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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter

Aboriginal Peoples

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 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 culture 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.

Paradigm Shift

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 committment 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.

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; 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.
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This page was last modified on 8 January 2018.