Vine Deloria Jr.

Jeff Corntassel: Sustainable Self-Determination: Re-envisioning Indigenous Governance, Leadership and Resurgence

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University of Arizona
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Scholar Jeff Corntassel (Cherokee) lays out his comprehensive explanation for what sustainable self-determination entails for Indigenous peoples in the 21st century, and provides examples of some of the ways that he and others are engaging in small and large acts of resurgence that contribute to the process of sustainable self-determination.

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Citation

Corntassel, Jeff. "Sustainable Self-Determination: Re-envisioning Indigenous Governance, Leadership and Resurgence." Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series. American Indian Studies, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 16, 2014. Presentation.

Jeff Corntassel:

"[Cherokee language]. So my name is Jeff Corntassel, I'm from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and from the Wolf Clan. And it's a real honor to be here on Tohono O'odham territory and also where the Pascua Yaqui peoples are. Thank you all so much for making me feel at home, back at home. Manley Begay, April, Matt, also Jonathan, Gavin's over here, Ann did a lot of the work as well, and so I wanted to pay tribute to all the people that made this possible and to really make me feel at home over the last couple of days. I think I'm going to start as well by honoring my partner Tina Matthew and the territory where she comes from, Secwepemc'ulecw and Simpcw First Nation and her family as well. I've come a long way to be here and it's really awesome to be back in this beautiful territory and to visit with you all. Thank you for coming out tonight.

I thought I'd start off really talking a little bit about Vine Deloria, Jr. since this is named after him and I said purposely when these guys asked me I said, ‘I'm not going to do a PowerPoint because Vine hated PowerPoints.' So I said, ‘All right, I'm not going to do that.' And to tell you a little bit about how he's influenced some of the work that I've done and then kind of segue into the sustainable self-determination work that I've been doing more lately.

Well, Vine Deloria, Jr. affected us all I think in different ways and he really started to get at my political consciousness, especially with Custer Died for Your Sins. And that book still holds up if you read it and one of the phrases that came out of that for me was, ‘What we need is a 'cultural leave-us-alone agreement' in spirit and in fact.' And I always look back at that quote and say, ‘What does that mean? What does that look like, a cultural leave-us-alone agreement?' And so I thought about that over the years, especially while I was here in grad school at the University of Arizona in political science, and I missed Vine Deloria by one year. So he'd already left for University of Colorado by the time I got here, but I really got Vine through a couple of folks that worked closely with him so David Wilkins from Lumbee Nation and Tom Holm -- who's a mentor as well -- from Cherokee and Creek. And so these two folks really influenced a lot of the work that I did. They actually kept me sane in political science. As we know, these places can be hostile, these places can be contentious, especially for Indigenous scholars so these are folks that took me out, got me out to sweats and got me...kept my focus on what was important, especially from my nation's perspective, from my family perspective.

Well, Vine, I heard lots of stories about Vine when I got here and all of them are true. Dan McCool tells a story, he was in a couple of years before I came out, of a story of getting Vine out to happy hour and the grad students all wanted to get Vine out and Vine was notorious, he was also known as ‘Wine' Deloria in some circles. Vine was notorious for whooping it up sometimes. And so they finally got him out to happy hour and Vine drank an entire vase that looked like a gallon of coffee. And they're saying, ‘Well, what are you doing? We're here to drink alcohol.' And Vine said, ‘Well, unlike the rest of you jokers, I'm going to actually go home and write after this is done.' So it gives you a sense of Vine's commitment. He was always writing, he was always thinking about his next project.

The other thing that influenced me a lot with Vine Deloria is he was really...I started going to the Western Social Sciences Association meeting because he was going. And so I started going to that meeting to see what this was all about. Who is this guy and what does he have to say? And so I remember the first time I went in 1996 in Colorado. I went to the panel and Vine wasn't there and so they started the panel and they said, ‘Oh, we'll just stop it when Vine gets here.' And sure enough, Vine comes walking in, he's got white slippers on, looks like he's slept in his car. Comes walking in and he just starts talking and everyone's silent, just listens as he engages the audience and that's the kind of effect he had on people. He really motivated folks, he was a really powerful speaker and a real, I think, strong mentor to a lot of different people.

In 2002, Vine gave a really impassioned kind of discussion and lecture about, ‘Where's the academy going?' And at the time I was at Virginia Tech and I was wondering, ‘Where am I going in this academy? What am I doing here at the university?' At that time we were fighting to get a Native Studies program going and getting a lot of negative feedback on that and I was thinking, ‘If this is all there is, I don't know if I want to stay in this kind of environment.' There wasn't much support for other Indigenous faculty. There were only about three of us at the time and we had a hard time kind of mobilizing folks towards change.

And so I went to this 2002 talk that Vine gave and he just laid it out. I think he'd already retired at that point, but he basically called academics out, said, ‘You're all a bunch of cowards.' He said, ‘Academics are fearful. They're fearful of new ideas.' So he kind of said the things that I needed to hear at that time about what is the responsibility of a scholar, especially Indigenous scholar, in this field and in this area. What are our responsibilities? He said, ‘We have to earn our exalted status. We have to show folks that the work we're doing is relatable to community.' In other words, we have responsibilities that run far beyond the confines of this space. And so those words stuck with me and that actually caused me to leave Virginia Tech and go all the way up to Canada, up to British Columbia, to Lekwungen Territory --otherwise known as Victoria -- and took up a position there with the Indigenous Governance Program.

So Vine had an impact on my thinking, but also where I wanted to be, where I wanted to situate myself. I wanted to situate myself where I felt that that community ethic, that notion of responsibility was honored and so I found that to this point in the Indigenous Governance Program. And my colleague Taiaiake Alfred, who's a Mohawk scholar, has written pretty extensively on leadership and other questions of Indigenous resurgence. So Vine had that impact on me. He also had written Tai's, our program director's...he had written an evaluation of our program and so we have a link to Vine through the program as well. I'll just read the quote from his letter.

‘The Indigenous Governance Program is attracting increasingly positive response to its programs and perspectives and promises to become an international center from which a variety of new ideas will issue forth. Alfred would be a highly recruited scholar in the U.S. if people even suspected that he would be convinced to move to the U.S. His loyalty to the Canadian peoples make it inevitable that people from many nations will seek out the program. The University is a place where more can be accomplished. The next step certainly at the University is to sponsor a variety of international consultations to enhance the work already being done.'

And as Manley pointed out, we've tried to do just that. Vine had that, I guess that vision for our program and so we've been reaching out to lately...well, we started with Hawaiians, Kanaka Maoli people and set up a partnership with them that has been really...I'd say really rewarding but also has really set up deeper relationships in terms of restoring some of the land based practices and water based practices that occur on their territory as well as in Victoria. And more recently, got back from Aotearoa from Māori territory and Māori country and basically trying to set up an exchange with them.

So Vine's had a huge impact on my work and my scholarship and I think the question becomes, ‘How do we recognize that accomplishment? How do we recognize his contribution to the current-day scholarship?' Because it's not always seen, you don't hear people citing Deloria as much as they used to, but really I think Deloria, because of how prolific he was, but also I guess how generous he was with his time, he opened a lot of doors I think for a lot of us to do deeper engagement and deeper scholarship, to be able to challenge the Bering Strait theory, otherwise known as the 'BS theory,' to be able to challenge us at a deeper level. We can rely on Red Earth, White Lies, we can rely on some of that work to open up new and perhaps deeper engagements with these topics and to challenge some of the so-called findings that are coming from the academy.

So I think he -- near the end of his life -- was disappointed with scholars, especially Indigenous scholars, for not taking enough of a stand. So I stand with that as well, that challenge is still there and what are we doing to in a sense empower or to strengthen our communities? And are we building as he asked in one of his later editorials, ‘Are we building nations or are we dissolving communities?' These are powerful questions and I think Vine wasn't one to beat around the bush. He was one to give it straight to you and I appreciate that perspective.

So that's kind of my tribute to Vine in terms of how he's impacted my work, but also my work is influenced by other people, by my family, by my relatives and all those things give it meaning, they give it a deeper meaning and a deeper sense that this is for something. This is for something that we might call resurgence, we might call Indigenous nationhood, we might call it by different names, but this is for something deeper that goes beyond the academy, goes beyond the halls of these institutions.

I start with a question or a couple of questions just to challenge you just like I challenge myself with these questions. How will your ancestors recognize you as Indigenous or if you're not Indigenous how will they recognize you by that, whether it's a cultural identity by that group that you identify with, how will they recognize you? How would you be recognizable? I'm not looking for an answer from you, but I pose that to you because that's been a motivating question for me as I've thought about some of these questions of sustainability. How will they be recognizing you? Is it by the way you dress? Is it by the way you carry yourself? Is it by the language that you speak? Is it by how you look? Is it by how you participate in ceremony? How will you be recognizable? And by that same token, looking at our ancestors, how will you be recognized by future generations? How will you be recognized? Will it be your contributions? Will it be the stance that you took for your community? How will you be recognized? So I use these as motivational questions, but also to guide my work as a constant feedback. We have to constantly question ourselves in terms of what we're doing and so this has been... These are some key questions for me as I move forward. Well, I called this 'sustainable self-determination' and it sounds like a fancy title, fancy words and I'll give you kind of the reasoning behind putting those words together.

It started with a challenge. Tai and myself started work with a group...with a nation -- Akwesasne Mohawks -- and they had basically one of the most polluted rivers on Turtle Island. The St. Lawrence Seaway is one of the most polluted rivers ever. And it's a result of waste from Alcoa, the aluminum company, and also from GM, the car company. Fifty years of waste, 50 years of toxins that have been dumped into that water and so this became a Superfund cleanup [site]. And the question for me became, ‘Where do we start? How do you reclaim territory that's poisoned? How do you reclaim traditional practices, whether it's gathering medicines or even eating the fish from the river when they're telling you not to even consume anything from that water? How do we hunt when the deer are eating...or drinking toxic water? What are the risks?' And so this began with an impossible question and I still haven't felt like I've answered it satisfactorily, but I'll tell you what we did.

So we were told that we had to demonstrate cultural harm and so kind of an impossible situation, right? How do you demonstrate cultural harm? What is harm? So we kind of did what I think a lot of folks would do, we talked to elders, we talked to folks who lived on the land and continue to live on the land and we said, ‘Kind of establish a baseline. How are these areas used and how can they be continued to be used?' And we started to look at different areas where they have been interrupted. You can think of hunting and fishing as being interrupted, basket weaving, gathering medicines, all these different areas. So we started to develop a larger picture of how this harm had taken place and also how this had been interrupted throughout generations. When you don't go out and gather the medicines, you may not be transmitting that information to your younger ones, you may not be speaking the language as much relating to those medicines so how do you convey that sense of loss, but also how do you restore it or reclaim it?

And so we kind of developed...in the meantime, everyone wanted us to set kind of a monetary amount to value the land and the water, as if anyone can do that. In other words to say, put a price on it. And we didn't do that. We refused to do that. Instead we said, ‘We're going to put a price on the relationships that were damaged and the cost that would accrue to restore and regain those relationships at a base level.' So we asked for millions of dollars and in order to restore these relationships and what we did is we put the value on the organizations that were doing this work, whether it's language revitalization, whether it's elders who were going out and hunting and fishing, elders who were gathering those medicines, and that's where our effort was going to be and the effort was going to be in that teaching process, getting a master-apprenticeship program going again where we prepare folks to take on this role and responsibility as a teacher. It's hard. You think about the difficulty and the time it takes to bring yourself up to speed to take on three or four people or maybe more and have the patience to deal with, just like a lot of elders have had the patience to deal with me and my stupid questions over the years, have the patience to deal with someone who's starting from ground zero. So a lot of the money was going into preparing these elders to take on apprentices and also to develop priorities for that community and for Akwesasne.

And so I'm proud to say that Akwesasne is now putting this into practice and it's just starting up. Actually the first round of apprentices are starting up this fall and so I'll keep you posted. But it's a work in progress like so many of these restoration projects that we have. These are huge challenges and the water still isn't totally safe. A lot of folks have made the conscious decision to eat fish from that water even though it may damage them in the long run. Why? As I said, it's too important to let go. These fish nurture us and so a lot of folks have begun to fish and to restore that relationship with the water. I say this to say as well, we didn't get the money that we were hoping for from Alcoa or GM and classic colonial maneuvering, if you could have...I wish I could have recorded that phone call, I would have played it right now. Imagine GM execs and their lawyers and Alcoa execs and their lawyers and then the Attorney General of New York all having this conversation and everyone saying, ‘Oh, we don't understand this study that you're doing.' GM said, ‘Basically what happened before, that was the old GM. We're the new GM. So we're not responsible for what the old GM did.' These are classic techniques that happen. Alcoa was saying, ‘Well, we weren't responsible for all this pollution so prove which aspects of the pollution where we're responsible for.' Also kind of impossible to do. How do you...there's not a stream that says, ‘Alcoa.' So again, not the kind of money that we were hoping for, but it's a start and I think it's also a good lesson to think about how do we frame these questions especially that are imposed on us? We're dealing with it in the best way possible, but with constraints. We're dealing with a Superfund cleanup, we're dealing with environmental protection and we're dealing with basically the reclamation of these territories and these waters.

So that started the, I guess, started me thinking along the lines of what is sustainability from an Indigenous perspective? And we've seen the discourse on self-determination and it's pretty rich, it's pretty long, but at the end of the day these are political or these are framed often as political and legal rights, and the rights discourse from my perspective can only take us so far. As important as the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is that was adopted in 2007, despite the objections by -- I always have to point this out -- the objections by the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia, who voted against it, and they have since rescinded their original objections and so in 2010 I think the U.S. adopted it and same year for Canada as well and same year for New Zealand. So they've since overturned their original objections. But in doing so, they've only endorsed it. In fact Canada, if you read Canada's endorsement of it, they said, ‘We endorse the spirit of this act. We endorse the spirit of the declaration. However, we don't agree with especially the parts about land reclamation, we don't agree with that part.' So they've selectively taken parts of it and have chosen which aspects to look at.

So self-determination, it was/is probably one of the most contentious phrases on the planet, especially if you're a nation state. Self-determination is deemed as a challenge to existing states by the U.S., by Canada; why? Why would it be deemed a challenge to existing states? There's that notion that all peoples have the right to self-determination. Why is that a challenge? Any guesses? This is the interactive part of the talk by the way. Yes?"

Audience member:

"...Why would I challenge you?"

Jeff Corntassel:

"What's that?"

Audience member:

"I'm here in your country, why would I challenge you?"

Jeff Corntassel:

"Why would you challenge me? Yeah? So why would you challenge me? Because you might think that I'm a threat. There you go. So a threat, it's deemed a threat. And what is the threat of Indigenous nationhood to states? What's the threat? Any sense? Yeah.

Audience Member:

"There's nothing to fear but fear itself."

Jeff Corntassel:

"Okay. There's fear. And what's the fear? What's the underriding fear of recognition of Indigenous peoples as nations?"

Audience member:

"They lose the power over the land."

Jeff Corntassel:

"Lose the power over the land. They lose power over the water. They lose the power over the air. It's that fear of claims on the land that the state itself will not recognize. In fact, Article 46 kind of gives it away. Article 46, if you ever read the U.N. Declaration, basically says, ‘Self-determination,' I'm paraphrasing. ‘Self-determination is a right. However, it cannot legally impair or break up an existing state.' So anything that's threatening to break up an existing state is not deemed a legitimate act of self-determination. So I say that just so you understand and you probably already know this, but rights have limitations, rights are ultimately granted by the state, the very state that on a daily basis tries to erase our histories, tries to destroy us as Indigenous nations. So these rights are subjective in a lot of cases and we can say all we want that we have inherent rights and I agree. I think as Indigenous peoples we have inherent rights, we have self-determining authority, but the rub comes with the recognition. Who's going to recognize that?

Glen Coulthard has written some really good work, a Dene scholar, has written some really good work on the politics of that recognition. The moment we submit to state authority and say, ‘Recognize us,' we automatically change the nature of that relationship.' If we're talking about self-determining authority, we need to assert that right. If we're talking about that as a responsibility we have to our land and to our people, we need to practice that, not ask for it. And so from that standpoint, self-determination is something that is asserted, it's not something that's gifted. It's something that you have to take, it's something that you have to practice. Otherwise, that sense of self-determination atrophies, that sense of self-determination gets smaller and smaller. And I would say that the rights discourse compartmentalizes all these things. Self-determination is much more than self-governance. Self-determination is much more than economic development. It's all of those things. It's all those things that our communities need to survive.

And so for this reason, I started to think about, what if we put sustainability next to self-determination, because it's not enough just to have that right recognized, it's more about sustaining these relationships that have kept us as nations for thousands of years. It's about sustaining these responsibilities we have to the land. It's about sustaining our families. So sustainability becomes kind of an interesting term to throw in there. I know it's kind of a buzz word and sustainability comes with its problems as a term. That initial 1987 report that talks about sustainability is all about basically...I'll just read the quote. ‘Meeting needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future generations.' Well, I would argue that it's more than needs. These are responsibilities. So needs are different.

And it's also about having a different sense of time. Which future generations? Are we talking about one generation or are we talking about seven generations? So I started thinking more deeply about some of these notions of sustainability and from a Cherokee perspective there's a term, [Cherokee language]. Basically we will continue on, we will persist despite hardship. We're going to continue, even if we lose someone, even if someone in our community is lost or if we lose people, we're going to persist as nations. [Cherokee language]. And then I started thinking about this notion of [Cherokee language], which is on the surface it's translated as 'peace,' but if you look at it more deeply, it's more about living in healthy, harmonious relationships. It's about having...it's about following the natural process of things. So it's much deeper than a sense of peace. It's about living healthy relationships.

And for this reason, I look to folks like the late Patricia Monture who talks about self-determination is about relationships. Communities cannot be self-governing unless members of those communities are well and living in a responsible way. We start to get at the notion of health and well-being. We have to go far beyond just this notion of political/legal rights. We have to start thinking more deeply about the health and wellbeing of our communities, but also this different sense of time that we have in relation to the state.

It may surprise you to know, or may not surprise you to know, that about 70 percent of the states in the existing system, over 200 states, are less than 75 years old. They're our grandparents' age. States are fairly young for the most part. If you think about when the state system started 1648, it's really not that long ago. States in the bigger scheme of things are not these age-old institutions. In fact, corporations are actually much older, but we'll get into that later. States have a different timeline and it doesn't mean that this is the only way to live. I would argue that if we have 5,000 to 8,000 Indigenous nations throughout the world, those are 5,000 to 8,000 different ways that we live as Indigenous people, as those are 5,000 to 8,000 different alternatives to the existing state system, whether we're talking about Indigenous economies, whether we're talking about Indigenous systems of trade, whether we're talking about treaty relationships. Those are different perspectives on how to live and how to live in a good way.

The other person that inspired me a lot in this discussion was Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe scholar. And she said at one point, she said, ‘If you can't feed yourself, I don't know if you can be a sovereign again.' That's pretty powerful. ‘If you can't feed yourself, I don't know if you can be a sovereign again.' Wow! How many of us as communities can feed ourselves? I think of Cherokee Nation. We're 330,000 people that are part of the nation and we're living...I'd say about 60 percent live outside the territory, live outside the Oklahoma boundaries of those 14 counties. How many can feed ourselves? And I'm not just talking about going to the grocery store. I'm talking about sustaining ourselves on our original foods, on our traditional foods. If you're from Cheam First Nation for example in British Columbia, you can't live without the salmon. You can't be the salmon people without the salmon. You can't be the corn people without the corn. So if you can't feed yourselves, can you be a sovereign? So this stuck with me, this was a big challenge. What does it mean to be a sovereign? What does it mean to be a self-determining authority if you can't actually feed yourself, if you can't sustain yourself?

So these are ways to challenge my thinking and maybe deepen our thinking about sustainability, but there's a dark side to sustainability as we know. We can talk about sustainable campuses and we talk about that a lot, going green, we can talk about recycling, but these are just surface things. There's another...if you start looking at the etymology of sustainability, this scholar Medavoy who wrote this article basically about sustainability and the origin of that term, you see that it has a darker kind of deeper meaning. You can, for example, sustain an injury or withstand an injury. So if you sustain an injury, what do you do? What do you do? Yeah. I like the visual. That's good. So if we think of a state, a country, as sustaining an injury, what does that mean? How can we bring that metaphor back to the state or back to a country, a country's relationship let's say with Indigenous peoples? Yeah."

Audience member:

"Sustaining an injury would be like suffering from injury or having to deal with it."

Jeff Corntassel:

"Okay. Having to deal with it. Tolerating it. ‘I'm tolerating this injury. I'm tolerating this threat to my self-determining authority. I'm tolerating these nations that are actually making claims on my territory.' So in that sense this notion of sustainability has a different meaning. It means sustaining capitalism. It means sustaining the market system at all costs. So we can think of sustainability as kind of running the full...think of the environmental aspect of sustainability, but you can also think of the other side of that continuum that it's about sustaining a market system that doesn't relate to an Indigenous economy, that doesn't relate to our localized ethic of living on the land and living with the land.

So with all these things in mind, I started to put together this notion of sustainable self-determination and... I was going to say an example that I use on this darker notion of sustainability is right at University of Victoria. So Goldcorp... incidentally, 70 percent of the mining companies throughout the world are in Canada. Seventy percent of the mining companies are in Canada. So Goldcorp is one of those mining companies. It's based in Vancouver and Goldcorp is responsible for some pretty severe human rights violations around the world, especially against Indigenous nations. So in Guatemala for example, the Marlin Mine is one of the most toxic environments in the country, in Guatemala. The water is simply unusable. It may be unusable for...for 100, maybe 150 years. There is cyanide in the pit. So there's cyanide leaching into the land and leaching into food products. And a lot of folks, a lot of Mayans who have challenged the presence of that mine have been targeted for assassination, targeted for...basically for police actions by the state and by the corporation.

So Goldcorp made a donation to the University of Victoria in 2013, $500,000, which is small change for them, but to the School of Business. And what was the program that they funded for the School of Business? The Center for Social and Sustainable Innovation. So here's a company that is...it's akin to money laundering, that is putting money that was used to exploit Indigenous peoples into a program on sustainability. And so that's just another example. They funded several other projects at universities, but it's just another example of how that term sustainability can be co-opted or used in very negative ways.

So sustainable self-determination, what are some Indigenous approaches to sustainability. I mentioned [Cherokee language], that's a Cherokee perspective. There was a salmon nation study in 2008 undertaken by David Hall and he looked at some of the Indigenous approaches to sustainability, especially on the West Coast. And kind of the findings ranged from living from the land without spoiling it to one of the definitions or perspectives that I really like, sustaining the fullness of health that needs to be there for us to thrive and for everyone else to thrive. This notion that it's not just about our human relationships. It's about the natural world in terms of thriving. Giving back more than you take. And at the core of a lot of these things were concepts of renewal, renewing that responsibility, renewing that relationship to the land. Reciprocity, respect and humility.

So for me, sustainable self-determination, it's not going to be an end-all to understanding how we work in the world as Indigenous nations, but it's a way to maybe think more deeply about those relationships. It's about evolving Indigenous livelihoods, food security, community governance, relationships to our homelands and waterways, ceremonial lives practiced both locally land regionally, that enable the transmission of these values and practices to future generations. And that's where a lot of my focus has been lately.

I mentioned that master apprenticeship program and I have a seven-year-old daughter named Leila and I think about how am I transmitting these values and principles to my seven year old? How are we transmitting these things to future generations? Are we doing it on a computer program? Are we doing it on Twitter? Which I recently cut off by the way. I'm a recovering Twitter addict. How are we transmitting these values? Are we doing it in a face-to-face way? Are we doing it in a more indirect way? How are we transmitting these values and principles? And what do they look like? We know that our cultures, our traditions evolve so what do these things look like in today's practice? Are they being taught in English, are they being taught in the Indigenous language of your community? Are they being taught on the land or are they being taught in a classroom?

So I began to think more fully about the transmission and how these values and principles are transmitted to future generations. And in doing this I think it's safe to say that the process by which we engage in sustainable self-determination is just as important as the outcome. The outcome may not be satisfactory to a lot of us, just like it's not satisfactory to the Akwesasne of Mohawk. That is not enough to say, ‘We can pay $20 million and restore this master-apprenticeship program and begin to restore land-based and water-based practices.' That's not enough. It's got to go much deeper than that. It's got to go much further for several generations. 50 years of interrupting that means at least 50 years of reintegrating those practices, at least. We can't talk about these things seriously unless we're talking about it in a truly sustainable way.

The process is just as important as the outcome, because it tells us how we're going to govern as Indigenous peoples. That process is governance, that process is how we realign our roles and responsibilities with the urgency of protecting our territories, with the urgency of enhancing our lives as Indigenous peoples, as Indigenous nations.

I like...one of the...this takes shape in a lot of different ways. One of the artists that I really like and look up to is Shan Goshorn who's Eastern Cherokee, but she does a lot of work in Western Cherokee as well. And Shan is...one of the things that she's undertaken is basket making. So Jonathan, there's probably, how many folks do you know of that make those double-walled baskets? There's probably only a handful, right? Not many, right? I'd say probably 12 or so, maybe 15 people that make these double-walled baskets. So very few people are able to engage in this kind of what we'd call traditional basket making. Shan basically relearned how to make the double-walled basket by talking to elders, but also looking at some of the baskets that were made over time.

And she also took it one step further. She made it with different materials. Rather than use honeysuckle or some of these other materials, she used strips of paper. Strips of paper actually have the names of all the students from the Carlisle Indian Boarding School. So here she was, she was tying historical events, tying great trauma that's happened in our communities from the boarding schools and tying it to a contemporary practice of basket making. That's the kind of thing that I'm talking about when I talk about sustainable self-determination in the sense of...the core of those ceremonies, the core of that basket making is still there and we're using different materials now.

Just like we can think of some of Dan Wildcat's work on Red Alert!. We can use new materials but we can still...we can still draw on those old village sites to decide how we're going to live and how we're going to be clustered. We don't want plain old suburbs. We want to talk about how can we live as Indigenous peoples in a different way and it doesn't mean that we can't use new methods or new materials. Again, it shows the continuity but it also shows the adaptation.

Well, we have...we know that despite all these best efforts when we talk about sustainable self-determination, we're up against a lot of politics of distraction, what Graham Smith would call the politics of distraction. We have things that get in our way, things that distract us. In Canada, I mentioned rights earlier and I would kind of put next to rights we have responsibilities. Responsibilities are at the core of what we're talking about when we talk about rights. And along those same lines, when we have reconciliation, we're also talking about resurgence.

So reconciliation in Canada as it's been framed, has been framed in a real narrow way. It's been framed in a way that is limiting land claims. It's framed in a way that is actually limiting the claims of survivors of residential school, which we're talking about the forcible relocation of Indigenous peoples from their homes and from their communities into these residential schools beginning in the late 1800s and going all the way up until 1996 was when the last residential school closed. Reconciliation is framed in a very narrow way through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where you have a common experience payment that you apply for, $10,000. So your time in residential school is actually monetized. $10,000 for the first year and $4,000 for each year after. And you actually have to file an application. The application is now over, that deadline is already passed, but you can see this is a very narrow vision of reconciliation. If we think of reconciliation from the perspective of Canada, it's more or less moving on from the past. This sense of...in fact when you read the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] mandate they say, ‘We need to put the past behind us and move onto a new chapter.' This notion of forgive and forget, this notion that we need to turn a page of history.

Well, reconciliation I'd say goes much further from an Indigenous perspective. Reconciliation means -- as one person's put it -- not having to say you're sorry twice. It means it stops. It also means that there has to be massive restitution for the crimes and for the injustices that were committed. So we can't just speak about residential school survivors. We also have to speak about the land, we have to speak about the families that were disrupted. We have to speak about it in its entirety. We can't just focus and selectively focus on particular aspects of reconciliation. And so the TRC, which is going to wrap up its work next year, and I just bring that up in case you aren't aware, it's doing some interesting work. I think it's doing some important work on some levels, but it's limited in terms of what it can actually accomplish and I would say that really what we have and what we're talking about as Indigenous peoples is resurgence. Resurgence is kind of the alternative to reconciliation. Resurgence is about retaking our territories.

How many of you heard about Idle No More that happened about a year ago, a couple years ago. Idle No More swept through a lot of folks' communities and we had the Round Dance Revolution, we had a lot of things going on. What led to Idle No More? What led to that movement? Any sense?"

Audience member:

"Hunger strike."

Jeff Corntassel:

"Hunger strike, okay. It actually came after, but yeah. But yeah, Theresa Spence, Chief Spence's hunger strike was part of that. What led to that movement, that widespread Indigenous movement? Yeah."

Audience member:

"The legislation that would have removed a lot of protection of various waterways."

Jeff Corntassel:

"Exactly. It was about legislation, Bill C-45 and some of the other subsequent legislation that was now removing water as a protected resource and was also removing Indigenous voices from having a say in terms of what would be done with that water. So it prompted people to action. But Idle No More isn't some anomaly. We've been resisting in different ways over the centuries. And so I would argue that Idle No More is just one of many spikes along the way of Indigenous resurgence and Indigenous resistance. And so Idle No More at this point has kind of fizzled out, for the same reasons that a lot of movements kind of lose their steam. Too many people taking credit for what happened and also trying to over-determine how future protests will take place. So setting up chapter members who will sanction whether or not it's an Idle No More event. You have to get the label. That and a little thing like trying to trademark the name Idle No More. So all these things led to I think what you'd say is maybe a fizzling out of Idle No More, but we know that there are lots of other movements out there that are taking place on a daily basis in order to fight for the land.

Another, I guess, movement that relates to this is in Hawaii. And so a book you all should take a look at, it just came out recently. It's called The Seeds we Planted by Noelani Goodyear. Basically Noelani Goodyear started a charter school, Hawaiian charter school, Hālau Kū Māna and basically this charter school is to develop land-based literacy for the students there. So it's developed-land based and water-based practices through experiential knowledge and functions unlike most schools in the sense that you actually spend time out on the loi, which is basically the taro fields. And Taro, if you haven't been to Hawaii or don't have a sense of that, Taro is basically like the elder brother of the Kanaka Maoli. So they trace their genealogy from the Taro or the Kalo. And so it's about reinvigorating that relationship by claiming park lands. So actually claiming park land and reintegrating that into a taro field. Taro fields require a lot of water. It's kind of like a rice paddy. And so these students now are working to rebuild the taro fields, rebuild the loi and they do that as part of their time at the school and they rotate through several...there's basically a water-based aspect of learning to navigate. So navigation skills and...I forgot there's another land-based or medicine aspect. So building new schools that look unlike the schools that we think about.

The Zapatistas actually have a school, a living school of liberty and built on this kind of same function, experiential knowledge and also a place to come together, to strategize about important things that are confronting communities. So we have to think more differently, we have to think more creatively about ways we can contend with the state, but also ways that we can resurge our communities.

And we also have to think about our relationships. Dr. Begay mentioned Kituwah Mound, which is a sacred place for us as Cherokees and this is where we kept that sacred fire. This is where people came from miles away to take the embers from the center of that mound back to their clan towns. Kituwah Mound, that relationship was disrupted right around the 1770s. And I say disrupted in the sense that Cherokee presence was erased from it by actually killing Cherokees and preventing them from being on that land. It was interrupted, but that relationship continued on because people even up until the 1980s were bringing fire...bringing ashes from their own personal fireplaces and bringing them to the mound. So it doesn't look like it used to, we're not necessarily talking about clan towns, but bringing them from their own personal fireplaces and bringing dirt back from Kituwah. That continuity is still there. That relationship is still there and it's still being honored.

Another thing that happened in Victoria or another kind of ongoing project that relates to relationship building is something called the Community Tool Shed. And so I mentioned that we live on Lekwungen Territory. So Cheryl Bryce and her family have been managing something called camas or kwetlal for thousands of years. Well, it turns out a lot of their territory has been taken over by park lands. So how do you manage this food that's been a staple for your community, been a staple for trade and a staple for sustaining your people for thousands of years? How do you manage it when it's no longer on your 'reserve'? How do you manage that?

Well, she started a Community Tool Shed, and basically called for Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks to come together and begin reclaiming traditional places and traditional place names like Meegan, which is another word for Beacon Hill Park. So we go to Meegan and we actually remove invasive species. So you actually take, probably the most invasive is Scottish Broom, you take those species out and you put them in a big pile and you put them in the parking lot. You take them off the land and sure, you get challenged, you get challenged by people walking through the park saying, ‘Hey, this is my park. What are you doing removing these daffodils? which are also invasive, ‘what are you doing disrupting my enjoyment of this park?' Well, through this Community Tool Shed that she started in 2011, it's starting to build a larger awareness but it's also...she's building in kind of people that will act in solidarity because she's been chased off lots of parks. She's been chased off of her own territory so she said, ‘Enough is enough. I have to get help. I have to seek out ways for people to tap into this, but also to show that they have a responsibility to this land as well.' And the last I saw, the camas was coming back stronger than ever in some of these places where we've pulled out the broom. So it's a regeneration of this...of the kwetlal, of the camas, but it's also a regeneration of our food, of traditional food for Cheryl and her family so they hold pit cooks and they cook up this...it's a bulb, it's kind of like a starchy bulb like potato. It's potato mixed with a garlic is kind of the nearest...and an onion, those three things somehow mixed together. But these are traditional foods. So getting back to Winona LaDuke's question, ‘If you can't feed yourself, how can you be a sovereign?' So Cheryl's answering that question. She's asserting herself, determining authority, but she's also saying, ‘This is our road back. This is our way back to reinvigorating this relationship.'

Well, I'll start closing up. I've gone on long enough. But the way I've started to think about these things is it's kind of a large almost abstract way when you think about it is concepts like sustainable self-determination. So for me it makes more sense when you break it down into every day acts of resurgence. What are the things that we might do every day? What are things you do every day to make your life meaningful and to relate to the struggles of Indigenous nations or to your own nation? What are the things that you do on a day to day basis? Beyond kind of this notion of making the campus cleaner, beyond this notion of the State of Arizona, but what are you doing in response to the needs of Indigenous nations that are from this territory? Localize it.

In addition, what are you doing for your own community, every day acts of resurgence and I think of that...you think about these are every day acts of renewal, whether we're saying a prayer just like Jonathan said that blessing to start us off right and really appreciate that. We do our prayers, we speak our language, even if it's just one or two words, we're able to give life to these...to our language, we're able to give life to these actions. Every day acts kind of break down the larger picture and give us some tangible things that we can do. What are some tangible things that you can do to honor those relationships you have with your community?

Another future strategy is decolonizing your diet. And it sounds incredibly difficult, but how are you...how can you challenge yourself in terms of what you eat? We know that 'traditional diets'...there's all sorts of... University of Michigan is actually running a ‘decolonize your diet' challenge. We know this is incredibly difficult. There's the 100 miles kind of radius that folks are focusing on, local food movements and all these other things. But what does it mean to actually decolonize your diet? I use that as a way to challenge myself, but you as well. What does that mean if we're talking about decolonizing our diets? It means we have to change our eating habits, but also it means we have to change the way we relate to the earth. I've taken up moose hunting since I've been up in Canada and I have some crazy moose hunting stories I'll share another time maybe, but moose are pretty damn big, but a moose can sustain a family for a long time, just one moose. And so there's a difference between hunting something and going to the grocery store. There's a huge difference there in terms of how you relate to that food, but also how you relate to the land.

If you think about stuff you've grown before...the Cherokee Nation has this Cherokee Heirloom Seed Project and so they actually send you two different strands of traditional plants, whether it's corn, you can grow tobacco, you can grow rattlesnake beans, you can grow all these different types of plants. Even though that's small scale, because a lot of us are living in the city these days, even those that's small scale, it's still significant. It's changing the way we relate to the land. It's changing the way we relate to our food. And the goal of the Heirloom Seed Project is really to further enhance the seed bank. So the goal is, you're not going to be able to sustain yourself on the 20 corn seeds that you get in the mail, but you are able to send back seeds to reinvigorate that seed bank. So it's just as much about giving back as it is about growing that for your own I guess diets or for your own health.

Leanne Simpson, if you haven't read anything by Leanne Simpson, you've got to read it. She is...I think she's kind of a pivotal writer in terms of the Indigenous resurgence paradigm. Her along with Taiaiake Alfred and Glen Coulthard and several other folks, if you want to read up on more of this stuff. But Leanne Simpson talks a lot about reawakening our ancient treaty relationships. What is she talking about when she talks about reawakening these treaty relationships? She's not just talking about human to human relationships. She's talking about our relationships to salmon, she's talking about our relationships as Cherokee to the deer, to the corn. These are treaty relationships as well. And I always envision...Vine Deloria always called for more treaties between Indigenous nations and I always envision that happened. I used to envision that on a grander scale, but now I envision it happening between families, I envision it happening between families from different nations, confederacies of families, new confederacies of families that set up new trade networks, that set up new forms of resistance to the market system, that set up new forms of resistance to the grocery store. They set up new forms of ways that we can revitalize ourselves.

Finally, we have this concept ‘one warrior at a time,' and something that Tai and I have talked about for awhile now and I think it's true that change happens one warrior at a time. It's your individual kind of vision for how things need to be different. And it's consistent with a Cherokee notion of leadership because a Cherokee notion of leadership begins with the individual. You have a dream or you have a vision for how things should be and then the challenge is not to tell other people what to do, the challenge is now to live it. That's why I put a lot of this stuff out there because it's a challenge to me just as much as it is to you. I have to live this vision or this dream that I have for sustainability. I have to live it. Then only later do you make it relatable to other people.

This is where we fail as academics a lot of time. We don't make it relatable. We don't make it understandable. We use theory, we use concepts, we use a lot of big words. You have to make it relatable to other people and only then do you organize people, mobilize people towards change. It doesn't always happen in that kind of sequence, but sometimes it's collapsed, happens simultaneously, but it's this general idea that you don't start by organizing people, you start with yourself and you radiate outwards. What Leanne Simpson calls ‘radiating responsibilities.' Start with yourself and you begin taking those responsibilities for yourself as well as for other people.

Well, it comes back to what steps are you willing to take and what does resurgence mean to you. But at the end of the day it comes back to how will your ancestors recognize you and how will future generations recognize you? Is it by your actions? Is it by the things that you say? Is it by how you carry yourself? So I'll leave you with that. [Cherokee language]. Thank you."

Manley Begay:

"I think we have time for a couple questions."

Jeff Corntassel:

"I went on way too long. Yikes."

Audience member:

"So I am a...I recently just came back to the area, moved back here. I'm studying urban planning and one of the things I'm trying to do is incorporate sort of different ways of conceiving the land and finishing my thesis. And I'm really struggling with how Indigenous rights sort of...their position towards either Spanish or Mexican claims on land because that's another struggle that happened within the territory of colonial regimes. They're still in New Mexico. There are still Spanish land grants that became vested and so forth. So how do Indigenous rights balance with new colonial settlers that feel they have a right...see where I'm going with that?"

Jeff Corntassel:

"Yeah, I see where you're going. I've been thinking about this a lot lately and we use a term in our program to be provocative, we say 'settlers.' We use the word 'settlers' and you could think of different kind of versions of settlers, people that have come onto the land later, that have encroached onto Indigenous lands. You can think of settlers who have been there for several generations and you could think of folks who have just arrived, and then you could think of settlers of color, that's another term that's kind of emerging in the discourse. And my view is that I think we have a responsibility to...I use the example of Australia. Indigenous peoples there are issuing passports to settlers, to immigrants to the country, to Australia and bypassing the Australian state. Basically saying, ‘You have a passport to visit our territory and to live on our territory, but that comes with this set of responsibilities. And so you've got to protect the land just like we do and you've got to, if called on you've got to stand with us.' And so I think...I don't have a great answer for you in terms of resolving this, but I think as long as we get into this mindset that's not putting the impetus on Indigenous peoples to adjust to settlers because we know the settler presence is there, but it's putting the emphasis on settler people to adjust and to understand the Indigenous relationship to the land. And I say that...here's how I tied that in.

A Cherokee word for settler is [Cherokee language], and that means 'white' literally but it also connotes kind of movement of foam on the water and then it sticks to land, it grabs land when it sticks to it. So we have all sorts of Indigenous words for 'settler' depending on where you're at. I guess Tohono O'odham, I'm sure there's a word for settler that relates to folks that encroach onto the territory. So the goal for a settler is to understand that word and the full meaning of that word and to make a change in the relationship. If it means the hungry people, you've got to act in a way that doesn't make you so hungry that you're consuming everything in your path. You've got to act in a way in order to not cling onto land in such a way that's threatening to Indigenous people. So I try to use the language as a way to say, ‘Hey, we have experiences with people that have encroached onto our land. These are the words that we have for them. [Dakota language], the fat-takers for Dakota. Your goal is to change that relationship so that a new word has to be created to describe the relationship that you live in and also to understand the existing treaty relationships that exist in that territory and where those treaties aren't signed like in some parts, well, lots of Mexico. You don't have that same pattern of treaty making to understand I guess the needs of the community in order to protect their land, culture and community.

So yeah, I wish I had a better answer for you, but I think there's a huge educational component that has to take place and ultimately to make people uncomfortable who aren't from this territory, including myself, to make us uncomfortable in the sense that through that discomfort we can work through maybe some issues of maybe we shouldn't be so comfortable on someone else's land. Maybe we should be uncomfortable and try to find what our responsibilities might be."

Manley Begay:

"Another question? You've wowed them."

Jeff Corntassel:

"I've...I think this guy's got one."

Audience member:

"I was wondering if Native people on their land accept immigrants from other countries to bypass immigration laws."

Jeff Corntassel:

"That's what they did in Australia. I actually think that's a pretty cool idea. And so Australia was actually denying, let's say, they were folks from Sri Lanka and some other immigrants, they're denying them entry into the country and so Indigenous folks said, ‘Here's a passport, you're coming to our territory.' So it was a way of bypassing it. I think that's a great idea. I don't know...I haven't been there, so I don't know how that's actually worked in practice. There's been some honorary passports that have been given and stuff like that, but there's actually a passport signing ceremony and you make a formal commitment to stand with the Indigenous peoples of that area. So interesting idea. Yeah."

Audience member:

"I just wanted to say thank you for being here, but also for explaining that we should use not just theories and methodologies, but some language that everyone can understand. We all learn the theories, we all learn methodologies, but then sometimes when we start talking about them people think we're talking Greek. So I appreciate that very much."

Jeff Corntassel:

"Thank you. [Cherokee Language]."

Manley Begay:

"One more question."

Audience member:

"I'm going to jump back to what you were saying about education. I guess I hold to this idea that one of the problems that we have with communicating with each other is that we don't educate non-Natives on ways of the Native people of the land they're on. It's this big mass of miscommunication, and so if there was a way to educate on that do you think that would help some of these sovereignty issues or something like that?"

Jeff Corntassel:

"Yeah. The question is how to do it on such a large scale. I always wish...I had this dream where I could just give one lecture to the entire world or how about Indigenous Global Resurgence Day where it's transmitted to everyone, whether you want it or not. But yeah, there's that and then there's the question...so there's ignorance. I've always thought about it in this way, there's ignorance, I didn't know. So that's easy to resolve, you say, ‘Well, this is actually...this is my history. Now you know so you're accountable to that now.' And then there's willful ignorance where you say, ‘I don't really want to know and I don't care to know.' So how do you deal with folks who are willfully ignorant who don't...? And I can't put too much attention on folks who don't want to learn, but I think the folks who have never heard this before, like residential school, like boarding school, there's a starting point there and I think there's a lot of positive work that can be done just in those areas.

I talk about...I've played around with this term 'insurgent education' and I don't know where that's going to go but this kind of idea of making people uncomfortable, use it like a pedagogy of discomfort. So making people uncomfortable and through that discomfort you invite a conversation and I'm not talking about in a classroom setting. So I'm talking about taking it out of the classroom. There's a guy, Jeff Marley, who does 'We Are Still Here' posters and he puts them all over public sites and he writes it in Cherokee as well. And so that's a way of making people uncomfortable. ‘Oh, you're still here, what does that mean? I don't know what to do with that.' You could think about it more forcefully as, what's another good example? Well, I think you could think of it more forcefully with art, other forms of art. Edgar Heap of Birds has this great installation of art where it says, ‘This space sponsored by Tohono O'odham,' and so you're on Tohono O'odham land. So finding innovative or creative ways to express the relationship we have with the land and inviting the conversation from it.

It's hard to imagine that on a big scale but yeah, I think we need...that's why I look to artists and others. There's a group called Post Commodity that does some cool stuff. They had a repellant balloon. So you know those repellant balloons you have to scare critters out of your garden? They created a 100-foot one and put it over Phoenix and they said, ‘We're going to try to repel all the settlers out of the territory.' So just things like that that can create engagement, but also make people say, ‘What is this?' So I've looked to artists lately."

Mariah Gover:

"[Unintelligible] I liked this concept because we did with Tom [Holm] and some people who have been a big part of what we do and the concept of education and what she's talking about in terms of how do we get that information out? And what you started with was how do you think about yourself? How would your ancestors know you or how will your heirs know you? How is that going to...because in my mind, I'm thinking here comes that whole question about blood quantum and citizenship and that kind of stuff, but that...let's just put that aside, because that's whole other ball of wax. But in education and that knowledge and that conversation that we've done, how many of us really know all of the aspects of say for the O'odham himdag? How many of us really know that because whatever reason, it's part of the language. Our line and language, which you're talking about as being key and also you're talking about who's going to share it and will they? So before we can even get to the settlers we're talking about a whole other really messy morass of finding a way to express that and like you said, you make an excellent point in how artists and it reminds me of ceremony, that circle, the whole thing that these ceremonies didn't change, but they did even if it was in the difference of the singer, if it was in the aging of the rattle, how that happened, it will happen, change will occur. And like your Cherokee artist who took something old and made it into something new. I'm wondering -- especially since you haven't been here and you've been somewhere else for awhile -- how has that played into your overall understanding and conversation with yourself and with people there about that?"

Jeff Corntassel:

"That's great. That's a great question. See, I can trust Mariah to challenge me. We used to work together at Red Ink, one of the Native magazines out here and so awesome, awesome question. I think for me, it's always I didn't really do enough when I was here. I was so focused on meeting up with other Cherokees and thinking about some of the things that consume you in grad school that I didn't do enough. And so for me it's about, I guess, being honest and saying that we have to go a lot...  have to challenge myself to go a lot further. I'm involved in the Community Tool Shed. So to give a short response, I'm involved in the Community Tool Shed in Victoria partly because of what I perceive as so little that I did here. I kind of said, ‘I'm going to make a change in the sense of I'm not living on my own territory so I have a responsibility to seek out ways that I can help the Indigenous peoples of that area.' And so pulling invasive species and things like that, even if it's on a monthly basis, I have that responsibility. That's what I've taken up for myself. But for each person it's going to be different.

So I think it's acknowledging...and I start with...we always start with acknowledging the territory that we're on, but what does that mean beyond that acknowledgment? If folks from the territory that we're on said, ‘You should leave now Corntassel,' I'm accountable to that. So I'd have to leave in that sense if we're following protocol for following our...if we're honoring that protocol. And so I'm an uninvited guest in a sense. I didn't...so I think I've started...hopefully started to think about these things more deeply so that other folks don't make those same mistakes that I did, but also to say it's going to vary...that's where I say it's going to vary from individual to individual, one warrior at a time is kind of...so creating that awareness in other students now. So as a teacher -- as Wolf Clan, I'm a teacher -- creating that awareness in other students so they don't repeat those same mistakes maybe that I made."

Wilma Mankiller: What it Means to be an Indigenous Person in the 21st Century: A Cherokee Woman's Perspective

Producer
Indigenous Scholars Lecture Series
Year

Former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller discusses the common misperceptions that people have about Indigenous people in the 21st century, and the efforts of Indigenous peoples to maintain their identity, cultures, values, and ways of life.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Mankiller, Wilma. "What it Means to be an Indigenous Person in the 21st Century: A Cherokee Woman's Perspective." Vine Deloria, Jr. Indigenous Scholars Lecture Series, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 30, 2008. Presentation.

Thank you very much Tsianina [Lomawaima] for inviting me and for working on all the details to get me here. And I also want to thank Teresa wherever Teresa is who’s been in charge of taking care of a lot of logistics and has done a great job. And how I came to be here is that I mentioned to Tom [Holm] one time -- we’re both on this commission that he mentioned -- and I mentioned to him how much I love Arizona. And I told him. ‘If I ever had to live any place other than my home and the Cherokee Nation, I’d live in Arizona.’ And he said, ‘Well, we need to get you to Arizona then.’ And so I also wanted to thank Tom for the invitation to come here today and be with all of you. And I want to thank you. I was just mentioning to Tom how honored I am always when I do public speaking that people would leave their home and their family and their other activities and come to spend an evening just so we can have dialogue together and get to know one another, and I really appreciate that very much and want to express that appreciation to you.

For me it’s an incredible honor to offer remarks about what it means to be an Indigenous person in the 21st century as a part of the Vine Deloria series of events that are occurring here on campus. Many of us who had the privilege of knowing Vine are still trying to figure out how to live in a world without his physical presence and I believe that we can best honor him by doing exactly what this university is doing and that’s continuing to challenge the stereotypes and the misperceptions about Native people that still exist in this country. I also think that we can honor him by getting up every morning and making sure that we stand for something larger than ourselves. I think that’s a way of honoring Vine. And I also think that we can honor him by continuing the fight, his fight, our fight for treaty rights and for tribal sovereignty and also continuing the fight for our cultural survival.

So let me begin by saying that I don’t speak for all Indigenous people or even for all Cherokee people. The thoughts that I share with you tonight are derived entirely from my own experience. And most of my remarks tonight will concern Indigenous people of this country, but I have visited Indigenous people in lots of other places including China. There are very distinct ethnic communities in China, in Ecuador, in South Africa, in New Zealand and in Brazil. There are over 300 million Indigenous people in virtually every region of the world including the Sami peoples of Scandinavia, the Maya of Guatemala, numerous tribal groups in the Amazonian rainforest, the Dalits in the mountains of southern India, the San and Qua in southern Africa, aboriginal people in Australia and of course the hundreds and hundreds of Indigenous people in Mexico, Central and South America as well as here in this land that is now called America. There is enormous diversity among communities of Indigenous people, each of which has its own culture, language, history and unique way of life. Indigenous people across the globe share some common values derived from an understanding that their lives are part of and inseparable from the natural world around them.

Onondaga faith keeper Oren Lyons who spoke here recently once said, ‘Our knowledge is profound and comes from living in one place for untold generations. Our knowledge comes from watching the sun rise in the east and set in the west from the same place over great sections of time. We are as familiar with the land, river and great seas that surround us as we are with the faces of our mothers. Indeed we call the earth [Native language], Our Mother, from which all life springs. This deeply felt sense of interdependence with all other living things fuels a duty and a responsibility to conserve and protect the natural world that is a sacred provider of food, of medicine and spiritual sustenance. Hundreds of seasonal ceremonies are regularly conducted by Indigenous people to express thanksgiving for the gifts of nature and to acknowledge the seasonal changes and to remind people of their obligations to each other and to the earth.’

And the stories continue. In many Indigenous communities around the world, traditional stories embody the collective memory of the people. These stories often describe how things were in the distant past, what happened to cause the world to be as it is today and some stories project far into the future. The prophecies of a number of Indigenous groups predict that the world will end when people are no long capable of protecting nature or restoring its balance. Two of the most widely quoted prophecies are those of the Hopi and the Iroquois, both of which have long predicted that the world will end if human beings forget their responsibilities to the natural world. These prophecies seem particularly important in this era of increasing alarm about the catastrophic effects of climate change and questions, even questions about the long-term survival of humankind. Indigenous people are not the only people on earth who understand that they’re interconnected with all living things. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said, ‘At some point during this journey, we lost our feeling of connectedness to the rest of nature. We now dare to wonder, ‘Are we so unique and powerful as to be essentially separate from the earth?’’

There are many thousands of people from different ethnic groups who care deeply about the environment and fight every day to protect the earth. The difference between non-Indigenous environmentalists and Indigenous people who live close to the land is that Indigenous people have the benefit, the unique benefit of having ceremonies that regularly remind them of their responsibilities to each other and their responsibilities to the land. So they remain close to the land not only in the way they live but in their hearts and in the way they view the world.

To me, sometimes when I talk to mainstream environmentalists it’s almost like environmentalism is an intellectual exercise. The difference when you talk to people who, traditional Indigenous people who live close to the land is that they feel that the connection to the land and their responsibility to take care of it is a sacred duty, it’s not an intellectual exercise. When women like Pauline Whitesinger, an elder at Black Mountain or at Big Mountain, and Carrie Dann, a Western Shoshone land rights activist speak of preserving the land for future generations, they’re not talking about just future generations of humans, they are talking literally about future generations of all living things. That’s a profound difference. Pauline and Carrie live with the land and they understand the relative insignificance of human beings in the totality of the universe.

When all human beings, Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people lived closer to the land, there was a greater understanding of the interdependence between humans and the land. Author and feminist Gloria Steinem observes that ‘Once, indeed nearly for all the time that human beings have walked this earth, you and I would have been living very differently in small bands, raising our children together as if each child were our own and migrating with the seasons. There were no nations, no lines drawn in the sand. Instead there were migratory paths and watering places with trade and culture blossoming wherever the paths came together in patterns that spread over the continents like lace.’

So what’s happened in the non-Native world is that there’s an absence of the stories and the ceremonies to remind them, and so they have no memory of that time when they lived very close to the land and were responsible for one another and for the land. They’re not only distant from the land and from themselves, they have little understanding of their place in the world.

I remember one time being, I live in a very rural area at the end of a dirt road within the Cherokee Nation and so very conscious of seasonal changes and of things that are going on in the natural world. And I remember once being in New York City at the magical time of dusk and watching the people. Not a single person on a crowded street in New York City looked at or acknowledged the sunset over the Hudson River or even, I imagine, thought about the gift of another day. It made me wonder how many urban dwellers, millions of urban dwellers go about their lives without ever really seeing or thinking about the miracle of the sun rising in the morning and setting again in the evening.

Aside from a different view of their relationship to the natural world, many of the world’s Indigenous people also share a sometimes fragmented but still very present sense of responsibility for one another. Cooperation has always been necessary for the survival of tribal people and even today in the more traditional communities cooperation takes precedence over competition. It’s really quite miraculous that a sense of sharing and reciprocity continues into the 21st century given the staggering amount of adversity Indigenous people have faced. Within many communities at home and I think in tribal communities around the country the greatest respect, the most respected people are not those who have amassed great material wealth or achieved great personal success. The greatest respect is reserved for those people who help other people, people who understand that as Indigenous people we’re born into a community, a specific tribal group and that our entire lives play themselves out within a set of reciprocal relationships. The people that understand that are the most respected people.

There’s evidence of this sense of reciprocity in some Cherokee traditional communities. My husband Charlie Soap leads a widespread self-help movement among the Cherokee in which low-income volunteers work to build walking trails, community centers, sports complexes, water lines and even houses. This self-help movement, in which everybody gets together and helps each other, taps into the traditional value of cooperation for the sake of the common good.

Besides a connection to the land and this sense of reciprocity, the world’s Indigenous people are also bound by the common experience of being ‘discovered’ and subjected to colonial expansion into their territories that led to the loss of an incalculable number of lives and millions and millions of acres of land and resources. The most basic rights of Indigenous people were disregarded and they were subjected to a series of policies that were designed to assimilate them into colonial society and culture. Too often, the policies resulted in poverty, high infant mortality, rampant unemployment, substance abuse and all its attendant problems.

The stories are shockingly similar all over the world. When I first read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which chronicled the systematic destruction of an African tribe’s social, cultural and economic structure, it sounded all too familiar. Take the land, discredit the leaders, ridicule the traditional healers, send the children off to distant boarding schools; very familiar story. And then I read a report called The Stolen Generation about aboriginal children in Australia who were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools.

My own father and my Aunt Sally were taken from my grandfather by the U.S. government and placed in a government boarding school when they were very small, very young. So that story is very familiar to Cherokee people and to tribal people all over the world. Indigenous people everywhere on the planet are connected both by our values and by our oppression.

When contemplating the contemporary challenges and problems faced by Indigenous people worldwide, it’s important to remember that the roots of many contemporary social, economic and political problems can be found in colonial policies and those policies continue today across the globe. In the Amazonian rainforest, Indigenous people are continually battling large scale destruction of their traditional homes in the forest by multi-national mining, oil and timber companies. Some small Amazonian Indigenous communities are on the verge of extinction as the result of the murder of their leaders and the forced dispersal of their members. And to make matters worse, some well-meaning environmentalists who should be natural allies focus almost exclusively on the land and appear not to see or hear the people at all.

When I was in Brazil, one of the people there was quite humorous and he said, ‘There was a time when a lot of famous musicians, American and English musicians, would wear T-shirts that said 'Save the Rainforest.'‘ And he said, ‘You never once saw a T-shirt that said 'Save the People of the Rainforest.'‘ Though the people of the forest, the people who live in the forest and have lived there for thousands of years possess the best knowledge about how to live with and sustain the forest.

When you think about it, of the fact that folks focus on the land and not the people, it’s not surprising really because Indigenous people are not in the consciousness of many, of the people in the larger society. There’s too little accurate information available about us, available in educational institutions, in literature, in films or in the popular culture. I believe that the battle to protect the human and land rights of Indigenous people is made immeasurably more difficult by the fact that so few people know much about either the history or contemporary lives of our people and without any kind of history or cultural context, it’s almost impossible for outsiders to understand Indigenous issues. And the information that is available is often produced by non-Native people; some of which is enormously helpful. Some of the anthropological work has helped tribes restore, some tribal people restore their languages and that sort of thing. So some of the non-Native literature is enormously helpful, but too much of it is written by people who spend 15 minutes in a tribal community, become an expert, and then go out and write a book or produce a film.

So there’s a lot of inaccurate information out there. And the lack of accurate information creates a void, which is often filled with nonsensical stereotypes, which either vilify Indigenous people as troubled descendants of savage peoples on the one hand or they romanticize them as innocent children of nature, spiritual but incapable of higher thought on the other hand. Whether the stereotype romanticizes or vilifies people, it’s still very harmful I believe.

Then the stereotypes about Indigenous women are particularly appalling. While the role of Indigenous women in the family and the community, now and in the past, differs from community to community, women have always played very significant roles in most tribal societies. Yet in the media and in the larger society the power, the strength, the complexity of Indigenous women is rarely acknowledged or rarely recognized.

I believe that these public perceptions of tribal people will change in the future because Indigenous leaders now understand that there is a direct link between public perception and public policy and they understand that they must frame the issues for themselves. If Indigenous people don’t frame the issues for themselves, their opponents most certainly will. In the future, as more Indigenous people become filmmakers, writers, historians, museum curators and journalists, they’ll be able to use a dazzling array of technological tools to tell their own stories in their own voice in their own way.

Once a journalist asked me whether people in the U.S. had trouble accepting the government of the Cherokee Nation during my tenure as principal chief. I was a little surprised by the question. The government of the Cherokee Nation predated the government of the United States and the Cherokee Nation had treaties with other countries before it executed a treaty with one of the first U.S. colonies. So that question really surprised me.

During the colonial era and before, many tribal leaders sent delegations to meet with the Spanish, with the English and French in an effort to protect their lands and rights. And these tribal leaders, they would travel to foreign lands with a trusted interpreter and they took maps that had been painstakingly drawn by hand to show their lands to other heads of state. They also took along gifts, letters and proclamations. And what’s very painful now is to look back in history and see that though the tribal leaders themselves, when they traveled to these other places, thought they were being dealt with as heads of state and as equals, historical records indicate that they were sometimes viewed as objects of curiosity and sometimes a great deal of disdain though they themselves, the tribal leaders, were very earnest.

The journalist with the question about Cherokee government needn’t apologize for her lack of knowledge about tribal governments in the U.S. Many people in the U.S. know very little about us though they’ve been living in our former towns and villages now for hundreds of years.

Again, it’s impossible to even contemplate the contemporary lives or future of Indigenous people without some basic knowledge of tribal history. [I’m going to skip some of this history because you probably know all of this.] Tribal governments in the U.S. exercise their range of sovereign rights and it’s interesting because one of the most common misperceptions in the larger culture is that all tribal governments are the same or even worse that all Indian people are the same or that we speak some kind of common ‘Indian’ language. And so one of the tasks I think we have is to remind people that each tribal government is unique and that different tribal governments exercise their sovereign rights in different ways. And some tribal governments have gaming facilities, some have a number of cooperative agreements with the state governments, other tribal governments believe that we are giving up sovereignty to execute any kind of government with a statement government so they don’t engage in those governments. And there are some governments like the Onondaga that have, do not do any kind of gaming, don’t believe in gaming, and they don’t receive any kind of federal funding at all, none. And so they, and they have their traditional government that they’ve had since the beginning of time. But by and large there are many tribal governments in this country now that have their own judicial systems -- most do -- operate their own police force, they run their own schools, they administer their own clinics and hospitals and operate a wide range of business enterprises and there are now more than two dozen tribally controlled community colleges. And the interesting thing is that all these advancements that tribes have made benefit everybody in the community not just tribal people. And the history and contemporary lives and future of tribal governments is intertwined with that of their neighbors.

And even within there’s a lot of difference between various tribal groups, each of which is very distinct, has its own culture, language and history but even within tribal groups there’s a great deal of diversity. And in our tribe, members of our tribe, the Cherokee tribe, are very stratified socially, economically and culturally. There are several thousand Cherokee people that continue to speak the Cherokee language and live in Cherokee communities in rural northeastern Oklahoma. On the other end of the spectrum, there are enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation who’ve never even visited the Cherokee Nation and so there’s a great deal of stratification in our tribe and I believe in other tribes as well.

Each Indigenous community is unique just as each community in the larger society is unique. Outside our communities, I think too many people view Indigenous people through a very narrow, one-dimensional lens and really we’re very interesting and very complex and we’re certainly multi-dimensional human beings that rarely do people outside of our communities see us in that way.

So what does the future hold for Indigenous people across the globe and what challenges will they face moving further into the 21st century? I think that to see the future of Indigenous people one needs only to look at the past. If we as a people have been able to survive such a staggering loss of land, of rights, of resources and lives, how can I not be optimistic that we will survive whatever challenges lie ahead in the next 100 or even 500 years and that we can project far into the future and still have viable Indigenous communities. If we’ve survived what we’ve survived so far, I’m confident we can survive whatever lies ahead. Without question, the combined efforts of government and various religious groups to eradicate traditional knowledge system has had a profoundly negative impact on the culture as well as the social and economic systems of Indigenous people. But again, if we’ve been able to hold onto our sense of community, our sense of interdependence, our generosity of spirit, our languages, our culture, our ceremonies, our medicine, despite everything, how can I not be optimistic about the future? And though some of the original languages, ceremonies and medicine has been irretrievably lost, the ceremonial fires of many Indigenous people across the globe have survived all the upheaval. Sometimes Indigenous communities after major upheaval and removal have almost had to reinvent themselves as a people but they’ve never given up their sense of responsibility to one another and to the land. It is this sense of interdependence I believe that has sustained tribal people thus far and I believe it will sustain them well into the future.

The world’s changing, but we can adapt to change. Indigenous people know about change and have proven time and time again they can adapt to change. No matter where Native people go in the world, they take with them a strong sense of values, a strong sense of who they are and so they can fully interact with the larger society and participate in the larger society around them but still have a sense of themselves. If you look at some of the people like Vine Deloria, or [N.] Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize, or the Chickasaw gentleman, who was an astronaut, or the women who, including Maria Tall Chief, who became prima ballerinas, no matter where those people went they took with them a strong sense of who they are.

One of the things that I remember interviewing for my book LaDonna Harris and one of the things that she said strike me. She said, ‘You know, when I was living in Washington as a Senator’s wife, I did the same thing as other Senate wives did.’ But she said -- it didn’t matter who all was talking to her or what situation she was in -- 'I was Comanche and when, whatever was going on around me, I filtered that through my Comanche values and my sense of who I was. I could live in Washington in a similar house as the other Senate wives and do similar things but I never lost my sense of who I was as a Comanche woman.’ She said, ‘I’ve always hated that term that we live in two worlds.’ She said, ‘My world is that I’m a Comanche woman.’ So it was very interesting and I think a lot of people do that. And for the young people here today that are contemplating careers, it doesn’t matter whether you become a physician or a professor or a lawyer or if you live away from your homelands and can’t participate regularly in ceremonies. You can take with you the knowledge and the values wherever you go.

I believe that one of the great challenges for Indigenous people globally and particularly here in the U.S. will be in the future and now will be to develop practical models to capture, maintain and pass on traditional knowledge system to future generations. When we all lived close to one another, it was easy to pass on the knowledge. Many tribal groups even had people who were designated to remember things. It was their job to remember things and pass them on. But since people are very mobile and the world’s changed so much, we have to come up with new models to capture and maintain the knowledge and pass it on to future generations. There’s nothing in the world, nothing that we can learn anywhere that can replace that solid sense of continuity and knowing that a genuine understanding of traditional knowledge brings. We have to preserve that and we have to pass that on to future generations. There are many communities that are working on discreet aspects of culture such as language or medicine, but in my view it’s the entire system of knowledge that needs to be maintained and not just for Indigenous people but for the world at large.

Perhaps in the future Indigenous people who have an abiding and deeply held belief that all living things are related and interdependent can help policymakers understand how completely irrational it is to destroy the very natural world that sustains all life. Regrettably, in the future the battle for human and land rights will continue but the future does look somewhat better. Last year, after 30 years of advocacy by Indigenous people, the United Nations finally passed a resolution supporting the basic inherent rights of Indigenous people. The resolution by the way was passed over the objections of the United States government. The challenge I think for people working in international work now will be to make sure the provisions of the resolution are honored and the rights of Indigenous people all over the world are indeed protected. And the efforts of tribal governments in this country to take full advantage of the self-governance and self-determination policies of the U.S. government are once again a testament to the fact that Indigenous people simply do better when they have control of their own lives.

In the case of my own people, we’re an example of what happens when you have control and then when you lose control. In the case of the Cherokees, after we were forcibly removed by the United States military from the southeast to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, we picked ourselves up and rebuilt our nations. We started some of the first schools west of the Mississippi, Indian or non-Indian, and built schools for the higher education of women. We printed our own newspapers in Cherokee and English and were at that time more literate than our neighbors in Texas and Arkansas and actually I think we probably still are. Then in the early 20th century, the federal government tried to abolish the Cherokee Nation and within two decades -- when we didn’t have a functioning central tribal government -- we went from being one of the most literate groups of people to having one of the lowest educational attainment levels of any group in eastern Oklahoma. And so that’s a direct testament to what happens when we have control and when we don’t have control.

For the past 35 years, we’ve been in an effort to revitalize the Cherokee Nation and now we once again run our own school and have an extensive array of successful education programs. The youth at our Indian school, the Sequoyah High School, recently won the state, the team, a student won the state trigonometry contest and several are Gates Millennium Scholars. Again, we do better when we have control over our own destiny. And a couple of years ago Harvard University completed over a decade of comprehensive research, which was published in a guardedly hopeful book entitled The State of Native Nations. The research indicates that most of the social and economic indicators are moving in a positive direction. Many tribal governments are strong, educational attainment levels are improving, and there is a cultural renaissance occurring in many tribal communities.

Within some Indigenous communities, there are conversations about what it means to be a traditional Indigenous person now and what it will mean in the future. I am an Indigenous woman of the 21st century, and I’m so glad I was born Cherokee and that my life has indeed played itself out within a set of reciprocal relationships in my family and community.

To me, being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means being part of a group of people with the most valuable and ancient knowledge on the planet, a people who still have a direct relationship with and sense of responsibility to the land and to other people.

To me, being an Indigenous person of the 21st century means being part of a community that faces a daunting set of challenges and problems and oppression and yet the communities, our communities find so many moments of grace and comfort and joy in traditional stories, in the language and in ceremonies.

I think, to me, being an Indigenous person of the 21st century, all these young smart people getting an education here at the University of Arizona, being an Indigenous person of the 21st century means trusting our own thinking again and not only articulating our own vision of the future clearly, but having within our communities and our people the skill set and the leadership ability to make those visions a reality.

Being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means -- despite everything -- still being able to dream of a future in which all people will support the human rights and self-determination of Indigenous people. We still have that dream and we still have that hope. Land can be colonized and resources can be colonized but dreams can never be colonized. I always think about the time of my grandfather and the early part of the 20th century, during that bad time when our central government was in disarray, and these people never gave up the dream of having a strong central tribal government and a strong community and they would ride horses to each other’s houses throughout the Cherokee Nation and collect money in a mason jar to send a delegate to Washington to remind the leaders in Washington of their obligation, their treaty obligations to Cherokee people. So our people never gave up their dream and will never give up their dream.

Being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means sharing traditional knowledge and best practices with Indigenous communities all over the world using the iPhone, the Blackberry, MySpace, YouTube and every other technological tool that becomes available to us.

Being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means becoming a physician or a scientist or even an astronaut who will leave her footprints on the moon and then return home to participate in ceremonies her people have had since the beginning of time. That’s what it means to be an Indigenous person in the 21st century.

And finally, to be an Indigenous person of the 21st century means to forego the feeling of going around with anger in our hearts over past injustices and it means not becoming paralyzed by the inaction we see around us or the totality of problems we face in our communities. We can’t be paralyzed by that and we can’t be angry over past injustice. I think it’s important for us to keep our view just as our ancestors did. We’re here because our ancestors thought about us and cared about us and fought for us. So it’s our job now to keep our vision fixed on the future. That’s what we need to do.

I really love my favorite proverb, which I’ll leave you with is a Mohawk proverb and because they teach their young people not to always be angry and focus on injustice or not be paralyzed by what’s going on around them, the problems they now face. So what they tell their young people is that you need to be thinking about the future and ‘it’s hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.’ I love that proverb. So I’ll leave you with that proverb, ‘ It’s hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.’ And thank you again for being here and open it up for some time for questions and answers. Thank you.

 

A conversation with Vine Deloria, Jr.

Producer
University of Arizona
Year

Indian writer Vine Deloria responds to questions from three interviewers, discussing the status quo of American writing about Indians. Deloria offers educational recommendations for Native Americans to counteract the predominance of Anglo viewpoints in the current literature.

Resource Type
Citation

University of Arizona. "A conversation with Vine Deloria, Jr." University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 1978. Interview. (http://streaming.oia.arizona.edu/clientFlashABR/play.php?clipname=/perm/..., accessed February 23, 2023)

Thomas Holm: The Vanishing Indian Prof: Reflections on American Indian Studies by an Old Indian Academic

Producer
Arizona Public Media
Year

Dr. Tom Holm (Creek/Cherokee), one of the founders of the University of Arizona's American Indian Studies program, discusses the evolution of American Indian studies programs across the country and the need for those programs to provide an environment for intellectual exchange and development for emerging Native American scholars. He also stresses the important role they play in educating non-Natives about Native American societies and the sophisticated nature of their relationships with the natural world. 

People
Resource Type
Citation

Holm, Thomas. "The Vanishing Indian Prof: Reflections on American Indian Studies by an Old Indian Academic." Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 25, 2013. Presentation. (https://about.azpm.org/s/14643-dr-thomas-holm/, accessed May 13, 2013)