Even After 170 Years

Barack Obama last week gave American Indians good reason to believe they had done right by appointing him an honorary member of the tribe.

It's impossible to know whether between the time these lines are written (Friday morning ) and the time they're published they will have become old news or receive any attention at all.

On Thursday, December 16, President Barack Obama declared, during the second conference of Tribal Nations held at the White House, that the United States had decided to support the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, thus reversing its original opposition to the declaration adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007.

Andrew Jackson

The United States is the fourth and last country of those opposing the declaration at the time - including Canada, Australia and New Zealand - that decided to accept it over the past year.

This matter-of-fact piece of news contained in Obama's speech was greeted with cautious excitement, as it was speedily disseminated among students and lecturers in departments of American Indian Studies at universities around the country. Obama, probably aware of the skepticism his well-known rhetoric was likely to arouse, made sure to say that deeds were more important than words, providing details of his government's actions to improve the lives of American Indians.

Obama's connections with the American Indians began before he was elected president, he made a point of reminding the audience. More than two years ago, when he was still a candidate for president, he was appointed an honorary member the Crow Nation. Although he never mentioned it in its original language, the American Indian name he was given, he said, means "one who helps people throughout the land." In other words, the Crow Nation were onto him even before the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

Among those present when Obama made his declaration last week were tribal leaders, Congressmen and a government delegation headed by Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar, whose department is responsible for ties with Indian reservations. (Reservations are considered to be sovereign territory, though since 1924, tribe members of have been recognized as American citizens ).

Obama had initiated this conference last year hoping to improve relations between the "governments" of the United States and the tribes. Well, not quite governments. After all, if they were really sovereign, relations would be conducted via the State Department and not the Interior Department. Nevertheless, there was a sense of excitement in the air. More than 370 million people are recognized as indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the islands of the Pacific. They are among the most impoverished, marginalized and victimized people in the world, according to the International Work Group For Indigenous Affairs.

The U.N. declaration was adopted after more than 20 years of deliberations. According to official estimates, almost 5 million (1.6 percent ) of U.S. citizens are Indians. These are the descendants of the few who survived the diseases, genocide campaigns and evictions inflicted by the white man.

Obama succinctly described the connection between the humiliating social conditions under which most American Indians live and the desire to have them and their history of dispossession fade away. "For a long time," he said, "Native Americans were implicitly told that they had a choice to make. By virtue of the longstanding failure to tackle wrenching problems in Indian Country, it seemed as though you had to either abandon your heritage or accept a lesser lot in life; that there was no way to be a successful part of America and a proud Native American."

An important part of this heritage is making sure that their fellow Americans are constantly aware of the murderous foundations of their society. The past cannot be undone, and the dead cannot be resurrected, but attempts to appropriate the present and future of those dispossessed will face some obstacles.

Although it took them time to come around, the fact that the four white countries, which had been the chief persecutors of indigenous peoples, eventually adopted the declaration reminds us that sometimes popular struggles do bear fruit.

A rollicking rock musical currently playing on Broadway tells the story of Andrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party and the seventh U.S. president, who served in the White House from 1828-1836. In his book "A People's History of the United States," the historian Howard Zinn writes that while others were trying to forget the Indians, "Jackson was a land speculator, merchant, slave trader and the most aggressive enemy of the Indians in early American history."

In the musical, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," these facts are interwoven in the political incorrectness that pokes fun at homosexuals, handicapped people, corrupt Washington politicians, and the boorish female supporters of the Democrats (who are turned on by the pants Jackson wears, which are so tight they are about to burst ). But laughs aside,the image of the popular president and general who exterminates Indians and who signed the Removal Bill sending them out West to make room for more white settlers, is not quickly forgotten. "Let's take back the lands that were never ours" is the lyrical message of this musical.

The Cherokees opposed voluntary transfer. In return, they were banished at gunpoint. The journey of the 16,000 tribe members in 1838-1839 has become known as the Trail of Tears. Some 4,000 of them perished along the way. Now, as an educational and memorialization project, the tribe is organizing a cycling journey over the length of the trail - some 1,000 miles, from Georgia to Oklahoma. The candidates for the ride must be high school or college students aged 16 and above and recognized Cherokees. "Remember the Removal" is the name of the initiative that will be held over 20 days in June of next year, 172 years after the historic event.