Indigenous people in the Americas have been fighting in one way or another for more than 500 years against conquest, marginalization, exploitation. When will they not constantly have to affirm their rights?
Now and then something like the pipeline protest in North Dakota brings attention to Native Americans. But the infrequency of such stories can make it seem like it’s only once in a while something goes wrong. In reality, something is constantly wrong.
Indigenous people in the Americas have been fighting in one way or another for more than 500 years against conquest, marginalization, exploitation.
Maybe more attention to their struggles would help make it easier to move toward a future when there won’t be a need to constantly affirm their rights, and even their worth.
Some good news: Elouise Cobell will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday. She won a fight with the federal government over the mismanagement of Indian Trust funds. Many of the challenges Native Americans face have to do with land and resources and the effects of decisions made generations ago by resettled Europeans and their descendants.
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The Cobell case was about land held in trust by the U.S. government for individual Native Americans. The class-action suit claimed the government had not accurately accounted for income from those lands.
Cobell, who died in 2011, was one of the first people to raise questions about missing money. I spoke with her when the case settled in 2009. She said she worked for a number of years as an accountant in Seattle before becoming the treasurer for her tribe, the Montana Blackfeet Nation, and in that job she noticed Natives weren’t getting checks that even came close to representing the value of their lands. She tried for years to get the government to do something about the mismanagement, then in 1996 she became part of the suit that would eventually be settled for $3.4 billion.
That was a long, difficult struggle just to get what probably was a fraction of what Natives were owed. And it’s part of an even longer struggle.
When President Obama awards the highest civilian award to Cobell, he will have just returned from the Asia Pacific Trade Summit, held Nov. 17-20 in Lima, Peru.
Peru was at the center of the Inca Empire when Francisco Pizarro arrived there from Spain in the early 1500s on one of his several trips to the Americas. Pizarro was eager to follow the example of Hernán Cortés, who earlier conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico.
The story used to be that the Spanish came as explorers and to spread Christianity in the New World, not just as conquerors, but the early arrivals came as bands of men looking to make a fortune. This summer I read “The Conquest of the Incas,” by John Hemming, which sheds light on the conquest in all its complexity and brutality. There was nothing noble about their intent or behavior.
They did what often has been done when there is a great difference in power between groups or even individuals. They took what they wanted any way they could. Somehow, explorer doesn’t seem like the right word for that.
And today in Peru, indigenous people are likely to be poor and to be continually fighting for better treatment.
Their lives are affected for the worse in rural areas by mining, oil and timber operations and in cities by discrimination in every facet of life. Seventy-eight percent of indigenous children live in poverty in Peru, a country that makes a considerable amount of money off the amazing accomplishments indigenous peoples made before the Spanish arrival.
And the story is similar throughout the Americas. Maybe on his trade visit, the president noticed something was not right.
And maybe we will take more notice of what’s not right here and commit to doing better.