We Need to Learn and Act on Lessons from Indigenous People
Updated: Feb 28
We did our best, but 60 minutes isn’t enough time to cover the heritage and culture of Indigenous people, let alone solve, all the policies, rulings and wrongs that need to be righted.
Ben Steere, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Western Carolina University
Trey Adcock, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Director of American Indian & Indigenous Studies at the University of North Carolina.
Indigenous people have a right to the same economic opportunity and rights as White Americans, so let’s shift our time, funds and effort to activities that deliver them.
Inject education with the history of Indigenous people in the United States, how they were treated by the United States government, and the results of that treatment.
Learn about Indigenous cultures, their plight today, and how we might work together to restore their opportunity to live life to the fullest in our local communities.
Teach ourselves by exploring available information collaborating to ensure indigenous people have the same rights and access to opportunities as White Americans.
To the Cherokee, human life is symbiotic with nature — sky, land, and water and the weather that comes with them, plus the plants and animals that provide not only fruit and vegetables, but the raw materials for food and water vessels, tools, and clothes.
Life is balanced. It all works together to form, give and replenish life. The Cherokee call this balance Tohi, and it is crucial to health and wellness.
Indigenous people responded to nature, preparing for winter by storing food in the fall, emerging from the winter cold to gather the fruits and vegetables and hit the animals that come with the spring and summer.
What nature gave, from the clay for pottery, to the fruits and vegetables and animals for food, to the same plants and animals for clothing and tools to eat, hunt and simplify tasks.
Indigenous people only used what they needed. They did not waste anything, nor overuse the natural resources available form the land and water on which they lived. They did not to seek to control or own the land. It was for everyone.
The stories, dances, rites of passage — the culture of Indigenous people — reflected their relationship with the land and nature and how people are all linked to nature’s balance.
This balance was forever disrupted by the discovery of The New World by Europeans until finally, in the 19th-and 20th-century in the United States, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans were forcibly removed from the land they occupied stripped of their language, culture, and communities.
Christian explorers and later the American government did this following their faith in decrees and concepts that became known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which originated when Pope Alexander VI’s decreed in 1493 that it should be a priority to ensure “that especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.
Another central aspect of the doctrine is the idea that land not already occupied by Christians was considered free for Christian Europeans to take, regardless of whether any people already lived on it. Non-Christian inhabitants could be converted and spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.
The Marshall Trilogy, named for three rulings under Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall from 1823-1832, allowed Indigenous people to retain the rights to use their occupancy and determined that tribes are sovereign nations with the authority to govern themselves.
However, the Supreme Court found that Native Americans had no land rights because the religion and character of Native Americans, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, was inferior to Europeans’ “superior genius.”
The Court ruled that only the United States government can settle land claims related to Indigenous people, and it has a legal duty to protect their land and resources and to provide essential services to Indian people.
The United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Mennonite Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Anglican Church of Canada have all repudiated the doctrine.
However, in 2005, even Ruth Bader Ginsburg invoked the doctrine of discovery to deny the right of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York to regain its territory: “Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the land occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign – first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States.”
Her opinion seems to be that even if the takeover was wrong, it was the law at the time, so could not be changed in the present.
Their forced removal from the land and subsequent recolonization on reservations took the lives of Indigenous people out of balance. Indigenous people are more likely than white Americans to be afflicted with type two diabetes, teenage pregnancy, gambling addiction, and substance use disorders.
Meanwhile, White Americans have appropriated Indigenous culture. White people sell Indigenous ceremonial objects and crafts like dream catchers, adopt traditional medicines and health practices, and use Indigenous designs or stereotypical images in fashion, advertising, literature and film.
Only recently have sports teams changed their nicknames and logos from using unflattering caricatures of Indigenous people.
Generation after generation after generation of Indigenous people has been stuck with a strong cultural identity from which Americans can learn and benefit in a nation that knows nothing about them.
We are missing out on lessons related to living a balanced life and how to sustain our natural environment in light of climate change in a White-dominated society that features rising rates of mental and physical health issues.
So what can be done?
We have to decide whether we believe that Indigenous people have a right to the same economic opportunity and rights as White Americans. If we do, then we will have to shift our time, funds and effort to activities that deliver them.
Then we need to inject education with the history of Indigenous people in the United States, how they were treated by the United States government, and the results of that treatment.
I asked my daughter what she learned about the United States’ government’s treatment of Indigenous people. She said, “Trail of Tears”. It was about a page-and-a-half.
We live in a multicultural United States, but our children only learn white history, when the church was clearly and conveniently not separated from the state when Indigenous people we forced off their land.
If our children cannot handle the truth, then we have to do a better job as parents and teachers to build resilience in them, just a Indigenous parents — and other minorities for that matter — have had to build resilience among their children,
Next, we can act locally and find ways to learn about Indigenous cultures, their plight today, and how we might work together to restore their opportunity to live life to the fullest in our communities.
For example, Western Carolina University holds a symposium called Rooted In the Mountains that brings together scholars and experts across a range disciplines to present research findings and approaches related to, for example, health and recovery, resilience, and the impact of decolonization.
Another example is The Indigenous Walls project in Asheville, North Carolina, which features public art around the city to expose the community to Cherokee language and art.
Last, let’s teach ourselves. There is enough information available about the beliefs, way of life, and culture of Indigenous people to understand the injustice the United States government carried out against them. We should collaborate to ensure they have the same rights and access to opportunities as White Americans.
Book: Sounds of Tohi: Cherokee Health and Well-being in Southern Appalachia by WCU faculty Lisa Lefler and Tom Belt
Study: Co-authored by Melissa Lewis, associate research professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in the International journal of Environmental Research and Public Health about culture as prevention/treatment; also online at OsiyoTV, the Cherokee Nation’s documentary series.
Book: Sovereign Entrepreneurs: Cherokee Small-Business Owners in the Making of Economic Sovereignty by Courtney Lewis
Book: Roots of our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance by Clint Carroll
The Cherokee Word For Movies Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-cherokee-word-for-movies/id1535599301
The Toasted Sisters Podcast (Radio about Native American Food): https://toastedsisterpodcast.com/
We Are Resilient (produced by three EBCI women): https://theonefeather.com/2022/01/29/we-are-resilient-cherokee-women-bringing-mmiw-awareness-with-podcast/
Rebecca Nagle’s excellent This Land Podcast: https://crooked.com/podcast-series/this-land/