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  • Pamela ZAHM
    The task of breaking American Indian stereotypes, dispelling myths and putting tribal issues into context falls on the media, the public s primary source of
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 28, 2005

        The task of breaking American Indian stereotypes,
       dispelling myths and putting tribal issues into
       context falls on the media, the public's primary
       source of information. If the press doesn't
       understand us, the public will never get past the
       stereotypical ignorance that has plagued Indians
       from the day the first European arrived. 
        Tribal leaders have an obligation to do what they
       can to educate both the public and the media. No
       less than the future of American democracy is at
       stake, along with a rare chance to alter generations
       of failed relations between Indians and non-Indians.
        The media can help free non-Indians of the residual
       ethnocentricity and racism buried in the dark
       recesses of history and myth. They also can help
       free America's original people from the lethal grip
       of despair and generational cycle of dysfunction
       that result from being viewed as disposable icons,
       defined to fit the designs of others.

        The perception of American Indians is framed not by
       the thousands of years we lived on the North
       American continent, but by our short, largely
       confrontational relationship with European
       immigrants. Our culture and long history in this
       country has been ignored. Instead, we have been
       characterized by conflicting and changing public attitudes
       ranging from ''the only good Indian is a dead Indian''
       to the romanticized ''noble savage,''
       keepers of the lost innocence of the Garden of Eden.
        In the past, we were treated as obstacles to
       Manifest Destiny, anachronisms with no place in the
       emerging country. That belief led to exploitation,
       war, genocide and exile from our ancestral land and
       culture. The view of indigenous people as expendable
       and obsolete remains in the nation's conscience.
        The victors not only get the spoils of war, but they
       get to write the history. The unexamined portrayal
       of American Indians and this country's history needs
       to be debunked and exposed because the self-serving
       rationalizations of the past are still robbing
       generations of American Indians of our lives and
       future. It also dishonors America's ethical claim as
       a culturally diverse democracy.

        Elders told me some time ago that they wanted me to
       be chairman. In doing so, they charged me with
       finding an economic base for our tribe so we could
       become self-reliant and once again control our
       destiny. They sought the means to generate income
       for our government and jobs for our people.
        My people wanted to meet our governmental
       responsibilities to our community and land, as our
       ancestors had done. They wanted to finally exercise
       the retained sovereignty promised us in treaties,
       the U.S. Constitution and legal precedent.
        Governments cannot function without funds. And a
       strong government and resources are necessary to
       instill Native pride and secure a share in the
       American dream. The elders knew that our people must
       have an investment and voice in our future.
        It was also a matter of survival.
        Viejas elders wanted our tribe to stand on its own
       two feet, free of the federal government's crippling
       policies that kept us in perpetual poverty and
       dependency. They saw the social and cultural
       dysfunction and hopelessness that resulted from
       being at the mercy and political whims of states and
       the federal government.
        Between dependency on other governments and benign
       neglect, Indian people were not just starving from a
       cultural and economic standpoint - we were also
       slowly committing social suicide.
        We were poor. And we were hungry: not just for
       resources to feed our families, but for justice.
        My mission to find an economic base didn't challenge
       me as much as the realization that part of my job
       description as chairman would be to interact with
       the media. Indians don't like to talk to the media;
       it's a trust issue that goes back more years than I
       can count. Whoever speaks to the media usually takes
       political heat from the tribe. And then I discovered
       the idea of context.
        Most people criticized because of a quoted remark in
       a newspaper or magazine give the same excuse: ''I
       was quoted out of context.'' I decided the idea of
       context was something I should keep in mind for
       future reference.
        Context is important in the media.
        Gaming and our newfound government revenues gives us
       a real chance to once again exercise our
       sovereignty. Yet my heart worries that for every
       inch we give, others will take a mile and more. Such
       has been the lessons of our past, a tortured history
       that is difficult for American Indians to forget.
        Our success creates conflicts with other governments
       and competition in the marketplace. Our success
       upsets the status quo, whether political or
       economic. We are forced to play politics to protect
       our interests. This, too, is new to us. As those in
       the press know better than anyone, politics on the
       national and state level is at best a minefield,
       where even the most experienced players get tripped
        So, to put things into context, sovereignty at this
       point in time is an evolving process. It's a
       learning experience for Indians and non-Indians
       alike. All previous federal policies that attempted
       to exterminate, assimilate, coerce or patronize
       Indians failed. Even the best-intentioned policies
       of providing for Indians failed. We do best, like
       all people, when we are the caretakers of our own
        Harvard University research has shown that Indians
       have the solutions to the endemic problems of
       poverty that federal oversight was never able to
       resolve. Strong Indian governments - governments
       that take their self-rule seriously and responsibly
       produce the most functional and long-lasting
       economic development.
        The success of our businesses depends on our
       sovereignty and how well we exercise it. And
       educating people about sovereignty is important
       because our future will be determined in the court
       of public opinion.
        Our ancestors demand better of us. They were
       survivors who paid a great price that we might one
       day have the means to once again prevail as a
       people. We owe them the opportunity they never had:
       to prove that we are capable and viable governments,
       ready and willing to contribute to this land we
       share and love.
        If we fail to grasp this opportunity to exercise our
       sovereignty, we forfeit the future of our children
       and their rightful place in America.
      Constitutional scholar Felix Cohen once said, ''Like
       the miners' canary, the Indian marks the shift from
       fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere
       and our treatment of Indians ... reflects the rise
       and fall in our democratic faith.''
        Indeed, the integrity of America and democracy is
       once again being tested. And the test will be to see
       if this great experiment in freedom and equal
       opportunity finally applies to American Indians.
      Anthony R. Pico is Chairman of the Viejas Band of
       Kumeyaay Indians. 



      Native American Rights Fund
      National Congress of American Indians,
      American Indian Movement
      Indigenous Environmental Network
      United Nations Environment Network

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