Once again President Trump has lowered the dialogue regarding Indian people to a new low with a tweet invoking the Battle of Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre, one of the bloodiest massacres in the history of the United States, where women, children and Native men were brutally murdered after surrendering their weapons. For a long time, there has been a debate in Indian Country about how, whether and when to engage this President when he mocks Indian people in his quest to embarrass Elizabeth Warren. Today, we say no more. We with all Great Plains tribes and Indian Country demand an apology from this President and a return to the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the United States – headed by this President. The national dialogue has slowly devolved to the point where racist comments are mentioned in passing. That’s because many people believe that once the President leaves office there will be a return to normalcy – that if we just bide our time and wait him out that civility will return. Indian Country can’t wait for that.
The Wounded Knee Massacre is most notable for how it occurred. Native men, women and children were herded to a camp called Wounded Knee. After surrendering their weapons, U.S. soldiers descended on the camp, killing our people as they tried to run from men on horses. No one was spared – not the men who had no weapons to fight with, not the mothers who died trying to protect their children and not the children. The intent was to wipe out the Indians. For anyone who thinks that this shameful part of Indian history—of U.S. history — should be used to mock a potential presidential opponent, I say shame on you.
For anyone who thinks this battle was in the past and we should all “move on from it” we remind you of something startling. The violence against our women has not stopped. Native women are victimized at a higher rate than any other group. Yet we still have to fight for protection against non-Indians in the Violence Against Women Act, where some will claim that tribal governments don’t have the jurisdiction to protect our own citizens. In that same reauthorization, we will want to expand that jurisdiction to children. Imagine having to ask the federal government for the right to protect your citizens, and to have to ask for the right to arrest those who come onto the reservation and beat, rape and murder our women. This is not history, this is today.
If you ask the person on the street right now what they know about Indian people and tribal governments, what they are likely to bring up Trump and Warren and DNA testing. What they won’t bring up is the government-to-government relationship that exists between tribal governments and the United States government, the treaties, the trust responsibility and the failed federal policies that started with the founding of this country and continue today.
They won’t know that because of that federal relationship, Indian Tribes and their citizens are the hardest hit with the government shutdown. That some of the most impoverished people in the United States rely on their federal partner to uphold their federal services, funding, and obligations to Indian people. What they won’t know is when the continuing resolution expired so did the authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which finally affords some protection for Native women who are abused by non-Natives. What they won’t know is the $5 billion that is being discussed to end the shutdown would fully fund the Indian Health Service, which is in dire need of federal funding so that Indian people in this country can have the standard of healthcare afforded other communities. What they won’t know is that $5 billion could build the schools needed to provide adequate and safe education for Indian people and end the current backlog which would take 60 years to fulfill. What they won’t know is that the shutdown means that federal law enforcement on reservations are working without pay when they already work understaffed, underpaid and have territories to cover the size of some states in the U.S..
It is worth pointing out that this President disbanded the White House Council on Native American Affairs and the last Tribal Nations Summit was during the Obama Administration. There has been an Acting Indian Health Service Director since the beginning of this Administration, now over two years. There is an Acting Secretary of the Interior since Ryan Zinke left at the December. A partnership is only as strong as its weakest member, so the partnership between Indian Country and the federal government is suffering right now. And yet, the national dialogue continues to devolve while our people suffer.
Most Americans don’t know these things, because instead of talking about the issues that impact Native people, the President is denigrating tribal governments in 280 character tweets.
The relationship between the federal government ant tribal nations is a partnership. A partnership begins with respect. That respect will begin when the President apologizes for his latest tweet and reaches out in partnership to tribes.
Larry Wright Jr.
Ponca Tribe of Nebraska