He couldn’t speak English, so me and the other workers made fun of him. State Rep. Russell Pearce, referring to a teenage co-worker. Arizona Republic, February 11, 2005
Native American prayers are allowed in the Arizona House of Representatives—as long as they are in English. Republican House leadership, April 18, 2017
Russell Pearce, Racist Emeritus of the Arizona Legislature, is no longer in the public scene. As you remember, Pearce is the author of SB 1070, the overtly racist “Show me your papers” law that has been eviscerated by the courts. Even as the decent folk of Arizona made history by recalling Pearce, he littered the Arizona landscape with his political progeny, and they too are using language as the vehicle for their racism.
The Arizona House of Representatives allows members to offer a prayer before the body convenes. Recently, Rep. Athena Salman recited a humanist invocation, which outraged the Republicans because her invocation invoked “… the humanity that resides within each and every person here, and each and every person in the city, and in all people in the nation and world as a whole.” As soon as Salman finished her prayer, a Republican member asked for and received permission from the House Majority Leader to “correct” the matter and give a “proper” invocation in Jesus’ name.
Two Native American House members, Wenona Benally (Navajo) and Sally Gonzales (Pascua Yaqui) rose to speak in support of Rep. Salman. Rep. Benally asked the Republican leadership if Navajo and Yaqui prayers would be prohibited on the House floor as well in that they too would be deemed non-Christian. The Republican House leadership’s response was that Native American members can offer prayers but the prayers must be in English and not in any native language. [Full disclosure: Wenona Benally is my daughter-in-law.]
Prohibiting the use of a language—in this case, languages that precede by centuries the presence of English in Arizona—is really an attack on the speakers of the language and the culture of those speakers, for, language is the chief transmitter of culture.
“Kill the Indian, save the man”…
The Arizona Republicans’ anti-Native stance harks back to the days when Native Americans were prohibited by the U.S. government from speaking their languages and practicing their traditions, customs, and religion. To enforce those racist policies, Indian children were forcibly removed from their homes—in essence, kidnapped—by the U.S. government and sent to boarding schools so as to “Americanize” them.
The boarding schools set out to systematically strip away tribal culture. The schools changed the Indian youths’ names, forbade the speaking of native languages, cut off their long hair, and the children were converted to Christianity. In the summer months, the kidnapped youth were often placed with local farm families and townspeople to provide cheap—virtual-slave—labor to the families. The kidnapped youth were treated as property and often experienced physical, mental, and sexual abuse, and many children died from malnutrition or disease.
This shameful Indian boarding-school movement and its inhumane practices were rooted in the openly racist notion of “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man” that was articulated by Capt. Richard H. Pratt, the founder (in 1879) of The U.S. Training and Industrial School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, which was the model for the “Americanization” boarding schools. Pratt’s inhumane philosophy was itself based on the genocidal notion popular in the 1800s that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Pratt put that racist notion in cultural terms, maintaining that the “Indian” inside the children should be killed, i.e., “…all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
Disgracefully, my home state of Arizona was the site of one of these boarding schools—the United States Industrial Indian School at Phoenix, later known as the Phoenix Indian School. Founded in 1891, the school housed 698 youth kidnapped from 23 tribes in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Oregon. Like its counterparts throughout the country, the mission of the Phoenix school, which was in operation until 1931, was to culturally exterminate Native American youth. To this day, a major Phoenix street is Indian School Road.
Prohibiting Native American members of the Arizona House of Representatives from offering a prayer in their native languages is disgraceful and infuriating and is a throwback to the “bad ol’ days” of Arizona history.
It’s all part of an anti-Indian pattern…
What’s going on in Arizona is but a manifestation of a greater pattern. Some examples:
President Trump praises former U.S. President Andrew Jackson and says he wants to be like Jackson, who shepherded the Indian Removal Act through Congress and is the architect of Native American genocide in the Southeast. Because white Southern settlers wanted to expand into lands belonging to five Indian tribes (Choctaw, Seminoles, Muscogee [Creek], Chickasaw, and Cherokee), over 51,000 Native human beings were torn from their homes and forced to march, under horrendous conditions, over 1,000 miles to Oklahoma. Over 15,500 perished in this murderous march, which came to be known as “The Trail of Tears.”
When “genocide” is referenced in mainstream school environments, it almost always refers to the Jewish Holocaust, or to other genocides such as in Rwanda. But hardly ever is the United States listed as one of the countries where genocide has occurred. In 2012, the College Board decided that high-school students taking Advanced Placement U.S. history should learn about the American Indian genocide. This occasioned an immediate protest from the Republican National Committee, who called for a congressional investigation into the AP U.S. history framework and exam. State legislators have joined state and county school boards in condemning the exam for talking about the American Indian genocide.
Over 4,000 people representing more than 100 tribes (arguably the largest unification of Native American tribes in decades) gathered along the Cannonball River by the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to resist the construction of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline. Sacred and culturally significant sites are directly in the pipeline’s route, which will transport up to 500,000 barrels of oil a day under the Missouri River, Standing Rock’s source of water. The water-land defenders were pepper sprayed and set upon by dogs, reminiscent of the events in Birmingham in 1963, when black civil-rights marchers were attacked by dogs and water hoses. The principled actions of the Sioux and their Indian allies got the Obama administration to call a halt to the Dakota Access pipeline. But almost immediately after taking office, Trump reversed Obama’s action and declared that the DAPL would proceed as originally planned. The completed part of the pipeline has already leaked and contaminated the river—exactly what the Sioux and other tribes said could happen.
In 2014, Arizona Democrat House member Ann Kirkpatrick teamed up with Republican U.S. Senator John McCain and Tea Party House member Paul Gosar to give 2,400 prime acres of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest to foreign corporations to build a copper mine, which will be in Oak Flat, an Apache ancestral sacred site, where religious ceremonies are held and acorns, an Apache dietary staple, and medicinal herbs are gathered. In early 2016 some 300 members of tribes from across the U.S. and national American Indian organization representatives came together to defend the Apache holy lands. The group marched 44 miles to Oak Flat and the Apaches have occupied Oak Flat since then, protecting the sacred site.
For the first time in history, Indian tribes—the Ute Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Zuni Pueblo, the Hopi Tribe, and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe—launched an intense pressure campaign to get the government (the Obama administration) to designate an area as a national monument. The campaign resulted in the designation of 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument. This protected ancestral villages, sacred places and countless archaeological sites. A significant aspect of Bears Ears is that it was in Bears Ears that many Indians took refuge as they escaped the genocidal “Trail of Tears.” However, indications are that President Trump is poised to rescind the national monument designation.
The First Americans deserve more respect and better treatment than the above describes. c/s
Copyright 2017 by Salomon Baldenegro. Photos in the public domain or used under the “fair use” proviso of he copyright law. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org