Native People Live in the Post Apocalypse

I have felt this for years now, that we native people are living in the post-apocalypse. Ever since a student spoke up near the end of the term in my class on Oregon Indians, and said, “are we ever going to hear anything positive about Native people?” I have felt this way. It is actually quite difficult to address any topic about indigenous peoples without dipping into a negative. Our lands were taken away, many cultures were destroyed, languages went extinct and our treaties were barely worth the paper and ink used to write them. This is the backdrop of every contemporary native story, narrative and event today.

The tribes of the Willamette Valley enduring a terrible epidemic in 1830 of malaria. They lost thousand of people, some 95% of most tribes disappeared by 1835, and those who survived had to find ways to survive. They banded together in the main villages in the Willamette and began adopting the culture of the newcomers, white men with wealth and power who wanted to claim the land and farm it. They hire the remaining Natives to help till the soil and built barns and fences. They wanted the new things, the wealth items, and yet in time the white men came by the thousands that overwhelmed the natives’ ability to protect their remaining lands.Despite the aid give the the white men by the 1850s the whitemen were tired of living near savages who stole from them because they no longer could find food. The whitemen owned all of the land, had destroyed the root crops with farming and livestock, and forced the remaining natives to sign treaties and remove, or face extermination.

Our People live mainly in poverty with basic necessities coming through tribes that struggle to maintain their sovereignty and tribal economics in the midst of changing politics in Washington, D.C. Our poverty in context is the result of some two centuries of changing Indian policies and continued pressures to take everything away from our tribes and give it all to white people. Tribes cannot freely develop industries or businesses without Congressional approval and laws being passed that allow tribes to trade beyond their borders, thanks to two centuries of managing these activities by the Trade and Intercourse acts. Even Casinos, seemingly ubiquitous for tribes in the U.S. was approved by the Native American Gaming Act in 1990. Tribe then are using casino money to back-fill what was taken from their peoples for two centuries or more. Tribes buy land and form social programs to help their people because for most of the last two centuries Natives could not access resources and services meant for American citizens. Native people were only made citizens in 1924, by law, and during the years they were forced to remain on the reservations, their lands and resources and services were underfunded by numerous administrations. Tribal people had to learn to fend for themselves or die.

Native people at Grand Ronde Reservation had plank roads and most had no running water nor sewage from their houses. Electricity which lit the cities of the white men was unheard of at Grand Ronde into the 1940s. White people only cared about the tribe when they wanted a place to stay on the way to the coast for their weekend vacations. It was not until 1924 that natives got the right to freely leave the reservation and yet when they did leave, white people treated them very badly. There was no way to make a living on the reservation, it was all farms and the soils were clay and not good at growing crops, other than hay. The government did not allow the tribes to develop any industry other than a cannery which came along in 1940 and yes a few thousand dollars were made annually but most natives still left the reservation to find work. Many went into logging for the pay, and many picked vegetables in the valley in the summers. Many women made baskets through the winters to sell in local towns. and during prohibition some few made ales and moonshine because they were unlikely to be caught on the reservation. It was not until 1952 that Oregon’s laws prohibiting natives from marrying whites and buying or possessing alcohol were repealed because the tribes faced with termination knew they would never get equal treatment as citizens of Oregon while they were not treated as first-class citizens of the state.

In the meantime Americans were stealing tribal culture and reconstructing tribal histories so that white Americans were depicted in the best possible light. Natives were always written into their stories of white history as the aggressors, as ravaging hordes of savages bent on war with whitemen. These myth history narratives then came to legitimize the taking of all things from the tribes, because they clearly were not managing their land right and as non-Christians were therefore not civilized people and therefore did not understanding the complexities of land ownership, math, time, or the laws of man. So they deserved to lose their lands and they needed to be saved from their savagery through assimilation. Their children forced into boarding schools, missionaries placed among them, and the adult s forced to take up farming because of its civilizing influence.

In the 1990s when attending the University of Oregon I would commonly see paper advertisements, with attached tear-off phone numbers, taped with black electrical tape (for weather resistance?) to telephone poles and light poles all around Eugene, but most near 13th and the University. The ads stated they were selling “Native American Wilderness Skills.” They must have been successful because I saw them for many years and many-times I would see some of the numbers torn from the bottom. Who knows what they actually taught? There seemed to be a culture, resembling hippy culture of the 1970s, around town, and many people seemed to think it OK to adopt native culture. One day a group of people scheduled the Native longhouse and used the bathroom during their stay. They used corn husks in the toilet, rather than toilet paper, and caused a massive back up in the system. The Native student union had to post signs thereafter to not use anything but toilet paper in the toilets. Another time, the Native student union began receiving bundles of tall grasses and parts of trees, branches, leaves, dry cedar branches in boxes set outside of the office door in the bottom floor of the EMU. Someone thought the Native students would appreciate these dried up and brittle plants for some reason, perhaps for our basketry or ceremonial needs. There were many incidents of other people telling us how to be native by people who clearly did not know anything, or assumed stereotypes about our peoples and cultures.

Our ancestors enduring all of this, their millions of acres of lands were taken, their cultures changed to fit an American standard, and their children forced to attend boarding schools. Still, even the fact that the tribes had some land, the reservations, rankled many white men, who then pressured Congress to open up the reservations for white men to make proper use of that land. In this manner millions more acres were taken from tribes and given to more settlers and companies wishing to exploit the natural resources.

It is a true conundrum to see how the Federal government have positioned Nuclear waste storage facilities near reservations. This is the case in Pendleton, which is near the Umatilla Reservation, where the waste facility was installed decades ago. Unfortunately for the people living in the area the waste has eaten its way through the steel barrels and now is leaking into the groundwater. Cleanup has been occurring for some time but there may never be a good answer to how to get rid of the waste from Nuclear fission, which has a half life of 10,000 years. No one really knows what will happen in the future if the waste gets into the Columbia river and infects the fish, plants, and wildlife that is part of the culture and life-ways of the Umatilla people, and hundreds of other tribes throughout the Columbia river and its tributaries. Downstream communities should be most worried, and watchful, as this includes the cities of Vancouver and Portland, part of one of the largest metro areas in the United States.

The thought was that under assimilation, the tribes would become civilized and eventually disappear, because if they were no longer culturally native why would they remain on the reservations. Perhaps this is the reasoning why reservations were so impoverished for so long, to make them unattractive for people to stay their with no jobs, and little opportunities for a good American life. But natives persisted, the cultures survived, that tribes in the 20th century began making a comeback. Their populations were then actually increasing which was an anathema to the Indian Policy of assimilation. Federal officials then found an ultimate answer in the the liquidation or termination of all tribes. This was successful in some areas, most of the Pacific Coast states and a few other states. Tribal treaties were terminated and 109 tribes lost their rights. This was done to pass the last remaining lands and resources to white Americans who would again make better use of the lands. In this period dams were built on the Columbia and Klamath and fish runs began disappearing. More tribal cultures and languages died, and many natives of the terminated tribes became like new immigrants to their traditional lands, with no land, no wealth and few options in a highly racialized American society.

The Klamath Reservation took a good long time to be terminated. Meetings began with tribal representatives in the 1940s, and initially they only wanted to manage their own affairs, to eliminate the federal administration of their reservation. They were one of the richest tribes in the US at the time with nearly one million acres of Ponderosa Pine, and had several sawmills running and were paying all of their expenses through the BIA, which charge millions in administrative fees to “administer” the money and activities at the reservation that the Natives were doing already on their own without help. The tribe was even rich enough to build an airstrip. The BIA was managing much of their money and yet it was discovered years later that the government regularly mismanaged Tribal funds, lost money, and could not account for where it went. The Klamath tribe sued the government at least seven times for mismanagement in the early 20th century. By the 1940s so many tribes were suing the government for all manner of instances of poor management, losing money, lack of access to treaty rights, lack of payment for lands, that the Feds set up the Indian Claims Court. In the special Indian Claims Court the Klamath claims were condensed and settled. But the federal experience with their own poor management and resultant costs likely compelled them to encourage ideas for how to solve these “Indian problems” issues which included the shame of federally imposing poverty for most tribes. Therefore, in the late 1940s a plan developed for liquidation of federal assets at reservations. The inventory of assets took place in 1944. By 1947 the plan turned into Termination, because before the tribes could be liquidated they had to have their treaties terminated, the foundations of why they were supported by federal services and funds in the first place. So in 1952 federal policy became termination for tribes, and sold to politicians and the public as a way to “free them from American oppression.” By 1954 the first termination bill for Klamath was passed, PL 587. The feds spent the next six years settling its affairs at the Klamath Reservation, which meant selling the Klamath lands to mainly timber companies. The remaining unsold lands became the Winema National Forest. By 1961 the second Klamath termination bill passed, a good amount of money came to the tribal members for their timber resources, which were envisioned by politicians as helping save the declining timber industry. No funding awards came to the tribe for subsurface or water resources. The Klamath River was really the prize of this final strategy in this colonization, because in two years the last dams were built at Shasta and the river was producing vast amounts of hydropower, which helped serve the California needs of growth and opportunities for a growing population. California became the largest single economy of any state in the U.S., now the 7th largest economy in the world, aided in part by the termination of Oregon and California tribes and unobstructed access to the natural resources of the Klamath River.

It has been said that we are now in the seventh generation from when the tribes were removed to reservations. Tribal people believe this means we are due for a return. Many tribes are actually having reversals in their fortunes as their economies are increasing. Still we live in a racial culture and their are ceilings to what we can do. Most Americans know nothing of our culture or our collective history and what they do know is biased towards white people’s perspectives.

For years I have had to field questions about who I am and where I work. I worked for a time for the Grand Ronde tribe as a Manager of the Cultural resources department. Most people seemed to assume I worked for the casino, because that is apparently all they know about my tribe, they only know Spirit Mountain. I would have to correct them and inform then by saying that I worked for the tribal government which is separate from the casino. Then they would assume I lived at the reservation, because where else do tribal people live? Again I would have to correct them and say I live in Salem. This always seemed to confuse some people but I would persist. I reality most native people do not live on reservations, as they generally have few job and living prospects. The Grand Ronde community today is in a grocery desert. Yes there is a market but the selection is so bad and the prices so exorbitant and most people would rather drive 20 to 40 miles to find a store with a good healthy selection of food for better prices. The tribe is trying to make the community more livable but that takes millions of dollars and will take decades to complete, that is how far behind the tribal people are today. Similarly, the community of Warm Springs has now for years had water problems. There is first not enough water for the basin, and second the water they have is now susceptible to algae blooms. The people are mostly living on bottled water and have been for several years. But its not like the valley they live in was habitable even as far back as 1856 when they first began moving to the reservation. The location was already known to be poorly watered and no white settlers wanted the land because of the poor soils. This is the story of many reservations across the U.S., as natives were largely placed on the worst lands, according to the whites, and yet were then told they had to farm the land and supply a good portion of their own foods, an impossible feat for most. This caused massive starvation and health and nutrition problems for many of the first decades on the reservation. Transportation of goods was very expensive in Oregon, and the money that came from the treaties did not last long, many times the tribes simply did not get shipments of food, medicines, or clothing because the federal authorities did not appropriate enough money to take care of all of the Indian people. Still the tribes persisted, and learned to make do with what they had. They are still doing this.

Our apocalypse began in Oregon in the 1830s when disease brought by the white people infected our people causing massive destruction as upwards of 97% died, a pandemic of Indigenous peoples, which was felt worldwide through diseases newly globalized throughout all indigenous peoples of the world. Some estimates have suggested 90 million died in the Americas alone. Wars over territory and dominance took millions more. The United States fought a series of “Indian Wars” which were nothing more than land grabs, to take land and natural resources from native peoples and give it to white settlers. This was supported by the U.S. government who deployed their dragoons, mounted infantry, to drive native people from White settlements, all of which were illegally settled without treaties or agreements with the occupying tribes. The Monroe doctrine, in various forms, really helped to legitimize colonizing actions against tribes who were protecting their lands, but clearly threatened white American settlers (or so they claimed). Under all of these pressures tribal cultures collapsed and in their weakness they were colonized and made to sign treaties and remove to reservations. Many tribes were subject to genocide before and after removal to reservations and the lack of effective administration of reservations cause additional struggles and continued weakness for the tribes. Some agents even forced tribes to live on scarce rations in order to weak and pacify them further. In the meantime on reservations the Indian agents did not give the tribes their rights as written into the ratified tribes, some had to wait 20 years or more for treaty rights and then fight for them in court in the 20th century. The hundreds of Indian Claims came about directly because the U.S. government did not give tribes their rights and is very bad at managing money and people.

During 2020, the world has undergone an pandemic, covid19. The way in which federal supplies and support to native communities was handled was a travesty. Some tribes were told they would get one shipment and that is all. Not tribes that I know of have their own hospitals, they always have to use the hospitals in other communities. And so many natives do not have access to current information, computers, or in some communities electricity. During this same period without centralized federal leadership, cities and states were fighting with one another over protective supplies, out-bidding tribes and smaller cities on protective supplies in a fast emerging image of global scarcity. It was like the wild west again, with the rich rail barons throwing their money around and taking land and resources away from tribes and smaller capitalistic operators. Tribal culture is very much social and people could not resist visiting relatives and helping their elders. This likely caused the virus to spread, but with many stores and restaurants closed, and many elders and people people too poor to get in a car and go to a store further away what choices did they have? And tribes had been through catastrophic events before anyway. Population losses due to small pox or malaria took tens of thousand 150 years ago, then many more died from genocides, and loss of land and resources. Losses continued into the 20th century with the advent of blood quantum and kids begin force-ably placed in boarding schools, termination was a loss for many. Other tribes had their land leased from under them by the BIA, or sold after the Dawes act as surplus lands. Tribes on the Columbia in the 1950s saw losses to their Celilo fishery as dams inundated the great fishing falls. And even as late as 1972 native women were being sterilized at boarding schools. So losses are not a new phenomenon to tribal people, who were already suspicious of the federal government who had administered them through all their losses.

We are the survivors of this apocalypse with all of the issues viewers may see in the movies, with native peoples fighting for their survival and resources against a headwind of political, social, and economic oppression. The tribes continue to be dis-empowered and their struggles ignored (like standing rock, or covid19 treatment access, access to clean water, Missing and murdered American Indian women) or labelled as activist (standing rock again). Still, tribes have gained some positive ground in their efforts for recovery. Tribes are working to restore their cultures and languages, and histories, and work on their economies. But as long as tribes are subject to the whims of political regimes, tribal peoples will always struggle to survive in the United States. Laws could be passed to create a positive future for all tribes. The Tribal reservations could be removed from oversight in the Trade and Intercourse acts, allowing tribes to become more economically self-sufficient so they could help their people. Congress could develop a systems of allowing a delegate from each federally recognized tribes to serve as voting members of committees to give tribes back some political representation. If it is true that tribes are supposed to be on par with states and that reservations exist outside of the states, then tribes technically have no representation in Congress. Until we see such changes it will be difficult for tribes to help their people more than they do today, and many people will continue to remain in a state of poverty, a state of post apocalypse.

Still, we have hope that one day things will get better. Tribes are now restoring language and cultures and recovering history. Tribes are involved with many projects which will lead to a new renaissance among native peoples if given the chance. Look for instances of this everywhere.

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