Last Thursday I flew into Columbia, South Carolina. As a Mvskoke person from Oklahoma, returning East is always going home. When I stepped out onto the earth the mist of breath was thick with medicine plants. The trails of our peoples go back and forth through the South. The towns, rivers and other places still have our names. The indigenous people are everywhere in the spirit of the place, yet there isn’t the tangible physical presence of Indian people as there is in Oklahoma, or Florida. The Catawba is the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina, with at least ten tribes or groups who have received or are in process of receiving recognition from the state. I met Cherokee storyteller, photographer and cultural ambassador Will Moreau Goins for lunch the day after I arrived. He reminded me that we met years ago in Nebraska when we worked together on a narrative film project for the Omaha people; we gave Wes Studi his first film job. Will caught me up on what is going on in Indian Country in South Carolina. The story is familiar: diabetes, tribal politics, state politics, the politics of black and white, and just trying to make it…Later I got to meet Monty Branham, a fine Catawba potter, and his wife, and saw a display of some of his fine pottery. All made me feel at home. That is the best gift you can give any traveler. Mvto.
An elder friend of mine from a local pueblo is heading up a campaign to include tribal members of quarter blood as tribal members. “If this isn’t done, then in a few years there will be no more pueblo, and the U.S. government will have accomplished what they set out to do long ago when they instituted racist blood quantum rules”, she told me. How can we deny our children their place, refuse them a home? When we base our tribal identity on blood quantum then we have truly been colonized. We don’t need the BIA anymore. We can do the job ourselves. Who are we really as tribal nations? Is it skin color that makes a Mvskoke citizen? Or is it language? Identification with the land? Being a known member of the community (whether that community be in Oklahoma or California?) Do we maintain tribal grounds or tribal church membership? When do our grandchildren cease to be our grandchildren? Think about it: U.S. policies of eradication of Indian identity have roots in the same ideas of racial purity that motivated the Nazis. Is this who we want to become? I have received many emails about this issue, more on this issue than anything else I have written about in this column.
And further South on October 14th in the Cauca Valley in Columbia the government of Columbia moved against native demonstrators who want the government to set aside more land for Colombia’s 1.3 million Indians, and to provide more money for better education and healthcare. They demonstrated to ask the government to prevent corporations and multinational companies from encroaching on their land. The government responded by killing five peaceful protestors. Many more have been injured, my friend, the Columbian native poet Fredy Chicangana has been giving me updates via email. Now you know. And what do we do with all of this knowing?
I’ll never forget the striking Bolivian Indian woman who stood up once during an historic meeting of indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego in 1990 outside of Quito, Ecuador. After welcoming everyone she said, “This hemisphere is one body, one soul.” If we truly understood and believed these wise words, all of us, there would be no killing, no diabetes, no internal or legalized racism. Think about the true feast we could hold to honor the eradication of ignorance and misunderstandings! Now that would be a Thanksgiving.
October 28, 2008 Albuquerque