The Invisible People

The Invisible People

Let’s do a little quiz. This is not to trick you, merely to expose a certain shocking level of reality.

Let’s say there is a group of people–of Americans–I’ll even give you that much. Now, this group is really up against it. Members are more likely to be killed by police than those of any other race or ethnic group. The women of this group are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than those of any other ethnicity, and 97 percent of them have experienced violence perpetrated by at least one person outside the group. Young people are twice as likely to be disciplined as their white peers in school are, and twice as likely to be incarcerated for minor crimes than teens of any other race; they also have the lowest graduation rates of any racial group, and they die by suicide at the highest rate of any demographic in the United States. What’s even more shocking is that most other Americans–whether of African, Asian Pacific, European, or Latinx ancestry, don’t know that this particular group of Americans even exists anymore. A well-intentioned person might shrug, “I’ve never seen them in media, or anywhere else, for that matter, at all.”

The above statistics are from an excellent article written for Teen Vogue by Rebecca Nagle (Cherokee). It was about the work of her colleague Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), whose major survey, “Reclaiming Native Truth,” showed among other incredulities that two-thirds of Americans simply do not believe Native people experience racial discrimination. This isn’t racism via the classic “otherizing” of oppressed people as “different”; this is an otherizing via complete erasure.

Not only do we rarely see news by and about Indigenous peoples in America, but when we do it’s the “if it bleeds it leads,” formula: a story on a secret graveyard being discovered, unearthing bodies of hundreds of Indian infants; or a case in the rising statistics of disappeared women in and around Wisconsin, Winnipeg, and environs–women who, if found at all, are found dead and dismembered. We hear or read the atrocity stories–and yes, they are major news and of course should be covered–but where are the positive stories, where do we see Native accomplishment, where are we given a chance to grasp Native history, which also happens to be the history of this country?

For that matter, where do we find Native people visible in contemporary affairs? The Women’s Media Center found that in a year of overlapping crises–a presidential election, an ongoing pandemic, heightened protests in community-police relations, the economy, environmental crises, and more–the cold-eyed erasure of Native peoples is all the more glaring on, for example, the five major Sunday morning news programs: ABC’s “This Week,” CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “CNN’s State of the Union,” MSNBC’s “Meet the Press,” and “Fox News Sunday,” not a single Indigenous woman appeared as a guest during all of 2020.

So the unspeakable, genocidable treatment of Native peoples in the Americas, some of which you can find in my blogpost, “The Thanksgiving Reality, “(dated 11.25.20) continues.

Even had the European conquest not decimated the populations already living in the New World nations, even had there not been deliberately smallpox-infected blankets distributed to Native peoples so that, having no resistance, they fell by the hundreds; even had Native children not been ripped from their families, forbidden their traditional belief systems, beaten if they spoke their language, shorn of their hair, and sent to perform menial labor for the European conquerors—even had none of that happened, the pain of the European invasion would still be evident today in the systemic, institutionalized racism that has added insult to agony, so as to “disappear” an entire people.

There are currently 193 member states in the United Nations, a number that has grown from the original 51. Each has its own unique culture, traditions, language(s), sociopolitical system, relationship to land, work, art, food, and so forth. In fact, many embrace diverse cultures within themselves. The United States is one.

That’s a lot of countries, 193 nations.

Today, in the U.S. alone, there are 573 federally recognized nations, with more than 5 million real, existing, Native people. And that’s not counting the pre-conquest, original number of Native Americans living in both South and North America, constituting a population as large as that of Europe.

That’s an even bigger lot of countries, 573 nations.

It takes a massive amount of deliberate activity to make and keep that many nations–each (yes, again) with its own unique culture, language, relationship to land, art, food, traditions, sociopolitical systems, and so forth–invisible. The loss to other Americans, and to the world, of contributions that could have been made, or that have been made but ignored, is immense.

But that time is over. The original inhabitants of this country–First Peoples–are no longer invisible. Proudly, invincibly, they are stepping into the light.