The Native Americans Changing the World

The Native Americans Changing the World

By Nick Fouriezos


Because they were here first.

By Nick Fouriezos

A country that wiped out much of its Native population now has its first Native American member of the Cabinet. Deb Haaland, who made it through a tight U.S. Senate vote Monday to become secretary of the interior, arrives in her post at a time of great possibility and ongoing struggles for America’s 574 federally recognized tribes. Who is fighting for their interests at the ballot box and the doctor’s office, protecting their past and their future? Today’s Daily Dose explores the Native Americans you need to know, including Haaland, and what’s next for a community at a crossroads.

know these names

Deb Haaland. When OZY first introduced you to Haaland in 2017, she was all but kneeling in silence – joining Albuquerque activists protesting Donald Trump’s deportation policies — as part of a career spent lifting the voices of others much more than her own. Now she has her biggest-ever platform as the head of a vast agency that manages 450 million acres of federal land and oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Haaland plans to use the post to attack the issue of missing and murdered women in Indian Country, where domestic violence rates are up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the country. She will also serve a major role in enacting President Joe Biden’s climate agenda, including a pause on natural gas fracking on public lands, even though Haaland has taken a harder line against fossil fuels in the past. Read more on OZY.

Jarrod Lowery. Native Americans lean toward Democrats and played a big role in turning Arizona blue last year, but much of the fuel for President Donald Trump’s 2020 victory in North Carolina came from the Lumbee Tribe. Lowery, a rising Republican operative in rural Robeson County, put it succinctly when telling Politico about his community’s shift from Democrat to Republican in recent years: “We are Christians, we’re very socially conservative, but we’re also working class.” Lowery helped lure Trump to Robeson County for a pivotal preelection rally where he pledged to fulfill a long-sought goal: federal recognition of the Lumbee Tribe. (Biden has made the same pledge, though a bill to do so failed last year in the Senate — and Biden never went to Robeson County.)

Sharice Davids. In 2018, the first Native American women elected to Congress were Haaland and Davids, a former MMA fighter and attorney who’s also the first openly LGBTQ Kansan in Congress. In Washington, she has been known to ask colleagues if they know how to break an arm … and if not, would they like her to show them? In a body where securing votes often requires arm-twisting, it’s a valuable leadership skill. She has emerged as a moderate swing vote and a policy leader on infrastructure, though her district could soon become more Republican-leaning thanks to redistricting — making it tough for her to be re-elected in 2022.

Davidica Little Spotted Horse. When the Native American activist and singer isn’t organizing concerts and powwow celebrations, she is getting interlopers off her lawn. Specifically, missionaries, whom she wants to stop from proselytizing on Native American reservations after some 15 churches sprouted up among the South Dakota wildflowers over the past decade, bringing thousands of missionaries to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And while the pandemic kept missionaries away last year, Little Spotted Horse expects another surge this year. She has helped secure legal requirements for background checks and drug testing for those working with children after several abuse cases, but she remains worried about evangelists who baptize children without their parents’ permission. Read more on OZY.

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Tony Enos. An Echota Cherokee, Enos doesn’t let his mixed Afro-Hispanic-Italian heritage or his Philly accent keep him from donning traditional head regalia and incorporating his community’s influences into his pop music. He was particularly inspired by the Native American concept of “Two Spirit” peoples, an accepted identity that encompasses queer folks in tribal lore spanning centuries. It’s allowed him to educate the next generation of musicians and tribal members through experimental musical forms. Last year he revealed his HIV-positive status in his album POSI+IVE, and is seizing the opportunity to advocate on behalf of those with HIV. Read more on OZY.

Alyce Sadongei. An archiving and preservation career led her to a leadership role at the Smithsonian Institution, where she became the first Native American to serve as director of the American Indian Museums Study program. Sadongei now leads the University of Arizona and six other institutions in digitizing more than 6,500 recordings of Native American oral histories. The wealth of information, from tribal council meetings to graduation ceremonies to simply people telling their stories, will be better preserved and searchable for the next generation.

Virginia Hedrick. Indigenous leaders in California are concerned that COVID-related deaths of Native Americans are being severely undercounted amid fears that embattled hospital staff too often misclassify the deceased as white, Latino or “other” on official death certificates. And people like Hedrick, executive director of the nonprofit Consortium for Urban Indian Health, are fighting back. “We’re born Indian and we die white,” she told USA Today. “For me, this is a culminating event. This is historical trauma in real time.” A public health veteran and member of California’s Yurok Tribe, Hedrick has helped prevent chronic disease and implement the Affordable Care Act among California’s Native Americans before turning her focus to the pandemic.

left behind

Standing Rock Reservation, COVID-19, December 2020, by Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

The COVID Battle. Native Americans are nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people, a consequence of poverty and a lack of access to health care that can be traced to a long history of neglect. But that hasn’t stopped Native Americans from taking their fate into their own hands: The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma kept its death rate lower than most American communities thanks to a history of self-reliance and help from a universal health care system. The White Earth Nation in Minnesota so successfully vaccinated its members that it even helped its non-tribal neighbors. So did Haaland’s Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico. The new COVID-19 relief law signed by President Biden will pump a fresh $6.1 billion into the Indian Health Service for vaccine distribution and other efforts.

Fight for Land Rights. Tribal fights to preserve land, from ordinary farms to what they consider sacred, ramped up in recent years as spiritually important locations from Yucca Mountain in Nevada to the Bears Ears area of southern Utah were threatened by federal government action. And they’ve won some surprising battles, including a U.S. Forest Service announcement in March that it was withdrawing a final environmental impact statement for a potential copper mine near Superior, Arizona, which would have been built on land sacred to Apache and other Southwestern tribes.

Whose History Is It? Brandi Grayson, a city council candidate in Madison, Wisconsin, launched a heated debate when she argued last month that Black people were the original inhabitants of America and credited them for building the ancient Cahokia Mounds near St. Louis — a view not held by mainstream historians. Tribal members across Wisconsin felt Grayson, who also used the slur “red” when referring to Native Americans, was erasing their cultural origin stories, saying “basically anything of value” created by Indigenous peoples should instead be attributed to ancient African Americans. Grayson said that wasn’t her intent, and that when Black people tell their story, there always seems to be pushback around “erasing someone else’s history.”

Thirsting for Justice. Sometimes the fight for rights comes down to life’s essentials: 58 out of every 1,000 Native American households lack indoor plumbing, compared with just 3 of every 1,000 white households, according to a 2019 report. The struggles are most acute in the Southwest, where Navajo Nation families often drive hours to haul barrels of water just to satisfy basic needs. That scarcity contributes to a number of health disparities, including higher death, poverty and unemployment rates, as explored recently on the OZY/BBC podcast, When Katty Met Carlos. Listen Now.

Native Lives Matter. A report published this month by the Spokane, Washington, police department shows that officers are 49 percent more likely to use force against Native American suspects than white or Asian ones — only African American suspects, at about 22 percent more likely, faced anywhere near the same level of violence. Similar trends nationwide have led some to call them the “forgotten minority” in police shootings, an absence of coverage that’s particularly jarring given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data in 2017 showing that Native Americans were being killed at a higher rate than any other demographic.

Boarding Nightmares. While many of the most flagrant abuses against Native Americans might seem centuries old, government-funded Catholic boarding schools for Native youth persisted well into the 20th century — and leave a horrific legacy. The schools in both Canada and the U.S. separated children from their parents and tribal communities, discouraged Native American culture and became breeding grounds for sexual abuse. The 2019 book Stringing Rosaries examined firsthand accounts from survivors in the Dakotas and Minnesota, finding rampant physical and sexual abuse. Although Catholic officials have apologized, conducted investigations and paid reparations to victims or their families, the Vatican has never issued a formal apology.

indigenous innovations

Preservation With a Digital Twist. Should historical sites be restored with preservation or authenticity in mind? The two values can be at odds: For instance, adding protective scaffolding to Peru’s earthen city of Chan Chan mars its original design but helps protect against intensifying storms from climate change. In the United States, tribal leaders are increasingly turning to technology, such as digital imaging software, to spur new conservation efforts. “If you have an artifact or item to preserve, you could use 3D imaging to replicate those items, where you don’t have to touch the original or affect them,” says James Rattling Leaf, a member of the South Dakota Rosebud Sioux tribe. Read more on OZY.

Wrecking the Old Philanthropy Order. Native Americans are seriously underrepresented in philanthropy efforts, even when compared to other minority groups, and their share of aid hasn’t budged for decades despite clearly demonstrated need. Indigenous leaders need to build a new philanthropic powerhouse, argues NDN Foundation managing director Gaby Strong. That strategic shift may include embracing the LANDBACK movement, an effort to demand full repatriation of wealth and lands stolen from Native peoples across America.

Seizing the Climate Fight. Perhaps no U.S. community has taken the threat of climate change more seriously, given their traditional, spiritual relationship with the land. American Indians have led the fight against projects from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to the Dakota Access Pipeline. And Indigenous activism around climate change has spread globally, to places such as the jungles of eastern Peru, where Indigenous peoples are fighting an influx of palm oil companies that contribute to rampant deforestation of traditional lands. Read more on OZY.

first nations to know

Uighurs. These persecuted people, predominantly Sunni Muslims, have attracted global attention because of Chinese abuses against them. But you may not realize that this Turkic ethnic group lays claim to being the Indigenous inhabitants of the Xinjiang province. That designation is disputed by the Chinese government, which only goes so far as to deem them one of 55 official ethnic minorities. Still, historians say that the region’s earliest settlers were likely Turkic-speaking Mongolian migrants, with the Uighurs as possible descendants, although they first appear by name in the eighth century as tribal groups predominantly living in oases along the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin.

Amazonians of Brazil. In September, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was using his time speaking before the United Nations to scapegoat Indigenous villages for the burning of the Amazon rainforest. They are fighting back against the conservative president and the ruralistas trying to buy up rural lands for profit, helped by the leadership of environmentalist activist Sônia Guajajara. Still, the COVID-fighting efforts of medical leaders in the region haven’t been helped by evangelical missionaries telling some tribes that the vaccine is dangerous and will turn them into alligators.


Aboriginal Australians. The former British penal colony has a brutal history with its Indigenous communities, enslaving them with no pay or wages as low as 3 percent of the average white worker while separating scores of aboriginal children from their families in what became known as the “Stolen Generations.” European colonization also resulted in a cultural genocide, with the roughly 300 languages spoken on continental Australia down to fewer than 60 today. However, younger Indigenous groups are combining traditional languages with modern English to spur a new surge in linguistic diversity, with amalgamations such as Kriol being spoken by tens of thousands across Australia.