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Indigenous Peoples In America:

Citizens By Word of Mouth 

By Catherine Pawasarat

R. Carlos Nakai, a native Navajo from the United States, played traditional Navajo flutes at Kyoto's Honen-in temple for an audience of over 150 people. Accompanied by the local Wind Travelin' Band, this was the last of four concerts throughout Japan for Nakai, following two performances in Tokyo and one at the Peace Concert in Hiroshima. His tour in Japan was organized around the understanding of cultural relativity. The following is from an interview with AkasaMedia's Catherine Pawasarat after the concert. 

In much of my travel I find that an insistence of personality over social politics is becoming more and more prevalent in the world. This is what most New Age people refer to as a 'cleansing,' but I think it's a move by the human race to reorganize cultural imperatives before the 21st century. It's not happening on a political/economic level; instead, it's happening at the grass-roots level. Ordinary people are realizing the need for change. What I do when I travel and work is remind people of their own culture, which is similar to other cultures all over the world The understandings of the land are the same, and they shorten the distances between us. In Bavaria, people speak of the Great Oak legend. It has the very same philosophy of the native legend of the Great White Roots of Peace, though the two places are separated by 8000 miles of land and sea. I'm finding this ethnic awareness even here in Japan. But America is here also; I'm seeing that Japan's traditions are being set aside for a more ostentatious, 'economically-viable,' materialistic culture. This is very dangerous. 

All of us have what's called a 'sacred tradition.' That's the story of how one's culture or cultures came to be. This is what hasn't been taught to young Americans, and this lack is also a phenomenon becoming prevalent in places American industry goes. Everyone has an ancient history that doesn't change. Learning about it helps one grow, relate to present history, and find ties with other cultures. 

Right now, many people just have a big blank space in place of one's personal history. Go back into your personal history through your grandparents. You'll see the world in a whole new way. This is the living oral tradition. You'll discover that the past is a story of survival, and you'll discover that you need to know these things about yourself in order to survive--instead of just being someone who responds to outside influences, you'll incorporate them. Discovering your past this way is a very easy thing to do, but it's also one of the hardest things to do--because it involves changing priorities. Many people today don't know their personal history--the result is a culturelessness that allows them to exploit other cultures. These young people need to go back and research their own cultural histories, instead of role-playing through an interest in other cultures. They have an advantage because they may belong to more than one culture. 

Native peoples haven't removed ourselves from the concepts passed down to us through time and our ancestors. Rather than say "Let's exploit and develop the land we have," native peoples prefer to leave the land as it is, in its natural state. Other people call this "primitivism." We realize we have a responsibility to ourselves and the environment: it's a symbiotic relationship. But American bureaucracy and most major media try to force us to be another cog in the machine that will exploit the rest of the world. We don't want to do that. My work involves visiting other cultures to find out how many others feel this way; many feel a responsibility to preserve the earth for the children. 

The US government refuses to allow native people in America to be citizens. We're citizens by word of mouth, but not on paper; if you look through the Congressional Record, there's no recognition of native peoples as citizens of the U.S. We're given the privilege of voting, but, contrary to popular thought, are not covered by the Constitution or Bill of Rights. This is why most native peoples approach the World Court, to enlist the help of other countries. But the US doesn't recognize the World Court, and isn't even a full participating member of the UN. So many of us educators are trying to teach native people not to use terms that aren't true to identify themselves--like "native American." 

These terms just allow us to cut our own throats, sell ourselves out. Currently there's an worldwide cosmetic embrace of indigenous peoples. In 1992 the U.S. Congress passed "The Year of the Native American" in an attempt to circumvent and confuse the United Nations' "Year of Indigenous Peoples" in 1993. My confusion is: what is a Native American? 

In 1783 British Parliament recognized the independence of the United States, telling its people never to return to Britain. Thus a Native American is someone born in the U.S. after 1783, with no ties to Europe. Indigenous people are not a part of that. Native peoples were on the continent at least 40,000 years before Columbus, perhaps longer. Designating a Year of the Native American is an attempt to convey a EuroAmerican-centric perception of the world. This is propagated by classic colonialism: colonialists confuse people about religion, come in with a re-educating movement and materialism, then adopt an identity of having won against native peoples without a battle. Then they exploit the local resources. It's insidious. And it's still happening all over the world. 

The last treaty between native peoples and the U.S. government was made in 1868, and decreed that all aboriginal lands were no longer the property of any tribe in North America, including Mexico, Canada, and parts of Central America. Then natives were put in internment camps, or reservations, under the management of the federal government, much like the Japanese and their descendents during World War II. 

Since then the Department of the Interior has kept us from being ourselves by treating us as a people who has lost everything. Since the government owns all the land, they do all the negotiating with any corporations wishing to exploit the resources on any Indian reservation. They also determine how much in royalties will be paid to any tribe. No tribe has any negotiating power, or privilege to determine any related conditions. The result is that the government makes a lot of money, and native peoples are left with nickel and dime projects. Of course natives are employed by the big corporations and get good wages and other social amenities, but... 

There is a vast movement now to allow native tribes to be sovereign, to operate like a foreign entity within the U.S. so we won't be frustrated by Congress and their forced management. The American government says that no other sovereignties can exist within the boundaries of the U.S. However, the territory of Washington in the District of Columbia is allowed to exist as a sovereign nation outside the auspices of the U.S. This is hypocritical. 

When researching, people find that hunter/gatherers are matriarchal, because males, as hunters, spend much time away from home or are wiped out in disasters. So important things belong to my mothers, grandmothers, and aunts--it's important to recognize that, and that woman provides the nurturing part of culture. Again American culture teaches young natives that they are warriors, and that warriors don't take anything from women. So we're taught to abuse our other half, women, and the result is a high rate of social ills--alcoholism, suicide, abuse, etc.--because we're continually being confused about our responsibility to ourselves. 

The warrior concept is a myth, a way for natives to identify with European culture and deal with loss of stature, and a way for Europeans to identify native persons, even though it doesn't fit. This myth has been used since the 1700s to the detriment of native men, because we can't be warriors in a society that relies on women, but can't survive by pushing down women, because we wouldn't be here without women. Races are normally determined on the basis of skin color or other 'racial characteristics,' but such distinctions don't exist. There is one race, homo sapiens, and two kinds within that race, woman and man, each with their own kind of awareness and responsibilities. What distinguishes us is how we're able to incorporate ourselves into the environment in which we live. Skin color, language--these differences are all a result of people living together in a certain environment. 

We all need to blend to find our common story--its a beautiful one, I think. That kind of communication is what we need to begin and foster. Music works that way because you don't need to rely on words, and because musical performance styles throughout the world have similarities. 

These days I am lecturing quite a lot at universities on the ethnic perspective. Younger people, like university professors, are realizing that we need to change for the 21st century. I hope we'll leave behind the industrialists and the old political systems. We don't need to keep pitting the political body against all else. We don't need to keep destroying ourselves. 

R. Carlos Nakai is a researcher and lecturer on Navajo culture based at the University of Arizona. He was brought to Japan by NOA, the No Nukes One Love Association, which has been presenting Music of Naga international concerts since 1988 . Call 03-5729-3938 for more information. 

Exiled in the Land of the Free, edited by Oren Lyons and John Mohawk, "explains the present-day struggle of native people in a colonial bureaucracy," according to Nakai.


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