“Indians are the miner’s canary. They mark the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere, and our treatment of Indians even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall of our democratic faith.”
That quote, from famed 20th century lawyer Felix S. Cohen, was repeated by Kevin Gover, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian and member of the Pawnee tribe, at First Americans and New Americans: Building Alliances around Land, Citizenship and Sovereignty, a day-long conference in Washington, DC, last weekend. It was not too surprising a thing for a Native scholar to quote. But then Gover delivered a twist.
“I think that’s no longer true,” he said. “I think that it’s now true of immigrants, and that immigrants are the miner’s canary in America.”
Gover’s assessment hung in the air for a moment, but it felt right. The connection he was making, between Native people and immigrants, was the precise reason we were all there. The atmosphere was empowering and invigorating. Every discussion, every question was lined with respect and a genuine yearning for understanding. The momentum to create a more tangible plan of action of action took a backseat to the need to simply listen and connect.
One thing was clear, though: it would take a vast amount of work to create a sustainable coalition that can actually change things, up to and including rewriting the story we tell ourselves as a country. But given that so many attendees were already individually working towards progress, a powerful collaboration seemed like it could actually happen.
The conference was organized by Define American, a non-profit media company founded by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, in conjunction with the National Congress of American Indians and Arts in a Changing America. (Splinter’s parent company, Fusion Media Group, was one of the event’s sponsors.) The affair was prudently intimate, with about 50-60 attendees present, allowing both urgent conversations and steady deliberation. It was the kind of event where everyone expressed a nostalgic thrill to see each other even if they were just meeting for the first time. And while the crowd was small, there were some big names—like icon Dolores Huerta, undocumented activist and former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer Erika Andiola, former Obama special assistant Jodi Archambault Gillette, and NPR’s Maria Hinijosa—in attendance.
First Americans and New Americans is the first conversation in what is hoped to be a continuous dialogue between Native American tribes and the immigrant community. While the immigrant organizations largely focused on Latinx people, the event was clearly intended to represent the broader immigrant struggle.
The breakout discussion topics ranged from food systems to land sovereignty to environmental justice, but the bulk of the conversations were rooted in bonding and exchanging stories and sharing the histories and oppression that is too often left out of textbooks.
“Learning each others’ stories is really important,” Huerta told me after a panel she participated in called “Many Nations One Voice: Interdependency for Collaborative Frameworks.” “We can create understanding of how we got here, what people are going through…seeing what issues can we collectively join and move forward on.”
For example, the conversation regarding citizenship is fraught with uncertainty and fear for many immigrants, especially in the Trump era. But Native Americans have also had to fight for legal recognition in the U.S., despite being the original residents of this country.
“I find it ironic that the United States of America required, up until some time in the 20th century, documents for the first inhabitants, the first owners of the land, Native Americans, to leave the reservations,” Gilette, who is a policy adviser at a law firm that represents Native American tribes and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, told me. “And that United States did not recognize Native Americans as having citizenship until 1924. We are often described as the first Americans but we were actually the last Americans to be recognized to be citizens.”
The shared oppression between Native Americans and immigrants also led to a discussion of borders and the infamous border wall. The Tohono O’odham nation is the second largest Native American landholder in the United States, and its territory spans across the Mexican border. The tribe already has to contend with being racially profiled and accosted by Border Patrol agents. Trump’s wall would split it in half and could violate tribal land sovereignty.
It seemed that every conversation branched off into a dozen others, whether on borders, “Native” mascots, land rights, art, or combatting food deserts, which was discussed over a carefully planned menu put together by Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie and undocumented restauranteur Cristina Martinez.
Despite these endless and exciting threads, it was clear that, in order to create a cohesive movement and properly identify just what issues the two communities could come together on, they would have to start at the beginning: education.
“At the end of the convening, we publicly made a commitment with NCAI and the various immigrant organizations to work together on education, particularly curriculum, moving forward,” Reverend Ryan Eller, Executive Director of Define American, told me days after the conference ended.
“The history that we often tell our children is from the position of the oppressor, from the person who is in power and controls that narrative and controls that story,” Kitcki Carroll, Executive Director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, which represents 26 tribal nations, said. “As an indigenous person, that is not the correct story, that is not a truthful story, so when we look at what’s going on today and the divisiveness that exists in our country, there’s roots in that injustice.”
Part of rewriting a more realistic history is looking at the history of immigration in America.
“The conversation about what truly defines one as American has come up at different points in our history, particularly not in the best chapters in our history,” Clarissa Martinez, deputy vice president at Unidos US, said. “I think we look at the current backlash against immigrants and people who are perceived to be ‘other’ in this moment, and we forget about people who have gone through it in the past, even people who right now might be lashing out against the wave of new Americans.”
Martinez explained that there was a time when immigrants from Germany, Italian, Ireland, Japan and other places faced backlash, emphasizing the importance of remembering those histories and including multiple voices “to deal with those tortured chapters of American history.”
That idea—of cross-cultural remembrance and solidarity—felt symbolic of the conference as a whole. As the attendees strolled out of the room at the Kennedy Center on Friday afternoon, it didn’t feel like the responsibility they were taking on was completely new. After all, as activists and lawyers, they had been in the same trenches for a while. But there was something refreshing about the the prospect of uniting to overcome the legacy of divide and conquer, of allyship being forged, of the power in people helping each other reclaim their stories.
Fusion was a co-sponsor of the Define American event. The interviews in the video were filmed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
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