Off the Radar: What the candidates should be offering for the Native American vote

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The last two Democratic primaries – South Dakota and Montana – also happen to be the sites of some pretty big events in the history of U.S.-Native American relations.

On that note, Politico.com’s Carrie Budoff Brown (a former Inquirer reporter who covered the 2004 race for U.S. Senate here in Pennsylvania), did a story last week about how all of the candidates have been reaching out to Native America voters and the leaders of some prominent Native American communities:

Native Americans have built clout in recent years, playing a key role in an Arizona congressional race and assisting in the 2002 victory of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) by 524 votes. Controversial late returns from Shannon County, which includes the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation, put Johnson ahead of Republican challenger John Thune. In 2004, Shannon County delivered 85 percent of the vote to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, making it his top county in the nation. The Native American vote was also considered key in Montana’s 2006 Senate race when Democrat Jon Tester defeated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns.

Most of the article talks about the political strategies of reaching out to Native Americans in the new battleground “mountain states” but shies away from substantive issues.  While America’s legacy of slavery is often characterized as this nation’s “original sin,” the treatment of native peoples by the U.S. government and by settlers from colonial times through the early twentieth century constitute a major stain on our moral standing in the world.

The ability of the United States to take the lead on many human rights issues and move oppressive governments in China, the Middle East and Africa towards recognizing those rights are compromised by our inability to come to terms with this destructive legacy.

The March-April 2008 issue of Harvard Magazine, has a profile of Sousan Abadian, a “a multidisciplinary independent scholar” who has been studying “collective traumas” a term she uses to describe “pervasive consequences communities suffer when powerful external forces violate their physical and/or sociocultural integrity.”

[Examples] can be as random as a one-day tsunami or as systematic as the Holocaust; collective traumas can kill millions in war or genocide or enslave generations. The phenomenon can be a fairly short-lived event with lasting consequences, such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994, or it can extend over centuries—as with American Indians, whose numbers dropped from an estimated 10 million before Columbus landed to 250,000 by the turn of the twentieth century; disease brought by Europeans, and sometimes intentionally spread by colonizers, claimed the vast majority of those native lives.

Abadian’s research shows promise for treating such trauma with a sort of collective therapy:

On the tribal reserves, Abadian tried to absorb as much as she could about indigenous and alternative forms of healing. “Most of them, I’ve tried on myself,” she says. “I’ve also extensively explored Western therapies and healing modalities.” These experiences suggested to Abadian that there are ways to treat “soul wounds” like those collective trauma inflicts.

“When people engage in genuine healing,” Abadian says, “they become more accountable, and in touch with reality. Healing generates compassion and tenderness. To heal collective trauma, you must heal the individual; healthy individuals give birth to healthy institutions and cultures. It’s circular, of course, and ideally you intervene at both macro and micro levels at once.”

Perhaps the candidates for president could be suggesting a national policy for dealing with the collective traumas of Native Americans rather than just vague promises to “fight for them.”  By now, it’s unlikely that any Native Americans think that the U.S. government wants to fight against them.  Maybe we should try working with them to heal these longstanding wounds.

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