Truth Be Told

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A More Perfect Union



If I had to translate her words into Navajo, I would say “ádin.” Ádin means nothing, none, zero.

I couldn't believe my ears. I was visiting Iowa in the first week of January during an election year. Presidential candidates were crisscrossing the state—kissing babies, shaking hands, and pleading for the vote of everyone they met. Campaign events were taking place in high school gymnasiums, community centers, and local businesses throughout the state. Many of the people I met had personal stories of meeting one of the candidates, shaking their hands, and talking about their issues. There are 99 counties in the state of Iowa, and a few of the candidates were taking the time to stop and hold campaign events in each and every one of them. But there I was, just a day before the caucuses, standing in the community center and tribal offices of the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama, Iowa, with the tribe’s executive director telling me that not a single presidential candidate had held a campaign event in their community.

I shouldn't have been surprised. After all I live on the Navajo Reservation. Our reserve is nearly 26,000 square miles with about 300,000 enrolled tribal members, and I cannot recall in my lifetime a presidential candidate visiting our reservation and campaigning directly to our people. 

But for some reason I thought Iowa, during the primary season, would be different. There, retail politics is the norm and EVERY vote is supposed to count. But as I learned that afternoon, that is not entirely true. Even for tribes living in the middle of one of the most heavily campaigned to states in our country, I learned that the Founding Fathers’ vision for this country still prevailed in 2012. 

As a nation we often point to the document signed in 1776 as the foundation of our freedoms and the declaration of our principals. We hold up the country’s Founding Fathers as great visionaries; men who had a hope of a world of equality. But that is a myth. A legend. Their statement, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." was not a Declaration of Independence for many of the people who lived in this land. Rather, it was a Declaration of Dominance, a change of masters, a limitation of freedom, and for some, the foundation for genocide.  For we learned a few years later, when many of these same men penned the Constitution of the United States of America, that "all men" did not refer to women, African slaves, or Native Americans. These groups were specifically excluded from participation in this grand experiment. Their wombs, their labor, and their lands would be used. But the people, the individuals, and their communities would not be allowed to participate.

As this country expanded, specific policies were implemented against Native Americans such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which gave legal cover for atrocities, such as the Trail of Tears for the Cherokee in 1838 and the Long Walk for the Navajo in 1864. This country wanted our land, but not our vote. They wanted our resources, but not our voices. In fact, Native Americans were one of the last groups to receive the right to vote.  The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted us citizenship and the right to vote. But, because voting is a states’ right, the states of New Mexico and Arizona effectively barred Native Americans from voting until 1948. (ACLU - Timeline: Voting Rights Act)

By studying our history, learning about these policies, and living on our reservation, I have experienced firsthand that our Founding Fathers’ vision was to create a nation where the indigenous peoples of this land would have as little opportunity as possible to participate in or influence the governance of this country. Out of sight and out of mind is where they wanted us. And to that end, they were largely successful.

Even today, presidential candidates are able to campaign and get elected without ever needing to court the Native American vote. Decisions regarding tribal sovereignty and treaty rights have been delegated to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, now a part of the Department of the Interior.  Our country can hold a national debate on immigration reform without soliciting input from indigenous peoples, who for over 500 years have borne the brunt of injustices perpetrated by “undocumented immigrants.” 

But for me, the last straw that demonstrated the need for more immediate change was when I learned that on December 19, 2009 the US government officially apologized to Native peoples without even speaking to us. Page 45 of the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act (H.R. 3326) contains a buried "Apology to Native Peoples of the United States." This non-specific, non-binding apology was never publicized, announced, or publically read by Congress or the President.

This apology and the way it was buried demonstrated the severity of the situation, and that even today, in the 21st Century, Native peoples are not considered equals in this land. So I decided that I had to respond. If my government did not have the respect to read this apology and communicate it directly to the elders, leaders, and peoples of our Native communities, then I would do it—honestly, respectfully, and publically.

On the third anniversary of the signing of this Act, I have reserved space near the Reflecting Pool in front of the US Capitol.  On that day, a diverse group of citizens are coming together to publically read H.R. 3326.  The appropriations portion of this bill (pages 1–45) will be read by the Native Americans in attendance in an effort to respectfully, yet clearly, highlight the irony of burying such important and historic words in a Department of Defense Appropriations Act.

The apology portion of this Act (sub-section 8113) will be translated into several native languages and be read by some of the non-native people in attendance. This will serve as a reminder to our leaders that when an apology is made, it should be communicated as clearly, sincerely, and respectfully as possible to the intended audience.

I am proud to be Navajo, and I am proud to be an American.  I love this country, and I love our land. I know history cannot be changed, but I do believe the trajectory it puts us on can be adjusted. I want to teach my children that they can read the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution with pride and hope—not because the Founding Fathers were perfect, but because they acknowledged they were beginning a journey. They created a government where leadership was not inherited and wrote a constitution that could be amended.

One of the reasons the swearing into office of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States was such a historic event both for our country and the world, was because as a nation we demonstrated that our real strength is found, not in our wealth or in our military might, but in our ability to change, to learn, and to adapt. The Founding Fathers may not have ever envisioned that the Union they were establishing would someday elect as its leader someone who did not look like them. But we did, and while the transition was bumpy and the last four years have had its fair share of turmoil, it happened and as a country we have grown.

So I am inviting you—our nation— leaders, citizens, immigrants and Native peoples to join me on December 19, 2012, in front of the US Capitol Building and respectfully read H.R. 3326 and the apology enclosed therein. To take another step in this journey by beginning A New Conversation in our never ending quest to 'walk in beauty' and form a more perfect union.

Ahe'hee',

Mark Charles

My (Native) Vote

My early voting ballot is almost complete. I have done my reading, finished my research, and ignored a sufficient amount of robo-calls and attack ads. I have made my choices for county school superintendent, state representatives, and even US Senator. But there is a gaping hole at the top of my ballot...

It is November 6, 2012, and after more than a year of carefully following the presidential campaigns I still do not know which candidate I am going to vote for. I am an independent voter but registered as a democrat.  On my Facebook page I identify my political position as "a morally-conservative Democrat or a fiscally-irresponsible Republican."

I live on the Navajo Reservation, and for the past six years I have been brainstorming and discussing ways our country can more intentionally include Native American into the political process. And this was going to be my break out year; I was going to do everything I could to engage with the candidates. I knew from history that they would make very little, if any, effort to court the Native American vote. So I made plans to engage with them.

In January, I flew to Iowa and New Hampshire, where I attended rallies, stopped by campaign offices, and visited campaign events. I wrote letters that I hand delivered to campaign offices and also published online. I also made numerous visits to Washington DC. I wrote letters to the White House and traversed the halls of the Senate and House offices on Capitol Hill in an effort to reach out and engage with anyone who would talk with me. 

And after 12 months, thousands of dollars in travel expenses and weeks away from my community and my family.....NOTHING.  The Native American vote was once again largely ignored, and I did not get a single response from either candidate to discuss native issues.

I should have known from the beginning it was going to be an uphill battle.

Last November Mitt Romney released a campaign ad where he promised that he "would never apologize for the United States of America.” This did not sit well with me as a Native American, so I responded with an article that I published on Dec. 19, 2011 (Indianz: Mitt Romney vows never to apologize for US).

Through some comments that were made to that article that I learned that exactly 2 years earlier President Obama had signed the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act (H.R. 3326). On page 45 of this 67 page bill, was an "Apology to Native Peoples of the United States." This apology had never been announced, publicized, or publically read by Congress or President Obama. Even the press release from the White House regarding the signing of H.R. 3326 made absolutely no mention of the enclosed apology.

So now I was in a real quandary. On one side of the aisle there was a candidate who was boldly stating to the country (and the world) that he would "never apologize for the Unites State of America." And on the other side of the aisle was the sitting President who did apologize but never bothered to tell anyone about it.

Over the past year, I did not spend a lot of time listening to the rhetoric from either campaign, nor did I put a lot of weight in either of the candidate’s words. Instead, I tried to look at their character, their courage, and their integrity.

Fiscal Responsibility:
It's hard to believe either candidate is going to be a true advocate for fiscal responsibility when this has been the most expensive election in history. Over $2 billion has been raised and spent on this campaign! Yes, that is billion with a "B." To me that is like applying for a position as a dietician or a personal trainer and walking into the interview 100 lbs overweight with a Big-Mac in one hand, a Super-Big Gulp in the other, french fries stuffed into your pockets, and chocolate frosting covering your lips! It’s hard to take their words seriously.

Bi-partisanship:
It is also hard to believe the promises of either candidate to reach across the aisle and lead our “entire” country when almost every word coming out of both of their mouths for the past year has an attack on the other. If a presidential candidate is truly serious about reaching across the aisle and forging some sort of compromise, you would think that process would begin by showing a little respect to his political opponent and his ideas.

Please understand, I not bitter, nor am I despondent. I merely feel a need to voice my thoughts and articulate some of my frustrations before this campaign is over. I also want to encourage our candidates, both of them, one last time:

“You can do better.”

You can get your message out without breaking the bank. In age of the internet, we live in a world where you have the ability to communicate with a national, even global audience, for the price of a library card. A billion dollars may add more flash and repetition, but it does very little for the content and substance of your message.  A little creativity goes a long way and can save a ton of money.

You can also gain support without demonizing your opponent. There is a serious cost to campaigning primarily to your base. If you want to be President of the entire country, then you need to be willing to stand in the middle, between all sides, EVERY day. If you can't learn to do that when you are campaigning for office, then you will not be able to do it effectively when you are in office.

And finally, regarding the apology:

I hope Mr. Romney learns that the world is run through relationships and that the office of the President of the United States is the most relationally complex office he will ever encounter. If he wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for this office and if he hopes to positively represent our country in the US and throughout the world, then I promise him, he will have to learn to apologize.

And while I appreciate the sincere efforts that President Obama has made to engage with Native leaders and communities, I feel a strong need to exhort his courage.  For when you do apologize, you MUST communicate it. Clearly. Humbly. And Respectfully.  Ignoring it doesn’t help. Stuffing it in a bill that no one will ever read doesn’t help. And making casual references to it in a proclamation three years later doesn’t help.

No one would marry a spouse or go into business with a partner who vowed never to apologize. And no marriage or business partnership would last if one of the partners never communicated their apologies, but instead just assumed they were known.

President Obama and Governor Romney, if you want my vote for the office of the “most powerful man in the world,” then you going to have to demonstrate an ability to be one of the humblest men on earth.

So who am I going to vote for?  I am not sure.  But fortunately I have a few more hours to figure it out.