|The Reject and Protect call to action this week in Washington, D.C.|
Thursday, April 24, 2014
As this column hits the press, thousands are gathering in Washington, D.C. to take a stand against the Keystone XL Pipeline. During a week that a decision was expected out of the Obama Administration on this issue, the Reject and Protect call to action will set up camp near the White House and tell the President to reject the pipeline. As it turns out, an announcement just came from the White House that the Administration has decided to kick the can on this decision for what seems like the tenth time.
Whether this decision was made to take the wind out of the sails of this demonstration or somehow is part of some other political strategy, or if it is just more D.C. dysfunction, is always hard to say and harder to get anyone to admit to. But, regardless of the decision not to make a decision, it’s important that a message about this is made loud and clear.
One of the crazy things about this whole discussion is the lack of media coverage the actual tar sands oil extraction gets. Americans and Republicans, in particular, love to keep this conversation just about a pipeline; and you can be absolutely sure that FOX News and the Tea Party right will not be rushing to the aid of any ranchers, cowboy hats or not, that stand in the way of big oil profits. When Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy stakes his claim against the U.S. government — even at gunpoint under the clear threat of violence — cries of government oppression and praise to him as a patriot ring all over the political right.
But as this movement rages on — the movement that started on the Native lands in Alberta that are being raped by interests from China to Texas and, of course, a whole lot of Canada — the debate on the U.S. side continues to stay relegated to just a conversation about a pipeline. For most of us opposing this new "junkie's vein" for oil, the absence of the pipeline is simply a bottleneck to slow the environmental travesty that is tar sands oil extraction. Of course, the pipeline absolutely presents a significant environmental risk on its own and, worse yet, the entire justification sold to the American public is a lie. It's not about jobs; the pipeline will ultimately only produce about 40 permanent jobs. It's not about energy independence; it is still foreign oil. It's certainly not about securing a more politically correct supply for the good deserving people of this hemisphere; none of this "oil" is intended for American or Canadian consumption. It is all going to China.
Now don't get me wrong. Alberta, Canada, the Koch brothers and a whole lot of "Big Oil" and all those others invested in tar sands oil stand to make billions. But the American and Canadian public? Nope! Just seized land for a dangerous easement from Montana to Texas and a wasteland the size of Florida will be left in Alberta.
The pipeline will endanger the Oglala aquifer, one of the largest on the continent, and join the ranks of all the other leaking pipelines that make a train wreck of tanker cars look like a soupy puddle from a dropped ice cream cone compared to what a busted or cracked pipe can do. And make no mistake, they all do or will leak. And all those who clamor about how a new pipeline will be safer? Well, NEWSFLASH! This isn't replacing old pipes or rail or truck or even tanker — it is adding to them.
That is really the point for many of us. Beyond the lies and propaganda associated with the Keystone XL Pipeline is the plain and simple truth that this pipeline validates and facilitates the environmental travesty that is tar sands oil extraction. You can put all the lipstick you want on this pig, but it's still a pig. As are all those that are unconscionably destroying what was only recently pristine land that supported a beautiful people dependent on it.
The fact that no American would ever let the destruction occurring on Native lands in Alberta to happen in their back yards is really just hypocrisy. And the fact that an American President can keep sidestepping exactly just what and where from the proposed "oil" is coming is just dishonest.
Now why do I keep quotation marks around the word "oil"? I do it because technically it's NOT oil. It's bitumen. It's worse than crude oil from an environmental standpoint and to add insult to the inevitable injury it’s because it's not even technically crude oil. There is an exemption from paying into a clean-up superfund that would normally come from crude oil passing through a pipeline in the U.S.
It’s easy to draw a line connecting Native people to environmentalism. But for us this isn't about a preference or a social or even a philosophical stance. It is about our identity and how our land defines us. I know many identify with us and share this view. But as more and more of us come together on these and other environmental issues, don't forget our place in this debate. It has now been said by many that the fight for environmental justice starts with Native people. I would suggest that it is sustained with Native people and will end with us, too. With international calls for our "free, prior and informed consent" on all issues with implications for our future, Indigenous peoples globally are gaining confidence and recognition in these and other fights. But none of us will wait for the international community to catch up. Our resistance is today and we will do it without FOX news, armed resistance or the Tea Party darlings.
Regardless of approval of this pipeline, our battle is against the destruction at the source of this issue. We will fight tar sands oil extraction however it is transported. Ultimately, our position on the issue will be more and more validated by others but until then many will label us not as Bundy patriots but as terrorists — and worse.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
During the past week I have had more conversations about "decolonization" than I have had in my whole life. As I mentioned in one of my Facebook conversations, I am not entirely comfortable with the expression.
Clearly as Native people continue to carve out our existence with the dominant societies, cultures and politics around us, we find ourselves getting caught up in the next word, policy or social theory of the day. Sovereignty became almost synonymous with Native rights. Self-governance and self-determination also began rolling off the tongues of every "tribal leader" and "Indian expert." Oh yeah, and let's not leave out “nation-to-nation” and “government-to-government” relations. Those were good ones.
For me, the "trust relationship" with a complete lack of the "trust" part makes that one problematic for me but that one was easy to call. This decolonization thing was a little more troublesome for me. I mean, I get it and the whole "decolonize your mind" slogan does have a nice ring to it but for me it still didn't feel right.
I was finally able to put my finger on it today when my good friend Kerry Hawk Lessard used University of Michigan Associate Professor of Psychology and American Culture Joseph Gone's definition in our discussion. Gone uses decolonization to describe “the intentional, collective, and reflective self-examination undertaken by formerly colonized peoples that results in shared remedial action.”
Well, there you have it. Decolonization felt to me a little too much like the abolition movement and Gone confirmed the problem for me. Just like abolition was all about addressing and ending the very successful dehumanizing institution that was American slavery, decolonization is about remediating the problems associated with "formerly colonized peoples" as though the act of colonization was both complete and successful.
I understand that colonization is a clear and well-defined concept, but at its core it is about claiming land. Just as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery really had nothing to do with converting the pagans into Christians but rather converting their land to Christendom, colonization was less about colonizing people and more about taking their land for the colonizer.
So having said that, I certainly acknowledge that almost all of our lands were stolen, defrauded, claimed and/or swindled from us for THEIR colony and most Native communities, on either side of the imaginary line (U.S./Canadian border) are led to believe their lands are held "in trust" for them by the colonial powers. But the keyword here is "most" — not all.
One of the little-known facts about Native people is that 70 percent of them do not live on Native lands and most of the remaining percent that do, live on lands that the colonizers claim to hold the title to. But that is not the case for the Haudenosanee territories I have lived on. Although our ancestral lands have been greatly reduced, all of the peoples of the Haudenosaunee still retain a portion of those once vast lands and they OWN it.
The lands of which I speak are not under U.S. or state title. And they are not "held for the use and enjoyment" of our people. Our people OWN them. So to say it more clearly and in the context of this discussion — our land is not part of their colony. The land we still occupy has not been colonized.
Now I am not suggesting that we are the only people who can claim to have not been colonized but I would say that if they can't claim our lands then they can't claim us. I will also state for the record that I have never ascribed to the notion that the U.S. and Canada hold our lands for us. But I will say if you view yourself among the formerly colonized peoples then the first step you need to take is to assert your connection to your homeland.
Beyond the inability of the colonial powers to render us landless, I maintain that there is no legal basis to claim our subjugation or cite just when our clearly recognized sovereignty was ever transferred to them. It is laughable that the foundation of U.S and Canadian "federal Indian law" is still ONLY based on papal bulls from the fifteenth century. In 1823 when the U.S. codified the Doctrine of Christian Discovery into U.S. law via Johnson v. M'Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall literally suggested that Native sovereignty was diminished upon discovery. And in the wake of Marshall's legal dicta on this ruling there began this absurd assumption that discovery could be viewed as tantamount to conquest.
Of course, even with this weak rationale building the foundation for the imperialistic belief in Manifest Destiny, neither the U.S. nor the state of New York ever claimed to own the land we retained. In fact, even when attempting to relocate the Seneca during the Removal Act era, the U.S. was forced to include language in its offer of lands west of the Mississippi that even those lands would never be claimed by the U.S. or incorporated into any state (an offer that was nonetheless rejected). As late as the second half of the nineteenth century, New York State still acknowledged in its State Judicial Reports that Seneca lands were not part of the state, that the Seneca were not represented in their legislature and that the state could not tax them.
I have many reasons for refusing to be considered a formerly colonized person. I maintain that there are many of us that are among a long line of people who have resisted and rejected subjugation and the assumption of colonization. So excuse me for not embracing the decolonization movement. My sovereignty is a birthright. That whole unalienable rights thing? That came from us. The concept of seven generations doesn't just suggest that we consider the effects of our actions on those unborn faces — it prohibits and denies any legal and legitimate authority of anyone to sell out their future generations.
I can't decolonize. That would suggest that I was colonized in the first place. I wasn't and I'm not.
Three years ago a couple of "Let's Talk Native..." regulars and I made the trip to the Albany to try to get some straight answers to a couple of simple questions. Matt Hill, Paul Delaronde and I met with New York State Senator George Maziarz, Republican from the 62nd Senate District of New York, to see if a State Senator could get an answer to a question that the State's tax department refused to give us. We sat with the Senator and first queried him on his position on Native-to-Native trade and the State's authority over our commerce and our manufactured goods.
Senator Maziarz made it very clear where he stood on the issues. Despite legislation that the State legislature had recently passed that was to shut down State-licensed wholesalers from continuing a 30- year practice of selling unstamped (untaxed) cigarettes to Native retailers, he felt strongly that the State had no authority to interfere with Native-to-Native trade and he was in full support of the trade we had established with Native-manufactured product.
The problem that we encountered was that we could not get a straight answer out of the Governor's office, the State Attorney General's Office or out of the State's Department of Taxation and Finance clarifying the State's legal, political or regulatory policy on Native-to-Native trade or on Native- manufactured goods. They flat out refused to tell us.
So we figured, surely a State Senator could get us an answer. The Senator agreed to let me work with his staff to draft a letter to Thomas Mattox, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance requesting clarity on the State's position and intent. While at the State Capital, I also decided to pursue support for answers from across the political aisle and asked State Senator Timothy Kennedy, Democrat from the 63rd Senate District, if he would sign onto such a letter. He agreed. So now we had Senators from both political parties pressing for a public announcement of a policy that by law should have been clear and unambiguous in the first place rather than a military secret.
The letter sent from Senators Maziarz and Kennedy on May 16, 2011 stated clearly that:
"It is our view that the State should not pursue an effort to collect taxes on Native Brands because such an effort would be contrary to the sovereign rights of the Native American Nations, and would be a severe blow to the Native retail economy."
The letter proceeded to make a specific and quite reasonable request.
"[W]e request that you provide clarification to us as soon as possible and in writing. It is very important that all of the citizens of the State of New York and their elected representatives know what the intention of your Department is with regard to the collection of State taxes on Native Brand cigarettes and tobacco products."
To my surprise I learned that even the guys who are credited with making these stupid laws couldn’t get answers about their implementation or covert exaggeration.
More than a year later I convinced Senator Maziarz to follow up on his prior unanswered request. This inquiry was made in light of an absolute refusal to respond to his first letter and action from the State Attorney General attempting to stop Native manufacturers from shipping, selling and distributing products to Native territories. This "cease and desist" order came in the wake of a court ruling by the New York State Supreme Court ordering the State to release a seized truckload of Native-produced cigarettes.
Senator Maziarz on June 27, 2012 again wrote to the Tax Commissioner:
"In my view, the recent court case acknowledges that Native Brand cigarettes that are produced and sold on lands owned by Native Nations constitute commerce that is Native to Native. As such these transactions cannot (and should not) be regulated and taxed by the State of New York. To do so would be contrary to the sovereign rights of the Native American Nations, and have significant negative impact on the Native retail economy."
And the Senator once again restated his request:
"Although the NYS Supreme Court case starts to provide some direction on the status of the taxation of Native American cigarettes, there is still much uncertainty in this area. Consequently, we request that you provide written clarification to us as soon as possible."
As we approach three years from the original request there is still a refusal by the State to provide a written explanation of their policy or intent. This is not rule of law. Hell! The lawmakers themselves can't get an answer from these extortionists.
This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his new get tough policy/propaganda against cigarette smuggling. He announced the formation of a 13-agency task force dedicated to keeping illegal cigarettes out of the State.
“This new law-enforcement strategy will help to crack down on these illegal cigarette sales and capture those smugglers who seek to evade the law and rob the state of the revenue it is rightly owed,” Cuomo said.
The problem is that neither the mob boss nor his minions will say where the Native tobacco trade fits into this conversation.
A recent study by a non-partisan tax policy think tank, the Tax Foundation, revealed that almost 57% of the cigarettes consumed in New York State are brought into the state illegally. Nothing in the Tax Foundation's report suggests any of this percentage includes Native brands or Native sales nor does it imply that Native sales are illegal or considered smuggling. The report clearly assigns the vast majority of "smuggled" cigarettes to Virginia and three other low-taxed states that do not affix tax stamps to cigarettes.
So there we have it — New York State policies so covert that the actual lawmakers from either party are denied access while the “Boss” chases his tail on what is real revenue leakage and where his revenue is actually leaking to.
Monday, April 7, 2014
One of the biggest challenges for any people is broad participation in the issues that affect everyone. And when you stop and think about it, there is very little from the smallest ripples in a family to major calamities in a community that occurs without impacting others.
The notion of "mind your own business" or "let someone else handle it" has become commonplace in many cultures. As we observe the flaws of some of these other cultures and societies there are those among us that would like to think the Haudenosaunee lived in a utopian society where conflict and controversy could never find a home. We speak of "the good mind" as though our ancestors never had bad thoughts.
Of course, this was not the case. And a proper inspection of concepts captured in our language and our ceremonies make it clear that both were developed to provide the necessary lessons to avoid repeating the mistakes of those that came before us.
Their wisdom is demonstrated in the timeless metaphors drawn upon generation after generation, not only without losing their meanings but also actually gaining in significance as time goes on. "Fire" is an example of this.
A fire in its most basic form serves as a symbol for family. A fire provides warmth and protection. With its light wisdom and learning are provided and the soothing, almost hypnotic effect of dancing flames and glowing embers is something unmatched in nature.
But beyond the family, the fire represents a council. In fact, the fire is a symbol for our right of assembly. We refer to our process of deliberation as an issue being handed across and around the fire.
And while the fire and the tending of it is a significant part of ceremony, council and the very foundation of our "Longhouse," there are some very basic concepts associated with fire that are either missed, ignored or are interpreted far too narrowly.
Poets, songwriters, storytellers and holy men have crafted messages and sermons with images evoked from "stirring the ashes." But one of the most compelling and pragmatic cultural connections to this expression is neither spiritual nor loaded with spooky connotations.
As it was explained to me, one of the concepts captured in the act of stirring the ashes is specifically associated with inclusion and encouraging participation. The very act of stirring ashes and poking around in the almost dormant embers of a fire livens up those embers. By exposing them, those not quite extinguished embers are made to glow with their own fire and even those that seemed to have lost their fire can be re-ignited.
Many of our people are like those dormant or extinguished embers. While the hot flames flash and dazzle with flamboyant energy, many settle in to the quiet places allowing our fire to be fed primarily by the hottest coals among us. By settling into the ashes, we preserve our thoughts and opinions, protecting them from scrutiny. And in doing so we often believe we retain the right to criticize quietly, away from direct engagement.
The concept of stirring the ashes gives energy and life to those hiding from responsibility when their contribution to our fire is needed most. Stirring the ashes lights those up that may feel neglected as well as those that wish to be. It is a symbol for inclusion and participation. Yet as much sense as the image makes in this application, it is not widely held or shared.
I am extremely fortunate to have people around me that continue to share and explain these things. And because of these special relationships, my responsibility becomes to continue the conversations offered to me and to encourage this very concept of inclusion and participation above all else.
It is through these conversations that like-minded people gather and those that are compelled to action can genuinely know that their actions are either supported or condemned. We need not fear or ignore the darkened embers. We need to stir the ashes to find the latent sparks among us. There is no real consensus on any issue if the light of so many is left buried in the ash.
In the same way that we remove the dust with a seagull wing from the knowledge passed down from those that came before us, we stir the ashes of our fire to remove this dust from the knowledge quietly held right beside us.
For those of us strong in their — and our — convictions, we should welcome those voices rarely heard. And if they challenge us, then such a challenge should be seen as an opportunity to teach those who have not as yet been engaged or to learn from those waiting to become engaged.
A bed of hot coals is a strong foundation for a fire just waiting to flare. And that sea of glowing embers is far more powerful than any single match, torch or beacon.
We need participation far more than we need leadership. Strong leadership is only needed with weak-minded people.
The great men and women who came before us knew all this and that is why concepts and expressions such as "removing the dust" and "stirring the ashes" were specifically captured in our language and incorporated in our stories and ceremonies. These are not phrases coined for prayers to the sky world but rather concepts developed for teaching and avoiding the mistakes common to the nature of man on Earth.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
"The most consistent theme in the descriptions penned about the New World was amazement at the Indians’ personal liberty, in particular their freedom from rulers and from social classes based on ownership of property. For the first time the French and the British became aware of the possibility of living in social harmony and prosperity without the rule of a king." – Jack Weatherford, "Indian Givers"
Almost immediately, all that was known about society, government and social order had come into question for the Europeans who washed up on our shores half a millennium ago. Social order without a hierarchy? Equality? Even between genders? Unalienable rights bestowed to all by Creation?
In the absence of a system born out of beliefs in gods, kings and emperors, an entirely different philosophy developed and shaped the culture of the Onkweh Onweh. As a result, some very foreign concepts were embraced by the newcomers to our lands. Our view of relationships, respect and commitments to our future and the future generations were ultimately understood and welcomed by settlers. Our concepts of liberty and equality would represent such a departure from what was known and, in many ways, at the core of the problems with their "mother land" that they would become not the reason but the rationale for a Declaration of Independence for settler colonists from the rulers of their homelands.
Of course not all of our concepts were embraced and many that were would be altered beyond recognition. But the fact of the matter is that a nation was born out of our lands and our values, both of which were previously unknown to the white man. The reason our lands and philosophies had such value was because they had not been contaminated by European ideas.
It was separation — time, distance and space that would allow a people to develop with such distinction from the norms of Eurasian societies. And now, centuries after the cultural exchanges that would lead to the creation of nations that would make claims to world dominance, democracy and global standards for human rights we, the original people, the Onkweh Onweh, fight everyday to maintain our distinction and autonomy. Five hundred years of atrocities that earn the label of the American Holocaust has not resulted in the successful genocide of our people. And our fight is not the fight of armed insurrection. It is not an insurgency of terrorism or vindictive vengeance. No, our fight is peaceful but strong. We resist the controls of the dominant societies around us. We utilize our sovereignty as an asset and exploit the regulatory advantages we fervently refuse to concede.
But why the fight? Do the U.S. and Canada really consider us a threat? If so, to what or to whom are we a threat? Even as we put our sovereignty to use in our economic development, our economies serve your people! Our gaming, our retail, our manufacturing — all of it depends on the patronage of Americans and Canadians. And how do your people feel about our sovereignty? They support it and, in many ways, depend on it. Our economy employs more of your people than our own. Our economy doesn't just count on your citizens as patrons; we purchase from your vendors; we contract with your suppliers and we hire your contractors. So even as we fight U.S. and Canadian police, government agents, politicians and courts for the elements of our sovereignty that provide the distinction and regulatory advantages necessary to sustain our still limited economy, it is our solid and loyal relationship with your own people that provides our market and much of our supply.
The problems with our economy are many. For one, it's narrow. For another, it is always under attack. If it weren't under an unlawful constant assault it wouldn't be so narrow. Gas, gaming and tobacco are not the only things our people, our lands and our sovereignty are good for. We have much more to offer and, frankly, none of us are comfortable being dependent on two vices and reliance on the oil industry. Nor are we comfortable with them being our legacy.
So here is my point of the week. If our autonomy and distinction could create a philosophy that could change the world centuries ago when change was slow, what could genuine respect and support for our sovereignty and autonomy produce today? In a world where the very regulatory advantages we fight for are sought after for outsourcing, why trek halfway around the globe for what's in your own backyard? Our sovereignty is not a threat to anyone's national security. But it may be a proving ground for the new economic models that everyone is desperately searching for. Back off and see what a clean slate in the neighborhood can do. No need for bureaucratic economic development zones, White House "Promise Zones" or New York State "tax-free" zones. No bipartisan bickering over legislative fixes. Just simple respect for the sovereignty that predates your very existence.
The Haudenosaunee was the model for what would be. We need the respect and support for our autonomy and distinction today so we can be the model for what will be. Fighting us slows down our development but it won't stop us. Fighting us is a battle against the will of your own people. Embrace our distinction and abandon your genocidal tendencies.
Although I cannot embrace the rape of the planet and obscene support for the rich lords of capitalism that seems bound to Republican DNA, there is no question that some of the worst actions and most aggressive policies our people have seen toward our trade and commerce has come from a Democrat as Governor of New York State and a Democrat as President of the United States.
Racism and the arrogant ignorance behind it seem to know no bounds. Neither race nor political party affiliation affects the moral compass or the conscience of elected officials in the American system.
It was under David Paterson, Democrat and New York State's first black governor that the State pushed through enough of its legal hurdles to shut off its State-licensed wholesalers from selling tobacco products to Native retailers. This plan was put into motion by Governor Mario Cuomo almost 20 years earlier and seemed to be held up by his successor, Republican Governor George Pataki.
Now don't get me wrong, we also clashed with Pataki. But this guy changed his stance on attacking our commerce and got elected two more times in spite of it. In other words, caving in to those his predecessor planned to attack militarily under "Operation Gallant Piper" cost him nothing in political capital.
But after 10 years of relative peace and even a huge growth of Native tobacco retail due to remote sales (Internet and mail order), back came the socially responsible Democrats. Democrat Eliot Spitzer got elected as the tough "Sheriff of Wall Street" with every intention of shutting us down but resigned in disgrace after a prostitution scandal. So that's how New York ends up with its first black (un-elected) governor at the same time the U.S. gets its first black president.
Now, one would think that Democrats with even some personal insight on racial discrimination would be "sensitive" to Native issues. Not a chance. Obama killed that retail growth of which I spoke by signing into law the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act (PACT Act), outlawing our remote sales and killing 3,000 jobs in the process. No one said a word about the job losses. No one said a word about killing the revenue flow into Western New York or the wiping out of the Master Settlement Act payments that the State was getting from our sales. The PACT Act was pushed through as an anti-terrorism bill and that sealed the deal.
Paterson tried to choke off supply by pushing through the dormant work of Mario Cuomo and then handed it off to the next his successor, Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo "The Younger" came into office with more than just the normal dismissive attitude toward Native issues. He came in with a chip on his shoulder. He proved that the only thing worse than two Democrats named Obama and Paterson were Democrats named Obama and Cuomo.
While, nationally, many Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) recognized tribal leaders were falling at the feet of the first President "of color" every chance they got and a fair number made sweetheart deals with New York State's "Prince Andrew" over gaming dollars and land claims, record numbers of armed raids by federal agents and seizures by state authorities piled up under this Democrat rule. Law suits, indictments, tax assessments and even a multi-million dollar federal sting operation over tobacco; not guns, not drugs, not funding terrorism but tobacco, has been the hallmark the Obama/Cuomo era.
As I said from the start, I am certainly no fan of the Republican right. I'll never understand how middle class (and below) white Americans can support these guys under the ridiculous belief that they stand for freedom. Freedom to subject an entire nation of people to the prison of consumerism that destroys the planet and only makes the rich richer is not freedom. But the Democrats are right there in defense of American capitalism, too.
I have come to the conclusion that American political party affiliation is all just window dressing. So whether the Republicans want to play the arrogant, know-it-all, abusive dad under the cloak of conservatism or the Democrats want dress up as the whining, let-me-take-care-of-you, incompetent mom in her liberal house coat, we aren't playing. We aren't your children, your wards or your subjects.
As more and more Americans and Canadians see the mess of things their government officials have made and continue to make, the colonial powers may be in for trouble with their own people. The "Great Experiment" in democracy is failing as is the free market and the global economy. While many patriotic Canadians and Americans talk about resisting government abuse, we have been doing it for 500 years. Politicians come and go, as do empires and wealth. We have lived here for tens of thousands of years. You should never start a fight you can't finish.