It’s an odd issue that tarnishes American history and still haunts our political debate today.
What kind of people are people? What kinds of humans are full humans, and who has more rights than others?
I recognize the questions themselves, if you’re an enlightened person, are offensive. The answer, frankly, is that all people are people and no one “type” is more human than another.
And yet, sometimes, we quibble. Muslims don’t belong here. Those Irish are dangerous Papists who will destroy society. America is for “Americans,” whoever those are. Due process of law protects citizens but not “aliens.” A person of color “has no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
That last quote, by the way, you may recognize from the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case. The same nation that proudly proclaimed that man has “inalienable rights” has not always been willing to acknowledge the humanity or human rights of all men—or women.
So the odd issue is the way we classify people by race or class or gender into categories that make them more or less human. It’s a deep instinct, but one we all should struggle against.
Anyway, I’m thinking such thoughts prompted by a rather emotional presentation that I attended tonight. I don’t mean “emotional” in the sense of people wailing or rending garments or shedding tears—everybody seemed rather civil and calm—but I mean touching on deep emotions, cultural undercurrents that need to be recognized and talked about.
Deb Brydon, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice who is also an attorney, gave a presentation called “The First Americans: U.S. Policy in ‘Indian Country’” at Mount Mercy University. It was the second in our 2016 Fall Faculty Series, which is called “Building Walls, Building Bridge: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation.”
I coordinate that series, and I recall being pretty excited when Brydon proposed her topic as we were planning the series. In calling the U.S. an “immigrant nation,” it sounds as if MMU is excluding Native Americans. But the reality is that very few of the indigenous peoples who populated what is now the United States live in their ancestral homeland.
They were killed off or moved by the peoples who took over this continent, and therefore became unwilling migrants. In that sense, they “immigrated” too, without ever leaving the U.S.
I didn’t think it was a stretch to include a presentation on Native Americans in an immigration series, and I’m even more grateful now that we did so. It proved to be a fascinating and powerful presentation. Brydon spoke of how the federal government became the entity that had all responsibility for Native American relations—because the Supreme Court recognized native tribes as semi-sovereign entities and in the Unites States, legal national sovereignty is strictly a federal function.
And “function” seems like an odd word to use for the changing, strangely evolving, often contradictory threads that ran through and run through the way our country treats its first inhabitants.
Consider the pipeline protests in North Dakota, and how one branch of the federal government is telling another branch of the federal government that it didn’t do enough to consult with the native tribes near whose lands that new oil pipeline would pass.
Anyway, I’m no expert in that particular controversy—I’m not anything of an expert in most of the topics that were raised tonight. But, that’s one advantage of having a series like this one at MMU—it gives us in the Mount Mercy and Cedar Rapids community a chance to hear from those who do have special insight into a key issue and a chance to grow and learn.
As Brydon pointed out, before there was an immigrant nation, “people were here.”
There were many parts of the evening that I found moving:
- Brydon is connected through a grandparent to the Mohegan Tribe, and recounted how one of the movies called “The Last of the Mohicans” premiered with a New York gala in the 1930s. An elderly leader of the tribe was invited to attend, and reporters asked him: “How do you like our city?” He replied: “How do you like our country?”
- The convoluted story of how Native Americans were first forced onto reservations, then forced to parcel out their lands, then lost their lands in tax disputes creating a “checkerboard” of conflicting ownership and jurisdictional boundaries was fascinating, but fascinating partly in the way World War II is fascinating. At one level, it’s a train wreck you can’t pull your eyes away from—an unfolding, confounding, infuriating narrative. What a tangled web—and yet the one constant is that, in the long run, it seems the dominant culture finds creative new way to steal from the displaced culture.
A member of an Alaskan tribe attended and gave some interesting thoughts after Brydon’s presentation. The woman, Genevieve Bern, noted, for example, that although much of the 90 percent die off of natives peoples caused by European diseases may have been unintentional, it still represents a genocidal experience form the point of view of natives.
- Race and ethnicity and racial issues are an important subtext to the larger immigration saga MMU is taking on. Bern’s remarks helped highlight that, and are another reason I am glad she came. My one regret in our whole series is that we don’t have a more examples of various racial or ethnic perspectives, such as more discussion of the forced immigration of African Americans. Then again, I’m still hoping to get more speakers for our Oct. 15 “Our Immigration Stories” day.
One legal twist in American policy Brydon pointed out was the way in which Native Americans became associated with gambling and casinos, partly due to an enabling law passed in the 1980s. Dr. Mohammad Chaichian, professor of sociology, asked if the results had been positive for native tribes.
In an economic sense, overall, I would suspect so—but as Brydon pointed out, the track record is very mixed and differs a lot depending on who controls the casinos “There are a lot of different experiences,” Brydon says. That sounded like a good analogy for the whole presentation, in a way.
It was a fascinating evening, and left me hungry to learn more. I don’t think you can state any higher praise for such a faculty event. So thank you, Bed Brydon. Thank you, too, Genevieve Bern and all the others who shared the evening.
As coordinator of the Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy, my primary reaction to tonight is gratitude. Thank you, MMU faculty, for putting on this large discussion. It was the second of many events this fall, and about 80 people attended—again, an excellent turnout for this kind of event.
Next? Dr. Dennis Dew, who wrote an excellent column for the Gazette related to his topic, speaks Thursday night on “Fear of an Immigrant Nation: Prejudice, Stereotyping & Discrimination.”
I hope to see you there. And if you have a personal story on immigration to tell, please do contact me. Oct. 15, right? Mark it down. It is intended as a day that will provide many opportunities to share.
See the MMU web site for more details.