Native Genocide, Native Liberation

Image from the cover of Red Nation Rising

The scope of violence against Native people in the United States is truly staggering. In fact, it would be safe to say the historical genocide never ended. It is ongoing. It is the violence of stolen lands, of stolen children, of dispossession, of police, of payday lenders, liquor stores and pawnshops, of fracking and mining in Native territory. And yet, despite this furious and barbaric onslaught, Native people persist – unbowed.

But the murder, torture and mutilation have been gruesome. Take one statistic, cited in the recently published Red Nation Rising by four writers and activists: the Indian Health Service “sterilized between 25 and 50 percent of all Native women between the years 1970 and 1976.” Can you imagine if this had been white women? Howls of outrage would resound from CNN and NBC. Tucker Carlson would scream that the white genocide had arrived. But it’s Native women, so there’s nary a peep.

The stealing of Native children has long been known to those who look into it. But it was in the news recently. That’s when the New York Times reported on June 24 that 751 bodies, mainly children, had been found in a mass grave at a former school for indigenous children in Saskatchawan, Canada. This was only weeks after the remains of 215 children were found at another of these former church-run schools, also in unmarked graves. On June 30, another 182 bodies were found near one of these schools in British Columbia. One wonders how many more will turn up. Certainly, the settler-colonial practice of stealing children was much more malevolent than what those who did it said at the time, namely, that they were helping these children “assimilate” to white society. Assimilate into the cemetery is more like it.

There were also such schools in the United States. This week, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland “said the country would search federal boarding schools,” the Times reported, “for possible burial sites of Native American children.” What these missionary assimilationists were doing in Canada, they were probably doing here too, namely, raping and killing indigenous children. Though it’s unclear how the children died, “some former students of the schools have described the bodies of infants born to girls impregnated by priests and monks being incinerated.”

Red Nation Rising touches on these notorious boarding schools, as one of many forms of barbaric cruelty inflicted on Native Americans. Why? To steal their land, in which Native people have such profound roots. This book also makes clear that Native culture is not capitalist. Indeed the basis of capitalism, private property, is alien to and has been used to dispossess Natives.

“There is now a monstrous disruption in the force of all relatives who live above and below the surface of the Earth. Today, in our era of life, this monster is known as capitalism, the most threatening and successful force of death and poverty,” this book’s forward announces. Capitalism wars against life, and one of that war’s frontlines is the bordertown. “Bordertowns, as with all imperial borders, are spatial expressions of an intent to murder,” this book says. “That is why, from Saskatoon to Santa Fe, bordertowns are always bloody killing fields.”

Red Nation Rising argues against defining the ongoing crime against the Indian as one of race. Racism is a problem, no doubt. But the real issue between imperial vigilantes and Natives is land. “The erasure and elimination of the Native…is simply to gain access to land,” the authors write. This is why the American 1776 war of independence was catastrophic for Natives, and for Blacks. The book argues that the revolutionary war “was actually a counterrevolutionary war to enslave Blacks and exterminate Indians.” All I can say is don’t tell this to the know-nothing GOP governors in such a tizzy over critical race theory that they’ve banned it from public schools. They’ll have a fit. In fact, this book is precisely the sort of clear-eyed analysis of power relations within the imperial core that right-wingers aim to eliminate.

The authors mention the arrival of fracking in Native lands and with it, man camps, citing former Congresswoman Deb Haaland voicing concerns about oil and gas workers soliciting Navajo women and girls for sex. Some considered this worry outrageous at the time. But such abuses, along with pollution and destruction of sacred sites, always come with man camps and flourish in bordertowns. “Wall Street is an advanced man camp,” the authors write. “The White House is a man camp in miniature. The Bakken oil field is an emergent man camp. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is an annual man camp. The Ivy League is a federation of man camps.”

The authors also critique those who decry police brutality. “Police are Indian killers,” they write. Police are per se violent. Lamenting police brutality assumes that there is some acceptable level of violence. Red Nation Rising argues that there is not, that Native people, Blacks and many, many others would be better off without police. “To call for an end of police brutality, therefore, is not to call for an end to police violence; rather it is to call for more ‘justified’ police violence.”

The “bad apples” excuse for police violence, this book argues, is simply a lie. Violence inheres in policing. Why else would cops sport enough military gear for an occupying army? And this occupation is most evident in how police attack and kill Native Americans. “All settler colonial policing begins with the idea that Native peoples have no claim to Native land and, equally important, stand in the way of settler claims to Native land.”

So the colonial project means extirpating the Indian; sterilizing women, stealing children and sending them to boarding schools where half of them perish (or maybe more, to judge from the aforementioned ghoulish discoveries of mass graves at such schools in Canada), “policing” men, especially those living on the street, with violence. That’s today. It comes after several centuries of outright slaughter and official trickery and machinations to abet that genocide. “The fact that the U.S. government broke every treaty it entered into with Native nations tells you all you need to know about settler law.”

And yet Natives survive and persist. This baffles the colonist, even those who claim concern for Native welfare. Indeed, “the ‘solutions’ the liberal capitalist state offers to white supremacy are the smallpox-infected blankets of ongoing settler colonialism.” This book calls for Native defiance, not just one Standing Rock, but many. It also calls for solidarity with others in similar struggles. It’s is not a history or anthropology. It is a call to action.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Birdbrain. She can be reached at her website.

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