The day after the 2020 presidential election, a graphic from CNN dominated my Facebook news feed. Illustrating voter turnout, it included the phrase “something else” to refer to voters who are not white, Latinx, Black or Asian.
Many Native Americans, quick to unite around a reason to laugh, responded with their own graphics and memes, playfully and sarcastically congratulating themselves.
In reality, though, people were angry at another instance of erasure – and at the chosen phrase, which furthered Indigenous invisibility on the national stagewhen there were so many stories that could have amplified the significance of Native American participation in the election process.
This year saw a record six Native Americans elected to Congress.
Native voters were also crucial to the Democratic party’s success in key swing states. Flipping Arizona, which went blue for just the second time in 70 years, can be credited to the state’s Native vote. The Navajo’s Nation’s roughly 67,000 eligible voters showed up for Biden at a rate of 60-90%, resulting in a tally that far surpassed his lead of 12,813 votes in the state.
CNN’s insult was particularly ironic given that it is also Native American Heritage Month. Beyond stories of voter turnout, it is time mainstream media, cultural and political institutions, and all Americans reflect on ways to increase engagement with Native American people and Nations. Research from the non-profit group IllumiNative reveals that 87% of state-level history standards fail to cover Native people in a post-1900 context and that 78% of Americans want to learn more about Native people, cultures, and contemporary stories.
My own desire to facilitate these reflections and expand the space for Indigenous narratives led me to pursue an oral history project with the non-profit Voice of Witness. Over the last three years in cities and on reserves and reservations across the continent, I have listened to and published Native peoples’ stories of loss, injustice and resilience in the ongoing fight to protect Indigenous land, rights and life. From the intergenerational legacy of Indian residential schools, to the impact of environmental destruction on fishing, hunting and traditional life-ways, to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, I hope that these stories of resistance will be moved into American schools and public discourse. They offer alternatives to over-told tales such as the colonialist-absolving and historically inaccurate Thanksgiving narrative.
There are so many more stories that need to be heard, and so much more work to be done. Here are some ideas to get you started:
1. Remember that we are all occupying tribal land. You can learn whose traditional territory you live on by using the searchable map developed by Native Land Digital. Do research into the Indigenous peoples who historically occupied the territory, who currently does and the history of how it was stolen.
2. Do a land acknowledgment to raise awareness of Indigenous peoples’ presence and to recognize our ongoing relationship with the land. For a guide on how to observe this practice, visit landacknowledgements.org. However, don’t let the land acknowledgment be a token gesture. Know your history and remember that an acknowledgment should also be a commitment to take action towards a more just future.
3. Read the work of Indigenous writers such as Tommy Orange, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Lee Maracle, Terese Marie Mailhot, Vine Deloria Jr, Louise Erdrich and N Scott Momaday to learn how Native people represent themselves and their cultures, histories, and communities. Native lives are often only covered if the individuals are one of the 4 Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk or dead. Native authors offer more balanced depictions of our lives.
4. Advocate for your local school boards to include Native American children’s literature, history and perspectives in the curriculum, specifically those of local tribes. If you are an educator, add more Native content to your syllabi. As the United Nations states, a lack of respect toward and resources about Native cultures can cause a critical education gap. Start with these free lesson plans exploring colonization and contemporary Indigenous experiences.
5. Even if your formal education didn’t make space for Indigenous knowledge, it’s not too late. Search #NativeTwitter to find Indigenous users, opinions and events. Follow @IdleNoMore4, @WinonaLaDuke, @The_Red_Nation, @repdebhaaland, @repdavids, @NDNCollective, @jnoisecat, @CrystalEchoHawk, @SimonMoyaSmith, @apihtawikosisan and others.
6. Support your local Indian center. You can find them in Los Angeles, Toronto, Denver, Winnipeg, Chicago, Oakland, New York City, Victoria, Minneapolis and many more cities throughout North America.
7. Donate money or time to Native-led programs and organizations. For example, you can support the work of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center to end the crisis of violence against Native women, girls, and two-spirit folks; or the work of the Bear Clan Patrol, a grassroots initiative promoting safety and support for Winnipeg’s Indigenous population. Check out the Native American Community Response Fund to support those who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
8. Divest! Avoid banks, like Wells Fargo and Chase, that violate Native treaty rights by bankrolling environmentally devastating fossil fuel developments. Visit the Indigenous Environmental Network for an overview of the case for fossil fuel divestment, guidance on how to contact CEOs and executives, and steps you can take to divest and reinvest.
9. Campaign and vote for Native candidates at all levels of government – we need more representation at the local, state and national levels. Demand more of currently elected governments, too; advocate for policy and legislation that supports Native communities. Add your voice to the movement for Representative Deb Haaland’s nomination as the first Native American secretary of the interior.
10. Educate yourself about the Land Back movement, which aims to restore stolen territory to Indigenous nations. If you are interested in repatriating land, pursue relationships with local Indigenous people and organizations involved in land return. If direct repatriation doesn’t make sense where you have access to land, support the struggle by selling land you own and donate the income to the movement. You can also donate to land tax or land returns movements.
History as it’s been taught to most North Americans too often excludes Indigenous peoples, treating them and colonization as peripheral to the continent’s story. By making this history more widely accessible and by amplifying contemporary Indigenous voices, we can change the narrative for future generations – and avoid any more references to “something else”.