Native American History Month and Hostile Climates

By Hannah Quinque

The peak of progress and democ­ra­cy? Dził Nchaa Si An or Mount Gra­ham (AZ) is an unmov­able reminder that some are more equal than oth­ers. Pic­ture by Jbpar­rish at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mount_graham_in_2020.jpg under CC-BY-SA‑4.0.

This arti­cle has been start­ed and scrapped time and time again. An Amer­i­can stud­ies blog should run Native Amer­i­can sto­ries reg­u­lar­ly and most def­i­nite­ly for Native Amer­i­can Her­itage Month this Novem­ber. But then I, the author, am just anoth­er white Euro­pean try­ing to share some­body else’s sto­ries. So here’s what I decid­ed to do: I’ll use this plat­form as a reminder to lis­ten else­where, all year around.

My first idea was to draw atten­tion to the Infla­tion Reduc­tion Act, IRA for short, passed as a law on August 16, 2022. Dubbed a cli­mate bill for the his­to­ry books, respons­es from Native cli­mate and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice activists have been far from unan­i­mous­ly cel­e­bra­to­ry. While some see the IRA as a poten­tial first step toward com­pen­sa­tion of people(s) on the front­lines com­bat­ting cli­mate change, sev­er­al grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions find the law to be anoth­er instance of heav­i­ly impact­ed BIPOC voic­es being spo­ken over.

Words that echo through the many quotes are con­tin­u­ing, his­tor­i­cal, sys­temic, com­pro­mise, or sac­ri­fice. They point not only to many cur­rent debates but also to a lega­cy of diverse Native voic­es often left out of con­ver­sa­tions that direct­ly con­cern them. And we’re not talk­ing right-wing con­ser­v­a­tives or flam­ing believ­ers in the Man­i­fest Destiny.

Take stolen Native arti­facts and sacred sites, for exam­ple. It’s not more excus­able just because it’s done for ‘pro­gres­sive’ pur­suits, be that eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, renew­able ener­gy, edu­ca­tion, or sci­ence. Why on earth do var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties or Chris­t­ian insti­tu­tions have more of a right to make use of Mount Gra­ham (Apache: Dził Nchaa Si An) in their search for answers than do the peo­ple whose whole his­to­ry is tied to that place? Why is it still big news that muse­ums around the globe final­ly return Native items stolen in wake of the mas­sacre at Wound­ed Knee, 130 years ago? The most sig­nif­i­cant sym­bol for var­i­ous per­spec­tives on the truth might be Mount Rush­more or Tȟuŋkáši­la Šákpe, The Six Grand­fa­thers. In all of these exam­ples, the fight for actu­al resti­tu­tion to Native Amer­i­can peo­ples has been going on for decades.

Again, these are just a cou­ple of cas­es in a long and ongo­ing his­to­ry of only heed­ing Indige­nous opin­ions when they fit in with cap­i­tal­ist West­ern ideas of progress. They show that we have to face inequal­i­ties with­in pre­sum­ably pro­gres­sive insti­tu­tions, move­ments, and mes­sag­ing. Oth­er­wise, the future we’re look­ing at is just anoth­er mod­i­fi­ca­tion of an inequitable sys­tem that jus­ti­fies its dis­crim­i­na­to­ry exis­tence past and present.

And yes, that makes dis­cus­sions even more dif­fi­cult. But only because we get clos­er to the actu­al com­plex­i­ty of issues like cli­mate change, ani­mal rights, his­to­ries of oppres­sion, and reli­gious­ness. If we have come to a place where there’s Big Green, a crit­i­cal nick­name for the biggest envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions in the U.S., then maybe Big Green’s use of the term cli­mate jus­tice real­ly is ques­tion­able con­sid­er­ing their mar­gin­al­iza­tion of small­er eco and eth­nic groups.

I don’t have the prop­er words for this par­tic­u­lar debate. But who actu­al­ly does? The answer is right in front of us: BIPOC peo­ple. So for Native Amer­i­can Her­itage Month, seek out their plat­forms, and let’s extend our knowl­edge beyond one sin­gle opin­ion or organization.

In addi­tion to the links referred to in the arti­cle, here are a few oth­ers I’d recommend:

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