The following section contains content surrounding the historical context and current presence of anti-Indigenous rhetoric and prejudice. This content may be sensitive to those who identify as Native American, Native Hawaiian, or Indigenous.
Settler-colonialism: the goal of settler-colonization is to eradicate and replace indigenous peoples in order to seize the land for use of the settlers now and for the future. This means that while settlers are still living on stolen land, settler-colonialism is still actively taking place. This also means that not only are those who seized land years ago settler-colonizers, but all non-Indigenous people are settler-colonizers. Benefits of settler-colonialism fall along a spectrum; while all settlers benefit from colonization, those who were brought to settler states as slaves, indentured servants, refugees (and their ancestors) may not benefit to the same degree as descendants from European settlers.
Native erasure: the deletion of Indigenous history and people from U.S. historical narratives as well as modern dialogues of racism and oppression. This invisibility allows non-Native people to fill in these knowledge gaps in the form of racist tropes, stereotypes, and misinformation that in turn continues to hurt Native people. Additionally, this erasure makes it difficult to discuss not only the barriers, racism, and dehumanization that Native folx face, but also the legacies, histories, and culture that inform Native identity and community development.
Cultural appropriation: the use of an element of one culture by another culture. Most often, the element(s) is taken out of context, devoid of its original meaning, and exploited for the gain of the appropriating culture. In this way, others are benefitting from these cherry-picked cultural elements without the trauma and discrimination that the original culture faces, nor with the input or approval from the original culture. Cultural appropriation has been used as a tool of colonialism, taking elements of Native culture for financial or social gain while dismissing the critiques of Native communities while simultaneously forbidding Native folx to practice their own culture.
What is happening?
Indigenous Americans face police brutality and legal discrimination, sexual violence, and substance use issues beyond any other community in the United States. Indigenous Americans also have the highest physical health, mental health, economic, and education disparities of any racialized U.S. group. Right now, COVID-19 has devastated Navajo communities at a rate far beyond any other group because of these exact disparities.
Indigenous American culture has been reduced to culturally appropriated symbols and phrases like headdresses, tomahawks, and “spirit animals” in the cultural gaps left by Native erasure. Current cultural reckoning has many sports teams and universities contemplating changing names and mascots, more than two hundred years after forced relocation and assimilation of Indigenous American people erased cultural nuances, rituals, and values of a vast diversity of tribes. Neverending exposure to this stereotyping and appropriation, ongoing destruction to homeland, and continued opposition to affirmative action initiatives are daily, racist, perpetual triggers of harm towards Native peoples. These harms are horrifically apparent in the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women that continues to mount daily.
These ongoing atrocities exist off campus and on campus. Stanford’s legacy of having an “Indian” as a mascot ended in 1972, but alumni continue to come back to campus wearing appropriated Indigenous American symbols and lamenting the loss of racist imagery, enacting and continuing modern-day conquest. Indigenous languages have been underfunded and shoved into the “special languages” section of Stanford’s language center, meaning that the languages of colonizers are taught at Stanford while indigenous languages are not.
Why is it happening?
Simply put, these things continue to happen because European settler colonists murdered, enslaved, and dislocated Native people for their land and modern U.S. culture continues to devalue and dismiss the voices of surviving Native communities.
The ancestors of Indigenous people had migrated to the western continents over 13,000 calendar years ago, with waves of communities, tribes, and vast cities ever since. Through domestication of maize anywhere from 7000-12,000 years ago through cultivation of sophisticated governing systems, architectural and irrigational structures, and feats of scientific innovation, indigenous civilizations had accomplished great complexity and accomplishment before European contact and consequential genocide; the largest capital city on the Western continent was as large as European cities at that time and larger than London, Madrid, and Rome.
Once settler-colonialism began in the 1600s, so did the erasure of indigenous people and their history.
As colonists and missionaries descended upon Native people, their records and monuments were destroyed. Disease brought from colonists, especially catalyzed by the enslavement and trafficking of African people, along with murder and enslavement wiped out 80-90% of indigenous people between 1492 and 1600. This means that 55 million people, 10% of the world’s population at that time, were murdered or died as a direct result of colonialism.
The atrocities continued to manifest in pervasive ways. Indigenous Americans were subjected to forced assimilation to white society through the creation of ongoing systems intent on eradicating Native culture. With aspirations to “kill the Indian...save the man”, ideas of whiteness were taught to directly replace values and belief systems like communalism, spirituality, and gender fluidity in forced education; this included converting indigineous peoples to Christianity, replacing ancestral languages with English, adopting values of material wealth and private property, and reducing gender and gender roles to a patriarchal binary. Even after this erasure of Native culture and tradition and numerous broken treaties, forced removal of Native people continued. One of the most horrific of these federal removals was named the “Trail of Tears”, where after being forcibly taken from homes, stripped of all possessions, taken away from their ancestral lands, and shackled; an estimated 15,000 people died along a 5000 mile trail due to insufficient clothing, food, and medical treatment.
Once removed from land and placed on reservations, Native people were continually coerced and forced to assimilate to white culture and give up remaining land. Legislation pushed continued privatization of reservation land in non-Native, patriarchal ways, blood quantum ideas defined Native Americans out of land ownership and existence, and the government instituted deceptive incentive programs to relocate to cities. The land allotted to reservations was deemed worthless and uncultivable to white settlers, resource deficient, and isolated from urban and transportation centers, which sentenced reservation life to poverty. The ongoing challenges created by poverty, poor teacher and student attrition, and lack of funding have ensured widespread educational disparities. Lack of government funding, lack of medical resources and prevention research, lack of healthy food options, isolation from resourced networks all contribute to barriers to adequate healthcare and health outcomes, leaving Native people vulnerably exposed to health disparities and additional harm like COVID-19. The legacy and current status of racism, discrimination, erasure of tradition, social and emotional distress, and other factors contribute to increasing rates of substance use, interpersonal violence, and suicide for Native folx. Highest rates of violence, including sexual violence, against women can be traced to the imposition of Christian patriarchal ideas that stripped women of their kinship ties, legal rights to community leadership and farming, and Native traditions of co-dependence.
What can I do?
In order to rectify current problems of colonialism, decolonization is the main solution. While there are different definitions of decolonization, they all require the centering of indigenous peoples and the rejection of colonialism. Here are a few ways in which to do your part in decolonization:
As with other hatred and oppression, anti-indigenous racism does not exist within a vacuum. While Indigenous Americans face unique barriers, racism, and abuse, it is the overarching system of white supremacy that affects all racialized people. Advocating for rights and reparations for Native folx includes the fight for reparations for Black people, confronting classist structures, dismantling colonial ideas of gender, and more. Through decolonization and liberation from anti-indegenous white supremacy, all people will be liberated.
To fight against these systems takes continued learning and continued self-care; social justice work necessitates humility, ongoing education, and self-preservation. Taking care of ourselves ensures that we can continually and sustainably strive for liberation.
Land Acknowledgements and #LandBack
Acknowledge the land you are on, not as a performance, but as an act of solidarity with Indigenous peoples. Public speaking isn’t the only time acknowledgements should be given. Actively normalizing the acknowledgement and centering of the value of Indigenous visibility gives you opportunities to share in the burden of educating others and encourages others to learn and do the same. Start by researching what and whose land you are on. Learn about the history of the indigenous people who have been relocated and displaced and perhaps the legacy of the Stanford Native community. Learn the proper pronunciation of the words that indigenous people choose to identify themselves, their land, and their traditions with. Explore LandBack initiatives, such as the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, as the next integral step into not only acknowledging the indigenous roots and peoples of the land you occupy, but returning land to their initial stewards in order to move towards collective liberation.
Fight Native Erasure
Land acknowledgements, while important, are not enough without continued action, challenge to colonial systems, and ongoing solidarity with indigenous folx and their stated initiatives. This starts with awareness of appropriative language and imagery (e.g. referring to hierarchy as totem poles, referring to meetings as powwows, Indian symbols as mascots, “chief). Research anti-indigenous language and representation that can be removed and challenged. Include Indigenous folx in statistics, discussions of racialized peoples, and disparities. Create visibility throughout content and within paradigms by including Indigenous community issues and naming settler-colonialism. Educate yourself on the history, ongoing impacts of settler colonialism on Native peoples, and issues facing Native folx.
Actively Invest in Indigenous Communities
Acknowledgment is nothing without atonement. While we can acknowledge our place on stolen Indigenous lands, it is also important that we take steps to actively atone for that theft and its impact. Inclusion and centering of Indigenous voices in talking about things like Thanksgiving and climate change is a great place to start. But one can also support Indigenous communities financially through investment in Tribal organizations and businesses. Consider making it an intentional practice to research Native-owned businesses near you and patronizing them whenever possible. If traveling for work or play, look into staying at Tribally-owned hotels- with over 560 Tribes in the United States, you’d be surprised at how available Tribes are for business.
Vote & Change Systems
If we are committed to decolonization, this internal and interpersonal work cannot be separated from also looking at social, legal, financial, and educational systems. Support and enact policies that work to eradicate disparities in Native communities and provide resources to fight the disappearance, abuse, and murder of Native women. This includes affirmative action, hiring Indigenous folx, fairly paying them for their emotional labor, teaching history that centers Indigenous narratives and not ones of the colonizer. Follow the recommendations and suggestions of Native-led organizations and news platforms in how you vote, where you send your money, and initiatives to support.