Who Speaks for the Indian?
By WILCOMB E. WASHBURN; Wilcomb E. Washburn is the author of The Indian in America and the editor of The American Heritage History of the Indian Wars. (May 20, 1984)
MIX together the following ingredients: a threatened natural environment, endangered plants and animals, and Indians resisting change, and you have the formula for a story that will be bought by an American public quick to applaud the fight against change when it is perceived as unjust or unnecessary.
Peter Matthiessen. a naturalist and journalist who has only recently (in his In the Spirit of Crazy Horse) moved from the natural environment to Indians, has in this book combined both. Indian Country is neither history nor social analysis. It consists of personal reminiscences by Matthiessen and his informants. His principal informant, Craig Carpenter, was, in the 1950s, “by his own account, a ’half-baked detribalized Mohawk from the Great Lakes country trying to find his way back to the real Indians. In the “spiritual” journeys the two take together, many other detribalized urban Indians, far from their original homes, appear in the guise of “traditional” Indians, usually as “spiritual advisers” to other detribalized Indians.
The pretensions of these Indians to represent the 500 Indian tribes, nations, bands and villages officially recognized by the United States as having governmental character have not been accepted by these governments. The white media, on the other hand have uncritically treated the tiny handful of individual Indian activists as somehow representing the Indian point of view. Why? Because the Indian activists have learned to phrase their denunciations of the while man and legitimate Indian leaders in terms of stereotypical values familiar to white (e.g., reverence for “Mother Earth”) even though in most cases these activists have only a casual (at best) or cynical (at worst) acquaintance with these values.
It need hardly be stated that Matthiessen’s book has no scholarly value except for the light it throws on these detribalized activists and their white supporters and agents. Beginning with Matthiessen’s suggestion on the first page that the Indians were named so not because Columbus thought he had arrived in the Sea of India but because he believed he had found a people living in harmony with nature (una gente in Dios), we are treated with partisanship, innuendo, opinion and rumor masquerading as fact.
One cause involving Indian land after another is spread before us:
Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida and the “Miccosukee, or ‘true Seminole'” whose bewildering factional rivalry in opposition to the officially accepted Indian jump to page 11 Reorganization Act of 1934 government even Matthiessen has trouble cataloguing.
The Hopi Reservation in Arizona where “traditionalists” backed by white support groups in Los Angeles and occasional;-, infused with a dash of American Indian Movement (AIM) violence confronts the “puppet” Hopis—the elected tribal council—on issues ranging from coal leases to introducing electricity.
The fight to block the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee in which the claims of the tiny “snail darter” gave wav to the relig:: us concerns of traditional Cherokees.
“Akwesasne Territory” or the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation along the Canadian border of New York where traditionalist initiated physical violence against the elected tribal government and were later on the receiving end of such violence.
The G-0 Road (Gasquet-Orleans Road) in Six Rivers National Forest in the Siskiyou Mountain-Klamath River area f northern California, stopped by the hasty mobilization of Yurok and Karuk “medicine men” testifying to its religious significance for the Indians.
The Black Hills, sacred to the American Indian Movement, environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists fighting uranium exploration in the area, and asserted to be a “spiritual area” from time immemorial although history records that the Lak ta (Sioux) first arrived in the Black Hills driving out the original inhabitants) only shortly before the whites arrived to drive out the Sioux.
Point Concepcion in southern California where Archie Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota, served as the “spiritual adviser” to the Chumash Indians in the successful fight against plans to locate a liquid natural gas terminal there.
The Pit River (California) land claims featuring the “Legitimate Pit River Tribe” versus the “official Tribal Council.”
The ‘Western Shoshone Sacred Lands Association” claiming much of the state of Nevada against a varied assortment of vacillating tribal councils and the U.S. Air Force, which wanted to base the MX-missile system there.
The Four Corners area of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona where the huge energy generating power plant offends environmentalists, the uranium mining offends anti-nuclear activists, and the Navajo Tribal Council under former chairman Peter MacDonald offended traditionalists like John Redhouse and the general Navajo electorate who will now see whether the new chairman, Peterson Zah, can do any better.
Big Mountain, in the heart of Arizona’s Black Mesa, w here Nava, s who have been adjudged to be illegally occupying Hopi land, are seeking to stay the effects of the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974 (requiring them to leave) by invoking the sacred character of the land in accordance with their traditions.
In almost every one of these disputes concerning Indian land, the picture presented is one in which a handful of beleaguered “traditionalist” is battling an insensitive elected “puppet” tribal government established under the authority of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, part of the sweeping New Deal revision of Indian affairs undertaken under the leadership of J ‘ Collier. The courts, which have vigorously defended and expanded the sovereign character of Indian governments in the Iasi 40 years, are also denounced by Matthiessen when they rule against the pretensions of a handful of “traditionalist” in favor of elected tribal governments. The efforts of a few of the “traditionalist” to bring their “case” to the United Nations in Geneva, or to……………….