Mount McKinley to Revert Back to Original Native Name of Denali

After an over three-decade fight to change the name of North America’s tallest mountain, the federal government has ruled favorably for indigenous Americans and their supporters. As the New York Times reports:

The move came on the eve of Mr. Obama’s trip to Alaska, where he will spend three days promoting aggressive action to combat climate change, and is part of a series of steps he will make there meant to address the concerns of Alaska Native tribes.

It is the latest bid by the president to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to improve relations between the federal government and the nation’s Native American tribes, an important political constituency that has a long history of grievances against the government.

Denali’s name has long been seen as one such slight, regarded as an example of cultural imperialism in which a Native American name with historical roots was replaced by an American one having little to do with the place.

The central Alaska mountain has officially been called Mount McKinley for almost a century. In announcing that Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior, had used her power to rename it, Mr. Obama was paying tribute to the state’s Native population, which has referred to the site for generations as Denali, meaning “the high one” or “the great one”.

The peak, at more than 20,000 feet, plays a central role in the creation story of the Koyukon Athabascans, a group that has lived in Alaska for thousands of years.

Not only was the mountain’s original namesake, President William McKinley, not born in Alaska (he was an Ohio native) but he had no ties to the state whatsoever, nor did he ever visit it (at the time Alaska was still a fresh and largely unexplored territory). Plus, as The Atlantic points out, the mountain acquired the president’s name under very suspicious circumstances (namely as an “epic act of tolling”, to use the article’s own apt term).

So given all that, I think this is a sensible move for more reasons than one.

Alaskan Native Code Talkers Honored for WWII Service

Despite enduring generations of oppression and deprivation by the United States, indigenous Americans have a long and distinguished history of serving in the very armed forces that were often used to suppress them or their ancestors. Many did so for their own personal reasons, or because they sincerely believed in the values of the country they became part of, whatever its flaws and shortcomings in practice.

Last week, several of these Native American veterans was finally honored for their underappreciated yet invaluable service. As Juneau Empire reported:

[Jeff] David Jr. was one of 200 individual code talkers or their family members who received a silver medal at Wednesday’s ceremony. Each of the 33 tribes recognized received a gold medal. The medals were engraved with a design specific to each tribe.

Native American languages were used during World War I and World War II. Their use is credited for saving the lives of many service members. An estimated 400 to 500 Native American code talkers served in the United States Marine Corps.

America’s indigenous languages were ideal for U.S. war efforts because they were known to very few people outside of their respective tribes, and many are isolated from languages native to other parts of the world. Code talkers were specially trained to use their language so that only they could understand it. A Tlingit code talker would have used a special set of words that might have sounded like nonsense to another Tlingit speaker who wasn’t a trained code talker.

“It made me really proud of my dad” David Jr. said. “He accomplished a lot of things in his life, but this tops it. It’s really icing on the cake”.

Of the relatively few Americans who know about the code talkers, most associate the practice with the Navajo, who made up a majority of code talkers, or the Cherokee and Choctaw, who pioneered the strategy during the First World War. Only over the last couple of decades have these obscure heroes been honored. Smaller but no less important  tribes, such as the Tlingit, Lakota,  Meskwaki, and Comanche, are only recently being given formal due credit (Only in 2008 did Congress officially pass an act honoring every code talker who served in the U.S. military during the world wars with a Congressional Gold Medal.)

As Juneau Empire points out, the recent awards ceremony offers validation in more ways than one.

For the tribes recognized during the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s speech might have best summed up the irony of having the U.S. government recognizing Native American languages in a positive way.

“In the late 1800’s, The United States government forced Native American children to attend English-only boarding schools”. Reid said. “Native Children were torn from their families, taken far from home in box cars and buggies, given English names and forced to cut their hair short. Teachers beat the children with leather belts when they spoke in their native tongues”.

The government told them their language had no value. But the children held onto their languages, culture and history despite great personal risk. And in this nation’s hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed.

Commander William “Ozzie” Sheakley, who oversees the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans, received the medal on behalf of the Tlingit tribe. Sheakley said Reid’s speech was validating.

“We’ve been talking about how we were treated for years and years and years, and nobody seemed to care”, Sheakley said. “Now it’s coming out from other people, which is kind of nice to hear”.

It might be small and belated comfort in the grand scheme of things, but for proud, close-knit, and historically conscious tribes like the Tlingit, it must make a world a difference.

U.S. Must Not Forget The Dispossession of Natives

There are many reasons to favour a more inclusive history of the United States that places the dispossession of native peoples at its centre. Such a history erases the artificial distinctions that earlier generations drew to discount the presence of native peoples, does not privilege the rise of the nation-state, and better reflects the makeup of today’s US population, which will soon be majority non-white. Its themes also resonate with 21st century concerns, including state-sponsored social engineering, large-scale population displacement, environmental degradation, and global capitalism.

But perhaps the best reason is that it is more faithful to the past. I teach in the state of Georgia, where the legislature mandates that graduates of its public universities fulfill a US history requirement, a law born of the belief that an informed populace is essential to democracy. Good history makes for good citizens. A history that glosses over the conquest of the continent is partial, in both senses of the word. It misleads people about the past and misinforms their debates about the present. In charting a course for the future, Americans would do well to put the dispossession of native peoples back on the map.

— Claudio Saunt, The Invasion of America

The Apache Hotshots

From The Atlantic is a clip from a fascinating documentary about an elite squad of Apache firefighters that operates all over the United States year-round. I am having trouble embedding it here, but click the hyperlink to see the six-minute video for yourself.

From the article:

On San Carlos Apache Reservation in southeastern Arizona, unemployment is high, and firefighting jobs are one of the few stable opportunities for work. The Geronimo Hotshots are an elite firefighting crew based out of San Carlos, who spend most of the year on the road, battling the most intense wildfires in the United States. “Your mom, your dad, your uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins—one of them probably fights fire,” says Squad Leader Jeff Belvado. The Geronimo Hotshots are one of seven Native American hotshot crews in the United States who are sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

This is definitely the stuff of cinema, although I am much more enthused to see a factual documentary on these unsung heroes.  Not only are they putting out dangerous and damaging wildfires, but as noted in the video, they are restoring pride to a beleaguered by resilient community.

Project 562

That’s the name of an excellent project up on Kickstarter launched by Matika Wilbur, who aims to collect photographic stories from citizens of every federally recognized tribe in the United States. Not only will this gather the vital narratives and perspectives of a marginalized and under-appreciated group,  but it will result in books, exhibitions, and curricula that will educate generations for years to come. Here’s a great summary of this initiative by the ambitious Wilbur herself:

Last December, I sold everything in my Seattle apartment, packed a few essentials into my war pony, and hit the open road. Since then, I’ve been embarking on an epic adventure: Project 562.

For the past year I have been fulfilling the project’s goal of photographing citizens of each federally recognized tribe in the United States (there are now 566). Most of the time, I’ve been invited to geographically remote reservations to take portraits and hear stories from a myriad of tribes, while at other times I’ve photographed members of the 70 percent of Native Americans living in urban settings. My hope, is that when the project is complete, it will serve to educate the nation and shift the collective consciousness toward recognizing our own indigenous communities.

Imagine walking through an exhibit and realizing the complex variety of contemporary Native America. Imagine experiencing a website or book, that offered insight into every Tribal Nation in the United States. What if you could download previously untold histories and stories from Apaches, Swinomish, Hualapai, Northern Cheyenne, Tlingit, Pomo, Lumbee, and other first peoples? What if you had heard those stories in grade school?

Such a task hasn’t been undertaken since 1906, so we’re long overdue for a contemporary and vital recollection of America’s misunderstood indigenous heritage. Indeed, as the project’s official mission statement notes:

Project 562 creatively addresses and remedies historical inaccuracies, stereotypical representations, and the absence of Native American images and voices in mass media and the national consciousness.  I believe that there is an open space that is yet to be filled- that space is authentic images and stories from within Native America. My work aims to humanize, the otherwise “vanishing race”, and share the stories that our people would like told. In this respectful way, I have been welcomed into hundreds of tribal communities, and I have found that people welcome Project 562, because they are ready to see things change. Conversations about tribal sovereignty, self-determination, wellness, recovery from historical trauma, and revitalization of culture will accompany the photos in captions, video, and audio recordings.

The time of sharing, building cultural bridges, abolishing racism and honoring the legacy that this country is built on is among us. Project 562 is that platform.

You can learn more about the project on Upworthy or visit the official Kickstater page here, where to can see more videos, photos, and details, and donate whatever you can before February 21st. Thankfully, Project 352 has already garnered nearly three times its funding goals, which means we can expect an even more beautiful and in-depth collection of stories and photos.

The Poorest Countries in America

The US Census Bureau has released some recent data on the rate of poverty in America, and to no one surprise, the results are quite grim: 

In total, more than 15% of the population lived in poverty in 2010, the highest percentage since 1993, according to the most recent data from the Census Bureau. To put that in perspective, that means more than 46 million people fell below the poverty line, defined as $22,314 for a family of four. If you factor in the income spent on expenses like medical costs, child care and mortgage payments, the number of Americans whose remaining income falls below the poverty line is closer to 50 million, or roughly 16% of the population.

As severe as this sounds, some regions in the U.S. are much worse off. In November, the census released a breakdown of the poverty rate in every county in the U.S. in 2010, which showed dozens of counties where more than a third of the population lives in poverty and a handful whose overall poverty rates were closer to 50%.

The majority of these countries are composed of minorities, namely African-Americans and Native Americans. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, the latter group is the most impoverished minority in the United States. Many Indian reservations have been described as having a rate of development equal to third world countries, including a lack of plumbing, sanitation infrastructure, or arable land. 

But given the psychological and geographic distance that Native Americans have from the rest of the country — and the pervasive myths about them being non-taxpayers rolling in casino money — this is hardly acknowledged, let alone addressed. If close to 20% of the population being impoverished doesn’t seem to garner much political or public agitation, what more will it take? 

What if people told European history like they told Native American history?

Of course, this could be said of pretty much all non-Western history, including Africa and much of Asia. As I’ve lamented before, World History in most American curricula is basically European and American history — and even then, the narratives of certain European groups, such as those east of Germany, remain marginalized.

Of course, it doesn’t help that schools devote little time to teaching history, with many history teachers constrained in how much they could cram into their short and crowded school years. But that opens up a whole other debate about how education is organized and structured…

An Indigenous History of North America

The first immigrants to Europe arrived thousands of years ago from central Asia. Most pre-contact Europeans lived together in small villages. Because the continent was very crowded, their lives were ruled by strict hierarchies within the family and outside it to control resources. Europe was highly multi-ethnic, and most tribes were ruled by hereditary leaders who commanded the majority “commoners.” These groups were engaged in near constant warfare.

Pre-contact Europeans wore clothing made of natural materials such as animal skin and plant and animal-based textiles. Women wore long dresses and covered their hair, and men wore tunics and leggings. Both men and women liked to wear jewelry made from precious stones and metals as a sign of status. Before contact, Europeans had very poor diets. Most people were farmers and grew wheat and vegetables and raised cows and sheep to eat. They rarely washed themselves, and had many diseases because…

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