Seven Comments on The Economist Article: “The rise of Native American politicians”

A major international publication reports the significance of Native candidates / politicians in U.S. elections: The Economist, “The rise of Native American politicians” (November 29th, 2018)|e >

Although the article is likely to be well-received by many people, it displays an immense knowledge gap and educational task facing those who work, live, and study Native Nations. A few statements jumped out at me; here they are, with my comments:

1 — 

Deb Haaland, who last month became one of the first native-American women elected to Congress… says… “Representation matters. And if you disagree, try not being represented for over 200 years and then see how it feels to have someone who looks like you in Congress!”

COMMENT: Notice “native-Americans” — lower case “native” positioned as an adjective for uppercase “American,” framing Natives as a sub-category of the dominant identity. This is consistent throughout the article, except where “Native” begins a sentence. Notice also that Haaland sees “representation” in the colonial master’s house as the major significance of her election, presuming that the lack of such “representation” is the root problem; moreover, her key identifier is “looks.” 

2 —

Indians are doggedly beset by poverty, ill health and other social problems. Yet the picture of wretchedness on the reservation this conjures is misleading. Over 70% live in cities, where an educated Indian middle class has emerged. 

COMMENT: Natives may be so far beyond the immediacy of a bond with land that land and nationhood are no longer root issues.

3 — 

Native Americans still represent less than 2% of the population. So none of the candidates for national or statewide office made much of their Indianness on the trail.

COMMENT: Native candidates’ politically necessary submersion of Native issues into a range of ordinary issues undercuts the presumed significance for Natives of their election.


4 — 

There were also signs of a long-standing ambivalence towards national politics. … most expressed little enthusiasm for either party.

COMMENT: The article does not dig into this ambivalence; had it done so, it might have found people with an awareness that Native concerns require independence from the US political system, that Native rights are broader, deeper, and other than civil rights.


5 — 

Indians are starting to behave politically more like other groups. Yet they remain heterodox and distinct. Mental health, land rights and criminal justice are among the problems that affect Indians differently, because of their history and because of provisions such as the Indian health service. …  Yet by providing a stronger, subtler voice for native Americans they have an opportunity to accelerate their engagement with national politics.

COMMENT: Having not investigated (or comprehended) land and self-determination as the core of Native rights, the article conflates Native rights and civil rights issues. “Land rights” are bracketed by “mental health” and “criminal justice,” with only superficial allusions to “difference” and “history.”  The conclusion follows that “engagement with national politics” is the solution.

6 — 

 “Native America provides a touchstone of identity: about who we westerners are and particularly who we are not,” wrote the anthropologist J.C.H. King.

COMMENT: To the extent that “Native America” helps non-Natives figure out their identity, the same subsumption of “Native” within “America” obscures Native identity.

7 — 

A decision by the interior department in September to deny a reservation to the landless Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts ….

COMMENT: The article perpetuates the all too common — even among Natives — trope that “tribes” are “within” states and the US, rather than understanding that Native Nations were here before those map lines were drawn.