Racial justice is not political correctness – by Deborah Levine

Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press

The giant earthquake over our African American history at Trump’s Tulsa rally was followed by a tiny spotlight on Native Americans who protested against Trump’s July 4th appearance at Mount Rushmore. The monument is on sacred Sioux Nation land, but National Guard troops fired pepper spray and arrested indigenous protesters.

Before anyone calls Sioux protestors left-wing radicals, marxists, and anarchists, understand that the National Park Service banned fireworks at Mount Rushmore because they caused wildfires and groundwater pollution on Sioux Nation land.

The Sioux weren’t given even a courtesy call about Trump’s plans. I saw how little attention is paid to Native Americans when I served with Cherokee leaders on Tulsa’s Say No to Hate Coalition several decades ago. Their ancestors arrived in Oklahoma when The Indian Removal Act of 1830 removed 17,000 Cherokees from the Southeast, with more than 4,000 dying along the Trail of Tears.

Too few of us pay attention to how the federal government pushed Native Americans onto reservations, removing them from land they’d occupied for centuries. They were promised complete sovereignty over those reservations and federal protection. That was the promise in the 1868 treaty with the Sioux who then withdrew from much of their land and settled within a Black Hills reservation in the Dakota Territory.

As always, follow the money. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, miners laid claim to land and demanded federal protection. One of the mountains was quickly named for a federal mine inspector, Charles Rushmore. How many of us are aware that the monument was originally intended to highlight Western history, including an iconic Sioux chief?  That idea was rejected by the monument’s creator who had been recruited by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. He was relatively obscure but had designed a Stone Mountain monument memorializing Confederate leaders and was a Ku Klux Klan participant.

When Trump railed at Mount Rushmore against protestors who attack our history and monuments, he never mentioned that the Sioux have been in the courts for decades trying to enforce the treaty designating Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills as part of “the Great Sioux Reservation”. Ironically, his silence prompted a media interview with Chase Iron Eyes, advisor to the Oglala Sioux tribe president. A memorable interview comment noted that only by offering their bodies and putting them in harm’s way would Native Americans be heard.

Will they be heard, or just removed? Chattanoogans know all about history’s removal since the Trail of Tears had beginnings here. But we’ve now honored the complex reality of Native American history with The Passage, the nation’s largest public art project. The Passage is at Ross Landing, named for Chief John Ross who protested the 1830 removal.

Fortunately, we are now seeing other awakenings. The Washington Redskins are revisiting their name. The team cited racial justice and so have 80 investment firms worth $620 billion who asked Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo to cease advertising with the team until their name changed. Sports teams aren’t alone in listening. The courts have paused the Dakota access pipeline after three years of protests by Native Americans.

But more needs to be done. And we shouldn’t allow racial justice to be demeaned as political correctness when Native American reservations are among the nation’s most COVID-19 infected communities. They get little federal help, have lost all tourist revenue and can’t raise taxes to pay for healthcare. Now should be a time to revisit the federal promise to protect these reservations. We should finally hear Native American voices and not remove them.


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