Confronting America’s colonial past and present

I have always heard there are pockets of news and news realities that fly way under our collective radar screen. It took a trip through the Southwest last week for me to understand firsthand that there are countless stories that are not censored, but curiously and tellingly overlooked.

On the train from Albuquerque, N.M., to California, I stumbled onto a daily from Gallup, N.M., that is almost entirely devoted to American Indian news. To me, American Indian daily newspapers represent alternative – at least additional – news and information sources, describing a country few of us – myself included – know enough about.

If we read the native press, we learn a great deal about how local and federal governments treat the first peoples of the United States. We also learn there are pockets of resistance we are just not privy to, such as the American Indian communities in Minnesota and in other states that strive for federal recognition as sovereign nations while also fighting to preserve their lands, culture and history.

Three American Indian women I met along my journey last week can trace their roots back to Yosemite National Park, a place that, according to historian Mark Spence’s book “Dispossessing the Wilderness,” “Native peoples either abandoned Ö involuntarily or were forcefully restricted to reservations.” The women I met spoke of their struggles with nearby tribes, the National Park Service – which claims the women’s ancestors lineage died out – and the media. The women told me they have difficulty getting the media to listen to and understand the complexity of their stories and to learn about their efforts to stop the development of 52 acres at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls.

The Lemhi Shoshone of Idaho are similarly struggling for federal recognition while they fight over Sacajawea (note: their spelling) and the ownership of her identity. Currently, the Mandan (Sakakawea) and the Eastern Shoshone also lay claim to her.

The Lemhi Shoshone story is not unlike that of the Mendota-Mdewakanton Dakota Community, which has been struggling for federal recognition in Minnesota while trying to stop the construction on Highway 55. That same community is now trying to stop the construction of a housing development on Pilot Knob hill in Mendota Heights, Minn., the site of numerous Dakota burials and several Dakota and Ojibwe treaties. All these tribes – the Yosemite, Lemhi Shoshone and Mendota-Mdewakanton – are trying to attract attention from the mainstream press.

Many of you think you have an answer as to why these noteworthy stories have barely seen the light. You say, “Oh, these stories are not important enough to make national or even regional news.” I argue that there is a different reason why we do not hear about these issues and it is a reason that implicates all of us. We are all partners – aiding and abetting – in a persistent process couched in the legacy of colonialism.

Indeed, as the cases above illustrate, the remnants of colonialism are powerful and unfold daily in, around and regarding indigenous communities throughout the United States.

November is National American Indian Heritage Month, yet we are more than halfway through November and the Daily has now only published two columns and no news stories about native America.

We should always be careful when we think we know what is going on in the world, or even in the United States. Our gross collective ignorance affects millions of other people, particularly indigenous peoples globally.

The myth of the vanishing American Indian is pervasive. All of us, including the media, help promote and demonstrate daily the deep tragedy of that message. But if we begin to understand the history of American Indians, we learn a radically different history of the United States, and we can begin to confront our colonial past and present.

Joel T. Helfrich’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. Send comments to [email protected]