Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Problem the Republican Party, and now the Nation, has with Donald Trump

The challenge with Donald Trump is that he understands all too well what made America “great.” And this has presented a problem for the Republican Party and now, with his nomination, will cause a problem for the entire country. America's “greatness” is based on explicit, systemic, and dehumanizing racism.

One cannot discover lands that are already inhabited, unless they believe the previous inhabitants are less than human.

One cannot enslave an entire race of people, unless they consider them to be sub-human (like maybe 3/5ths).

One cannot say "All men are created equal" in their Declaration of Independence, and then 30 lines later refer to Natives as “savages,” unless they have a very narrow definition of who is and who is not human.

One cannot establish the legal precedent for land titles based on a Doctrine of Discovery, stating that natives only have the right of occupancy to land, while Europeans have the right of discovery and therefore the true title to the land, unless they consider indigenous peoples to be less than human.

One cannot refer in their history books to a century of ethnic cleansing and genocide of native peoples as “expansion” and “manifest destiny,” unless they consider the native peoples of this continent to be sub-human.

One cannot write Jim Crow laws, enforce segregation, establish boarding schools, and create internment camps, unless they consider the populations impacted by those systems to be less than human.

And one cannot nominate a candidate for President who promises to "Make America Great Again" when there is not a single point in their nation’s history when citizens of every race were treated as equals under the law.

Unless their definition of “great” is explicit and systemic racism.

And Donald Trump understands that. He announced his campaign for President by calling Mexicans “rapists and murderers.” And he promised to build a great big wall to keep them out. He responded to tragic terrorists attacks by proposing a national ban on an entire religion. And he threatens to torture and kill women, children, and other non-combatants from that people group in his war on terror. He openly mocks and objectifies women. He regularly demeans and marginalizes Native peoples. Donald Trump knows what made America great, and he is bound and determined to usher in a new era of explicit and systemic racism.

Paul Ryan's overwhelming white #SpeakerSelfie
This has created a problem for Paul Ryan, the Republican Party, and now, the entire nation. You see, over the past several decades most Americans have grown uncomfortable with our country's explicit racial bias. And, therefore, they have worked very hard to make our expressions of racism more passive aggressive and implicit (see Paul Ryan's #SpeakerSelfie and Hilary Clinton’s “Off the reservation” comment). This problem came to a head last spring when Donald Trump failed to distance himself from an endorsement by David Duke of the KKK.  Speaker Ryan addressed that issue in a Press Conference when he said:

"If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people's prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln. We believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God and our government. This is fundamental. And if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this."

His open and public rebuke, however, was deflated merely minutes later when Speaker Ryan, responding to a question regarding a possible Trump nomination, affirmed that he does indeed "plan to support the [eventual] nominee."

On the surface, his statement appears contradictory. How could someone associate their party with Abraham Lincoln (who freed the slaves), affirm the belief that "all people are created equal," and then immediately pledge to support a nominee who has clearly and repeatedly stated that he does not hold those same values?

This is where it is helpful to have a better historical understanding of Abraham Lincoln and what he was motivated by.

In the museum located at the base of the Lincoln Memorial there is a plaque hanging on the wall that states:

"I would save the Union. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

I have stood near this plaque and watched lines of people pass by. Most simply read it and move on. Almost no one pauses or even raises an eyebrow. But when I stop them and point out that this plaque is literally stating that according to Abraham Lincoln "Black Lives Don't Matter," they look at me, turn around, read the plaque again, shake their heads in amazement, and then pull out their cameras to take a picture.

I then educate them on another tidbit of history regarding our 16th President.

In December of 1862, Abraham Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. After the United States failed to meet its treaty obligations, the Dakota people raided American settlers and conflict with the US Military ensued. After more than a month, several hundred Dakota warriors surrendered themselves. They were each tried in military courts, and 303 were condemned to death. Because these were military trials, the executions had to be ordered by the President.

303 deaths seemed too genocidal for Abraham Lincoln. So he modified the criteria of what charges warranted a death sentence. Under his new criteria, only 2 were sentenced to die. That small number seemed too lenient and would most likely lead to an uprising by the white settlers in the area. So, once again, he changed the criteria. Ultimately, 38 Dakota men were executed on December 26, 1862, by order of President Lincoln. It is important to note that he did not order retrials, even though the initial trials could easily have been seen as a sham, but instead he merely changed the criteria (twice) of what charges warranted a death sentence.

"...If I could save the Union [by hanging 303 Dakota warriors], I would do it; and if I could save it [by hanging 2 Dakota Warriors] I would do it; and if I could save it [by hanging 38 Dakota Warriors in the largest mass execution in the history of the United States] I would also do that..."

Abraham Lincoln was primarily motivated by his desire to save the union. Paul Ryan is motivated by his desire to unify the Republican Party and eventually the country. The problem both these men face[d] is that they are attempting to unify a nation that is systemically racist.

And so when Horace Greeley published an op-ed in the New York Tribune calling for immediate emancipation, Abraham Lincoln was compelled to respond in a way that assured the states and citizens who owned slaves that he did not actually believe "Black Lives Mattered." Likewise, when Paul Ryan's Republican Party nominates a candidate who is explicitly racist, the Speaker publicly pledges his support to that nominee. Tragically, both men believe that unity, for a nation that is rooted in racism, requires its leaders, from time to time, to publicly deny the humanity of the minorities within that nation.

But there is a better way.

George Erasmus, an aboriginal leader from Canada said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

This quote gets to the heart of our nation’s problem with race. The United States of America does not share a common memory, and therefore, we struggle to have real community. White citizens of this country remember a mythical history of discovery, expansion, opportunity, and exceptionalism, while our communities of color have the lived experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, ethnic cleansing, slavery, Jim Crow laws, boarding schools, segregation, internment camps, and mass incarceration.

There is no common memory.

But we can change that. We can more accurately teach our history. We can acknowledge and address the Doctrine of Discovery and the racism it embedded into our foundations. We can apologize for and own our mistakes. And we can stop pandering to our citizens stuck in their narcissistic and racist world views.

We can create a common memory, and begin planting seeds for better community.

Photo by Kris J Eden
Make no mistake, the United States of America is explicitly and systemically racist. The Declaration of Independence states it. The Constitution codifies it. The Supreme Court legalizes it. Abraham Lincoln affirms it.  Donald Trump campaigns on it. And Speaker Ryan endorses it.

But until we can acknowledge it, we will remain incapable of ever changing it.

The problem the Republican party, and now our entire nation, has with Donald Trump is actually a problem with the very foundations of our country. And while it definitely will not be easy, we can stop endorsing it, and begin changing it.

- Mark Charles (Navajo)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Truth about Abraham Lincoln, #NativeLivesMatter, #BlackLivesMatter

Most people thanked me. Several people shook my hand in appreciation. And one person even gave me a hug.

Like most Americans I spent last weekend trying to process the events of the previous week. A week which saw the tragedies of #AltonSterling, #PhilandoCastile and #DallasPolice. Throughout the country there were #BlackLivesMatter protests, prayer gatherings, candlelight vigils and healing events between police departments and the communities they serve. Most gatherings were peaceful, although a few became violent. And everywhere emotions ran high.

But as a Native man, I wasn't sure where to go.

I finally decided on the Lincoln Memorial. Throughout recent history, the Lincoln Memorial has become a place where our nation gathers to converse about race and even to heal. There have been many meaningful protests, concerts and speeches on the steps of the memorial to our 16th President. But that was not why I went there.

As a native man, and since moving to Washington DC, I have come to understand more about President Lincoln than some people would ever care to know.

In December of 1862, Abraham Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. After more than a month of military conflict between the Dakota people, American Settlers and the US Military regarding the failure of the United States to meet its treaty obligations, several hundred Dakota warriors surrendered themselves. They were each tried in military courts and 303 were condemned to death. Because these were military trials, the executions had to be ordered by the President.

303 deaths seemed too genocidal for Abraham Lincoln. So he modified the criteria of what charges warranted a death sentence. Under his new criteria, only 2 were sentenced to die. That small number seemed too lenient and would most likely lead to an uprising by the white settlers in the area. So, once again, he changed the criteria. Ultimately 38 Dakota men were sentenced to death. It is important to note that President Lincoln did not order retrials, even though the initial trials could easily have been seen as a sham, but instead he merely changed the criteria (twice) of what charges warranted a death sentence.

So the day after Christmas 1862, several thousand white American settlers gathered on the streets of Mankato as spectators to the largest mass execution in the history of our nation—ordered by a President who was not primarily concerned with justice, but with appeasing his political base and keeping the peace among the white settlers in his Union.

I have known this history for years and have come to terms with the fact that most Americans embrace a mythical understanding of Abraham Lincoln. A President who, historically, did not believe that Native lives mattered.

But I also knew he was the President who freed the slaves. And, even today, he gives hope to the African American community throughout our country.  Doesn't he?

Last winter, on Martin Luther King Jr. day I decided to visit the Lincoln Memorial. I was new to DC and liked that I could go to such historic monuments on a whim. I took some pictures of Lincoln’s statue and walked around the memorial. I saw that at the base of the memorial there is a small museum. I walked in and found that it contained writings and thoughts regarding the legacy of our 16th President. On one wall was a series of his quotes and words regarding the Union. And in the middle of that wall, etched in stone, I found his following words.

"I would save the Union....

My paramount object
in this struggle
is to save the Union,
and it is not to save
or destroy slavery.

If I could save the Union
without freeing any slave,
I would do it;
and if I could save it
by freeing all the slaves
I would do it;
and if I could save it
by freeing some
and leaving others alone
I would also do that."

I could not believe my eyes. Right there at the Lincoln Memorial, the same memorial where in 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream” speech, the same memorial where in 1939 an African American singer named Marian Anderson challenged segregation and performed in front of 70,000 people, the same memorial where our nation gathers to seek healing and fight for civil rights, and one of the few memorials that allows people of color to feel acknowledged and included. That memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, has a plaque hanging on the wall which literally states, according to Abraham Lincoln, Black Lives Don't Matter.

If we are ever going to experience healing and end the systemic racism of our country, we need to begin by admitting our problems and telling the truth. In virtually every instance, knowing the truth and understanding the depth of the problem is more freeing than perpetuating a myth.

And the truth is, racism in our country runs deep. Even Abraham Lincoln did not believe the lives of people of color mattered. He was not concerned about justice with the Dakota 38, and if he could have saved the Union without freeing any slave, he would have done it.


It’s a sad legacy. But if you understand the Doctrine of Discovery and its influence on the foundations of our country, it is a legacy that is not at all surprising.

George Erasmus, an aboriginal leader from Canada said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

This quote gets to the heart of our nation’s problem with race. The United States of America does not share a common memory, and therefore we struggle to have real community. The dominant white culture remembers a mythical history of discovery, expansion, opportunity and exceptionalism, while our communities of color have the lived experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow laws, boarding schools, segregation, internment camps, and mass incarceration.

There is no common memory.

So after a horrible week—a week when our nation watched the police kill 2 more black men, before our eyes...a week which erupted into protests, violence, insecurity and fear...a week which tragically included the death of 5 police officers...a week which has led Americans to seek places where conversations can be had and answers can be found...

...I went to the Lincoln Memorial and shared the story of the Dakota 38. I helped people understand that President Abraham Lincoln did not believe Natives lives mattered. And then I walked people down to the museum and showed them the quote, etched in stone for all to see, that according to the man who freed the slaves, Black lives didn’t matter either. And if he could have saved his Union any other way, he would have done it.

I attempted to debunk the myth, tell the truth and, hopefully, create a common memory.

Most people thanked me. Several people shook my hand in appreciation. And one person even gave me a hug.

Mark Charles (Navajo)

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Declaration of Independence. It's not what you think.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..."

Most Americans, and probably a good number of global citizens, can quote the above section of the Declaration of Independence.  But I doubt many can recall much of what comes after that or the historical context from which it was written.

In 1763, King George of England issued the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation, he drew a line down the Appalachian Mountains and essentially told the colonies that they no longer had the right of discovery of the empty (Indian) lands west of the Appalachia. That right was now reserved solely for the crown. This upset the colonists, so a few years later they wrote a letter of protest. In their letter, they accused the king of "raising the conditions of new appropriations of land." They went on in their letter to declare that "he (the King) has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages..."

They signed their letter July 4, 1776.

Yes, believe it or not, a mere 30 lines beneath the statement "All men are created equal," the Declaration of Independence refers to natives as "merciless Indian Savages." Making it abundantly clear that the only reason the founding fathers used the inclusive language "all men" is because they had a very narrow definition of who was and who was not human.

According to the Declaration of Independence, natives are dehumanized as savages who stood in the way of westward expansion.

And our country has no idea what to do with that.

Last year, about this time, the United States was in the midst of a national dialogue regarding the Confederate Flag. It was being called out as the symbol of racism and bigotry that it is. And on June 27, 2015, the issue came to a head when Bree Newsome climbed the 30-foot flagpole and took down the Confederate Flag that flew over the South Carolina State Capitol. She was immediately arrested, but hailed on social media as a national hero. Funds were collected to pay her legal fees. National news organizations clamored for her interview. And on July 9th, the South Carolina state legislators passed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from flying over their capitol.


Confederate Flag
I watched these events with particular interest. It was good that our nation was having this dialogue and grappling with our racist past. It was good that public opinion was turning and there was some agreement that the Confederate Flag, while undeniably a part of US history, was not an acceptable symbol for our nation or our states to use.

But, as a native man, I was both amused and disappointed, as right in the middle of these historic events our entire country took the day off, cranked up their barbeque grills, gathered with family and friends, and celebrated another symbol of racism and bigotry from our colonial past.

The Declaration of Independence.

For the past 200 years, the United States has struggled with its history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, sexism, internment camps, immigration reform, and mass incarceration. And while we still have a long way to go, we have made some progress. Our first African American President is completing his second term in office. A female candidate for President is now the presumptive nominee of a major political party. The Confederate flag is no longer being flown over the South Carolina state capitol.

But there is one part of our history that we have no idea what to do with.

Our colonialism.

The United States of America is a colonial nation. The "new world" was not discovered by Europeans in 1492. This continent had been inhabited by millions of people for centuries, even millennia. And you cannot discover lands that are already occupied. That action is better known as conquering, stealing or colonizing. The fact that history books refer to what Columbus did as discovery reveals our racial bias. The 'manifest destiny' of the United States of America was achieved through a violent history of systematic ethnic cleansing (Indian Removal Act of 1830, Trail of Tears, the Long Walk, massacre at Sand Creek, Indian Boarding schools the massacre at Wounded Knee, etc., etc., etc.).  The notion that America was discovered, is a racist colonial concept that assumes the dehumanization of indigenous peoples.

And the Declaration of Independence both codifies that racial bias and justifies the violent history that resulted.

Photo of Mark Charles by Kris J Eden
But as the nation has grown more diverse and somewhat more tolerant, instead of dealing with our racist foundations, our country just stopped teaching its history or reading its founding documents in their entirety. In the past 5 years, I have traveled the country and spoken to thousands of people about the Doctrine of Discovery and its dehumanizing influence on the foundations of our nations, including the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the United States Supreme Court. Over these years, I have been told by an embarrassingly large percentage of US citizens that they had no idea the Declaration of Independence referred to natives as "savages."

It is this ignorance that allowed the hypocritical events of 2015 to take place. At the end of June and in early July, we celebrated the removal of the Confederate Flag because of the racism and bigotry it represented. But in the middle of those events, we paused and held a national party, complete with parades, concerts, and fireworks as we commemorated our violent colonial past and the dehumanizing Declaration of Independence that justified it.

Americans love the Fourth of July. It celebrates one of the documents that we, and even much of the globe, believe makes our nation exceptional.  The Declaration of Independence has been lauded by historic figures and global icons such as Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Pope Francis as a foundation of equality and human rights.

But as a native man I would encourage each of them, as well as every citizen of our country and the rest of the world, to please, read the entire document.  It’s not what you think.

- Mark Charles (Navajo)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Native Perspective: What's Behind Donald Trump's Response to Global Warming

In the past year Donald Trump has proposed the building of two different walls. The nation is well versed on the first wall. It's a big one, along our southern border, to be paid for by Mexico, because, as he outlined in his rambling Presidential campaign announcement speech last June, “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

But more recently, Donald has proposed the building of a second wall. This one will be just off the coast of Ireland.
"The New York billionaire is applying for permission to erect a coastal protection works to prevent erosion at his seaside golf resort, Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland, in County Clare. A permit application for the wall, filed by Trump International Golf Links Ireland and reviewed by POLITICO, explicitly cites global warming and its consequences — increased erosion due to rising sea levels and extreme weather this century — as a chief justification for building the structure.”
(Politico May 23, 2016)
Over the past several years, and throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has railed against the science of global warming. In 2014 he referred to global warming as “bulls**t” and in 2013 he called it a "total hoax!"


But according to his application, which was first reported by Politico, when it comes to his personal business and finances, Donald Trump is just as firm a believer in global warming as he is convinced of the threat of immigrants and Muslims.

And when Donald Trump gets scared of something, he builds a wall.

If you know American history and understand the worldview upon which this nation has been founded, then the lack of consistency between Donald Trump's public statements on global warming and his personal responses to global warming are not the least bit surprising.

The following quote from Pope Nicholas V in the Papal Bull Dum Diversas written in 1452 has deeply shaped our nation. This Papal Bull, along with others written between 1452 and 1493 are collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine helped create a worldview that placed white, European Christian males at the center and reduced most everything else in the natural world to mere assets for their exploitation and profit.
 “…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit”
In the worldview of the Doctrine of Discovery; water, land, plants, animals, even other humans are all considered to be resources that exist primarily to serve and benefit the dominant.

To Christopher Columbus -
Discoverer of America
It is this worldview of dehumanization which leads our educational system to still teach that Columbus discovered America. Because you CANNOT discover lands that are already inhabited. That action is more accurately known as stealing or conquering.

A worldview shaped by the Doctrine of Discovery is only able to acknowledge crisis like global warming when they threaten one’s bottom line or personal safety. The values of exploitation and profit are top priority, second only to the comfort and survival of the dominant.

My father is a wise native man who has lived between the four sacred mountains of our Navajo people nearly his entire life. Several years ago he was serving on a committee for a national, predominantly white, Christian organization that was looking at the issue of global warming and creation care. He told his fellow committee members that the reason this country has such a horrible record of caring for the environment is because they have a Doctrine of Discovery that skews and distorts their relationship to the natural world.

In Navajo we have a word, “hozho,” which translated means harmony or balance. Regularly, as my ancestors have done for centuries, I wake up early in the morning and greet the sunrise with my prayers. I pray for the day, relationships, community, and the environment. I strive to walk in beauty, with people, nature, and Creator.

Sunrise over the Navajo Nation
Watching the sunrise daily is a humbling experience that provides an amazing perspective. The sun rises, and it sets. There is nothing we can do to speed it up, or to slow it down. It happens whether we witness it or not. We cannot control it. Yet, all of life, is completely dependent upon it.

The Doctrine of Discovery is all about dominance. It’s about establishing a hierarchy for the purpose of taking and maintaining control. And it leads to an incredible arrogance, both towards nature and other people.

It was the worldview of the Doctrine of Discovery that led Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 to develop the mantra “It's the economy, stupid”—campaigning to the lie that the health and well-being of a nation are purely the sum of its economic indicators.

And it is the Doctrine of Discovery that leads the presumptive nominee of the Republican party to call a devastating human crisis like global warming “bulls**t” and a “total hoax!”

That is, until the rising sea levels threaten the picturesque landscape on the 18th green on his luxury golf course.

For a nation based on the worldview of the Doctrine of Discovery it is not surprising that it took a real and practical threat to Donald Trump’s personal finances and investments to get him to acknowledge something that the worldwide scientific community concluded years ago. Global warming, left unaddressed, will cause a humanitarian crisis on a global scale.

And it is even less surprising that his response, after acknowledging global warming, was not to propose policies or programs to benefit and help humanity. But merely to protect his personal financial investments, with the building of another wall.

The worldview of the Doctrine of Discovery is not a partisan problem, it affects the very foundations of our nation, everything from our capitalism which is driven by profits, to SCOTUS basing the legal precedent for land titles on the principle of “discovery” and the dehumanization of Natives. Unfortunately, the values of the Doctrine of Discovery are just as American as baseball and apple pie.

And when you’re campaigning to be the next President of a colonial nation that is still blinded by a Doctrine of Discovery and comprised not only of immigrants, but also of more than 6 million indigenous people representing literally hundreds of tribes, it is imperative that you understand something.

“It’s about so much more than the economy, stupid.”



Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost - A Native perspective on Acts 2

The Pentecost story in Acts is a beautiful display of God's value for multi-culturalism and diversity. In Acts 2, God faced a challenge. His son had been crucified, was risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. And God wanted the world to know about it. At that time there were people from all over the known world in Jerusalem. The problem was, they all spoke different languages. If everyone was to hear the Good News the language problem needed to be solved. Now I assume, for the Creator of the Universe, performing one miracle is no more difficult than performing another miracle. So God literally had a choice to make. He could have either allowed everyone in Jerusalem to speak Greek or Hebrew, or he could allow his disciples to speak the languages of the nations. Either miracle would have solved the language problem. So we can assume that God made his choice based on the values he wanted to instill in this new body of believers.
Allowing all the people to understand Greek or Hebrew would have given birth to a single language, hierarchical and assimilated church. The Gospel would have clearly belonged to the group whose language God chose. And the Church would have been unified through their common language and soon to be assimilated culture. Language is one of the best tools to pass on, teach and even destroy culture. By picking a single language, culture and people, eventually the Church would have been fully assimilated to that group. So it is telling that God instead chose to allow the disciples to speak the languages of the nations. This choice had nearly the opposite effect. Instead of creating a single language, hierarchical and assimilated church, God instead planted a church where the Gospel belonged to everyone. There was no hierarchy. There was no chosen group. And no cultural assimilation was required or expected. When the people heard the good news in their own language the assumption was that this message was for them, their culture and their people. They could come to Christ as who they were. In fact, this message was so clear, that a little while later, when the Greek widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food they felt completely comfortable to point out the problem. Had the Gospel been shared with them in Hebrew, it would had been easier to assume that the Church was primarily for the Jews and everyone else was second class. It would have made sense why they were overlooked. They were second rate members in the cultural hierarchy of this new Hebrew church. But they weren't. They heard the message in their own language. They were full members of this body just as much as the next person. I praise God for Pentecost. Not only for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Bride of Christ. But I also praise God that he planted the Act 2 community in such a way that validated and gave ownership of the Gospel to people from every language, every culture, every tribe, and every people. The church was never meant to be an assimilated melting pot, where eventually everything and everyone blends together. The church was meant to be a mosaic. A vibrant colorful and diverse body where every member, every language, and every culture is necessary and adds to the beauty of the whole. Creator Ahe’hee’.

Mark Charles

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Native Response to Hillary Clinton's "Off The Reservation" Comment

On Friday April 29, in response to a CNN interview question regarding the expected political and personal attacks from Donald Trump in a general election, Hillary Clinton stated that she has experience dealing with men who sometimes get "off the reservation..."

"Off the reservation" is a term deeply rooted in the implicit racial bias of the United States of America. Reservations are federal lands where Native peoples were herded before and after the "Indian Removal Act" passed by the United States Congress in 1830. Reservations are where our people were moved to during forced relocation like the "Trail of Tears" (Cherokee) and the "Long Walk" (Navajo). Reservations are not owned by Native people or tribes. Instead, they are lands held in trust for us by the United States Federal Government because we only have the right of occupancy to the land, whereas White Europeans have the right of Discovery and, therefore, the true title to the land.

When Natives are “on the reservation,” it is implied that we are contained, isolated, and controlled. When we go "off the reservation," chaos ensues. We have gone rogue, act unpredictably, and are causing trouble.
In its literal and original sense, as you would expect, the term was used in the 19th century to describe the activities of Native Americans:

"The acting commissioner of Indian affairs to-day received a telegram from Agent Roorke of the Klamath (Oregon) agency, dated July 6, in which he says: 'No Indians are off the reservation without authority. All my Indians are loyal and peaceable, and doing well." (Baltimore Sun, July 11, 1878)

"Secretary Hoke Smith...has requested of the Secretary of War the aid of the United States troops to arrest a band of Navajo Indians living off the reservation near American Valley, New Mexico, who have been killing cattle, etc." (Washington Post, May 23, 1894)

"Apaches off the reservation...killing deer and gathering wild fruits." (New York Times, Sept. 7, 1897)

Many of the news articles that used the term in a literal sense in the past were also expressing undisguised contempt and hatred, or, at best, condescension, for Native Americans — "shiftless, untameable...a rampant and intractable enemy to civilization" (New York Times, Oct. 27, 1886).
(Kee Maleskey - NPR June 29, 2014)
But I would not expect Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to understand this.  They are the essence of the typical, establishment American candidates. Experts in the art of mythologizing American history and well-trained to speak the carefully constructed code language of American Exceptionalism.

The American mythology teaches that these lands were "discovered," instead of conquered or stolen. And the language of exceptionalism refers to the 19th century as periods of "Manifest Destiny" and "Westward Expansion." Rather than more accurately acknowledging that the United States ethnically cleansed this land to make way for American settlers.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been taught to not read the entire Declaration of Independence, lest they learn that the very declaration this country holds as sacred, is actually a racist document, which, 30 lines below the statement "All men are created equal," dehumanizes Natives as "merciless Indian savages."

They have been trained to not ask about the dehumanizing legal instrument (Doctrine of Discovery) or the racist legal precedent (1823, Johnson v. M'Intosh) that the Supreme Court of the United States used to establish the basis for land titles in this country.

These past 8 months many in our nation have rightly identified the narcissistic words and actions of Donald Trump as offensive, childish, ignorant, and even racist. But, unfortunately, most have not understood the deeper implications of his rhetoric. Donald Trump understands what made America 'great'--explicit and systemic racism.

One CANNOT discover lands that are already inhabited. That action is more accurately referred to as conquering or stealing. The notion that America was discovered is a racist colonial concept that assumes the dehumanization of indigenous peoples.

Throughout the 19th century the United States of American was literally in a constant state of warfare against native peoples: The Trail of Tears, the massacre at Sand Creek, the Long Walk, the massacre at Wounded Knee, the hanging of the Dakota 38 (largest mass execution in the history of the US), the Seminole Wars, the Navajo Wars, the Puget Sound War, the Comanche Campaigns, the Nez Pierce War and the Pine Ridge Campaign, just to name a few.

American expansion is merely a code word for genocide and ethnic cleansing.

And in a country that gave 20 Congressional Medals of Honor to the soldiers who participated in the massacre at Wounded Knee (1890) and to this day refuses to rescind them, it is normal, even expected, that a leading candidate for the office of President of the United States would thoughtlessly use the phrase "off the reservation."

A few months ago, President Obama, in his final state of the Union referenced the preamble to the Constitution when he said "'We the People.' Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people..."

When I heard that I said to myself, "Really? All the people? When did we decide that? I must not have gotten the memo? Did SCOTUS change the legal precedent for land titles?”

The definition of “We the People” is the very debate that is taking place in the Presidential Campaigns today.  Donald Trump seems to be advocating at the top of his lungs that “We the People” does not include Muslims, immigrants, women, and, based on the obscene amount of money he has made buying and selling land in the United States, definitely not natives. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is using terms like "off the reservation," and reassuring people that “We don’t need to make America great again. America never stopped being great.” Demonstrating that she does not understand the systemic racism and blatant oppression that has been endured by people of color throughout the entire history of this nation.

Unfortunately, the dialogue that is taking place this election cycle is not about broad-based equality or ending racism. The conversation we are having today is about the type of racism we want to settle for. "Do we want Hillary Clinton to work to keep racism as our nation’s implicit bias; or allow Donald Trump to champion racism as our explicit bias?"

After all, isn't building a wall, banning Muslims, and personally funding a presidential campaign with a fortune made by buying and selling land that has been ethnically cleansed, merely the fruit of a country that has learned all too well how to deal with the “merciless Indian savages” who sometimes get "off the reservation"?

- Mark Charles

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Doctrine of Discovery: We Don't Talk About That

A version of this article was originally published in Comment Magazine, Winter 2015.

In the summer of 2003 I moved with my family back to Dineteh, the land of my father's ancestors- located in the Southwest United States between Mount Blanca, Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peaks and Mount Hesperus. Today this land is better known as the Navajo Reservation.

I was born in this area, in a hospital located in a mission compound alongside an Indian Boarding school. When you pass through the tunnel leading to the campus of this mission to the Navajo and Zuni people you are greeted by a large sign which reads "...Now the LORD has given us room. We shall flourish in the land. Gen. 26:22"

In 1896, the first missionaries from their denomination's "Board of Heathen Missions" arrived on the outskirts of a budding railroad town, known as Gallup, which was located in the territory of New Mexico. The United States of America was nearing the end of an unprecedented period of westward expansion. Through military force, the building of railroads, and the signing and breaking of Indian treaties, the United States was near completing its self-proclaimed "manifest destiny" of ruling this continent from "sea to shining sea."

Only 30 years earlier, General Carlton gave orders to Kit Carson and 700 of his soldiers to force our Navajo people to surrender so we could be removed from this area and relocated to a barren strip of land hundreds of miles away in the eastern section of the territory. It was through bloody, violent, and genocidal acts of war that this land was cleared to make room for the approaching onslaught of white settlers, prospectors, soldiers, and missionaries.

But we don't talk about that.

This unjust and dehumanizing history has largely been forgotten and even when it is mentioned it is not connected in any direct way to the missions, towns and people who are living there today.

Why does this mission reference Genesis 26? And why did the founding missionaries claim God's leading and divine provision for a piece of land that was never given, but rather violently taken?

The answer to that question lies in the selective memory of the people from both the United States and Canada.

There is a broad misconception that the history of Turtle Island began with the "discovery" of this continent by European explorers like Christopher Columbus and Jacques Cartier.

Every year on the second Monday of October, the United States celebrates Columbus Day. There is a statue of Christopher Columbus in Washington DC located to the north of the US Capitol building that reads: "To the memory of Christopher Columbus whose high faith and indomitable courage gave to mankind a new world."

There is another statue in Grant Park in Chicago that enshrines Christopher Columbus with the label "Discoverer of America." It also celebrates his words spoken on October 12, 1492, "By the Grace of God and in the Name of Her Majesty Queen Isabella, I am taking possession of these lands."


Likewise, there are statues and plaques located throughout Canada and France, like the one in Montreal which reads "To Jacques Cartier, born in Saint-Malo, December 1st, 1491. Sent by Fran├žois Ier to discover Canada in April 20th 1534. Reaching the entrance of the Saint-Lawrence River, on July 16th of the same year. He took possession of the land on behalf of the king his master, and named it New-France."

Common sense tells us that you cannot discover and take possession of lands that are already inhabited. That process is more accurately described as stealing, conquering or even, ethnic cleansing.

But we don’t talk about that.

The Doctrine of Discovery
“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”
These are the words of Pope Nicholas V, written in 1452 in the Papal Bull Dum Diversas. This Bull, along with others written between 1452 and 1493 became collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery.  The Doctrine of Discovery is the Church in Europe telling the Nations of Europe that wherever they go, whatever lands they find that are not ruled by Christian rulers, those people are less than human and the land is theirs for the taking. It was this doctrine that allowed European nations to colonize the continent of Africa and enslave the African people. It was also this Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus and Jacques Cartier to land in a "new world" already inhabited by millions, and claim to have "discovered" it.

The notion that Europeans "discovered" Turtle Island is a racist colonial concept that assumes the dehumanization of aboriginal peoples.

But we don't talk about that.

Unfortunately, the influence of the Doctrine of Discovery does not end there.

In 1763, King George issued a proclamation known as the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation he drew a line down the Appalachian Mountains and essentially told the colonists they no longer had the right of discovery of the Indian lands west of Appalachia. That right was now reserved solely for the crown.

This is one of the places where the histories of Canada and the United States split. The colonies located in what today is known as the United States were angered by this proclamation. They wanted to keep the right of "discovery" for themselves, and so a few years later they wrote a letter of protest. In this letter they stated:
"He [King George] has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."
They went on in this same letter to address several other issues they had with the King, concluding with the following:
"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages..."
They signed this letter on July 4, 1776.

Yes, the Declaration of Independence, which so eloquently states "All men are created equal," 30 lines later goes on to dehumanize natives as "merciless Indian Savages."  The document that in many ways founded the United States of America hinges on a very narrow definition of who is actually human.

The colonies located in what is now known as Canada accepted the Proclamation of 1763 and did not revolt against the crown. However, this did not mean the empty Indian lands to the west could not be "discovered." It merely meant that right belonged to Great Britain. Aboriginal people were still dehumanized, and our lands were still taken—it’s just that the injustices were done in the name of the Crown instead of the colonists themselves.

In the founding documents of the United States of America and in the implicit racial bias of Canada, Native peoples are defined as less than human and therefore are excluded from the broader group of "all."

But we don't talk about that.

In the United States, the issue and rights of "discovery" were crystalized with the following Supreme Court Case ruling:
"As they [European colonizing nations] were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle, which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession."
US Supreme Court, Johnson Vs. M'Intosh (1823)
In 1823, the United States Supreme Court presided over a case brought by two men of European descent regarding a single piece of land. One bought the land from a Native tribe and the other bought it from the Government. They wanted to know who legally owned it. In reviewing the case the Supreme Court stated that according to the Doctrine of Discovery, Indians tribes only have the right of occupancy to land, while Europeans have the right of Discovery, and therefore true title to the land. This case helped establish a legal precedent for land titles based on the dehumanizing understandings of the Doctrine of Discovery.  Lest this seem like ancient history, it should be noted that this legal precedent, and the Doctrine of Discovery, was referenced by the United States Supreme Court as recently as 2005 (City of Sherrill Vs. Oneida Indian Nation of New York).

The histories of Native peoples in both the US and Canada are largely similar; discovery, expansion, bloody wars, stolen lands, broken treaties, residential/boarding schools, cultural genocide, dehumanization and marginalization. If there is a difference, it seems to only be that the Canadian government, churches and people are more passive-aggressive in their injustices while Americans are more explicit.

The United States sees itself as a City on a Hill with a self-proclaimed "Manifest Destiny,” while Canadians tend justify their expansion through economic benefits and solidifying their national identity. The United States developed the idea of Indian Boarding Schools with the explicit stated intention of "killing the Indian to save the man." Canada took that concept and built on it, making residential schools a formidable part of its national aboriginal policies.

Both nations have a history of expansion, economic opportunity and aboriginal/Indian policies based on the implicit racial bias defined by the Doctrine of Discovery which dehumanizes people of color.

But we don't talk about that.

Starting a (Difficult) Conversation

Photo courtesy of Kris J. Eden.
I have traveled extensively throughout the US and visited parts of Canada lecturing and speaking about the Doctrine of Discovery. I would estimate that less than 2% of the populations from either nation have a knowledgeable understanding of the Doctrine of Discovery.

On June 11, 2008 from the floor of the House of Commons, in a speech that was broadcast throughout the country, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to the First Nations people of Canada for that country’s history of residential schools.

This apology was part of a settlement to a lawsuit brought against the government and the churches by residential school survivors. The settlement also set aside approximately $60 million for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And while this apology and the resulting Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealt with the injustice of residential schools, it did not touch on the Doctrine of Discovery.

In the 1950's and 60's the United States had one of the deepest conversations on race in its history, the Civil Rights Movement. However, the Doctrine of Discovery was not a part of that dialogue. In fact, one of the moral authorities used in that movement was the Declaration of Independence. So instead of discussing the fact that the US was systemically racist down to its very foundations, including the Declaration of Independence, the public rhetoric affirmed America's foundations and merely encouraged people to live up to those ideals.

The governments, churches and people of the United States of America and Canada do not talk about the Doctrine of Discovery. We have removed it from our common memory. Instead we talk about our common ideals, or about our stated values for equality and justice.

Or we remain silent.

Throughout its history the United States has worked hard to define racial identity to the benefit of the dominant white race. For people of African descent there was the one drop rule. This rule simply states that if you had one drop of African blood you were black and could be enslaved. Slaves were the free labor source of this growing nation, so it makes perfect sense that the founders would want that pool to be as large as possible. For natives there is the blood quantum rule. This rule states that you can be full, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and eventually your native/tribal identity can be bred out of existence. The United States teaches the myth that this continent was "discovered" by Europeans. Discovery assumes there was nobody here. It was the land Europeans desired. So the less natives there are, the easier it is to perpetuate the myth.

Because of these understandings, the U.S. has been forced to acknowledge, face and in some ways deal with its history of slavery—though unevenly and inadequately. But it has also allowed the nation to ignore, bury and deny its unjust history against natives.

On December 19, 2009, President Obama signed House Resolution 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriation Act. On page 45 of this 67-page bill, section 8113 is titled "Apology to Native People of the United States."  What follows is a 7 bullet-point apology that mentions no specific tribe, no specific treaty, and no specific injustice. It basically says "you had some nice land, our citizens didn't take it very politely, let’s just call it OUR land and steward it together." And it ends with a disclaimer stating that nothing in this apology is legally binding.

To date, this apology has not been announced, publicized, or read by the White House or Congress.

Creating a common memory

Georges Erasmus, an Aboriginal leader from Canada, once said “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

This quote gets to the heart of both nations’ problem with race.  Our citizens do not share a common memory. People of white European ancestry remember a history of discovery, open lands, manifest destiny, endless opportunity and exceptionalism. While communities of color, primarily those with African and indigenous roots, have the lived experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, boarding schools, segregation, cultural genocide, internment camps and mass incarceration.

But how do we do it? How do we create common memory where so much government, institutional, church and individual effort has been invested in consciously forgetting?

I recently attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. And I applaud the progress that was made there, just like I applaud and honor the work of Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. But I also know the conversation must go deeper. The United States must find a way to talk about the fact that its very foundations are systemically racist and assume the dehumanization of people of color. And in Canada, the dialogue must extend beyond the limited legal parameter of residential schools. Neither nation can create a common memory until the Doctrine of Discovery is fully on the table.

And that won’t happen until we intentionally decide to talk about it.


9 months ago I moved with my family to Washington DC for the express purpose of networking and exploring ways to initiate a national dialogue regarding the Doctrine of Discovery. I have been greatly encouraged by the vast number of people and communities open to teaching this history and confronting these injustices. Two months ago I recorded a short video that articulated the vision for a national Truth and Conciliation Commission in 2021 (#TCC2021) and the steps we are taking to get there. I welcome you to watch it.

Additional ways you can join this effort:
  1. Donate to our Crowdfunding campaign “Common Memory Project.
  2. Sign up for our Truth and Conciliation Commission mailing list to receive regular updates and resources on this work.
  3. Contact us with us to plan a conversation regarding the Doctrine of Discovery in your local community.
  4. Recommend Mark as a speaker at your church, for a conference, or at a nearby seminary, college or university.
  5. Contact us directly to learn about more ways you can volunteer in this work. 
*Mark's organization 5 Small Loaves does not have non-profit status and is unable to provide tax deductible receipts. Mark has established a partnership with the Christian Indian Center which is able to provide tax deductible receipts for gifts given off-line.