Want to Make America Great Again? Respect Contributions of Native Americans

A student from Covington Catholic High School stands in front of Native American Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips in Washington, U.S., in this still image from a January 18, 2019 video by Kaya Taitano. Kaya Taitano/Social Media/via REUTERS

A student from Covington Catholic High School stands in front of Native American Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips in Washington, U.S., in this still image from a January 18, 2019 video by Kaya Taitano. Kaya Taitano/Social Media/via REUTERS

George Cassidy Payne

I do not want to romanticize the past. The numerous tribal wars which occurred for thousands of years before European settlers arrived in the “New World” have been well documented. Yet despite these conflicts, the overall legacy of our nation’s indigenous people reveals a remarkable story of human migration, survival, and the spread of civilizations. In fact, the very roots of American democracy began not with Washington, Jefferson and Madison, but with the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy. In the parlance of his age, Benjamin Franklin said in 1751:

It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.

This is what those MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hat wearing high school students from Kentucky failed to grasp when they clashed with a group of Native American demonstrators at our nation’s capital. If only they knew that the very steps they were standing on were erected to honor a political philosophy that came from the ancestors of the Native American marchers.

RPL

To learn more about Native American contributions, visit Remembering Lewis Henry Morgan, an exhibit on display in the Local History & Genealogy Division of the Central Library of Rochester through March 30, 2019. A Rochestarian, Lewis was a pioneer in Native American studies. A path-breaking ethnography that was a model for future anthropologists, The League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851) presented the complexity of Iroquois society and the kinship system with unprecedented nuance. [Photo: David Kramer, 1/23/19]

Furthermore, no matter where European immigrants arrived from, once here they were confronted by environments that were both foreign and hostile. It was native wisdom that enabled the immigrants to successfully hunt, fish, plant food, and endure the elements. For all of their antics and palpable smugness, I wonder if the students would have behaved in such a manner if they understood the real indebtedness they all have to the ancestors of those who they were mocking.

If only the students knew that Native Americans have served militarily in this country in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, perhaps then they would have a little more respect. Although there are questions about the exact story behind the drummer Nathan Phillip’s military record, whether he served in Vietnam or not, the fact remains that many Indians did. They fought and died in the jungles of North Vietnam, just as they fought and died in the battlefields of Germany, and the killing farms of Gettysburg.

Plaque describing the contributions and sacrifices of Native Americans during the Vietnam War, the Vietnam Veteran Memorial of Greater Rochester in Highland Park. [Photo: David Kramer, 1/24/19]

Plaque describing the contributions and sacrifices of Native Americans during the Vietnam War, Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester, Highland Park. [Photo: David Kramer, 1/24/19]

One thing is certain. It was not a good day for the country. Because Native Americans are so often denied the opportunity to be seen as anything more than sports mascots, casino owners, or cultural victims, the site of many proud Native Americans joined in solidarity was not a scene that those young students were prepared to confront. When that smirking student stood in the face of Mr. Phillips — creating an image that went viral — I do not think he was equipped with the proper education or self-awareness to process what was happening. Caught between nervousness, fear, resentment, and unconscious shame, he was trapped in an awkward yet predictable silence. In that prescient moment he became a symbol of the white man’s relationship to Native Americans since the two first came into contact more than 500 years ago.

NOTE: On 2/2/19, the Democrat and Chronicle published George’s Guest Essay on the topic from another perspective.

2/2/19, the Democrat and Chronicle

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 2/2/19

SEE ALSO Living the Native American way of being at Haudenosaunee Days at the RMSC

Dekanawida and Hiawatha, the Rochester Museum and Science Center. Haudenosaunee Days at the RMSC

Dekanawida and Hiawatha, the Rochester Museum and Science Center. Haudenosaunee Days at the RMSC from Living the Native American way of being at Haudenosaunee Days at the RMSC

Charlotte High’s unparalleled and almost lost murals

Iakaonne´tha ne oneka

water-is-life-2

Ruth Dan Yup´ik, indigenous Alaskan and student at the University of Rochester 11/05/16. From Iakaonne´tha ne oneka

The Canandaigua Treaty of 1794, the Dakota Access Pipeline and a rally at the Liberty Pole on Saturday

The birth of American democracy and the enduring political wisdom of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy.

 Casconchiagon and the Rochester Connection

Sneak preview of our 2018 Rochester Contemporary 6 X 6 submission

Trailblazers: Reflections from the Ancient Indian Trails of Western and Central New York

Modern day footprints cover the same trails that our ancestors did 10-15,000 years ago. From Trailblazers: Reflections from the Ancient Indian Trails of Western and Central New York

Modern day footprints cover the same trails that our ancestors did 10-15,000 years ago. From Trailblazers: Reflections from the Ancient Indian Trails of Western and Central New York

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