To Open The Sky
The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
By now, the general outlines of the history of aboriginal peoples in the New World — First Nations in Canada, Native Americans and Eskimos in the United States, the Toltecs, Aztecs, Maya, and Incas in Mexico and Central & South America1 — are well known. That history does little honor to the successors of the Europeans who supplanted them. It is a nearly unbroken sequence of extermination, broken treaties, and subjugation.
What is less well known, however, is how much of this dishonorable treatment continues in the present day. It was an unpleasant discovery for me to learn that in certain states the children of Native Americans are still being removed from their parents and placed with white families on dubious legal grounds. I had thought this practice had ended by the middle of the twentieth century, if not before.
In Canada, First Nations peoples apparently are treated even worse. Many women have been attacked with relative impunity, and children are still subject to forced placement in the Residential Schools program, which endeavors to snuff out their traditional cultures and languages.
And throughout the New World, from Nunavut south to the tip of Tierra del Fuego, aboriginal peoples are treated as second-class citizens.2 They receive substandard educations, lower-wage jobs, inadequate health care, deficient legal protections.
But the picture is not one of unrelieved gloom. Here in the United States, Native Americans have received partial justice thanks to reforms in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and gambling casinos have enriched some tribes. Reservations are generally safe and peaceful, although their sovereignty is limited. Canada is now the front line of change. The October 19th election may sweep away the dominance of Steven Harper's conservative government, which not only has neglected the problems of the First Nations but muzzled environmental scientists and ignored the need to cut back on fossil-fuel extraction.
A new commitment to change has sprung up among First Nations activists. The trend is no better exemplified than by Ashley Callingbull-Burnham, who in August 2015 won the Mrs. Universe competition and is using her position to advance the cause of redressing First Nations grievances. She is young and inexperienced, but I believe she will make a difference.
In March, 2019, Smithsonian magazine reported on the REDress Project.3 The dresses, hung on trees near the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, memorialize the many native women who are murdered or go missing every year. Their obscurity makes the number hard to estimate, but in 2016 5,712 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing.
Institutional neglect and bigotry are complicating factors. Case in point: On 14 January 2020, Andrea Circle Bear (aka Andrea High Bear), a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, as sentenced to 26 months in prison for maintaining a drug-involved premises. She was immediately remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshals service. Being eight months pregnant and having a history of five previous C-section births, she was flown to the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas. There she got sick and died of COVID-19.4
A GoFundMe site for the family has reached 40 percent of its goal:
Help Andrea Circle Bear's Family
America's Jails and prisons are effectively incubators for any communicable disease, and COVID-19 is unusual only because of its virulence. But whatever the cause, when people die needlessly in the custody of the U.S. prison system, something is wrong with the prison system.5 This case may bring a bit more attention to the problem.
1 Here I use the conventional terms for the various peoples.
2 There are exceptions, of course. You've probably heard of some: Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympic champion and all-around athlete; Jay Silverheels, who played the Lone Ranger's companion Tonto on television; Chief Dan George, who acted in several Hollywood movies and made a famous public service announcement; Buffy Saint Marie, a prominent folk singer and activist. I could make the list longer. But such exceptions only prove the rule.
3 The project's name is a pun: it aims to use those red dresses to redress the injustice Native American women suffer. For more information, see These Haunting Red Dresses Memorialize Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (Alicia Ault, Smithsonian, 19 March 2020)
4 The story is told by her grandmother in The Federal Bureau of Prisons must be held accountable for the death of my granddaughter (Clara LeBeau, The Washington Post, 22 May 2020).
5 As of 1 May 2020, 9,400 cases of COVID-19 and 140 deaths in U.S. jails and prisons have been recorded. See Stopping covid-19 behind bars was an achievable moral imperative. We failed. (Radley Balko, The Washington Post, 1 May 2020).