Colonizers and Indigenous Americans
Published 11/28/2019 | Reading Time 5 min 18 sec
By Deon Osborne, Senior Writer
The thought of entertaining endless arguing, prepping for savory, button-loosening entrées, and betting on which family member falls asleep first from the itis might fill the minds of most people anticipating the Thanksgiving holiday; but for some, Indigenous Oklahomans who come together on the day which falsely commemorates national unity between the first colonial settlers and Native Americans, their minds fill with the hypocrisy in which the historical holiday is portrayed.
For three Indigenous Oklahomans who are actively involved in their communities, the holiday is an annual reminder of this nation’s miseducation of Indigenous history, contempt for Indigenous culture and the sidelining of issues facing them today.
Jordan Lee Harmon is a member of MvSkoke Creek Nation and an Indian Law Attorney pushing for the removal of racist Indian mascots in Tulsa Public Schools. She says she grew up spending the holiday as a get together with family. She wouldn’t learn about the whitewashing of Native history until later in grade school.
“Suddenly, the holiday had a theme of pilgrims and Indians smiling and sharing corn and pumpkins together,” Harmon said. “The whole thing was really bizarre to me.”
Though Native Americans did, in fact, assist the first settlers in finding food and growing crops, the nationalization of Thanksgiving ignores the brutal savagery of European settlers’ betrayal, poisoning, stealing and mass slaughter of Native Americans that followed.
Today, Native Americans represent only two percent of the U.S. population. Even so, the Tribal contribution to the State of Oklahoma exceeded 12 billion last year.
For Harmon, a simple way non-Natives can show a more equitable spirit of Thanksgiving is by denouncing the degrading tradition of Indian mascots.
“You will hear a lot of people saying something like, ‘Well, I am Native American, and this does not offend me,’” Harmon said. “Often, these comments come from self-identified Native Americans whose connection to their heritage does not extend beyond being enrolled in their tribe or even just family folklore.”
Harmon said for her family and others who regularly participate in ceremonies and other cultural practices that they’ve always hated the stereotypical mascots.
She’s decided to build on a decades-long tradition of opposition to racist mascots by joining a group that is garnering signatures to prohibit Tulsa Public Schools and Union Public Schools from the use of such mascots.
“In Tulsa, the Greater Tulsa Area Indian Affairs Commission has issued public resolutions condemning Indian mascots, as well as the three major tribes located here: Cherokee Nation, Osage Nation, and Creek Nation,” Harmon said. “Yet folks will totally ignore all of these voices to keep defending their own racism.”
A deadly result that comes from viewing Indigenous people as caricatures frozen in time illustrates itself in the urgent crisis known as missing and murdered indigenous women.
Nationally, more than 5,000 Native American women are reported missing, and Oklahoma is among the top ten states of these cold cases.
Due to a gap in jurisdiction between Federal, State and Tribal law enforcement, many cases involving missing Native women have slipped through the cracks or been ignored altogether, which is why local groups like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Oklahoma Chapter (MMIW-OK) have been raising awareness for missing women like Britney Tiger, Wesley Stillsmoking, Ida Beard and many others.
Recently, after years of grassroots efforts, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced an initiative that aims to tie together different law enforcement responses to missing Native women through the hiring of specialized coordinators. And Trump has issued an executive order that establishes a task force to address the issue.
Former Democratic candidate for Oklahoma Corporation Commission and Environmental consultant Ashley Nicole McCray recently attended a study session requested by State Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City. McCray is an enrolled member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and a descendant of the Oglala and Sicangu Lakota Nations.
“I am definitely inspired by the recent uptick in attention around the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women,” McCray said.
As a Statewide Affirmative Action Officer for the Oklahoma Democratic Party, she organized a meeting between Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders and relatives of missing and murdered Indigenous women during his visit to Comanche Nation in September.
“Many families of missing and murdered Indigenous women recount tragic stories of law enforcement handling their cases with dismissive attitudes, losing evidence that could help solve these cases, or straight up telling families they refuse to expend resources to look for their loved ones ‘due to their lifestyle,’” McCray said.
In Delaware County, the aunt and uncle of Aubrey Dameron, a trans-Cherokee woman, have resorted to organizing their own search parties after the local sheriff has refused to assist in their search.
McCray said concerned Oklahomans could support these searches by contacting their representatives and supporting upcoming legislation that addresses the issue.
“The truth is, the root cause of missing and murdered Indigenous women is colonization,” McCray said. “As Indigenous peoples, we have been fighting colonization since 1492, and the attention this issue has received on both the level and national level brings us one step closer to ensuring this crisis ends.”
The simplicity in the national story of Thanksgiving overshadows the complex reality behind the wide variety of identities that Indigenous Oklahomans posses.
One fact overlooked in many retellings of U.S. history involves the fact that the “Five Civilized Tribes,” Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw Choctaw, and Seminole, participated in slavery.
It wasn’t until the treaty of 1866 that the Tribes, some who sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War and some who didn’t, were forced to end their slave-holding practices in exchange for peaceful relations with the U.S. government.
The resulting free Blacks with dual identities were called Freedmen, and their offspring, Freedmen descendants, are still battling for equal rights, benefits and membership within their respective tribes today.
Marilyn Vann is president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes and a member of the Cherokee Nation. She has Cherokee Freedmen ancestors on her father’s side, along with Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen ancestors on her mother’s side.
“I think it gets left out of the national conversation that there are persons of African ancestry— including descendants of slaves that are members of tribes and or legally entitled by treaty and heritage to be tribal members; and that often persons of African ancestry are discriminated against by both the U.S. government and the Tribal government”, Vann said.
She’s spent years fighting for the Tribes to recognize the Freedmen descendants through public advocacy and litigation.
Of the five large Tribes today, only the Cherokee Nation fully recognizes the Freedmen descendants as members of their tribes, and that came only after a hard-fight court battle.
Vann said the Seminole Nation recognizes Freedmen descendants but offers second-class services. Above all else, she asks that people put their money where their mouth is.
“The average citizen can stop supporting tribal institutions which discriminate against Freedmen descendants,” Vann said. “Please spend your money other places. If we ask persons of any race or color to support Freedmen rights by showing up at a demonstration, writing a letter to a political figure or phoning political figures, please do so,” Vann said.
While understanding the complex ways in which colonization has worked to erase Indigenous culture, voices, and even their bodies, Vann, McCray and Harmon illustrate a myriad of ways in which non-Natives can take small steps to give power to Indigenous demands for self-determination, human rights and shared respect.
For those interested in supporting Native voices in the Tulsa area, Harmon said the group organizing to remove racist mascots in public schools will have their next meeting at the Hardesty Library on December 11 at 6:30 p.m.
“Put away the pilgrim hats and paper headdresses and just enjoy your family without making a mockery out of mine,” Harmon said.
Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has written for OU’s student newspaper the OU Daily as well as OKC-based Red Dirt Report. He now lives in Tulsa, where he works at a local youth shelter. He is also a former intern at Oklahoma Policy Institute.