Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ways and (Russell) Means -

Over four decades, Russell Means has led an insurrection, posed for Andy Warhol, aspired to be an assassin and been arguably the most influential public figure in fighting racism against the American Indian. Now, in his quest to start his own country, the road to success might run down Embassy Row.

By Bill Donahue
Sunday, June 29, 2008; Page W08
The voice was booming and imperious as it came out of the bathroom, wafting over the blandly hip decor of the Dupont Circle hotel room. "If you excuse me a moment," said Russell Means, "I'm going to braid my hair."

I knew that Means was not talking about some quick twist-and-tie ponytail job, but rather the painstaking culmination of a resplendent costume. Means is 6-foot-1, with a powerful broad-boned physique. He is the actor who played the last Mohican in the 1992 film "The Last of the Mohicans," and he is the onetime leader of the revolutionary American Indian Movement, or AIM. Arguably the most famous living Indian activist, he performs his role with panache. Already on this bright, cold morning in February, he was wearing dangling turquoise earrings, a crimson wool Navajo vest and black silver-tipped cowboy boots. His broad, truculent brow was creased with wear.

Means's life has been something like a Johnny Cash song. He has done prison time for inciting a riot, and has been stabbed, accused of murder, hit by two bullets and divorced four times. Long ago, he was a fancy dance champion and a rodeo star. Even now, at age 68, he remains a forceful presence -- a warrior.

On this visit to the nation's capital, Means was, per usual, fighting the United States of America. Along with three other Lakota Indians, he had recently severed his ties with the United States and declared himself a founding member of a new, autonomous nation -- the Republic of Lakotah. Unsanctioned by their tribal government, and speaking only for themselves, the dissidents claimed dominion over more than 93,000 square miles of traditional Lakota territory -- a continuous chunk of sparsely populated dry land that includes parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.

Means was here in Washington seeking diplomatic recognition from the world community so that he could ultimately finagle a seat at the United Nations, whether the U.S. of A. likes it or not. His motto, borrowed from Gandhi, is, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

The plan was to barnstorm Embassy Row. He hoped to visit ambassadors from several U.S. adversaries (Venezuela and Serbia, for instance) as well as from a few other countries he deemed likely allies -- for instance, Bolivia, which has an indigenous president in Evo Morales, and Finland, which, in Means's view, "appreciates freedom because it's always been an independent ally of Russia."

It would be a four-day mission, and Means was traveling with an attache, Lakotah's volunteer attorney general, Jerry Collette. A Libertarian activist and a paralegal who recently emigrated to Lakotah from his longtime home in North Carolina, Collette is most renowned for the intricate, loopholing legal work he did last winter to enable the supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul to fly a campaign blimp up and down the East Coast. Ethnically French-Canadian, Collette is 56 years old, with long gray hair and a shaggy gray beard. In contrast to Means, he is a meager physical presence -- slender and only 5-foot-4. On this road trip, as Means luxuriated on the hotel's single queen bed, Collette was sleeping on the floor. "I'm a guerrilla," he explained, "and if you're a guerrilla, you just don't grumble about little discomforts."

At the moment, Collette was standing outside the bathroom, valet-like, reporting on the progress he'd made that morning, canvassing embassies on his cellphone. "I called Iceland," he said, "and they can't meet with us. They're busy. They said to just drop off a petition."

"They're busy?" Means asked. "What does Iceland have to be busy about?"

Collette paused a moment, and then, without answering, he said, "But can we just drop off the petition?"

"We're too busy," Means said, his voice laced with a larksome, sardonic swagger, and Collette went back to his phone, squaring away the logistics for a full afternoon of visiting embassies.

After a few minutes, Means emerged. His braids were done, and now he reached for his sunglasses -- Dolce & Gabbanas.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Young American Indians Find Their Voice in Poetry -

SANTA FE, N.M. — The memories of long summers spent on Navajo land as a little boy have stayed with Nolan Eskeets, like the words his grandfather spoke from his deathbed.

“Up, little one,” his grandfather said to him in Navajo, a language Nolan did not understand.

Now a barrel-chested 18-year-old, with a rush of long brown hair, Nolan summons these memories — the days herding sheep through the valleys, the redolence of fresh fry bread, the unfamiliar language of his grandfather — whenever he picks up a pen.

Nolan will use that pen and his baritone when he competes this summer in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C. He and a group of fellow students at the Santa Fe Indian School are part of a growing program that has won a slew of local and regional poetry slams and twice earned an invitation to the festival, which pits teams of the country’s top young spoken word poets against one another.

While Nolan and his teammates do not hail from the gritty urban surroundings that are often a breeding ground for slam poetry, where poets are judged on both performance and writing, their team is drawing national attention for its decidedly American Indian take on an art form that has grown increasingly popular with young people over the last decade.

The success of the Indian School’s poetry program has particular importance in New Mexico, where 10 percent of the population is American Indian and where Indian students from grades 3 to 11 lag behind all other groups in reading proficiency, according to a 2007 state report.

Teachers and administrators at the Indian School say the program counters any perception that Indian students cannot excel in English and writing.

“Tears dance down my cheeks in the rhythm of Santo Domingo’s corn dance/Tattered textbooks and Presbyterian Bibles bark violent incantations and shriek curses of assimilation,” thundered April Chavez, a senior reciting her poem “Indian Education” at a recent rehearsal.

April, whose family comes from the Santo Domingo pueblo and the Navajo nation, plans to attend Stanford in the fall. Like other students on the Santa Fe team, she often wraps her poems in the pulsing staccato of Indian words.

“For the kids, spoken word is a reconnection with the oral tradition, a return to the origin of language, its sound, its music,” said Tim McLaughlin, a creative writing teacher at the school and the team’s coach.

Mr. McLaughlin began the program at the Indian School, a sprawling Indian-run boarding institution with some 700 students in grades 7 through 12, many from New Mexico’s 19 pueblos and the Navajo nation.

He remembers well the challenge of getting his students, many more reserved than the typical teenager and “brought up to be listeners first,” to write about their lives at home.

Topics that might make for powerful poetry — ceremonies, families, the complexities of their identity — seemed off limits.

“The kids wanted to build awareness about issues that are confronting native people, but they had to balance that by not violating things that are considered sacred and are to be left sacred,” Mr. McLaughlin said

Mr. McLaughlin, who is white and from Virginia, said he occasionally found himself on the phone with a student’s parent or grandparent, to make sure it was acceptable for a particular subject to be addressed in a poem.

Gradually, as the students grew emboldened by their work, themes began to emerge — the loss of language, the legacy of the reservation and pueblo and, especially, their relationship with their grandparents.

Soon, students were bellowing poems about what it was like to grow up Indian. “Nali,” a poem by Santana Shorty, a bubbly freshman mostly raised by her white mother and with little connection to reservation life before Indian School, recalls Santana’s worn memory of her grandmother, who spoke no English, speaking to her in Navajo, which Santana did not understand.

“Her words nourish and sting me simultaneously,” Santana recited. “I struggle and cry to her with my eyes/A crease of ‘I’m sorry’ spreads across her forehead.”

The poems impressed James Kass, the founder and executive director of Youth Speaks, which produces the festival. Mr. Kass invited the team to participate in 2007 after hearing about them from Mr. McLaughlin, and he recalled seeing the students mesmerize a packed crowd at a San Francisco slam last year.

“They did a good portion of their poems in their native languages, which was amazing,” he said. “They weren’t trying to mimic poets from New York or Chicago.”

After failing to advance past the quarterfinal round last year, the Santa Fe team is poised for a stronger showing next month. They will be the only exclusively American Indian team among the 44 competing. An HBO camera crew has been following the students as they prepare and will be there to record the final competition as part of a documentary.

For the students, though, there is something more meaningful at stake: the expression of who they are to all who will listen.

At a recent performance in Santa Fe, Nolan Eskeets performed a poem, “Letter to Grandpa.” In it, he speaks of never learning Navajo, despite a promise to his grandfather, and of his painful struggle to pronounce his own Indian name.

In the end, Nolan writes that the poem itself has finally allowed him to use his language in a way that would have made his grandfather proud.

“Grandpa,” Nolan concludes, “Let me sing for you.”

After the performance, Nolan’s usually stoic father grew emotional. He strode up to Nolan and clasped his hand.

“Thank you,” he told his son in Navajo.

Be sure to see the Multimedia feature of the students reciting their poetry at

Friday, June 13, 2008

Winona LaDuke on the Colbert Report

Watch Winona LaDuke endorse Barack Obama on the Colbert Report. She also gives him a White Earth flag and $24 to reclaim Manhattan and an Ojijbwe name. Watch and find out what it means!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Canada Offers an Apology for Native Students’ Abuse

OTTAWA — The government of Canada formally apologized on Wednesday to Native Canadians for forcing about 150,000 native children into government-financed residential schools where many suffered physical and sexual abuse.

The system of schools, which began shutting down in the 1970s, after decades of operations, was dedicated to eradicating the languages, traditions and cultural practices of Native Canadians and has been linked to the widespread incidence of alcoholism, suicide and family violence in many native communities.

“The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history,” Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, said in a speech in the House of Commons, where a small group of former students and native leaders sat in front of him. “Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country.”

An apology from the prime minister had been sought by native groups for years and was part of a broad, court-sanctioned settlement with the government and the church organizations that operated the schools. The federal government also agreed to pay 1.9 billion Canadian dollars (about $1.85 billion) to surviving students and to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to document the experiences of children who attended the schools.

Harry S. LaForme, a Mississauga Indian and a justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal who will oversee the commission, said the schools program was responsible for making the relationship between native people and other Canadians “so unworkable, so filled with mistrust.”

“The policy of the Canadian residential schools wasn’t to educate Indian children,” he said in an interview. “It was to kill the Indian in the child, it was to erase the culture of Indian people from the fabric of Canada.”

In a rare break with parliamentary tradition, several native leaders were allowed to speak from the floor of the House of Commons. Some spoke in their native languages. All praised Mr. Harper for offering the apology, though native groups remain at odds with the government on several issues, including spending on native communities.

“The memories of residential schools sometimes cuts like merciless knives at our souls,” Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the national association of native groups, told the House of Commons. He wore a ceremonial feathered headdress. “Never again will this House consider us ‘the Indian problem’ just for being who we are,” he said.

In 1990, Mr. Fontaine, an Ojibway, became one of the first native leaders to disclose that he had been sexually abused while attending the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba.

The federal government has admitted that sexual and physical abuse in the schools was widespread. In his speech, Mr. Harper acknowledged that “while some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools, these stories are far overshadowed by tragic accounts of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children.”

Attendance at residential schools was made mandatory by the government in 1920 for native children between the ages of 7 and 16 as part of a program it called “aggressive assimilation.” Children were forced to leave their parents and were harshly punished for speaking their own languages or practicing their religions.

All but a small number of the approximately 130 schools were run by Christian denominations that operated them as missionary schools, some as far back as the 19th century. Those denominations were the Anglican, United, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian Churches.

Although the history of the program has been reviewed by various government commissions and courts, many details are still unknown, including the number of children who died from abuse or neglect. The commission run by Justice LaForme will have access to previously closed church and government archives to fill in some of those blanks. The commission also plans to hold hearings around the country to question former students and others familiar with the operation of the schools.

Mr. Harper and many fellow members of the Conservative Party initially resisted offering an apology, suggesting that it would be applying current cultural values to the past. Mr. Fontaine said in an interview that he believed that Mr. Harper changed his mind after the government of Australia formally apologized to its aboriginal people earlier this year for its policy of forced assimilation.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Museum Returns the Remains of a Canadian Tribe’s Forebears

A hushed group of people, nearly four dozen strong, slipped into the American Museum of Natural History early Monday, ahead of the crowds. Their cheeks were smeared with rust-colored dye, red and white woven bands encircled their heads, the men wore ceremonial vests and the women were wrapped in shawls, fringed with red.

They were at the end of a roughly 3,000-mile journey that has, in its way, taken years. Unlike the thousands of fidgety schoolchildren and harried parents that filled the museum’s halls to view its storied exhibits on Monday, these 46 visitors were there for an altogether different purpose: to take their ancestors home.

“Our people are humans; we aren’t tokens,” said Chief Vern Jacks, who heads the Tseycum First Nation, a tiny native tribe from northern Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.

With the museum’s full consent, the Tseycum tribe will be repatriating the remains of 55 of their ancestors to Canada this week. On Monday morning, in a quiet first-floor auditorium away from the museum’s crowds, tribe members performed an emotionally charged private ceremony over the 15 sturdy plastic boxes that contained the remains. The ceremony lasted two and a half hours, and the tribe members and elders from related tribes prayed, spoke, wept and sang, saying they wanted to soothe their ancestors’ spirits and prepare them for a return trip from a journey that, the tribe leaders say, should never have happened at all.

“And then we said, ‘Now we’re going to take you home,’ ” Chief Jacks said, moments after the ceremony ended. “These people we are taking here have knowledge, respect, wisdom,” he added. “We live by today’s society, but our history walks with us.”

The remains, guessed to be at least 2,000 years old, have been at the museum for about 100 years but have almost certainly never been on display, said Steve Reichl, a museum spokesman. The museum has repatriated other remains to Canada at least once before, in 2002, according to Mr. Reichl, and remains have also been returned numerous times to American Indians.

Mr. Reichl said the museum worked to streamline the Tseycums’ trip. “The end result was a successful visit,” he said, “and a moving ceremony.”

For the Tseycum people, Monday’s events marked a singular culmination of years of painstaking, and painful, detective work.

The tribe’s quest to reclaim their ancestors began seven years ago, when Chief Jacks’s wife, Cora Jacks, found documents and papers relaying the life story of a 19th- and early 20th-century archaeologist, Harlan Ingersoll Smith. Ms. Jacks said she learned that Mr. Smith had robbed the graves of Tseycum ancestors, who were buried on Vancouver Island under giant boulders, and sold them to major American museums, and most likely others worldwide.

Mrs. Jacks grew nearly obsessed with tracking down the remains, Chief Jacks said, poring over books, researching government archives and spending late nights searching for clues online.

Mr. Smith’s selling price, said Chief Jacks, was $5 a skull, $10 for a body.

“He dug our people up and sold them to museums on all four corners of the earth,” said Chief Jacks, 63, who is hoping that the Canadian government will help defray the costs of the trip. “What happened to ‘rest in peace’?”

In 2004, Mrs. Jacks wrote to both the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where she believes the remains of 70 ancestors who are from Coast Salish, a designation for tribes in the Pacific Northwest, are also being stored. In 2005, Mrs. Jacks and Chief Jacks’s son, Vern Jacks Jr., visited both museums, and then began the arduous, paperwork-heavy process for repatriating remains, first from New York.

In 2006, tribe members began raising money to cover their trip. They held fund-raisers, auctioned art and gathered donations for their quest, which they called “Our Journey Home,” and the tribe contributed $55,000.

(Helen Robbins, the repatriation director at the Field Museum, said the tribe had yet to begin the required process in Chicago. Mrs. Jacks said they planned to begin that effort next, after more money is raised.)

Finally, in November 2007, Mrs. Jacks said, she received the good news from the American Museum of Natural History. “They told us we could now come to New York and get our ancestors,” she said. Then the tribe began the process of speaking to elders and leaders in the Tseycum tribe, which has just 150 members, and other area tribes.

“And then we waited for better weather in New York,” said Mrs. Jacks, 52. “We didn’t want to be here in the snow.”

In the end, Chief Jacks said, the entire trip cost $150,000, with 46 people from the Tseycum and related tribes making it.

Chief Jacks flew into Kennedy Airport on June 4, with seven other tribe members. The rest of the group arrived on Saturday. They were staying in the Holiday Inn on West 57th Street, where they booked 24 rooms.

In addition to preparing for Monday’s ceremony, Chief Jacks said tribe members visited the Statue of Liberty and took double-decker bus tours of the city.

They were taken off guard by the heat wave. “But I can’t complain,” Chief Jacks said, shrugging. “It won’t do any good to complain.”

The tribe planned to fly back to Victoria on Vancouver Island on Wednesday with their ancestors’ remains. Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, Chief Jacks said, the remains will be transported by van to Kennedy Airport and flown in the cargo hull back to Victoria. “A lot of our people will be waiting there,” he said.

And then the remains will be driven in the back of two pickup trucks to Tseycum land on Vancouver Island, transferred into 55 plain cedar boxes and reburied on native land, this time, the tribe vows, for good.