Friday, December 29, 2006

Bonding Over a Mascot

Published: December 29, 2006

A few new statues of a Seminole family in 19th-century clothing stand outside the football stadium at Florida State University. The father holds a long gun, the son a bow and arrow, and the mother an infant in her arms as she looks warily to her right.

The statues represent the era when the Seminoles and the United States were at war. The public art is part of a complex relationship between Seminole culture and sports at Florida State. This bond has strengthened since a crackdown by the National Collegiate Athletic Association last year against American Indian mascots, nicknames and imagery among sports teams.

Not every university enjoys a harmonious relationship with Indians. But a sense of cooperation seems to permeate the Florida State campus in Tallahassee, Fla., where Toni Sanchez was among 21 students to complete a new course this month called History of the Seminoles and Southeastern Tribes.

Sanchez, a senior majoring in English, called the N.C.A.A. edict “beyond idiotic” and offensive. She described the new statues as beautiful.

“I know what a real Seminole is,” she said. “This Anglo guilt and regret don’t affect me.”

Sanchez is from a family with Seminole and Hispanic ancestry. Her father, once a farm worker, is now a casino operator. Her mother is a teacher. Sanchez also plays trumpet at football games in a marching band that wears arrowheads on the back of its uniforms.

Of the tribal flag near the new statues, another recent addition, she said, “Every time I look at it, I get really giddy inside.” Of the use of the Seminole imagery for the university’s sports, she said, “I’m so proud of it.”

Florida State was one of 18 institutions cited by the N.C.A.A. in August 2005 for “mascots, nicknames or images deemed hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin.” The institutions were forbidden to use the symbols in postseason events controlled by the N.C.A.A., like the national championship basketball tournament that begins in March.

Five programs have since received permission to continue using their imagery because they received approval from specific Indian groups, in Florida State’s case the 3,200-member Seminole Tribe of Florida. Five others have changed or are in the process of changing, said Bob Williams, an N.C.A.A. spokesman. The other eight, he said, remain on the list and are subject to the policy, including the Illinois Fighting Illini and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux.

Myles Brand, the president of the N.C.A.A., said in a telephone interview last week that his organization made the right decision but witnessed more negative reaction to the ruling than expected.

“What we’ve accomplished in part is to raise the level of awareness nationally about how we treat Native Americans,” Brand said. “If we don’t stand by our values, we lose our integrity.”

At times, Indians are reduced to casual caricature that would not be tolerated by other groups, he said, adding that the N.C.A.A. had been honored for its stance by Indian groups in Oklahoma and Indiana.

Less complimentary is T. K. Wetherell, the president of Florida State, who said the N.C.A.A. was “more interested in being politically correct” and did not consult the Seminole tribe before making its decision.

“The way they weaseled out was to say, ‘O.K., as long as the tribe continues to support it,’ ” he said.

Wetherell, a former Florida State football player who also teaches history, wore a hunting outfit when interviewed recently in his office. He pointed to a team logo of an Indian’s face that he said had elements of caricature. “That’s not really a Seminole-looking deal,” Wetherell said. “This is a marketing tool.” He said the university might “gradually let certain things fade.”

He said he told the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s council, “If you don’t want Florida State to be the Seminoles, we ain’t Seminoles anymore.” Wetherell said the tribe approved the use partly because the campus is in the capital and tribal leaders “are not only good businessmen, they are great politicians.”

He said the new history course was proposed before the N.C.A.A. edict.

But Neil Jumonville, the chairman of the history department, said the N.C.A.A. resolution accelerated the creation of the class and that his staff received advice from local Seminole leaders.

“These are people who are savvy about their place in the American myth,” Jumonville said. “And they are smart enough to manipulate the myth for their own good.”

The first class was taught by Christopher R. Versen, who recently earned his doctorate in American history.

“I wanted to challenge students to think about identity,” Versen said. “What is it inside us that makes us identify ourselves one way or another? What external factors play into identity?”

Diamonds Glitter Fades for a Brazilian Tribe

Published: December 29, 2006

ROOSEVELT INDIGENOUS AREA, Brazil — Some of the world’s most abundant deposits of diamonds are embedded in the reddish soil of the Amazon jungle here. But for the Cinta-Larga Indians who live on this remote reservation, that discovery has brought more misfortune than riches.

In April, the Cinta-Larga tribe and Brazil’s environmental police agreed to close a diamond mining camp in the Roosevelt Indigenous Area.
Outside miners began prospecting in earnest in 1999 and soon overran the Indians’ lands, bringing with them drink, drugs, disease and prostitution. Dazzled by the promise of quick wealth from their dealings with the outsiders, tribal leaders have accumulated debts they cannot pay — especially now that the police have set up roadblocks on the reservation’s borders to prevent illegal diamond trafficking.

Cinta-Larga means Broad Belt in Portuguese, a reference to the tribe’s former habit of wearing bark sashes around the waist. For generations, the Cinta-Largas chose to live in isolation here along the banks of the Roosevelt River, named for Theodore Roosevelt, who led an expedition through this region of the southwestern Amazon some 90 years ago.

“Back then, we had no idea what diamonds were worth,” recalled Roberto Carlos Cinta-Larga, a tribal leader who, following tradition, uses the tribe’s name as his surname. “We didn’t have money in those days and didn’t even really know what money was, because our nature was to stay apart from everyone else and not cultivate friendships.”

But in the 1960s, a highway was built west of here, opening the jungle to exploitation by loggers. The discovery of gold, tin and finally diamonds increased the opportunities for the Cinta-Largas but also their resentment of white encroachments on land that the Brazilian government had set aside for them.

Two years ago, the tensions finally boiled over. In an episode that is still under investigation, and for reasons that remain unclear, the Cinta-Largas killed 29 miners who were working without their permission at the mine on the reservation.

Since then, the Cinta-Largas have become the most notorious of Brazil’s hundreds of Indian tribes, reviled in the press as bloodthirsty savages who want the diamonds for themselves and insulted when they leave their reservation for nearby towns. In hopes of countering those negative portrayals, tribal leaders recently invited this reporter to visit.

“We want it known that, despite what our enemies say, we are not mining diamonds,” Ita Cinta-Larga, another tribal leader, said as he inspected the mining pit and its collection of abandoned hoses and sluices. “We still catch miners trying to sneak in now and then, but it’s pretty calm here now, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”

In return for an $810,000 grant for community development from the Brazilian government, the Cinta-Largas agreed in April to shut down the mine, allow the state environmental police to patrol the site and refrain from killing intruders. But the money is now running out, and Pio Cinta-Larga, a tribal leader, warned that unless more help is forthcoming, “when the year ends, the truce expires with it.”

Mauro Sposito, director of the Brazilian Federal Police’s Amazon task force, said that in view of the tribe’s history, such threats must be taken seriously. “We know that they are violent and that something could occur, which is why the main principles of our activities from the start have been to try to negotiate and avoid the use of brute force,” he said.

Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo works with an environmental and indigenous rights group, Kaninde. She cites another factor that the tribe is reluctant to discuss out of shame and embarrassment. “From what the Cinta-Larga women told me, they were tired of seeing the miners raping girls as young as 14 and bringing in drugs,” she said. “So they pressed their men to take a stand.”

Rômulo Siqueira de Sá, an official of the National Indian Foundation, the government agency that deals with indigenous affairs, said diamond money led many Cinta-Largas to buy cars, houses and other goods on credit through white intermediaries. With the mine shut and government funds running out, he said, they have fallen behind on payments and are facing repossession claims. As a result, the pressure to resume illicit diamond trading and reopen prospecting to outsiders is growing.

“The chiefs want government money so that they can pay private debts derived from illegal activities, and there is no possibility whatsoever that the government is going to do that,” Mr. Sposito said. “Brazilian law does not permit such a thing. What the government can do is support the development of the community and provide orientation, but not more than that.”

Thursday, December 28, 2006

One Determined Heroine and Her Fall From Grace

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — Here in the poorest corner of the poorest Indian reservation in the country, Geraldine Blue Bird’s household was one of the worst off.

Then President Bill Clinton stopped by her home during his 1999 tour of the nation’s most impoverished places. Ms. Blue Bird, who lived on a disability check, was squeezing 28 adults and children, most of whom she had taken in from the streets, into a four-room shack with no plumbing and a pop-up camper out back. When word got out, donations poured in, and continued for years. Ms. Blue Bird even received a brand-new double-wide mobile home with four bedrooms.

But the woman who became a symbol of enduring, desperate poverty in the United States now bunks in a jail cell in Rapid City, some 90 miles to the northwest. In October, a federal jury convicted her of running a multimillion-dollar drug ring out of her double-wide. The ring supplied cocaine throughout the hills and valleys of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is the size of Connecticut.

Her arrest and conviction followed a two-year investigation by federal and tribal authorities that netted 16 people, including several of her relatives and “adopted” children. Ms. Blue Bird, who is 50 and suffers from congestive heart failure, is to be sentenced on Feb. 20. She faces up to life in prison.

The case has brought a sense on the Pine Ridge reservation that Ms. Blue Bird betrayed her people. After Mr. Clinton’s visit, her burst of fame made her a kind of ambassador for the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. She gave interviews in which she spoke of a need to rescue Lakota youth from drugs and gangs. She was recognized by Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, as one of the nation’s Angels in Adoption. Until her arrest at a Rapid City motel on Dec. 21, 2005, she was raising money to open an orphanage.

Those in her neighborhood remember her sharing the donations she received, showering families with bags of children’s clothes. Their lingering question about her fall from grace: Why?

In an interview at the Rapid City jail where she has been held since she was arrested with several accomplices, a pound and a half of cocaine and a few guns, a weepy Ms. Blue Bird denied having been the leader of the drug ring, or even a part of it. She accused her biological son Colin Spotted Elk, 25, one of four people convicted with her, of running the gang.

“I knew he was doing it,” she said, “but he’s my son.”

Ms. Blue Bird, who plans an appeal, said support for her remained strong among the Lakota. But interviews in the village of Pine Ridge suggested otherwise.

On a reservation where some lack plumbing and electricity, the most generous speculated that Ms. Blue Bird’s actions could be traced to her intense poverty. They thought she had followed her son and others into the drug gang when the wads of cash they carried became too big a lure.

Others said she had become addicted to the attention she received as a result of her largess: when donations to her slowed to a trickle, she needed a way to continue doling out goods.

Still others could find no excuse at all.

Will Peters, who formerly represented Pine Ridge on the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, said she was “single-handedly responsible for ruining the lives of every young person involved” in the drug ring.

In Ms. Blue Bird’s forlorn neighborhood (known as the Igloo community because the 1940s-era cabins there came from an Army base in Igloo, S.D.), those who were once close to her are still shocked.

“We thought she was doing good,” said Marvin Richards, a cousin who lives down the road from her double-wide, now boarded up. “Around Christmastime, the family members would get new shoes, sacks of clothes. We really appreciated it.”

Three of Mr. Richards’s own nine children were caught up in the drug ring, he said. Sage, 21, pleaded guilty and has begun serving more than 11 years in prison. The only daughter, Marvella, 27, and another son, Rusty, 24, were convicted with Ms. Blue Bird, Mr. Spotted Elk and another man, Flint Thomas Red Feather, 35, whom Ms. Blue Bird raised. They all await sentencing.

Mr. Richards spoke as he looked into a house across the street from Ms. Blue Bird’s. It had belonged to his parents, and he was fixing it up for his daughter when she was arrested.

That house and the two next to it are empty now. Those who lived in them were all swept up in the drug arrests. (The children who lived with Ms. Blue Bird are with relatives, or in foster homes, “scattered to the four winds,” she said.) The street looks war-torn. The houses’ windows are broken or boarded up, and piles of clothes and debris are visible inside, through wide-open front doors.

Everyone in the neighborhood knew that the street was prone to trouble. On Dec. 10, 2005, 11 days before Ms. Blue Bird’s arrest, a 16-year-old was shot to death by a friend who was playing with a gun in Ms. Blue Bird’s mobile home.

Tribal authorities say the breakup of the Igloo ring has put a small dent in the drug problem on the reservation. Certainly in what is left of the Igloo community, “things are quiet now,” said Mr. Richards, who still plans to fix up his daughter’s house, for someone who might need it.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

John Mohawk, beloved man of wisdom, passes on : ICT [2006/12/15]

Editors' note: Indian Country Today is thankful for the early thoughts shared below by former editor Jose Barreiro, long-time friend and collaborator of John Mohawk. Barreiro currently serves at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Indian country lost a major luminary with the recent passing of Sotsisowah, the Seneca author and traditionalist known in the broader society as John Mohawk, Ph.D.

Mohawk, 61, was pronounced dead at his home in Buffalo on Dec. 12. He is mourned by large numbers of people, expressing the most heartfelt condolences to the family and close relatives of this beloved man of wisdom.

A longtime professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the highly talented and engaging scholar was a motivating force in the Indian traditionalist movement and the national and international indigenous initiative of self-sufficiency and self-assertion of the contemporary era. Mohawk's essays and speeches from the early 1970s, through his genial direction of the national Indian newspaper, Akwesasne Notes, from 1976 to 1984, were pivotal contributions to the development of intellectual capacity in the Indian movement. From his academic perch, Mohawk developed enlightening university courses while sustaining a wide-ranging program of writing and community educational and oratorical forays. In recent years, he had been an opinion columnist for Indian Country Today.

Intensely steeped in the spiritual ceremonial traditions of the Haudenosaunee people through his foundational longhouse culture at the Cattaraugus Reservation in western New York, Mohawk was one of those rare American Indian individuals who comfortably stepped out into the Western academic and journalistic arenas. He was an enthusiastic participant in his own traditional ways, a legendary singer and knowledgeable elder of the most profound ceremonial cycles of the Haudenosaunee. As a scholar, he represented the Native traditional school of thought in a way that was as authentic as it was brilliantly modern and universal.

Mohawk wrote several important books and articles, among which is the classic ''Basic Call to Consciousness,'' a seminal work that catalyzed Native thinking and understanding of global history in a way that was superbly useful. Later, along with Onondaga elder Oren Lyons, Mohawk edited the important book ''Exiled in the Land of the Free,'' which gathered the significant thinking around foundational American Indian rights. His research and writing on ''Basic Call to Consciousness'' was typical of his style as an activist scholar. It was largely written during the winter and spring of 1977 in the deep woods of upstate New York, where the author was often prodded by the visits of Haudenosaunee chiefs, clan mothers and other elders, to whom he would read his developing prose and who would comment deeply on the manuscript.

Many will credit John Mohawk as the major intellectual and strategic force behind the surge of Haudenosaunee activism of the past 30 years. Many more know and respect him for his many expressions on important national and international issues. While he published and lectured widely, Mohawk generously gave much of his intellectual prowess directly to community issues. At moments when traditionalist life was threatened, he worked diligently to establish strategic directions for the longhouse and other traditionalist governments. One remembers many instances in which Mohawk made a huge difference in dangerous moments of interethnic and political conflict. Many are the times when he forsook professional glory or advancement to join the battle lines, where he employed his powerful intellect to save life while always pressing the demand for Native peoples' unique sovereign rights.

A strong defender of national and international human rights, Mohawk was a mentor to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Indian and non-Indian college students and young professionals, many of whom have gone on to fulfill important posts. He was a great and loyal friend, one who could tease you to tears while marveling your life with incredible sweetness, consistency and human value.

John Mohawk was self-effacing to a fault. Easily admired and even revered, he shunned and suspected any such feelings. This came out of his natural deep integrity. He was wont to tell enraptured audiences, ''Remember one thing, if you remember nothing else I've told you: I am not a star!''

He was wrong on that one. John Mohawk was - is - a star.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Is Apocalypto Pornography?

by Traci Ardren
A scholar challenges Mel Gibson's use of the ancient Maya culture as a metaphor for his vision of today's world.

With great trepidation I went to an advance screening of "Apocalypto" last night in Miami. No one really expects historical dramas to be accurate, so I was not so much concerned with whether or not the film would accurately represent what we know of Classic period Maya history as I was concerned about the message Mel Gibson wanted to convey through the film. After Jared Diamond's best-selling book Collapse, it has become fashionable to use the so-called Maya collapse as a metaphor for Western society's environmental and political excesses. Setting aside the fact that the Maya lived for more than a thousand years in a fragile tropical environment before their cities were abandoned, while here in the U.S, we have polluted our urban environments in less than 200, I anticipated a heavy-handed cautionary tale wrapped up in Native American costume.

What I saw was much worse than this. The thrill of hearing melodic Yucatec Maya spoken by familiar faces (although the five lead actors are not Yucatec Maya but other talented Native American actors) during the first ten minutes of the movie is swiftly and brutally replaced with stomach churning panic at the graphic Maya-on-Maya violence depicted in a village raid scene of nearly 15 minutes. From then on the entire movie never ceases to utilize every possible excuse to depict more violence. It is unrelenting. Our hero, Jaguar Paw, played by the charismatic Cree actor Rudy Youngblood, has one hellavuh bad couple of days. Captured for sacrifice, forced to march to the putrid city nearby, he endures every tropical jungle attack conceivable and that is after he escapes the relentless brutality of the elites. I am told this part of the movie is completely derivative of the 1966 film "The Naked Prey." Pure action flick, with one ridiculous encounter after another, filmed beautifully in the way that only Hollywood blockbusters can afford, this is the part of the movie that will draw in audiences and demonstrates Gibson's skill as a cinematic storyteller.

But I find the visual appeal of the film one of the most disturbing aspects of "Apocalypto." The jungles of Veracruz and Costa Rica have never looked better, the masked priests on the temple jump right off a Classic Maya vase, and the people are gorgeous. The fact that this film was made in Mexico and filmed in the Yucatec Maya language coupled with its visual appeal makes it all the more dangerous. It looks authentic; viewers will be captivated by the crazy, exotic mess of the city and the howler monkeys in the jungle. And who really cares that the Maya were not living in cities when the Spanish arrived? Yes, Gibson includes the arrival of clearly Christian missionaries (these guys are too clean to be conquistadors) in the last five minutes of the story (in the real world the Spanish arrived 300 years after the last Maya city was abandoned). It is one of the few calm moments in an otherwise aggressively paced film. The message? The end is near and the savior has come. Gibson's efforts at authenticity of location and language might, for some viewers, mask his blatantly colonial message that the Maya needed saving because they were rotten at the core. Using the decline of Classic urbanism as his backdrop, Gibson communicates that there was absolutely nothing redeemable about Maya culture, especially elite culture which is depicted as a disgusting feast of blood and excess.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Scientists Tracing DNA Find Tribes Not So Trusting

Published: December 10, 2006

SOUTH NAKNEK, Alaska — The National Geographic Society’s multimillion-dollar research project to collect DNA from indigenous groups around the world in the hopes of reconstructing humanity’s ancient migrations has come to a standstill on its home turf in North America.

Billed as the “moon shot of anthropology,” the Genographic Project intends to collect 100,000 indigenous DNA samples. But for four months, the project has been on hold here as it scrambles to address questions raised by a group that oversees research involving Alaska natives.

At issue is whether scientists who need DNA from aboriginal populations to fashion a window on the past are underselling the risks to present-day donors. Geographic origin stories told by DNA can clash with long-held beliefs, threatening a world view some indigenous leaders see as vital to preserving their culture.

They argue that genetic ancestry information could also jeopardize land rights and other benefits that are based on the notion that their people have lived in a place since the beginning of time.

“What if it turns out you’re really Siberian and then, oops, your health care is gone?” said Dr. David Barrett, a co-chairman of the Alaska Area Institutional Review Board, which is sponsored by the Indian Health Service, a federal agency. “Did anyone explain that to them?”

Such situations have not come up, and officials with the Genographic Project discount them as unlikely. Spencer Wells, the population geneticist who directs the project, says it is paternalistic to imply that indigenous groups need to be kept from the knowledge that genetics might offer.

“I don’t think humans at their core are ostriches,” Dr. Wells said. “Everyone has an interest in where they came from, and indigenous people have more of an interest in their ancestry because it is so important to them.”

But indigenous leaders point to centuries of broken promises to explain why they believe their fears are not far-fetched. Scientific evidence that American Indians or other aboriginal groups came from elsewhere, they say, could undermine their moral basis for sovereignty and chip away at their collective legal claims.

“It’s a benefit to science, probably,” said Dr. Mic LaRoque, the Alaska board’s other c0-chairman and a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe of North Dakota. “But I’m not convinced it’s a benefit to the tribes.”

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Seminole Tribe of Florida Buys Hard Rock

LONDON (AP) -- The Seminole Tribe of Florida is buying the Hard Rock business, including its massive collection of rock 'n' roll memorabilia, in a $965 million deal with British casino and hotel company Rank Group PLC, the tribe announced Thursday.

The Hard Rock business includes 124 Hard Rock Cafes, four Hard Rock Hotels, two Hard Rock Casino Hotels, two Hard Rock Live! concert venues and stakes in three unbranded hotels.

With it, the tribe acquires what is said to be the world's largest collection of rock memorabilia, some 70,000 pieces including Jimi Hendrix's Flying V guitar, one of Madonna's bustiers, a pair of Elton John's high-heeled shoes and guitars formerly owned by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry.

''This is a proud moment for the Seminole Tribe of Florida and for all Indian tribes,'' said Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the elected Tribal Council. ''It is also an opportunity for the Seminole Tribe to diversify its business operations and help a very successful company to achieve even greater growth.''

Cypress and Seminole Gaming Chief Executive James Allen said in a statement the tribe would work with Hard Rock International management to build on existing growth plans.

In addition to its two Seminole Hard Rock hotels & casinos, the Seminole Tribe owns and operates five other casinos in Florida. More than 90 percent of the tribe's budget now comes from gaming revenue.

Nearly 3,300 Seminole Indians live on and off reservations throughout Florida. Rank said it would keep the Hard Rock Casino in London but under the Rank Gaming brand.

''We have maximized the value of Hard Rock through this disposal following a thorough strategic review and competitive auction,'' said Rank Chief Executive Ian Burke.

The sale, which is subject to shareholder approval, is scheduled to be completed in March.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Praise for Gibson Film, Quandary for Oscar Voters

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 4 — With some early reviews lauding the audacity and innovation of Mel Gibson’s bloody Mayan epic, “Apocalypto,” Hollywood’s tight-knit community of Oscar voters may find itself facing a difficult dilemma in the coming weeks: Will they consider the film for an Academy Award?

Since Mr. Gibson’s drunken tirade against Jews last summer, many people in Hollywood swore — both publicly and privately — that they would not work with him again or see his movies.

But that was before the critics began to weigh in on “Apocalypto,” a two-hour tale about a peaceful village of hunter-gatherers who are attacked and enslaved by the bloodthirsty overlords of their Meso-American civilization.

Mr. Gibson wrote, directed, produced and financed the film, much as he did “The Passion of the Christ,” his surprise 2004 blockbuster; the Walt Disney Company is distributing the film.

“Apocalypto,” which will open on 2,500 screens across the country on Friday, is as different from a typical Hollywood film as Mr. Gibson’s last one: it features unrelenting, savage violence, is told in an obscure Mayan language and uses many nonprofessional actors with a primitive look born far from Hollywood.