When President Lyndon B. Johnson was about to sign the Immigration and Nationality Act on Oct. 3, 1965, he chose to do it at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. That day he said, “Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide.”
Built by a nation of strangers? An empty land? Joining and blending? Every Native American worth his or her salt would bridle at those words of such monumental ignorance and for those paltry words to be spoken by the President of the United States makes it overwhelmingly appalling. Johnson was probably parroting the opinions of the majority of Americans about America’s indigenous people: out of sight, out of mind, out of consideration. What in the hell are Native Americans: chopped liver?
Every human being that landed on the shores of America was an immigrant. They came to this land from Europe bringing along their baggage filled with religious strife and racial prejudice. They discovered that this was not an empty land, but a land filled with thousands upon thousands of industrious and spiritual people. They took from the Natives their industriousness in order to survive and crushed the spiritual because it was not only beyond their comprehension, but a challenge to the teachings of their Holy Bible.
The immigrants certainly did no “joining and blending” after their initial contact with the Natives. Instead armed with guns and the diseases that nearly decimated a race of people, they set out in the name of Manifest Destiny to take by hook, crook and force the lands they deemed to have been willed to them by their Almighty God.
The “joining and blending” was totally one-sided. The Natives either joined or blended or they were obliterated. The “irresistible tide” flowed from east to west until it reached the shores of California and every human being in its path either joined the flow or was drowned in its inexorable journey.
The American people should stop and examine with an open mind the path that brought them to the place where they now stand and they should examine that progress in all of its austerity, warts and all.
I believe we can trace the movement away from discrimination against African Americans in some fashion. But the prejudice against American Indians is much harder to define.
We know that on July 26, 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 the act that desegregated the United States Armed Forces.
I was in the Armed Forces in 1951, just three years after the supposed desegregation of the military, and I saw firsthand the internal struggles in the military to bring Black soldiers, sailors and marines into an integrated unit. Blacks, for the most part, were in the motor pool, serving as stewards to the officers, or working in the kitchens and laundry rooms of the military. Executive Order 9981 had the greatest of intentions, but implementing it into a military that had far too long been segregated, took much longer because the military is also an entrenched bureaucracy and like any bureaucracy, resists change.
But change did happen and soon the change became the norm. Watching African Americans in television sitcoms and in commercials helped many Americans to see past skin color.
The path taken by the African Americans to full participation as American citizens came full circle when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. It was a long and oftentimes torturous journey.
But equal rights are still a bone of contention for Native Americans. States with large Native populations have come a long way since American Indians were given citizenship and the right to vote in 1924. And that always strikes me as so odd when it was Native Americans that welcomed the immigrants to this land and then had to stand in line behind them in order to gain two of America’s most basic rights.
I have been begging Mr. David Bordewyck, director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, to please allow me to address the newspaper men and women of this state at their next convention to talk about racism and the media, but so far my pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Like I said, Native Americans still have a long way to go to overcome discrimination and it’s doubly hard when White Americans don’t even want to talk about it. Out of sight, out of mind and out of consideration is a credo so embedded in the American media when it comes to Native Americans that not one reporter or news organization even questioned the ignorant remarks by President Johnson in his 1965 speech even though it grated upon the ears of every living Native American. What in the heck does that tell you?
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Lakota Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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