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Want to Make America Great Again? Begin by Respecting Native Americans

George Payne

Op-ed by George Cassidy Payne –

I find something ironic about the now viral clash between a large group of MAGA hat wearing Catholic high school students and the Native American marchers at the nation’s capital. The students are proudly donning hats with Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” but I wonder how little they must know about how great America was before the colonists from Europe arrived. What if America had already been made great and the way to make it great again is to follow their example?

That’s quite a question. I ask it without any degree of romanticism. I am aware of the numerous wars and inter-tribal disputes which occurred for thousands of years before the white settlers arrived in what is now the continental United States. I am also aware of the many Native American rituals and other cultural practices that make modern readers squirm with moral disgust-acts such as human kidnapping, rape, routine raids/massacres, human sacrifice, and even isolated cases of cannibalism. This is all part of the complex and difficult history of America before it was “discovered.” Yet despite these unsavory aspects, the complete picture tells a remarkable story of migration, survival, tribal loyalty, civilization building, the spread of ideas and inventions, and the laying of a foundation that influenced every political and social system that we use today. This is what those MAGA wearing students failed to grasp. They failed to grasp that America was great when the Indian tribes, confederacies and empires spread from shore to shore. Because they have not been taught properly by their teachers to understand the immense contributions made by Native Americans, they do not know how the founding of our constitutional republic came to be. As a result of their ignorance, they acted in a way that may have represented their First Amendment rights but allowed the world to see them as a bunch of spoiled, immature, uneducated, potentially violent hooligans.

If only they were taught about the roots of American democracy, which did not begin with the bright ideas of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, but from the imagination of a six nation confederacy in what is now upstate New York. If only they knew that so many of the laws and precepts of government so familiar to us were fostered by pre-Columbian systems that go even farther back than groups such as the Seneca and Mohawk. Would the students have been so openly smug and dismissive of the Indian marchers if they knew that the very steps they were standing on were erected to honor a political philosophy that in very direct ways came from them? As Benjamin Franklin once said in 1751, “It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.” Native American Studies Professor Bruce Johansen and American Studies Professor Donald Grinde, among others, argue that American colonists, in Johansen’s words, “drew freely on the image of the American Indian as an exemplar of the spirit of liberty they so cherished.”

Furthermore, if only the students knew that they are all indebted to native traditions, practices, rituals, survival skills, and the like, perhaps they would have acted in a different manner. No matter where European immigrants arrived from, once in the “New World” they encountered climates that were foreign and hostile to their experience. As isolated as many of them wished to remain-and as fearful of the native populations as many of them surely were-the bottom line is they needed to know how to live off the land. That knowledge was not derived from manuals in Amsterdam, London, or Paris. It was native techniques and resources that allowed the immigrants to hunt the wild game, fish the rivers, plant food, and endure natural events. The survival book was written in the lived traditions of native people, and everything that was truly useful for manipulating the landscape came from them. For all of the theatrics, showing off, dumb hollering, mocking gestures and palpable arrogance, I wonder if they would have behaved in such a manner if they knew the real indebtedness they all have to the ancestry of those who they were laughing at.

And oh yes, if only the students knew that Native Americans have served this country in nearly every capacity since the Revolutionary War, perhaps then they would have a little more respect. Although there are many questions about the drummer Nathan Phillips and the exact story behind his military record, whether he served in Vietnam or not, the fact remains that many Indians did. They fought and died in the jungles of North Vietnam, just as they died in the battlefields of Germany and the killing farms of Gettysburg. If for no other reason, these MAGA hat wearing kids should be quiet and listen to someone who has paid the ultimate sacrifice with their blood, sweat, and tears. That may or may not have been Mr. Phillips. But it was someone in that procession, and the kids should have been aware of that. The reason they were not aware of that reality, is because no one has educated them. Sadly, and this is speculation that I have a high degree of confidence in, their view of Native Americans have been likely relegated to the stale accounts of lost battles in boring text books-ones mainly written by white people whose ancestors won those battles. Because Native Americans are so often denied the opportunity to be seen as anything more than a sports mascot, legal distraction, or cultural victim, the site of many proud Native Americans joined in solidarity for a cause, actually jolted the cognitive functioning of those students.

So I am not surprised that the young man stood in the face of Mr. Phillips with that infamous smirk. I don’t think he knew how to process what was happening. Caught somewhere between nervousness, fear, and resentment, he was silent. In that moment-totally against his own will-he became a symbol of the white man’s relationship to Native Americans since they first came into contact more than 500 years ago.

George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, social justice activist, and adjunct professor of philosophy at SUNY. He lives and works in Rochester, NY. George’s letters and essays have been featured in a wide range of domestic and foreign outlets.

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