As elementary school kids across the US don gaudily dyed chicken feathers and hop around like the fowl themselves for no discernible reason other than it’s what they’ve been told “Indians did,” their classmates watch on with stoicism in cardboard capotain hats, before together they fall upon plates of factory-farmed turkey. Yes, it’s Thanksgiving, and the same white privilege that enables Dan Snyder to claim that the racial slur his football team is known by “honors” tribal people, is once more transmitted to children who know no different but deserve far better in perpetuation of the quintessential American myth. Possibly in preparation for Roger Stone, Jared Kushner or Don, Jr., President Donald Trump kept his pardon-hand hot by adhering to at least one White House norm, granting the annual Thanksgiving pardon to a turkey, a skill he honed just three-months earlier on Joe Arpaio who, like Stone and Don, Jr., exhibits traits not dissimilar to those found in Galliformes.
“History and culture – so important,” Trump has mused, while enlightening the likes of Brinkley, Goodwin and Beschloss that “Indian Killer,” President Andrew Jackson, could have stopped the Civil War. “He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this,’” Trump famously blathered. Putting aside that Jackson had been entombed for sixteen-years before the first volleys of the Civil War, the architect of the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears was also a slave owner and slave trader, so, had he been alive, he would have known exactly the reason for the war. However, in fairness to Trump, Jackson’s view from six-feet under was significantly impaired. With such a stellar grasp of history, Trump would likely validate the first-graders presentation of Thanksgiving. The specter of Trump as a Pilgrim is more in keeping with Halloween, his oafish form in stockings and drawers a horrifying thought, but not nearly as terrifying as the real-world carnage he is unleashing on Tribal Nations, something Jackson no doubt approves of from the grave, as Trump sits beneath his portrait in the Oval Office.
“In September of 1620, the pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower to settle a new land where they could live and worship freely,” Trump read from a teleprompter in his first Thanksgiving address. “When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, their first act was to pray. With the help of Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe, they survived and began to build a new home for their families. On their first Thanksgiving, they came together to rejoice after their harvest and praise God for His provision. Since then Americans have always remembered the blessings of freedom and the glory of God.” A familiar story, complete with the colonial construct “new land” for a land that wasn’t new at all. The Wampanoag at least got a mention in Trump’s canned rendition. At contact, the Wampanoag Nation was comprised of sixty-nine tribes, one of hundreds of Tribal Nations with diverse societies that had thrived for millennia before Calvin.
To “praise God for His provision.” Trump offered up a decidedly God-less public persona before Corey Lewandowski found Iowa on a map and told him he had to go there if he wanted to be president. His radio appearances with Billy Graham are hard to uncover compared to his “locker room talk” with Howard Stern about his pre-Stormy sexual exploits being his personal “Vietnam,” for which he bragged he should get “the Congressional Medal of Honor, in actuality.” These, we must now assume, were the values Tony Perkins and the Evangelical right were waiting for before embracing a candidate, the “grabbing” of women’s genitals securing the support of the Christian Broadcast Network after Pat Robertson chuckled, “He’s trying to look like he’s macho.” In retrospect, maybe Trump was praising God for His provision all along. In Trump’s rendition of Thanksgiving he omits what enabled “Americans” to remember “the blessings of freedom and the glory of God” that supposedly proceeded from that moment. In the compendium of America’s reinventions that attempt to diminish its legacy of brutality in the subjugation of the continent’s First People, Thanksgiving ranks high. The Pilgrims had good reason to give thanks, particularly to the Wampanoag, who through a treaty obligation offered protection to the Puritans.
Whether the Puritans offered thanks to Tisquantum (Squanto) who aided them plant what they reaped at that 1621 harvest is unknown, but what is preserved in Wampanoag history is that Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoag, arrived at Plymouth Colony not to share in the Pilgrim’s feast, but to see why they were firing canon and musket with abandon. After three-days, Massasoit was satisfied that the intent was benign. Five-decades later, there was no mistaking the intent. The head of Massasoit’s son, Metacomet (King Philip), was displayed by the Puritans at the entrance to Plymouth in August 1676. Metacomet’s crime was to resist colonial domination and expansion. The colonists offered “Thanksgiving” for their victory in “King Philip’s War,” and for twenty or more festivals annually, what remained of the Sachem’s head bore silent witness. And so it began on the Eastern Seaboard with the People of the First Light and crawled before it walked and walked west before it ran amok to what it would call the Golden Coast, the sightless and silent witnesses in its wake too many to count, like the stars, but each a cause for some tribal people to designate Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning.
“With the help of Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe”
Quite so. Today, once again, it’s the Wampanoag, the People of the First Light, that need help, as the Trump Administration’s foray into reviving the Termination era has forced the Mashpee Wampanoag onto the precipice. “The termination of Indian tribes has been reintroduced,” declared Chairman Cedric Cromwell of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe last week, when members of the tribe and tribal leaders from across Indian Country marched through DC to the US Capitol to draw attention to the revival of one the most destructive federal policies ever inflicted upon Tribal Nations. “This struggle is about Indigenous rights and fighting for our land and sovereignty – which is the blood and bones of our ancestors – that sanctified the land we stand on. What we’re seeing is a direct assault and attack on Indigenous people’s sovereignty,” summarized Chairman Cromwell, framed by the dome of the Capitol with the Statue of Freedom’s back to the tribal gathering.
A Mashpee elder wanted to know “who’s the Indian” on top of the dome? A question devoid of sarcasm, though the context of the Mashpee’s crisis is laced with challenges to identity. Philip Reid, a slave purchased by Clark Mills for $1,200, was largely responsible for seeing that the bronze his master was commissioned to cast would become the Statue of Freedom. In 1856, while Secretary of War, future President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, approved the design of the illusory goddess which sculptor Thomas Crawford considered evocative “of our Indian tribes.” But “Freedom” isn’t an Indian, she was to symbolize the displacement of Indians for colonial aspiration. And Jefferson Davis’s epitaph to freedom is on the quarter-million-plus graves of those he later committed to die to keep some four-million of Philip Reid’s fellow-victims in shackles and chains.
Had he been present on Capitol Hill for the Mashpee’s rally, Trump’s response as tribal leader after tribal leader spoke would likely have focused on identity. “I will tell you right now, they don’t look like Indians to me. And they don’t look like the Indians. Now, maybe we say politically correct or not politically correct, they don’t look like Indians to me,” which was a customarily uninformed retort to Congressman George Miller during Trump’s October 5, 1993, testimony to the HNRC Subcommittee on Native American Affairs. Back then, Trump’s equivalent to the migrant caravan now portending doom for Americans was organized crime and the mafia taking hold on Indian reservations, the vehicle for which in his crowded imagination was Indian gaming. When asked by the committee to produce any evidence, he couldn’t, and so retreated to, “Well, you go up to Connecticut and you look. Now, they don’t look like Indians to me, sir.” The original target of his ire was the Ramapough Lenape Nation of New Jersey, whom, he feared, would receive federal recognition and then build a casino to rival his Atlantic City interests, but his “Connecticut” smear was aimed squarely at the Mashantucket Pequots, whose Foxwoods resort had already cast shade over his failing gaming operations, and inspired his now familiar lowest common denominator fallback – racial animus.
Current Mashantucket Pequot Chairman, Rodney Butler, gave an impassioned address at the Mashpee’s Capitol Hill rally. Butler, surrounded by tribal members who share European, African-American and Hispanic heritage, emphasized keeping “Thanksgiving” in the context of the Anglo-European conquest of Tribal Nations, and urged recognition for the magnitude of the losses suffered by tribes in the development of the United States, in other words the attainment of Trump’s “blessings of freedom and the glory of God.” Trump’s attack on eastern tribes was foundational in his now depressingly familiar racially-charged schtick. To ignore Trump’s role as Enabler in Chief to bigotry is to ignore the data recently released by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program that found hate crimes against Native Americans have increased by a staggering 63% during Trump’s presidency. Or it is to ignore that in the past month alone the murderer who killed eleven worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, and the bomber who targeted Trump’s political opponents, both used language and conspiracy theories consistent with Trump’s talking points that fester on social media and are recycled on Alt-right blogs. Trump denies any responsibility, but Cesar Sayoc’s van, a virtual shrine on wheels to Trump and his vitriol, indicates otherwise.
“They’re trying to take away our culture, they’re trying to take away our history,” Trump ranted after Charlottesville, as he bemoaned the removal of Confederate icons in the public square. Steve Bannon gloried that Trump stood with “his people,” who Trump called “our people,” his core constituency in the Trumpfederacy – white men without college degrees to whom libraries appear to be what ancient Mesopotamian artifacts are to ISIS. I know, spoken like a true liberal elite who was first spat on and called a “gypo” at age thirteen and occasionally reads a book. Trump’s macabre vaudeville before the HNRC Subcommittee in 1993 was seminal in the construction of his particular brand of grievance politics, the fallacy of white victimhood central to his message, the same narrative that stokes Trump’s “I’m a nationalist” fervor in the red states he mainlines at his “ist-fest” rallies, the hit he receives confirmation enough that he’s only interested in being president of “his people,” not We, the People. Maybe as monuments to the Confederacy come down, Trump will continue to “make a stand” for “his people” like Bannon said, and put a portrait of Jefferson Davis opposite Andrew Jackson; after all, Davis did have the final say on the Statue of Freedom. “History and culture – so important.”
While Trump persists with his absurd “Pocahontas” slur to demean Senator Elizabeth Warren, his administration slashes and burns in Indian Country as the media seeks Warren’s response, and she gives it. If the press could focus on more than one Indian Country story at a time, releasing an elaborate video and DNA test to counter Trump’s buffoonery might not matter – but they can’t, and it does. Warren is the “Indian story,” while her colleague from Massachusetts, Congressman Bill Keating, who sponsored HR5244, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, speaks of the Mashpee’s plight as “an existential issue” but barely gets a column inch. The congressman is right, and there are many, from the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) tragedy to the Trump-inspired extractive industry grab for tribal ancestral and sacred lands, in the vicious cycle of the rape of the earth and the rape of indigenous women that follows where multinational energy company “man camps” go.
Most tribal people seem more interested in what Senator Warren is going to do for Indian Country, including as a co-sponsor of the Senate version of Keating’s bill, as opposed to talking about what she could or might do, or the stories her “momma” told her about her ancestry. If Warren reads Felicia Fonseca’s AP article, Warren ancestry highlights how tribes decide membership, we might all be able to move on: “For centuries, a person’s percentage of Native American blood had nothing to do with determining who was a tribal member. And for some tribes, it still doesn’t. Membership was based on kinship and encompassed biological relatives, those who married into the tribe and even people captured by Native Americans during wars. Black slaves held by tribes during the 1800s and their descendants became members of tribes now in Oklahoma after slavery was abolished.” Or, as John Trudell once put it, “It’s like this fight about who is more Indian, and what the fuck is this?”
“I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up reservations. It’s a joke,” Trump told Don Imus in the weeks before his 1993 House testimony, but nobody is laughing now. “By doing this, you are coming after our kids. You are coming after our future generations,” Jessie Little Doe Baird, Vice Chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, told the Trump Administration during her address at the Capitol on November 14, as tribal leaders from the Quinault on the Pacific Coast, the Piikani Blackfoot from the Northern Rockies, the Ponca Tribe and Oglala Lakota from the Great Plains, and the Shinnecock and Pequot from the Eastern Shore, spoke in solidarity beside her. “They came for our children and took them to Carlisle because we were ‘too Indian.’ Today, they tell us we are not Indian enough,” said Vice Chairwoman Baird, referring to the Zinke-led Department of Interior’s (DOI) decision September 7, when it declined to assert its authority and reaffirm the status of the Mashpee Wampanoag’s reservation. The Mashpee were among tribes seeking federal recognition when Trump disparaged “so-called Indians that are trying to open up reservations.”
“Because the Tribe was not ‘under federal jurisdiction’ in 1934, the Tribe does not qualify under the IRA’s first definition of ‘Indian,’” wrote Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Tara Sweeney, who issued the September 7 determination for DOI. To separate a tribe from its land the key is to apply an imposed legislative “definition of Indian.” In a repeat of 1993, a proposed casino is a catalyst in the struggle. Following Trump’s playbook, opponents of the Mashpee’s First Light Casino and Resort project in Taunton, Mass., filed suit against the DOI in Littlefield v. US Department of the Interior, claiming that the Obama Administration overstepped its authority when it approved Mashpee’s land-into-trust application in 2015 that established the tribe’s reservation. Citing Carcieri v. Salazar(2009), in which the US Supreme Court held that the federal government could not take land into trust that was acquired by the Narragansett Tribe, the plaintiffs prevailed. In Littlefield, Judge William Young followed the Supreme Court in Carcieri,whichruled that the federal government could not take land into trust for tribes that were federally recognized after 1934, contending that the criteria “now under Federal jurisdiction” in the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 referred only to tribes that were federally recognized when the act was passed. As the Mashpee did not receive federal recognition until 2007, Young ruled the tribe ineligible for land restoration provisions under the IRA.
The Trump Administration subsequently refused to defend the standing of the Mashpee Wampanoag and its reservation in court. In her September 7 decision, Tara Sweeney contended that the Mashpee don’t meet the IRA “under federal jurisdiction” benchmark and asserted “the record contains practically no evidence of any dealings with the federal government” at points during the tribe’s history, an interpretation which allows the Mashpee’s trustee, the federal government, to walk away from the federal-Indian trust responsibility. However, a review of the record reveals that the Wampanoag are one of the most documented tribes in history. Mashpee is the last surviving signatory tribe to the grant of Indian Title that established Plymouth Colony.
In a contradictory presentation at the National Congress of American Indians’ (NCAI) 75thannual convention, Sweeney tried to mitigate her role in the potentially devastating blow to tribes throughout the US, stating that she “walked into this decision,” and then denied that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had been asked to submit an opinion. In fact, on July 24 this year, Acting BIA Director Darryl LaCounte testified before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs and was questioned about the Mashpee decision. When asked to recall a similar instance of a tribe having its reservation disestablished, La Counte responded, “My best guess would be in the 50s, when the termination era took place.” As the Mashpee rally progressed on Capitol Hill, tribal leaders warned that removal of the Mashpee’s reservation would set the precedent for a new era of termination.
House Concurrent Resolution 108, which passed August 1, 1953, formalized Congressional support for the Eisenhower Administration’s policy of “termination,” which sought to end the federal-Indian trust responsibility by dissolving treaty obligations, reservations and federal recognition. The “sense of Congress” as stated in HCR108, was that “Indian tribes and individual members thereof, should be freed from Federal supervision.” Freed. A Trumpian spin Kellyanne might even claim. Public Law 280 followed, which further eroded the sovereignty of tribes that staved-off termination, while 179 others couldn’t escape that “sense of Congress” and Eisenhower’s pen.
“They are trying to get out of the trust and treaty relationship. This administration’s policy is termination. We are now in a termination era,” Aaron Payment, Chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Vice President of the NCAI, said of the Trump Administration, before Chairman Cromwell reminded the crowd on Capitol Hill that the Mashpee Wampanoag’s case wasn’t an isolated incident. “Our brothers and sisters from Alaska are under attack,” he affirmed. “Termination is here. It’s alive,” confirmed Rob Sanderson Jr., of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council from Alaska. As Zinke pushed the confirmation of Sweeney, an Inupiat Alaska Native, he oversaw the suspension of all land-into-trust decisions in Alaska, an announcement the Trump Administration made the day after Sweeney’s confirmation. Under the Obama Administration, 68,000-acres of land per year was placed in trust for tribes, which has dwindled by approximately 82% under Trump. As it has always been, divide and conquer serves the ruling interest. Sweeney, said Zinke, as he announced her arrival at DOI, has the “organization skills” needed “to carry out the President’s reform initiative for Indian Country.”
Among those “initiatives” is the deeply unpopular reorganization of the BIA that Zinke rolled out after Trump’s DOI executive order to “reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies” including “components of agencies, and agency programs.” The latter, expunging programs, being an inevitable consequence of Trump’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” At the time, Indian Country was already in the throes of experiencing the Trump Administration’s perception of the “streamlining” and “efficiencies” touted by Zinke; funding for the BIA and Bureau of Indian Education had already been reduced by $370-million, and some 241 members of staff and significant programs had been axed. The constriction of resources and the elimination of staff and programs indicated the direction of Trump’s DOIs reorganization, which may conclude with reconstructing tribes as corporations by continuing to eliminate the trust status of tribal lands, to realize not only termination by disestablishment as faced by Mashpee, but “termination by privatization.” While president-elect, the earliest stated Trumpian policy objective in Indian Country was the privatization of tribal lands for extractive industry development. An estimated 20% of fossil fuel reserves in the US lay beneath Indian reservations. The motivation hasn’t changed since Eisenhower’s House and Senate western bloc advanced termination in the 1950s.
For the scandal-ridden Zinke, the Trump “initiatives” may have taken on greater urgency now that Alberta Tar Sands crude has plummeted to $14.65 a barrel after US District Court Judge Brian Morris’s decision to halt the Keystone-XL (K-XL) Pipeline. K-XL was to feature the Bakken Marketline, to facilitate the transportation of fracked Bakken shale with Tar Sands crude. Oasis Petroleum, a major player in the Bakken, has contributed to funding Zinke’s political ambitions. As the circle turns, the Ramapough Tribe that Trump first targeted in 1993 may yet inspire a Twitter-rage. The Ramapoughs galvanized resistance to the ironically named Pilgrim Pipeline, a twin line that would carry 200,000-barrels a day of Bakken crude south from Albany to Linden, New Jersey, with the second pipeline pumping the refined product north. The pipeline would cross the Catskill and Delaware Aqueducts that provide a billion gallons of water per day to New York City. Many thought this Pilgrim had perished, until Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings LLC began hiring new lobbyists earlier this year.
“If we don’t stand up together, they’ll come for all of us. The 127 other tribes that were recognized after 1934, they are going to come after you next,” warned Vice Chairwoman Baird. “We have seen throughout American history the moments that we have fallen short from the ideals that we aspire to. The price that people here long before those first immigrants have paid,” began Congressman Joe Kennedy III, a co-sponsor of HR5244. “To make good on a recognition shouldn’t be too difficult for the world’s greatest democracy. The people who welcomed the first immigrants to our shores are worthy of that recognition,” he implored, and assured the Mashpee and those tribes assembled in the shadow of the Capitol, “We will never, never, allow this injustice to stand.” Trump meanwhile will spend Thanksgiving at Mar a Lago before flying to Mississippi to campaign for Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, her of the Facebook posts from Beauvoir, the home of Jefferson Davis, where she posed for photos in a Confederate kepi. “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” she said at a recent campaign event after being praised by a cattle rancher. Secretary Mike Espy, her opponent, is African-American.
We can but wonder how Philip Reid thinks the Statue of Freedom looks now.
Rain is the founder of Gypsy Life Films. He recently directed the documentary “Remaking the Sacred Hoop,” a film made in conjunction with the Global Indigenous Council that is scheduled for release in early 2019. This summer he directed the short, “Not in Our Name,” which was critically acclaimed as “stunningly beautiful” and described as “an homage to the sacred and the diversity of people and lands in Indian Country.”