Circle the Wagons – The Natives Are Restless

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I went to a national conference on Indian Child Welfare issues. It is typical for me to feel lost in large urban areas and packed hotels. I easily lose my sense of direction in cities and winding hallways. As I was hurrying to make it on time for a workshop I wanted to attend, I took a wrong turn and ended up in a workshop on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome-Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAS/FAE). This wasn’t the one I planned to attend. Because the speaker was just beginning, I didn’t want to appear rude by leaving, so I took a seat in the audience of 50 plus mostly Native American women. As the Euro-American speaker began, she let the audience know that her expertise in this area began when she adopted a child who was born with FAS. At first, she felt overwhelmed, until she remembered her grandmother’s saying, “When times are tough, put your wagons in a circle.” The audience let out a collective gasp, yet the speaker seemed completely unaware of the meaning of the audience’s response. She went on to describe her challenges. Accustomed to ignorance and insensitivity, nonetheless respectful and polite, the audience remained seated and silent during the workshop. They exited quickly at the end, without a word to the presenter. What would be the point of making someone feel bad?

circle the wagons

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As it happens, this metaphor is still commonly used for contemporary purposes by investors interested in capitalizing on further mining developments and in political commentary. It’s also an automatic response for Euro-Americans who want to flippantly dismiss reminders of the genocide and oppression that resulted in benefits for their immigrant ancestors and the relative privileges they themselves enjoy today.

I have tried to use Facebook periodically as a medium to heighten awareness about Native American issues, but invariably the superficiality of exchanges has convinced me that it’s a waste of my time. Yet there are occasions when I cannot refrain from commenting on blatant and dangerous information. The result, of course, is predictable. The wagons circle to protect the comforting illusions that expressing white guilt and denying any complicity for past atrocities is enough. The ultimate show stopper is to call the one Native voice “racist.” Here are excerpts from the most recent exchange.

White Woman 1: (trying to show that she is supportive of Native American People)

Check through the comments following this post. The photo op has some explaining to do. (a caveat added after my comments)

ACT OF WAR — Obama’s EPA Takes Entire American Town Away From Wyoming and Gives it to the Indians

My Response: a dangerous and untrue story! This is not how it works, folks!

White Woman 1: I will take it down, but where can I find out what really happened?

My Response: The best advice is to check with the Wind River Tribe for more information. Wyoming is an incredibly anti-Indian state, and the Wind River reservation, the only one in the state, is now the focus of pressure from the oil industry because of deposits on their land, and from farmers, ranchers, etc., because the tribe is pursuing avenues to protect its water rights. A couple simple clues from the article itself: first, the EPA has no authority to make decisions related to tribal land. Congress is the only entity that is able to make decisions related to land and resources for federally recognized tribes. Second, Congress has never enacted legislation in favor of tribes that do what this article alleges. Third, it serves the interest of energy corporations and the white elite to turn public opinion against an impoverished tribal nation by spreading inflammatory false information.

Knowing your values, I know you shared this article with the best of intentions. But the fact is that Congress unilaterally assumed “plenary power … over all Indian tribes, their government, their members, and their property” in 1871 when they enacted legislation to end treaty-making (Pevar, 1992, p. 48). I honestly doubt that this Congress would ever consider enacting policies like the ones this article describes, especially given the senators and representative from Wyoming.

White Man 1:…/epa-ruling-sets…

EPA ruling sets up battle over Indian country boundaries in Wyoming | Al Jazeera America
An EPA ruling on air quality defines the borders of a Wyoming Indian Reservation to include the town of Riverton.

White Woman 2: If there were any breach, it was the other way around: land that was supposed to be reserved for the Native Americans by treaties was built upon by settlers, and Indians were chased away by the Army and posses. The Natives all over the country are asking for what is left of their agreed-upon territories to be protected, and that make them the bad guys in the eyes of the usurpers. In other words, sameo, sameo.

My Response: This morning as I awoke, I remembered the Northern Arapaho and Shoshone people I met during a visit to the Wind River reservation several years ago. I remembered the stories they shared about the challenges they overcame in their lives because they wanted to make a difference for their community, the visions they had for a future where the legacy of genocide and historical trauma could be healed, and the contemporary discrimination that made every day difficult. This empty gesture by the Executive Branch does nothing to address that history or the contemporary challenges the community faces. It appears only as an empty symbolic PR stunt that has backfired, with the real potential for creating even more harm, as evidenced by the racist portrayal by media “a declaration of war” that will take away the property of white residents. The EPA declaration does not mean lands have been returned to the tribe, nor does it mean that the tribe is able to exercise sovereignty over the land and people. Nor does it award federal funding in reparation to help community residents implement their visions for a tribal college that can help community members gain the credentials and skills to walk in two worlds and manage their own affairs, or create innovative programs to help community members develop real alternatives to support themselves and their families. Quite frankly, I am angry that those who purport to be Native American allies know so little about the history of Indigenous Peoples in the U.S., the web of distinct federal policies that controls their lives and limits tribal sovereignty, or the contemporary challenges tribes face. It makes me angry because empty gestures do nothing to help earnest, caring people accomplish their dreams to heal a legacy of brutal oppression that creates poverty and hopelessness for many.

White Woman 2: My heart can hold just so much anger toward the injustices perpetuated by mankind upon mankind and the rest of the Earth’s sentient beings, lest I become a hateful person, something I refuse to be. I acknowledge the injustices; I am verbal about them; I participate in their rectifications as much as I can given my limited resources, and I hold hope in my heart that someday humans will succeed in creating a just and empowering society for all instead of the few. I am thankful to … (White Woman 1) for sharing this link that exposed another tool being used to create division among The people. That is how they successfully control them: lies and distortion of the truth. All My Relations, and may the wrongdoers become enlightened.

White Woman 1: Now that all this good discussion has ensued, I don’t know if I should take the post down, or not? Your points, Carol, are not small ones; rather they seem almost insurmountable. In my year here … I have, for the first time, spent time amid the natives people. I feel, as … (White Woman 2) does, that my righteous anger could easily weigh my heart down and I would become unable to help. I also realize that I should not imagine that I have a comprehensive picture of how things stand for Native Americans, now. I am learning, interested, and sympathetic. My ancestors were among the first people to come to American from England. They were English, Scottish, Danish people who may have been out to get rich from this fertile continent. Much more likely, they were peace-loving people who were deserting trouble the only way they could. I want to be proud of them, knowing enough about some of them to sketch out the path of their migration. My family moved into an area of … (New England) where they helped create some early towns there, principally … (one town) and lived alongside the native people in the area. Were we kindly and peaceful with them? I wish I knew. I hope so. This is a question that bothers, if not haunts, many of us. How will we share what’s left is the big question. My fear is that we will not restore Native Americans to some of the lands due them until there is so much ruin, human and territorial, that the point will be moot. I am trying to discover ways to help. Even this isn’t easy. No wonder.

My Response: History is something we can’t change. We can only change the future. Although I wish I could live without anger about injustice, there are times when I simply do not feel I have that option.

White Man 2: (the expert who needs to have the final word in any discussion)
The article is misleading. Here is a link to the Federal Register page describing the action taken. It doesn’t confer any kind of regulatory authority on the tribe; it just makes them a stakeholder in regional air quality activities.…/approval-of…

As an initial reaction anger is understandable and sometimes even useful. It alerts us to a problem. But when it is cultivated it turns into resentment. Terms like “white elite” and “usurpers” are racial slurs. An eye for an eye, and pretty soon the whole world will be blind. It’s regrettable what happened during the conquest of the New World, and even that we call it the New World, but people living now aren’t responsible. It was in a sense inevitable. It wasn’t different in kind from the centuries of genocide and taking others’ lands that had gone on before, without the help of any white man.

This was the conversation stopper. Sound familiar? “It’s not my fault. And really, my ancestors only did to Native peoples what they were already doing to each other. It’s not my problem, it’s yours. You just need to get over it.” None of the voices that had earlier indicated how much they cared about Native American issues responded. They circled the wagons in silence.

Well, I can’t remain silent. I can’t silence ignorance, but I can unfriend and block it from my facebook page. Done. I won’t waste any more time trying to dialogue with folks who believe they already know all the answers. They don’t. But I won’t let them have the last word! They have the privilege of ignoring the suffering of others. I don’t. I carry the pain of past and present generations in my DNA and in my heart. I sometimes live with a rage that is too strong to ignore and a sadness too deep to name. What makes it bearable is to willingly shoulder the responsibility to do what I can to raise awareness and address ignorance and injustice. It will take many voices to break through the protective circles of ignorance, denial, and New Age spiritual platitudes.


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