U.N. inquiry into U.S. treatment of Indians is overdue

Jose Leonardo Santos
Jose Leonardo Santos: It would be foolish to suppose that the United States does not deserve the same scrutiny as Guatemala and Brazil.
Photo courtesy Jose Leonardo Santos

Jose Leonardo Santos is an anthropologist and assistant professor of social science at Metropolitan State University.

I don't like to think of my country as doing evil, but it does. The United Nations has sent someone to investigate abuses in the United States. Not in Haiti, Syria or Sudan. James Anaya is examining how the United States lives up to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The American media are quiet about the investigation. I found out when a friend showed me a British article. I thought, "This is long overdue." It's time the United States gets called out for its treatment of Native peoples. Just like Guatemala and Brazil.

Twelve years ago I was in Guatemala studying the ancient medical techniques of Chuj Maya. There I encountered the worst racism I've ever seen. Worse than anything I'd known growing up in Texas. In Guatemala, "indio," or Indian, is what you yell at bad drivers. Or at the sex workers passed out drunk on the street. Or at people who make mistakes on a test. Why? Because ever since the Europeans invaded 500 years ago, Native Guatemalans have been viewed as barriers to progress. Uneducated. Drunk. Stupid. Lazy. They're sitting on land that could be used to make money.

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I also spent time in Brazil, and it was much the same there.

It would be nice to think that Americans had none of those tendencies, but we do.

Like Guatemalans, Americans portray Native people through caricature. The noble savage. The alcoholic wife-beater. The spiritual guru. The casino millionaire. Indians are shunned for looking dangerous, worshiped as keepers of the Earth, held up as poster people for oppression. Diane Sawyer recently did a piece on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She portrayed it as a haven for poverty and alcoholism. Teens on the reservation found it offensive. They made their own video, aptly titled "More Than That." You can find it on YouTube.

Americans may be tempted to think of Indian oppression as a part of history, like the old textbook paintings of the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee. Not quite. Oklahoma's Sharia Law Act, now in litigation, bans tribal law. In Minnesota, tribal ID cards are regularly rejected as proof of identification. The Cleveland Indians have a mascot that looks like a drooling idiot.

I write this on stolen Dakota land. It would be foolish to suppose that the United States does not deserve the same scrutiny as Guatemala and Brazil. One hundred fifty years ago, the Dakota Conflict culminated in 38 hangings, the largest mass execution in American history. Minnesota's Native people live with that legacy to this day.

The U.N. special rapporteur on indigenous rights is late. Even so, he'll find plenty of material for his report.