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Sunday, February 15, 2009

K'é: Heathens and Homosexuals

"We have yet to register with him as a people who matter."

AP Press writers Ben Feller and Christopher Wills begin their report on President Obama's recent ceremony to commemorate Lincoln's 200th birth date with the following: "President Barak Obama called on Americans Thursday to follow Abraham Lincoln's example of showing generosity to political opponents and valuing national unity—above all else."

Lincoln's "generosity to political opponents" clearly did not apply to the 38 men of the Dakota Nation publicly hung in the state that takes its name from their language, Minnesota. Their execution stands as the largest mass hanging from a single gallows to date.

The men were hung at Mankato on December 28, 1862, by the direct order of President Lincoln, who took the time and effort to phonetically spell out each of the warriors names so there would be no mistaken identities. Lincoln further went on to clarify the Dakota's position in respect to U.S. presence on their lands, degrading their position of being at war with the U.S. to his stand that there was no war; they were common criminals.

The U.S. has always criminalized Indian resistance to colonization, but Lincoln's order to mass execute the 38 Dakota reveals the power of language to manipulate reality, transforming 38 warriors into rats to be exterminated.

Lincoln's desire for national unity, at all costs, resonates strongly with President Obama, though he refuses to honestly appraise the divisions the U.S. faces today. After Congress agreed to pass his stimulus plan he spoke these words: "We are far less divided than in Lincoln's day [but] we are once again debating the critical issues of our time."

Black American Slavery was the Civil Rights issue of Lincoln's day.

Gay Marriage is the Civil Rights issue of President Obama's.

Many are reluctant to parallel racism and homophobia, afraid the specifics of their histories will be eclipsed by the large swaths of experiences that overlap. When community organizers use the language of Civil Rights to speak to the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California they are legally correct in doing so. Proposition 8 removes rights that existed for California citizens by a popular vote. My dear friend, the late, Deborah Dixon used to always tell me, "People would vote back slavery if it went to the polls."

The voting booth offers the protection of anonymity, and hate is easily expressed when people are spared accountability. When community organizers apply the language of Civil Rights to homosexuals they are treading tender ground, picking the scabs of wounds that have yet to heal and revealing one face hate wears today: homophobia.

Proposition 8 passed in the state of California in 2008, in the same election that earned President Obama his office. Indians and gays overwhelmingly supported Obama, many saying he "has our backs," he understands us and the unique nature of our lives. In full disclosure I never believed "he had our backs," he has made that clear in various speeches, but I did vote for him and against Proposition 8, simultaneously.

I refused to witness his inauguration when he chose Saddleback's pastor the Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural prayer.

National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director, Kate Kendell, said choosing Warren showed "how culturally competent Obama is on Gay and Lesbian issues. . .I think it's a reminder of how much work we have to do."

I have not been so understanding.

Warren, in print and at the pulpit, has equated gay marriage with incest, polygamy and pedophilia and while President Obama has framed his selection of Warren in the light of Lincoln's desire to bring north and south together after "freeing the slaves." I am not persuaded.

Maybe, like Lincoln, President Obama "wants us all to go back home and return to work on their farms and in their shops. . .That was the only way, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn this country apart. It was the only way to begin the healing that our nation so desperately needed."

For First Nations and for homosexuals the very nature of our home life has been and continues to be attacked. Going home and getting to work, is often, for us, criminal behavior.

Indian country has taken issue with President Obama's inaugural address itself, specifically the lines: "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus-and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

The primary issue has been with the language "the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve."

In our memory and experience these words are words of warning and consequently the tribes of the nations within the U.S. have taken note.

President Obama's official statement was " President Obama was not referring to Native American tribes in this line of his inaugural address."

His response itself is indicative of the problem, as the co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association Doug George-Kanentiio pointed out, "we have yet to register with him as a people who matter."

President Obama's beatification of Lincoln as the freer of slaves, laying the foundation for his ability to become the first U.S. Black president ignores the fact that women and children of the Navajo Nation, which officially endorsed Obama prior to the election, were still being bought and sold into slavery by New Mexicans as late as 1868.

In his first interview given to the Arab press he makes the unbelievable claim that "as you say, America was not born as a colonial power."

His ability to over look America's colonial history paired with his unpardonable selection of Warren to deliver the inaugural prayer, and the consequent missed opportunity to stand for the Civil Rights issue of his day, does not tell me he doesn't get it. It tells me, many don't get him and what he accepts and consequently endorses.

His consistent framing of the U.S. as "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus-and non-believers" is what troubles me most.

Clearly the U.S. faces serious political and economic problems, but the religious divide has come to determine limits and possibilities for us all.

My life has been dogged by the word heathen since I was nine at Corpus Christi, where we bought "pagan babies" with the "Mission money" that was collected every morning. President Obama's constant use of the term non-believer is degrading and closely resembles sanctioned persecution, if only for it's refusal to recognize our beliefs as such.

The Navajo are not non-believers. In our laws people, plants and animals have their own rules, rules to be respected. Our indigenous knowledge is ancient, specific, and shaped by a people's experience of a particular place. Our knowledge defines our relationships and gives us direction, illuminating what we are and what we can become, by providing a moral code, an ethic, based on accountability, responsibility and honor for all life. This core has come down to us in part through our kinship system of K'é. Which details our clans as well as our relationship to our environment—people, plants, animals, earth, sky, water, wind and his companion darkness. The inter connectedness and appropriate behavior in light of those connections are explained by our philosophy of K'é. When we have violated those codes, as we have in previous worlds, the result has been chaos and destruction. For those reasons we must live according to K'é today.

When Johnny Navajo went to Washingdoon in October of 1969 he said, "it seems to me that not many people in Washingdoon even knew of the slavery in our part of the country. The truth is that we may not be too well known here. But it doesn't matter, Grandson, because we know who we are."

This is why and how we live in proper relation. We know who we are.

The mass execution of the 38 Dakota warriors, the passage of Proposition 8, the Diné Marriage Act of 2004, the selection of Warren, President Obama's words regarding the dissolution of tribes, and his indignant response that he was not referring to tribes (I didn't mean you) and President Obama's consistent use of the term non-believer all reflect a denial of our existence and our experience, as Indigenous people of the hemisphere and humans who love.

President Obama 's selection of Warren and his use of the term non-believer reveals his tolerance for hate is higher than mine.

Any language or action that denies a person's humanity, as heathens and homosexuals, that persecutes us for who we are and who we love, diminishes and negates our relationships, our beliefs, our warriors, our wives, our husbands, our families and supports hate.

In his interview on AI-ARIBIYA President Obama said any conversation in "the Palestinian-Israeli theater" needed to be founded on mutual respect and mutual interest. He said, "anybody who has studied the region. . ." I ask do these considerations apply to us, heathens and homosexuals.

During his campaign he went to great lengths to convince the public that "words matter." To AI-ARIBIYA he said he wanted to be "someone who listens and is respectful. . .People will judge me not by my words, but by my actions."

Standing to speak is an action he will be judged by.

To the Muslim world he has said, "you will be judged on what you built not on what you destroyed." Here in Indian country, among the nations of this hemisphere, he wants to build a monument to Lincoln. We of all nations (people, plants, animals, earth, sky, water, wind and his companion darkness) want good relations.

Photo Credit: Jesus Saves Liquor and More, 3rd and Townsend, San Francisco by Reid Gómez

About Me

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.