech savvy than myself have said that the security infrastructure of our computers and computer systems is “held together with the IT equivalent of baling wire.” Similarly smart people have questioned whether the crisis in the Ukraine could lead to another World War. And not long ago, closer to home, our State so thoroughly botched the execution of a man that he died of a heart-attack some twenty minutes after state officials halted the entire process.

Given such a comedy of errors, it’s nice to have a place that’s insulated from the madness – if only for a short while. But more on that to come.

What’s in a Name? The Redskins Mascot Controversy

I’ve resisted weighing in on the latest round of the Native American/American Indian mascots controversy. When such debates rear their heads, the conversation is rarely constructive. For example,  of late, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has been called both a racist and a bigot – and these were just letters from family.

(I kid. I kid.)

The current controversy actually has its genesis in a bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives this past March, long after the Redskins were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by the Seattle Seahawks. In legislation that was all but doomed to fail, Washington, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes (D-DC)  drafted legislation that would effectively void any trademarks containing the term “redskin/s.” Naturally, the bill would have a significant impact on the Redskins franchise, its revenues, branding, and merchandise.

Fast forward to this past May, when ten members of Congress sent a letter to  Washington Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder demanding that the team change its name. Consider also that the least effective sentence in the english language always begins with the phrase “members of Congress sent a letter.” Even so, the brouhaha persisted, apparently undaunted by such realist frivolities. And, now, everyone from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to Rush Limbaugh has had their say. Most recently, ESPN’s Rick Reilly threw gasoline on the flames by sharing a few thoughts on the controversy in his weekly column. After arguing that the majority of the opposition to Indian mascots comes from “white America” Reilly concludes:

In fact, ESPN and many other media companies cover the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves without a single searing search of their social conscience.

Doesn’t matter. The 81-year-old Washington Redskins name is falling, and everybody better get out of the way. For the majority of Native Americans who don’t care, we’ll care for them. For the Native Americans who haven’t asked for help, we’re glad to give it to them.

Trust us. We know what’s best. We’ll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again.

Kind of like a reservation.

[Link]

So, opposing a team’s mascot is analogous to putting Indians on reservations? Um, got it…

Cutting through the fog, it’s important to remember that such issues turn, as they always have, on the situation of the particular team and its relationship with American Indian tribes. The trouble when advocates claim a broad mandate regarding the sensitivity of a term or phrase is that their mandate is rarely as large as they perceive it to be.  As of today, there are 566 Federally Recognized Tribes in the United States scattered across the whole of the contiguous 48 states. Also as of today, there has been precious little effort to determine what position each tribe takes regarding the Redskins mascot. Any party claiming a mandate or mantle of authority to facilitate change on behalf of American Indians en masse is simply misguided. While some tribes have signaled their opposition, the perspective of a few tribes is hardly representative of the whole of Indian Country.

On the other hand, the conversation being raised by opponents of the mascot is an important one for America to have. As a Nation, we tend to handle race relations about as well as we handle Middle Eastern crises and occupations, not very well. (Here’s looking at you Syria.) The fact is, the status of American Indians within the legal framework of the United States has long been a point of internal and Constitutional tension. As a society (and certainly our Government), we Americans don’t really know quite what to do with Indian tribes. Whereas the Civil Rights movement was about incorporating disempowered minorities into the American social fabric, what American Indians advocate for in pursuing policies of tribal self-determination and sovereignty is one of measured separatism. In other words, they seek to be left alone so that they can govern their peoples, lands and resources. Naturally, a very real disconnect in the conversation results because matters of racial stereotype are almost perpetually conflated with matters of tribal governance.

For the current debacle, I don’t see a tidy resolution to the situation. The Federal Courts have already concluded that the mascot name is not so offensive as to invalidate the Redskins trademark – and even if it is, the matter has lain dormant so long as to make the allegation moot. Short of pursuing abject censorship along the lines of Delegate Holmes, I don’t see a legal solution to the quagmire. Ironically, this would suggest that the groups opposed to the mascot are following exactly the proper course, seeking to influence public opinion and persuade the whole of society that the name is offensive and should be scrapped.

Personally, I think tribal advocates are playing small ball by focusing on the mascot issue. There are real enemies to tribalism in the United States and given the pecking order of threats, the name of a mediocre football team just isn’t worth the energy being expended. Even if I were a Washington Redskins fan, I can’t see the mascot issue being a bigger concern than the Redskins’ 0-3 start, and the inability of a much lauded second-year quarterback to deliver.

Of course, as a Dallas Cowboys fan, I don’t really give a damn. The team from Washington can be the Redskins or the Lobbyists and all will be right with the world if the Cowboys come away with a win.

Why I Love America

American flagA prominent Native American law blog I follow posted a tongue-in-cheek message to Americans celebrating the Fourth of July. The headline declared:

Happy Fourth from the Merciless Indian Savages

[Link]

For the confused, the headlined referenced a brief passage from the Declaration of Independence, listing the offenses of King George III. The excerpt appears in full below:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

It’s true that the United States has had a violent relationship with American Indians. From an abject policy of destruction and relocation hailing from the early years of the Jackson Administration, to a policy of systemic termination of tribal governments, I suppose if any group in America has a grievance against the government we celebrate today, it would be my people, the Native Americans.

The point is not to measure effronteries, but I can understand the purpose in the making the statement. The simple fact is that America is neither a perfect angel, nor an evil villain as the social extremes would suggest.

The best description we can give America is that we are a wonderful, complicated, dysfunctional family.

Think about our family tree. We have Bible-beating aunts from the midwest. We have uncles that drink too much from the south. We have mothers and fathers who don’t speak to each other anymore (but refuse to divorce for tax reasons) in the northeast. And we have lazy cousins who would rather be professional students than get a real job from the west.

But even the most dysfunctional of families has to come together every now and again.

So, we have an annual probate meeting to discuss the estate of our late Uncle Sam. Each family sends its delegates to the meeting down in Washington, D.C. where they take in the sights, and pretend to be very busy. Being a family meeting, however, you can imagine how little they actually get done. In fact, they spend most of their time yelling at each other, drinking, and having the odd sex scandal. The end result is the occasional bastard child, and the need for years of therapy.

But sometimes we really do come together, and get important, things, done. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen on occasion. And when it does happen, we’re a stronger family for it. That is until the next time Uncle John gets drunk watching Nascar, and mocks Cousin James for his vegan lifestyle in San Francisco. Then we have a family World War III and Grandma and Grandpa have to step in and settle things down.

And that’s why I love America really. We behave just like a family, only on a bigger scale. And even while we may loathe our cousins for being self-righteous, at the end of the day, we would miss them if they weren’t around anymore.

America’s greatness isn’t the moral high-ground we sometimes claim. And our weakness isn’t that we drive trucks instead of hybrids. America’s greatness is that we manage, somehow, to get along. Mostly.