Indigenous Women: Nations, Cultures, Voices

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Immigrant Detainment Centers the Newest Colonial Forts

b2ap3_thumbnail_Bill-Baker-Pastel_20180702-172609_1.pngNot many Americans may feel much like celebrating the hallmarks of our country--liberty, justice, and freedom--this July 4th as we watch the shocking horrors experienced by asylum-seekers on our Mexican border, among other national tragedies. For many of us, the shame of what is happening is deep. Despite our protests, petition-signing, contacting our elected officials, political canvassing for the 2018 elections, monetary donations, and speaking-out in print and social media, we can still feel powerless to halt what is occurring. Whenever I feel a deeper level of outrage and frustration about government-policy attacks on people and Earth, however, I think of the tenacity of Indigenous Elders, particularly Native American women. Whenever I lapse into being shocked about today's news headlines, I only need to quickly remind myself of our American past and the treatment of Indigenous peoples, and how the events of today are merely another unfolding of what has been going on in this country since its birth. I am disturbed with America's interminable short-term-memory loop as I hear in the media connections between Japanese Internment camps during WWII and the immigrant detainment centers of today. So let me help you remember, America, about our country's history in relation to Native Americans, and how the detainment centers are just America's newest colonial-era Forts. I also want to remind those of us who are bone-weary (and afraid) about what is happening in our country to take the long-view, as the First Nations of Turtle Island do when they, too, are face to face with inhumane treatment. These Elders are our guides for Perseverance, Strategy, and an unshakeable Belief in the power of LOVE.  The image above is a work of art in pastels by New Mexican artist Bill Baker. Find more of his work at

b2ap3_thumbnail_flat550x550075f.jpgFirst of all, many of the people crossing the border from Mexico into the United States to seek asylum and a better life are Indios, Indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America. For Native Americans living on sovereign tribal lands that the U.S./ Mexican border cuts through, the hassle to visit relatives, collect plant medicines, and ritually perform ceremonies as they have done for centuries is high. Border patrol officers rifle through medicine bundles, bags of sacred plants and objects, and can be extremely callous toward Indigenous Medicine People--even when those people have the legal right to move freely through their own sovereign lands. These border crossing impediments have been going on since the border was created, but over the years more citizens of Native nations have gained legal rights to cross unimpeded. This is a fight that is not included in any news coverage about the immigrants.

b2ap3_thumbnail_795px-Fort_Ticonderoga_Front.jpgSecond, centuries ago, "detainment centers" were called Forts. Instead of chain-link fencing and Mylar blankets, these Forts were made of stone or wood and, at some Forts, Indigenous peoples were given small pox-contaminated blankets meant to eradicate them totally. (Above is pictured Fort Ticonderoga in New York state.) Just as the propaganda supporting today's detainment centers for immigrants espouses, the Forts of the American past were built to "protect" American citizens from Native American peoples. Forts were places where Native American peoples who remained were herded after the U.S. military had massacred their families and burnt their towns and food stores to the ground. Such actions violated treaties that U.S. Presidents and members of Congress had negotiated with Indigenous nations to end encroachment on Native lands and cease military action against their people. Then those Presidents and members of Congress signed and made those binding treaties into law. Despite these legally-binding treaties, the U.S. government still invaded Native lands and killed Native people, then rounded them up and detained them. When Native soldiers fought to protect their lands and people against the invaders, they were called "blood-thirsty savages" as they are still portrayed in many American history books and sports mascots today.

b2ap3_thumbnail_17ff637ef178674072051aa8a68f7674.jpgOnce Native Americans were herded at gunpoint like animals into the Forts or onto reservation lands (this was before Blackhawk helicopters and Tomahawk missiles), the U.S. government allotted them meager food rations, often using those rations as a way to control them. Starving, traveling on foot for sometimes hundreds of miles, their personal effects taken from them and no place to bathe, they were called "filthy" and "animals" by historians as if that was their natural state. What would you look like in those circumstances? What about the immigrants today who travel on foot through the desert to the U.S. border? Remember, we are seeing them under extreme conditions of hunger, fear, and exhaustion, not at their best selves in a comfortable, safe home. Americans must be careful not to judge immigrants from these rugged images, just as the Native people were. Would you want your picture in the New York Times after walking for days through the desert seeking asylum, your entire identity and worth summed up in one terrible snapshot? Photographs and video footage of Mexican immigrants send powerful messages to some Americans who are not parsing out their meanings and can be used easily to manipulate public opinion.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Hombres_ojibwe.jpgThe Sandy Lake massacre, where hundreds of Ojibwe people died in 1850 when they came to town to receive their annuity payments and supplies, was a deliberate act President Zachary Taylor's administration, including Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, did in an attempt to eradicate the Ojibwe. After waiting for months in deplorable winter conditions for money and food that arrived too late, Ojibwe parents carried their deceased children on their backs as they snow-shoed back home, the survivors nearly starving to death themselves. Above is pictured five Ojibwe Chiefs from the 1800s.

Again, when I see today's news headlines and hear the weeping of immigrant children and parents, I think of those Ojibwe parents. I think of American history and the power of a presidential administration and their policies to control (and destroy) people's lives. Propaganda slogans like "Barriers to Economic Progress" and "Dangers to Society" were used against Native peoples centuries ago, just as these slogans are being used now against Mexican immigrants.

b2ap3_thumbnail_375px-Carlisle_pupils.jpgOnce in the Forts, Native American children were separated from their parents and sent to Boarding Schools. At left is pictured the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. At the Boarding Schools, which were located all over the U.S. and Canada, Native children were taught that their cultures were primitive, their spiritual beliefs evil, and they were beaten for speaking their Native languages. Their hair was cut off, and they were given uniforms to wear. The children were worked from before dawn to dusk in child-labor conditions, preparing the food they ate, scrubbing the schools, and existing in squalid, cramped rooms. Native children commonly died from pink eye--yes, death from pink eye! They did not see their parents very often for YEARS. Heart-wrenching letters still exist in the historic record of Native parents agonizingly writing to government officials demanding the return of their children, even for a few weeks, only to be ignored or scolded, as if they were too stupid to raise their own kids. This happened over a century ago and the lasting effects on Native communities continues today, just as it will for the immigrant children who are being held separate from their parents right now in America!

b2ap3_thumbnail_fdef8b148a45f68ecc87668a66aa3620--the-pacific-pacific-northwest.jpgHow did Native Americans address these atrocities in their communities historically and in the present? First of all, they do not kid themselves that what is happening now with the immigrants on the Mexican border of the U.S. is anything new. They have already lived through hundreds of years of wholesale attack on their people. They strategize; they build community; they get elected to office; they get educations; they stay close to their traditional teachings. Today, Native Americans do exactly what other responsible Americans of any identity are doing in the face of shocking violence: TAKING ACTION. At this time of crisis in America, I urge us to look to our Native Elders as examples of how a people fights oppression: 

Come Together in Love!

Believe We Can Change What is Happening (We Can!)

Look to the Survival Tactics of Our Ancestral Elders (Everyone has Them!)

Take Action For Goodness, Repeatedly, Large or Small!

Stay in the Movement for Justice!

b2ap3_thumbnail_105297828-1530113257996alexandriaocasio-cortez.1910x1000.jpgWhen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (pictured at right), the 28 year-old poised to become the youngest woman elected to Congress, won in the New York primaries last week, she was very clear about what inspired her to run: "the protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock." She went to North Dakota to protest treaty violations. She saw the power of Indigenous nations coming together, as they have always done, and was moved to become a voice for justice. The message of the Elders reached her; it can reach all of us!

Native people have been working for social justice and equity, for themselves and the Earth Mother, for the past 500 years and have not only survived but made incredible strides. b2ap3_thumbnail_girl-images.jpgToday's news is merely an echo of what has gone before. This July 4th, I ask all of us to renew our commitment to America's true values: Liberty and Justice for ALL! We must not allow our worst past to extend its poisonous hand any farther into our future. We can stop it.

They are counting on us!


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Dr. Mays is a professional writer with a doctoral degree in Native American Studies who has taught at the college level for nearly two decades. She is committed to educating about Indigenous cultures, especially about practices that specifically relate to women, in order to raise awareness about current issues in Indian Country, dissolve stereotypes, and create healing among all communities.


  • Dr. Mays
    Dr. Mays Wednesday, 04 July 2018

    Anne, Thank you so much for providing a forum for me, and so many others, to speak back to what is happening in our country--and to remind us that the answer has always been LOVE (and action).

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Wednesday, 04 July 2018

    Thank you so much for this compassionate post speaking truth about the connections between today's "migrant" policies and the past. Very, very well done.

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