Truth Be Told

Signed copies of the book I co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah, "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" are available from my website:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

virtual Native American state

The right to vote and have representation is a fundamental American right and in the early history of our country that right was based on land ownership. At one point, Native Americans resided on a majority of the land and accounted for a majority of the population. But that began to change soon after the first European immigrants arrived. Native Americans were quickly either exterminated or moved to the boarders of society and marginalized. And that is where most of us live today. You will find pockets of Native Americans all throughout the country. And if you look hard enough you will find reservations tucked away in the corners of many states. We account for around 1% of the population and are virtually non existent in the structures of power. We have been a ward of Congress and do not even have an embassy or a formal relationship with the US government. For years we were drafted and forced to fight in the wars of this country, but we did not even have the right to vote. Even after we were given the right to vote, our numbers were so small and we were so marginalized and separated that no unified voice could be heard. Reservations had been created but representation was not allowed.

I would like to propose that a new action be taken; one which I believe will level the playing field to an even greater extent. I propose that a virtual Native American state be created. This virtual state will function primarily as a means to give Native Americans a voice in the national structures of power that currently exist. Each voting age member of every state and federally recognized tribe will, for national elections and for the US Congress and Senate, be given the option of registering to vote and be represented in a virtual Native American state. Based on the number of registered voters an appropriate number of votes will be added to the Electoral College. Eventually, additional representatives will be added to the US House of Representatives and 2 members will be added to the Senate. I believe these institutional and constitutional corrections will allow the Native American population an equal voice within the structures of power and in the representation of our lands. No longer will Congress or the President be able to quietly cut funding from health care and social services, which were guaranteed in the treaties that were signed. No longer will Native American issues (many of which are unique from the rest of the country) be ignored by Presidential candidates. And no longer will Native Americans be forced to be a ward of congress and at the mercy of the state governments and the BIA. For we will be a part of the senate and the House of Representatives, and will have our own voice in the legislative agenda of this country and in the representation of our lands and our people.

Mark Charles
(Fort Defiance AZ)

A virtual Native American state (v2)

This is a good idea, but…

…it will never happen.” My article on the creation of a virtual Native American State has been out in the public realm for a few months now, and I have been doing my best to follow the conversations and dialogues that have sprouted up, not only on my blog, but on other blogs, talk shows and articles around the country. If I had to summarize the responses, I would say that the majority of voices ring with a very similar sentiment. "This is a good idea, but…” Of course, there have also been other voices. Some have decried the idea, saying they have no desire to become a larger part of this country and its oppressive government. Others have pointed at this as another way to rob our peoples of the identity and sovereignty we have been fighting for. And still others have snidely commented that this proposal would put an end to the gravy train of free handouts that our Native American tribes receive from Uncle Sam. But a vast majority of the voices I have heard have stated in one form or another that “this is a good idea, but…"

First, please allow me to address the issue of tribal sovereignty. I do not see the virtual Native American state in any way damaging the struggle for recognition or sovereignty that most of our tribes are currently engaged in. Instead, I see this state as a tool that can begin to consolidate our voices in areas where our needs, issues and struggles align. I also do not see the granting of this statehood in any way releasing the US government from the treaty obligations that currently exist, as our original lands are not being returned to us, nor are we engaging in any sort of armed conflict against the US. The creation of this state will not release the US government from the injustices of the past; instead it will give our tribes a stronger voice with which to negotiate the terms for our future.

During every election cycle we hear about presidential candidates courting the votes of various communities. There is talk about the African American vote, the Hispanic vote, and so on and so forth. But I cannot recall ever hearing a candidate setting out to win the Native American vote. Why? Because our voice has become irrelevant. Our peoples have been so marginalized and pushed to the borders of society, that we essentially no longer have a voice. If all tribes could vote together, we would create a block of voters, some 3 million strong, which could NO LONGER be ignored by presidential candidates.

On June 17, 1960, an amendment was proposed in congress to grant the District of Columbia the right to choose their own electors for the election of the office of President and Vice-President. This amendment was ratified as the 23rd Amendment on March 29, 1961. In 1964, the District of Columbia participated for the first time in the Presidential election with its own voice. I think that a similar amendment to grant Native American peoples to right to collectively choose our own electors in Presidential elections would be an incredible step to begin paving the way for the creation of a virtual Native American state. I am not naive enough to believe that this state will be created quickly, or without significant opposition. And that is actually fine with me. To tackle a change of this magnitude to our country's political landscape, structure and status quo is a huge undertaking. It is not a battle that I would shy away from, but it is a battle that I would like to engage in stages, as the issue is discussed and negotiated thoroughly. But I also do not want to wait for years or even decades for some amount of change to begin to happen. So I think that an amendment, similar to the 23rd amendment, for our Native American peoples would be a great first step.

The citizens of Washington DC fall into an ambiguous crevice when it comes to representation in this country. They are full US citizens but do not belong to a state. Instead they fall under the direct authority of the US Congress. Yet they have their own local government with a mayor and a city council. This crevice that they occupy sounds very similar to the ambiguous state of existence that most Native American tribes and peoples fall into. We are told that we are sovereign nations, yet we do not have formal embassies or relationships with the US government as other nations have. We have been 'granted' lands (reservations) throughout this country and have our own local tribal governments, but we are also citizens of the states where these lands exist.

As separate Native American peoples we probably have more interests, needs and concerns in common with one another than we do with the non-Native residents of the very states in which we all reside. But just as the citizens of the District of Columbia are ultimately governed by congressional representatives who are foreign to their city and their issues, so we must rely on senators and representatives who are not from our lands or our people and who are not first and foremost concerned with our unique indigenous issues.

The next steps will come. I am not sure how to deal with all of the complexities that arise from the creation of a new state. And I trust that the Creator will both grant and bring wisdom into the discussion as it progresses. But for the moment, I would like to focus on this first step. Let us create a voice for our Native American peoples by allowing us to choose our own electors as we vote for the office of the President and the Vice-President.

I propose that an amendment to the Unites States Constitution be formally introduced that will grant Native Americans, who are registered members of tribes, to collectively choose our own electors for the election of the United States President and Vice-President.

This will be a huge step forward as these candidates will now be forced to campaign to Native American issues and to court our votes.

Tomorrow will be another day and it will bring another step. But let us start by creating a voice.

Mark Charles
Fort Defiance, AZ

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Paved Roads

“Be still and know that I am God”

That is the exhortation we hear from God in Psalms 46:10. But how possible is this in our modern technological world? What does it mean to be still before God? I used to think I understood this but after living for 3 years on the Navajo reservation in a traditional hogan with no electricity or running water, no television, no hot showers or washing machines; no microwaves or refrigerators, no public transportation or paved roads leading up to my house, I found there is a level of stillness that I never knew existed.

In Genesis chapter 11 we read the story of the tower of Babel. The inhabitants of the earth were increasing and they decided to build a tower in order to make a name for themselves, lest they be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth. The people wanted to trust in themselves and place their confidence in their own efforts and technology. And even what they built made sense. If you are few in numbers and the environment is harsh, it makes perfect sense to build a city and erect a tower. The city walls will provide security within and the tower will allow those traveling outside the walls to be able to go a greater distance and still see the way home.

But God wanted the people to trust in him and so he came down and confused their language and scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. This passage is a good reminder for us to keep our trust in God and not rely upon the works of our own hands. And that is an easy thing to do; as long as our hands are producing something. It is easy to trust in God for our daily bread when we have a good job and receive a regular paycheck. It is easy to trust God for our future when we have a retirement fund and a savings account. It is easy to trust in God for our health, when we have excellent insurance and live near a good hospital.

Our towers of Babel have been there for so long and have become such a part of our landscape that we do not even realize that we trust in them anymore. Every day we wake up, see the tower and know where we are. We feel at peace because the tower is there. That is, until the tower is gone. How do our hearts feel when the paycheck is no longer available? What is our response when we are laid off and our health insurance policy is declined or Social Security in on the verge of going bankrupt? Panic sets in. Our hearts cry out, “We need these things. That is how God provides for us.” We have become so accustomed to our towers of Babel that we no longer see them as ‘our towers’; we see them as gifts from God. And when they are gone we feel as if God has left us!

“God where are you? We cannot see the tower you gave us!” We scream as we run to where the tower used to be. “God, please help us to rebuild this tower. We need it! Please God! Where are you? Where is the beautiful tower you gave us?”

But God is silent.

Bills come due, sickness sets in, and our credit ratings take a hit.

And still God is silent

“God!” we scream, “where is the tower? We cannot see it. We are lost. Please help us!”

Finally, we fall silent. The screaming is over. We are hungry, cold and sick. The towers are gone, God is silent, and we feel as if there is nothing left. But then we remember the words of the Psalmist. “Be still and know that I am God.”

God is the God of creation. He created the mountains, oceans and deserts. The animals, fish and birds of the air are the work of His hands. Every morning He paints the sunrise and every sunset is His masterpiece. Rain, snow, earthquakes and volcanoes are the signs of his power, blessing and judgment. God is the God of creation.

We are the people of the towers. Skyscrapers and cities, airports and harbors, insurance policies and saving accounts; all of these are the fruits of our labors. We have erected them to create a name for ourselves. And when we see them we feel safe and secure.

But God speaks through his creation. He called Moses in a burning bush. Every rainbow is a sign of God’s promise to never again destroy the earth in a flood. Often when we read of, or see God’s judgment, He is using His creation to destroy our towers. And yet, in our foolishness we continue to challenge Him and build bigger and better towers. We build skyscrapers high into the sky and put the foundations on springs or rollers to protect against earthquakes. We build our beautiful homes on the edge of cliffs so that we may have a view others will covet. We send people to the moon and place our flag there, as if to claim some sort of ownership. We offer ‘Lifetime warranties’ on our products and sell insurance policies to cover everything imaginable. “God will not win,” we say, “we will prevail.”

I did not realize how much this mentality permeated my thinking until we moved to our hogan that is located on a dirt road, six miles off the nearest paved road. The dirt road is pure clay and when it gets wet from rain or snow it is practically impassable. In fact, I have gotten stuck on this road numerous times as I traveled home in the rain. Once I was able to walk home, but another time my family and I had to spend the night in the car. So I have quickly learned that when it rains we do not go out.

One Friday as my wife and I were getting ready for bed, I checked the weather. It had been a beautiful sunny day, so I was surprised to see the forecast calling for 3 days of rain and snow beginning that very night. We had planned to go grocery shopping the next day as we were nearly out of food and water, but when we saw the forecast we decided that I should drive the 25 miles into Window Rock immediately in order to pick up what we needed in case we were stuck at the hogan in the snow for the next 3 days. So I did.

The next morning the sky was cloudy but no rain or snow fell. After a couple of hours of debating we decided to head back into Window Rock to run a few more errands. We took our 4x4 truck just in case the rains came. They never came. The next day was exactly the same. It was cloudy in the morning and we debated back and forth on whether or not to drive the 60 miles to church. We finally decided to try it, again taking our 4x4 truck so we would have a better chance of making it back home should the rains come.

On our way to church, as we were driving the final 4 miles up a winding road back in the hills deep in the heart of the reservation, I noticed it had been raining quite hard. There were pools of water all over the ground and some small streams still ran alongside the road. But I also noticed I was not afraid. In fact I felt no tension at all, for the road was paved. “If this were the road near our hogan” I said to myself, “I would be very worried, for we could get stuck at any moment and have to walk several miles back home.”

When it rains at our hogan we literally cannot go anywhere, so we sit. We read books, we pray, we spend time as a family. We are still and in that stillness we remember God. When it rains at our hogan we can hear God inviting us, saying, “Stay here. Don’t go anywhere. Be still and know that I am God.” But if our road were paved we probably would not hear God’s voice in this way, for the weather would have very little impact on our lives. Even during the rain and snow we could still get in our truck and do what we needed. We could go where we wanted and do as we pleased. We would feel safe and secure thinking God was with us, because look, He has blessed us, the road is paved. Our tower is strong. We can go about our business.

We would never realize that with the pitter patter of the falling rain God was faintly whispering, “Wait, don’t go! Be still and know that I am God.”