Saturday, April 14, 2012

"And His Word Has Been Golden"

"He has not made treaties with us, but he gave us his word. And his word has been golden."

That is the voice of James Allan, chair of the Coeur d'Alene tribe of Native Americans. He is talking about President Obama.

Obama keeps his promises. Of course he can't when the GOP block him, but that is not his fault, a truth that many liberals seem unable to grasp.

No group in our society is more able to evaluate the promise-keeping of a president, or anyone else for that matter, than the Native Americans. They have centuries of being the victims of the lies, false promises, and disregarded treaties perpetuated by the "white man".  Maybe it took a "black man" to finally do the right thing.

The promise Chairman Allan is talking about is huge.

At issue has been the disgusting, virtually criminal abuse by the federal government of its fiduciary duty to the Native Americans vis-s-vis the natural resources on their lands, chiefly gas and oil. Theoretically the feds were supposed to protect the interests of the Native Americans when the fed licensed these resources to big corporations. The feds were also supposed to ensure that the Native American tribes received the royalties they were entitled to by federal law. For most of a century, the feds sold out the Native Americans with corrupt corporate agreements and failed to collect or properly administer the revenues to which the tribes were entitled. It was a shocking abuse of federal power that I first heard of in the mid-1970s in California when working as an assistant to the Secretary of Resources in the first Gov. Jerry Brown administration. Unfortunately there was nothing the State of California could do about the matter.

What made the feds' crime particularly heinous was the terrible need that the tribes had for that money. And still do. Name a statistic that describes misery, and the Native Americans rank the highest. Poverty, unemployment, lack of education, lack of medical care,  infant mortality, suicide, short life expectancy, serious illness. Behind the statistics is one image we should all carry in our conscience: elderly Native Americans freezing to death in lonely little hovels on vast and empty land.

But not quite empty. Oil rigs pump in desolate reservations. Oil and gas pipelines crisscross the semi-barren reservation landscape. But none of the wealth from this oil and gas has flowed to the people who OWN the oil and gas. They couldn't even get fuel for their own hogans and trailer-homes.

Then in 2008 Barack Obama promised the Native Americans he would correct this injustice. And he has. It was announced this week that the feds will distribute $1 billion now to one group of tribes, with another $3.4 billion already in the pipeline for a second group of tribes. (That's a hell of a better pipeline than the ones now crossing the reservations!) Beyond these two steps of redress are others still in the works.

Of course, if Obama is not re-elected, the Native Americans will lose out on getting any further justice regarding their resources. You can't seriously imagine that a Romney regime would do the right thing on this issue. Do something contra to the greedy-grab of big U.S. corporations? No way!  

Since its beginnings in the 1970s, great progress has been made in correcting the horrific injustices inflicted by white society on Native Americans. I am deeply glad to have given nearly ten years of my life to the that effort. (Ironically, I got far more from the Native Americans than I gave, but that's another story.) Yet there have remained two outrageous injustices on which there has been no progress at all. One was the oil and gas mess, and the other was the so-called "land claims settlement" of 1953 in which the U.S. government offered recompense of pennies on the acre for all the land taken by the U.S. from the California tribes in the prior century. Most of the California Native Americans, desperately poor as they were, refused the fed payments and refused to accept that one side can impose a miserly take-it-or-leave it arrangement as a "settlement". Any hope that this second injustice will also be corrected depends on who sits in the White House, as do all other decisions by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Not all hearts are buried at Wounded Knee.

President Obama has a good heart. A Native American elder once told me to stop feeling apologetic for being white among Native Americans. "Being Indian is not about blood; it's about being of good heart." So our president is not only partly black; he's partly Native American. And that's how it should be. The president should be president of all the people. Especially the most forlorn and vulnerable among us.

The president of the USA should not be the president chiefly on behalf of the big corporations. In a nutshell, that's the essence of the 2012 election. We the People? Or We the Corporations that are supposedly people?

Nor should we who support Obama forget our Native American brothers and sisters. They have done a heroic job these last thirty-five years in asserting their rights. But they still need a president with a good heart. And they need the rest of us to be sure he gets elected. We are all in this together.

This is a life and death election. Don't let another Native American elder die of cold and hunger because you didn't give this election your all. Like our president, be of good heart.

Like our Native American brothers and sisters these past thirty years, fight on! Yes, we can! Yes, we must!



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