Mark Charles: Taking another step to form a more perfect union

If I had to translate her words into Navajo, I would say “ádin.” Ádin means nothing, none, zero.

I couldn't believe my ears. I was visiting Iowa in the first week of January during an election year. Presidential candidates were crisscrossing the state—kissing babies, shaking hands, and pleading for the vote of everyone they met. Campaign events were taking place in high school gymnasiums, community centers, and local businesses throughout the state. Many of the people I met had personal stories of meeting one of the candidates, shaking their hands, and talking about their issues.

There are 99 counties in the state of Iowa, and a few of the candidates were taking the time to stop and hold campaign events in each and every one of them. But there I was, just a day before the caucuses, standing in the community center and tribal offices of the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama, Iowa, with the tribe’s executive director telling me that not a single presidential candidate had held a campaign event in their community.

I shouldn't have been surprised. After all I live on the Navajo Reservation. Our reserve is nearly 26,000 square miles with about 300,000 enrolled tribal members, and I cannot recall in my lifetime a presidential candidate visiting our reservation and campaigning directly to our people. But for some reason I thought Iowa, during the primary season, would be different. There, retail politics is the norm and EVERY vote is supposed to count. But as I learned that afternoon, that is not entirely true. Even for tribes living in the middle of one of the most heavily campaigned to states in our country, I learned that the Founding Fathers’ vision for this country still prevailed in 2012.

As a nation we often point to the document signed in 1776 as the foundation of our freedoms and the declaration of our principals. We hold up the country’s Founding Fathers as great visionaries; men who had a hope of a world of equality. But that is a myth. A legend. Their statement, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." was not a Declaration of Independence for many of the people who lived in this land. Rather, it was a Declaration of Dominance, a change of masters, a limitation of freedom, and for some, the foundation for genocide.

For we learned a few years later, when many of these same men penned the Constitution of the United States of America, that "all men" did not refer to women, African slaves, or Native Americans. These groups were specifically excluded from participation in this grand experiment. Their wombs, their labor, and their lands would be used. But the people, the individuals, and their communities would not be allowed to participate.

As this country expanded, specific policies were implemented against Native Americans such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which gave legal cover for atrocities, such as the Trail of Tears for the Cherokee in 1838 and the Long Walk for the Navajo in 1864. This country wanted our land, but not our vote. They wanted our resources, but not our voices. In fact, Native Americans were one of the last groups to receive the right to vote. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted us citizenship and the right to vote. But, because voting is a states’ right, the states of New Mexico and Arizona effectively barred Native Americans from voting until 1948. (ACLU - Timeline: Voting Rights Act)

By studying our history, learning about these policies, and living on our reservation, I have experienced firsthand that our Founding Fathers’ vision was to create a nation where the indigenous peoples of this land would have as little opportunity as possible to participate in or influence the governance of this country. Out of sight and out of mind is where they wanted us. And to that end, they were largely successful. Even today, presidential candidates are able to campaign and get elected without ever needing to court the Native American vote. Decisions regarding tribal sovereignty and treaty rights have been delegated to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, now a part of the Department of the Interior. Our country can hold a national debate on immigration reform without soliciting input from indigenous peoples, who for over 500 years have borne the brunt of injustices perpetrated by “undocumented immigrants.”

But for me, the last straw that demonstrated the need for more immediate change was when I learned that on December 19, 2009 the US government officially apologized to Native peoples without even speaking to us. Page 45 of the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act (H.R. 3326) contains a buried "Apology to Native Peoples of the United States." This non-specific, non-binding apology was never publicized, announced, or publically read by Congress or the President.

This apology and the way it was buried demonstrated the severity of the situation, and that even today, in the 21st Century, Native peoples are not considered equals in this land. So I decided that I had to respond. If my government did not have the respect to read this apology and communicate it directly to the elders, leaders, and peoples of our Native communities, then I would do it—honestly, respectfully, and publicly.

On the third anniversary of the signing of this Act, I have reserved space near the Reflecting Pool in front of the US Capitol. On that day, a diverse group of citizens are coming together to publically read H.R. 3326. The appropriations portion of this bill (pages 1–45) will be read by the Native Americans in attendance in an effort to respectfully, yet clearly, highlight the irony of burying such important and historic words in a Department of Defense Appropriations Act.

The apology portion of this Act (sub-section 8113) will be translated into several native languages and be read by some of the non-native people in attendance. This will serve as a reminder to our leaders that when an apology is made, it should be communicated as clearly, sincerely, and respectfully as possible to the intended audience.

I am proud to be Navajo, and I am proud to be an American. I love this country, and I love our land. I know history cannot be changed, but I do believe the trajectory it puts us on can be adjusted. I want to teach my children that they can read the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution with pride and hope—not because the Founding Fathers were perfect, but because they acknowledged they were beginning a journey. They created a government where leadership was not inherited and wrote a constitution that could be amended.

One of the reasons the swearing into office of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States was such a historic event both for our country and the world, was because as a nation we demonstrated that our real strength is found, not in our wealth or in our military might, but in our ability to change, to learn, and to adapt. The Founding Fathers may not have ever envisioned that the Union they were establishing would someday elect as its leader someone who did not look like them. But we did, and while the transition was bumpy and the last four years have had its fair share of turmoil, it happened and as a nation and a people we have grown.

So I am inviting you—our nation— leaders, citizens, immigrants and Native peoples to join me on December 19, 2012, to take another step in this journey, and begin A New Conversation in our never ending quest to form a more perfect union.

Mark Charles is the son of an American mother (of Dutch heritage) and a Navajo father. He lives with his family on the Navajo Reservation and seeks to understand the complexities of our country's history regarding race, culture, and faith in order to help forge a path of healing and reconciliation for the nation. (Twitter: @wirelesshogan, Web: wirelesshogan.com)

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