Kiksuya ... 'remember' in Lakota

To the editor,

On Indigenous Peoples Day, it would be good to remember that 10,000-13,000 years before Columbus arrived, there was a people, a culture with language living, surviving, thriving in what we call the good ole USA.

Today, the Mashpee Wampanaugs of Cape Cod, Mass., are fighting to retain their rights to the reservation land appointed to them by the federal government. They are one of three surviving tribes of the original 69 in the Wampanoag Nation. Their current reservation land is a measly 320 acres, half of 1 percent of their original homeland stretching from Rhode Island up the coast of Eastern Massachusetts to New Hampshire. But the U.S. government wants to remove their rights to it.

On Sept. 7, the Department of the Interior issued a decision for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation to be taken out of trust and disestablished. This is the first time since the dark days of the termination era that the United States acted to disestablish an Indian reservation and make a Tribe landless.

Imagine a foreign power came to our shores, made us subject to their laws, then took away the little remaining property we lived on. After being defeated in King Phillip’s war of 1675, over 40 percent of the Wampanoag were killed, large numbers of healthy males sold off as slaves. The British designated Mashpee a plantation of the Massachusetts Bay colony, later allowing them 16,000 acres. In 1822, the now-United States denominates Mashpee as a tribe in occupation of reservation land.

This current action by the Interior results in the people suffering a massive loss of resources and services due to the uncertainty of reservation trust status. Millions of dollars of funding will be delayed for clean water, education, emergency services, housing and substance-abuse programs. How “great” is America now?

It must be remembered that despite its stated mission “to promote Indian self-determination, enhance the quality of life, promote economic opportunity and carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians,” the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Dept. of Interior have in fact been doing the exact opposite for 150 years. Both grew out of the Dept. of War in the 1800s with the mission to dispossess the Indian in every possible way. Remember the slaughter of millions of buffalo to deprive Indians of their traditional source of food and culture? The forcible removal of Indian children from their homes to be sent to boarding schools? Why? To reconstitute Indians’ minds and personalities by severing children’s physical, cultural and spiritual connections to their tribes. A common punishment for students speaking their tribal language was being made to chew lye soap that burned the inside of their mouths. Congress also authorized the Indian Office to withhold rations, clothing and other annuities from Indian parents who would not send and keep their children in school. It left a legacy of intergenerational trauma and unresolved grieving across Indian country to this day.

This became starkly evident to me during my recent volunteer week on the Pine Ridge reservation of South Dakota, where we made bunk beds for children sleeping on floors exposed to hantavirus in mouse droppings; replaced wheel chair ramps that mimicked sledding hills; and built trailer skirting to ease heating bills by 66 percent. It is not unknown for elderly folks far out on the Rez to freeze to death for lack of heating. Pine Ridge is more like a Third World country, the size of Connecticut, population 40,000 with 1.5 “supermarkets” – the poorest county in the U.S. Most get their groceries at the local gas station convenience store with its soda station, chips and hot dog roller. Fresh produce? In the back corner in a stand the size of my refrig, old, over-priced ad three-quarters empty.

It has run-away rates of diabetes and alcoholism, and teen-age suicide 150percent higher than the national average. There is 90 percent unemployment, practically no jobs, no industry, 33 percent of homes have no electricity or water. We listened to Native speakers daily learning that in this land where the buffalo once roamed, Native kids trying to follow traditional ways are mocked and ostracized by their peers. Some families live out of vans through the winter to occupy their land so they don’t lose their rights to it.

Driving through the Rez, you see big fields of sunflowers, hay, corn, cattle grazing, fairly decent small homes and trailers – not so bad. Yet these fields are farmed by non-Natives who lease the Indian land through the BIA. The Indian “owners” get 3 percent of the lease money. What happens to the other 97 percent? Nobody knows.

Yes, let us remember.

– Florence Gaia, Durango