Culture

Ditch The Headdress, Read Up On Native Authors: Here’s How You Can Celebrate Native American Heritage Month Respectfully

November is Native American Heritage month. And like most commemorative months dedicated to honoring the culture and history of an oppressed people in the U.S., Native American Heritage Month is an insufficient gesture. Added onto that, November is often a a time when stereotypes of Native people get reinforced. A month of supposed ‘appreciation’ and ‘honoring’ of oppressed communities, can easily turn into one replete with cultural appropriation and prejudice.

So we decided we’d round up a few things that you can do —and not do— to celebrate in a positive and healthy spirit. 

1. Don’t desecrate traditional, sacred Native objects by buying or wearing them as props.

More often than not, we find ‘Native’, ‘Tribal’, or ‘Navajo’ inspired goods in stores, what you might not know is that they could be sacred Native artifacts and spiritual items. Objects like the canupa pipe or a warbonnet —commonly known as ‘headdress’— are part of Native spiritual culture and they should never be worn as a costume.

For Native people, practicing their spirituality was illegal in this country, up until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. Before then, Native people were beaten, jailed, and even killed for practicing their ancestral beliefs. What remains of tribal cultures customs, and ceremonies has been paid for in blood.

Among Native people, the warbonnet was only given to those who earned each and every eagle feather for their bravery, self-sacrifice, and great deeds of valor —doesn’t seem very appropriate to wear one as a costume or prop now, does it? Disrespecting the warbonnet is a terrible wrong and dishonors the likes of all who earned them with pride.

2. Don’t make children wear redface and reenact the re-telling of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving reenactments are a whitewashed version of early U.S. history. The retelling of this story only glorifies colonization when we all know that the truth isn’t so pretty. In actuality, an official “day of Thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots” was said to have been proclaimed by Massachusetts Bay governor William Bradford in 1637, celebrating the slaughter of up to 700 Pequot men, women, and children.

3. Don’t promote the fetishization of Native women.

We should all know this by now, but since not everyone acts like it, we’ll say it louder for the people in the back —Do not dehumanize women of color. We’re not your fetish and will not be devalued any longer. Reducing Native women to a fetish is oppressive and objectifying. It subjugates Native women while denying their agency.

Native women face higher rates of violence than the general population. A report last year by the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center found that more than half of Native women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime and 96% of those who commit sexual violence against Native women are non-Native.

4. Don’t support racist mascots.

It’s 2019 and the sports team, Washington R*dskins, literally has a racial slur in its name. It mocks Native identity, it reinforces ignorant and racist caricatures of a whole culture.

5. Don’t pretend to know better than Native people on Native subjects.

I’d like to believe that Native people know more about being Native because well…they are Native, they’ve lived the experience daily. Native people know more about their heritage than non-Natives do and silencing their voices is equal to erasing them.

What’s more, don’t bother Natives on social media by sending them the worst instances of cultural appropriation and racial violence that you may stumble upon while scrolling. Natives who are present in online spaces see it often. Even if you mean well, for Native people, constant exposure to this sort of toxic environment is damaging and exhausting.

6. For the love of God, don’t buy culturally appropriative products from Non-Native vendors.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, do not buy Native imitations at places like Urban Outfitters or other stores who have actually been on trial for stealing names, references and designs from Native people.

Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, “it is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States.” Violators may face civil or criminal penalties of a fine up to $250,000 or five years behind bars. Before buying goods from a purported Native vendor, ask them if they are following this law, and what tribe they belong to. It is not offensive to ask a person who claims to be Native what tribe they hail from. Tribal identification is commonplace and accepted among Natives.

7. Do teach real Native history to children and read up on works by Native scholars and authors.

Introduce real and accurate Native history —including harvest feasts—into school events. Invite Native speakers, authors and scholars to speak to students about Indigenous peoples. It’s important that children see Natives as contemporary living people who are still here.

8. Do respect Natives’ beliefs.

It’s pretty easy; respect other people’s religion and belief systems as you would your own. There are many differences among tribes, but in general, they all share a reverence for the land, for animals and plants, for the bonds of community, for the wisdom of the elderly and for the contributions of their ancestors. Their beliefs and traditions might differ from what you grew up learning, but Native perspectives are just as compelling and valuable as everyone’s, and they should be respected as such.

9. Do respect and honor Native-Veterans.

Natives have served in the U.S. military at a higher per capita rate than any other ethnic group in the 20th century, and in the military actions following September 11, 2001, Native men and women veterans served at a higher rate than veterans of all other ethnic groups, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. As we remember those who have given their lives in service to our country while protecting the freedoms and ideals we hold dear, many of our fellow Americans remain unaware of the major contributions Native Americans have made to our nation’s armed forces.

10. Do buy authentic Native goods sold by Native artisans and businesses.

Stores like Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie, are taking valuable business away from actual Native American artists and small businesses. Support Native American creativity, history, and legacy, and help create a much-needed economic boost in Indian Country by shopping from small, authentic Native businesses. This site has enlisted Native-owned businesses you can shop from online —now you have no excuse.

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A Federal Court Ruling Could Finally Put Much Needed Stimulus Funds In The Hands Of Native Tribes

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A Federal Court Ruling Could Finally Put Much Needed Stimulus Funds In The Hands Of Native Tribes

Sharon Shischilly / Getty Images

Indigenous communities in the Unites States have often been forgotten or deliberately excluded from federal policy. Many nations have been forced to go it alone and, as Covid-19 ravages Native lands, many tribe members have died.

After more than two centuries of exclusion, amid a global epidemic, Indigenous communities are once again being excluded from the decision-making process in Washington even as Covid-19 devastates their communities.

But while Indigenous peoples haven’t always had success before the courts, there has been real momentum of late. In July, the Supreme Court recognized roughly half of Oklahoma as Indigenous land, in a ruling that will have far-reaching consequences in the state justice system and beyond.

Now, Native Americans are having to fight once again for what they’re owed as the federal government distributes the more than $150 billion in stimulus money. More than a dozen Indigenous organizations warned, starting in early April, that if the Trump administration did not listen to tribal governments, they ran the risk of turning the relief package into a “grave injustice.”

A federal judge has ordered the Trump administration to give Native tribes their withheld stimulus money.

Credit: Sam Wasson / Getty Images

Frustrated and disgusted that it has taken so long for the Treasury Department to distribute federal stimulus funds to Native American tribes, a federal judge ordered Secretary Steve Mnuchin to distribute the money immediately, according to HuffPost. The judge said that tribes should have received their portion of the CARES Act months ago when other Americans received theirs.

The decision from U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta was particularly critical of Mnuchin’s decision to hold back $679 million in funding set aside for tribes while waiting on a decision in another case that will determine whether tribal businesses are eligible for the funding, as The Hill reported.

In his ruling, Mehta said “Continued delay in the face of an exceptional public health crisis is no longer acceptable.”

Over the past three months, the Treasury Department has managed to send out billions of dollars in loans to small businesses, checks to families and aid to corporations. But distributing the $8 billion pot set aside for tribal governments has proved more difficult. As a result, tribes, already critically underfunded and among the nation’s most vulnerable communities, have not received all the money they need to weather the pandemic and begin recovering from the economic toll.

“Congress made a policy judgment that tribal governments are in dire need of emergency relief to aid in their public health efforts and imposed an incredibly short time limit to distribute those dollars,” he wrote in an order released late Monday night. “The 80 days they have waited, when Congress intended receipt of emergency funds in less than half that time, is long enough.”

Some tribes were owed $12 million in federal funding and yet got nothing from the government.

Credit: Mark Ralson / Getty Images

Much of the fault is with the Treasury Department which counted the populations of Native tribes differently that Congress had intended. This meant that some tribes would end up with zero funding while some for-profit tribal companies could end up with millions.

Since some tribes do not have a designated reservation or service area, their population counts were listed as zero and they received only the minimum $100,000 allocation.

“We are not races — we are sovereign nations,” said Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe. He added “How can a tribe have zero people?” noting that more than 3,000 people belong to his tribe. “It was a simple clerical error, but no one at Treasury tried to fix it.”

The oversight was even more egregious, Barnes said, because there is also a census count that, while not completely accurate, would have ensured the tribe got closer to the $12 million it believes it is entitled to based on enrollment numbers.

As the legal wrangling continues, the picture on the ground is disastrous.

The Indian Health Service (IHS) reports there have been nearly 33,000 COVID-19 cases reported to IHS, tribal, and urban Indian health organizations. In May, the outbreak in the Navajo Nation surpassed New York as the highest infection rate in the country—today, its infection rate is double any state. Today, the nation has more cases, in terms of raw numbers, than several states.

And while the funding threats and lack of resources threaten everyone, Indigenous elders—sometimes the only remaining speakers of nearly lost languages—face particular danger.

In recent years, there have been furious efforts to collect Indigenous histories and preserve nearly lost Indigenous languages. COVID-19 threatens to undo much of that work as it cuts through the elderly population.

“COVID-19, like many diseases, renders Indigenous elders—our knowledge-keepers and language holders—particularly susceptible to illness and death,” wrote Gina Starblanket and Dallas Hunt, two Indigenous professors and writers in the Globe and Mail in late March. “This virus not only places us at risk, but the future well-being of coming generations as well

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The Supreme Court Issued A Landmark Decision Confirming That Almost Half Of Oklahoma Is Native American Land

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The Supreme Court Issued A Landmark Decision Confirming That Almost Half Of Oklahoma Is Native American Land

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Getty Images

The 2020 Supreme Court season will be one for the record books, as the court handed down several major decisions that impacted the lives of millions of Americans.

From outlawing discrimination in the workplace against LGBTQ people to allowing religious employers to deny insurance coverage of contraceptives, it’s been a very consequential Supreme Court season. Now, the court has handed down one of the most important decisions affecting Native American tribes in generations.

The Supreme Court says that the eastern half of Oklahoma is Native American land.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a major ruling that declared a huge swath of Oklahoma as Native American land for certain legal purposes. The ruling affects about half the state and will have major consequences for both past and future criminal and civil cases.

The court’s decision hinged on the question of whether the Creek reservation continued to exist after Oklahoma became a state.

“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of fed­eral criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

The decision was 5-4, with Justices Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer in the majority, while Justices John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented

The decision means that only federal authorities, no longer state prosecutors, can lodge charges against Native Americans who commit serious alleged crimes on that land, which is home to 1.8 million people. Of those people, 15% or fewer are Native Americans.

Ruling that these lands are in fact reservations doesn’t mean the tribe owns all the land within the reservation, just like the county doesn’t own all the land within the county. In fact, it probably doesn’t own very much of that land, according to several legal experts.

The ruling will have significant legal implications for eastern Oklahoma.

Credit: Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

There will be several implications based on the Supreme Court’s decision. First of all, certain major crimes committed within the boundaries of reservations must be prosecuted in federal courts rather than by state courts, if a Native American tribe member is involved.

For example, if a Native American is accused of a major crime in downtown Tulsa, the federal government rather than the state government will prosecute it. Less serious crimes involving Native Americans on American Indian land will be handled in tribal courts. This arrangement is already common in Western states like Arizona, New Mexico and Montana.

The ruling will also affect past decisions – many of which are now considered wrongful conditions because the state lacked jurisdiction. A number of criminal defendants who have been convicted in the past will now have grounds to challenge their convictions, arguing that the state never had jurisdiction to try them.

The decision is a major win for Native Americans, but so much more work needs to be done.

“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation,” the tribe said in a statement. “Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries.”

The same day that the court issued its landmark Oklahoma decision, a federal judge also ordered that oil must stop flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline, which runs from North Dakota to Illinois. The deadline is August 5.

Of course, these are major legal victories. But taken together, they only highlight the ongoing legal issues and discrimination that Native American tribes face. To realize a complete vision of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice takes people power — the kind that energized the 2016 Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline but that in fact goes back much further.

In 2007, the International Indian Treaty Council, alongside other international Indigenous organizations, helped draft the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Although imperfect — declarations are, after all, aspirational and nonbinding — the declaration provides a universal mechanism for free, prior and informed consent with Indigenous nations over the decision-making process of development projects.

A major win for Native American tribes in the United States would hinge on Indigenous authority over lands that they control and landscapes that they have historic and cultural ties to.

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