by joe courter
Over the next month or so, the State of Florida will be hyping the “Viva 500” campaign to mark the arrival of Ponce De León on the Florida coast in 1513. This “celebration” brings back memories of the 1992 Columbus Quincentenary. Both of these events, while having historical significance, are not seen as things to celebrate by anyone with a notion of empathy toward native people. Both of these events marked the beginning of exploitation, degradation, the loss of land and culture, slavery, sickness and virtual extermination for the human beings who were living here in what the Europeans called the “New World.”
No matter how much heroic myth is spun around these European invaders of this continent, that they were culturally arrogant and quite often very cruel to the native people is undeniable. And unfortunately their pattern of behavior persists through the 500-plus years since Europeans started claiming the Americas as their own to profit from.
The person who first raised my awareness of the hidden injustice native peoples have suffered was folksinger Buffy-St. Marie and her 1964 song “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone.” (She is still making great music, too; find “No, No Keshagesh” here).
Last month I found a book by Peter Matthiessen called “Indian Country,” which moves around the country in the early 1980s and presents the historic and current struggle various tribes are facing—the reservation-induced poverty coupled with the loss of culture, the bureaucratic theft of lands for corporate or state gain, be it mineral, timber or water, the playing off of tribal factions to divide and conquer by way of money and/or violence.
From Miccosukee in Florida, to the Mohawks and Akwesasne in New York State, to the many tribes in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest’s Four Corners region—the patterns repeat themselves.
Addressing the Ponce De León anniversary has been in my mind for months. As I was home with the flu, I watched Obama’s Inauguration. Not one word about native people in the speech, but a surprising number of native dancers in the parade. That was hard to watch. I could not help but also think about the conquest for energy in the Middle East and other regions of the world, how the native people there get their land’s riches pulled right out from under them.
But then this past week, the Civic Media Center hosted a speaker from the Beehive Collective whose presentation and film dealt with a series of dam projects in Colombia in a concentrated area where the Andes meet the Amazon. Internationally funded dams, which will flood communities and cultures that have been there countless years, dams whose construction is not going to provide electricity to Colombian people but power the mining operations of these foreign countries, which will also do major environmental damage to the rivers near the mined areas.
It’s disgusting, sad, and unfortunately more of the same pattern of exploitation. Celebrate? I think not.
On the plus side, particularly in Canada, but also in the U.S., “First Nations” people, as Native Americans are called there, are organizing in a big way over energy exploitation issues. The recent Keystone XL pipeline protests in D.C. had a large representation from tribal organizations from both sides of the border, and the “Idle No More” in Canada has galvanized a general awakening on many energy extraction issues. Technology has put people in touch and allowed broad organizing, even world wide through the UN. But the lure of jobs and development is also on people’s minds in these regions of resource riches, and governments who need capital, too. The re-election of otherwise progressive Rafael Correa in Ecuador means their energy extraction deals with China will be moving ahead despite the transgressions on native people’s lands.
The struggles are complex, accelerating, and as old as the hills.
* This is a lyric from the classic John Prine song “Paradise.” You can listen to it here: http://youtu.be/XyPTIOJuWws