Make America Native Again

My Dad played a Native American in a movie once.

The film is called called Crooked Arrows. It stars Brandon Routh (who also played Superman in Superman Returns) as a young Iroquois man who coaches his reservation’s lacrosse team, eventually winning the “Prep School league” tournament. My high school was chosen as the set for the final showdown between the plucky Natives and the privileged white kids of “Coventry Academy.”

Our school’s community was asked to come out and serve as extras. Al of us white boys were there, cheering on the home team, “Coventry.” It was an amazing day. Indigenous people from all over the country converged on our little campus wearing traditional headdresses and face-paints, carrying the flags of their respective tribes and nations.

Anyway, when it came time to fill the bleachers, a producer asked my father to sit with the Natives. My family happens to be part Mi’kmaq. (How much? Well, more than Elizabeth Warren.) But I think he was picked more for the ruddy Irish side of our bloodline.

So, as the son of a prominent Indigenous actor, I’m naturally very interested in Rick Santorum’s comments at the Young America’s Foundation. According to reports, Sen. Santorum told the impressionable youngesters: “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

Sen. Santorum’s colleague at CNN, Don Lemon, completely lost it. It seems that Sen. Santorum made another appearance on the network and, although the Senator walked back his remarks, Mr. Lemon wasn’t satisfied. “I was furious watching the interview in my office,” he raged. “I cannot believe the first words out of his mouth weren’t: ‘I’m sorry I said something ignorant, I need to learn about the history of this country.’ No contrition. He didn’t talk about the suffering Native Americans have had to deal with in this country.”

“Did he actually think it is a good idea for him to come on television to whitewash the whitewash that he whitewashed?” Mr. Lemon continued. “It was horrible! It was horrible and insulting!”

I guess I’m with Roger Kimball here. I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to mention their victimization every time we talk about America’s First Nations. That’s a weird holdover from imperialism. We’re constantly framing the existence of non-white people by their relationship with white people. It would’ve been much better had he or Sen. Santorum pointed out some of the real contributions made by Native Americans.

But, then, the Senator would’ve been hard pressed to do so—as, I suspect, would Mr. Lemon. And, uh… wasn’t that the point of Mr. Lemon’s rant? Isn’t the problem that we’ve systematically excluded indigenous people from American life?

Yes, it’s true that Native Americans have been chronically abused and marginalized in their own homeland. I don’t know what “whitewashing” is, but I’m sure they’ve suffered more than their share of that, too. But if the righteous Mr. Lemon actually pointed out some of the disparities between Native American and European American societies, he probably wouldn’t find the comparison too flattering.

For instance, Native Americans’ idea of property ownership was close to the Medieval ideal—much closer, at any rate, than the liberal-capitalist system that’s allowed Mr. Lemon to make his fortune. We applaud the simplicity of their lifestyle and their deep relationship with the land, though I’m not sure that philosophy would gel with a native Louisianan who films his network television show from a Manhattan skyscraper and lives in a Sag Harbor mansion.

The integral role that hunting played in their society—economic, but also cultural and even spiritual—would vibe more with Sen. Santorum’s base in Western Pennsylvania more than it would with the crunchy-granola liberals who watch Mr. Lemon’s show. And the intense commitment to ancient customs, communal worship, hierarchy, and veneration of one’s elders sounds more Fox News than CNN.

I like Sen. Santorum, but I’m not trying to give him an out here. I’m just stating facts. The First Nations are far more traditional than mainstream Americans. And, unlike Mr. Lemon, I really do think that America would be better off if we were more like our indigenous countrymen.

Take a more recent example. Whenever I pass through Upstate New York, I stop at the Seneca Nation and eat at the Tallchief Diner, which has great food and amazing pie. If you ever make it there, you’ll see gigantic billboards with the faces of petty criminals who are under an “exclusion order,” meaning they’re banned from all Seneca territory. That’s what they do. If you come to their land with illegal drugs or something, you’re barred for life.

Now, I don’t want to get into a debate about immigration. But I wonder how Mr. Lemon would feel if the GOP proposed that we deport all immigrants who are caught in possession of marijuana, in violation of state or federal law. He’d probably call it racist. Yet here are the Native Americans, on whose behalf he’s so offended, turfing potheads from the Big Apple. That’s hardcore.

Last year, some jerk went into a store in a Chippewa reservation in Wisconsin without a facemask, pulling his shirt over his mouth instead. Watch the video. The clerks calls him an “irate white man” and tells him he needs a proper mask. Irate White Man insists that (A) he’s not an irate white man, and (B) doesn’t have to wear a mask. “Yes, you do,” the clerk replies. “You’re in a sovereign nation. If you don’t like it, get out.”

IWM then asks them to write all their names down on a piece of paper, presumably so he can lodge a complaint. “We’re Lac Du Flambeau tribal members,” says the clerk. “That’s all you need to know.” Damn straight.

Anyway, who are you going to complain to, my dude? They’re a sovereign nation. They make their own laws. And (as the clerk so eloquently put it) if you don’t like it, get out.

Honestly, my point isn’t “This is what we should do to all the Mexicans!” It’s not. I just love the pride that our First Nations take in their culture, their history, their sovereignty. I love the intense connection they feel to their ancestral lands and the non-human creatures they share it with. I love their sense that the needs of the tribe come before the needs of the individual.

It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the way they understand their relationship with their neighbors, their people, and the natural world. And I do sincerely wish that “mainstream” American society were closer to the Native ideal.

This isn’t “exoticism,” either. These admirable qualities can be found in just about every traditional society on the planet. The emphasis on ancestral customs, communal worship, and hierarchy is a given. That point’s been made over and over by so-called Perennialists like René Guénon and Ananda Coomaraswamy.  But their ideas of property and economics could also be embraced by any distributist. Their concept of sovereignty should resonate with any follower of Aquinas or Augustine. And their view of nature is positively Franciscan.

Now, don’t listen to Susan from the Parish Council: the Poverello was no vegetarian. St. Francis himself once said, “I would like that on Christmas even the walls could eat meat.”

Besides, there’s no contradiction between reverencing animals and eating them. Any hunter (especially a Native American one) could tell you that. On the contrary: you can’t truly love Brother Deer or Sister Duck unless you come down to their level. When we kill for our food, we share in the common life of the Animal Kingdom. For the hunter, nature isn’t just a pretty thing to look at from the bay windows of a Sag Harbor mansion. It’s his home.

So, a liberal prepster like Mr. Lemon might fancy a bit of lacrosse. But, otherwise, I don’t think he’d enjoy living in a more “Native” America. I can think of a whole bunch of conservatives who would, though—myself included. That might even go for our friend Irate White Man, if only he’d get his shirt off of his face and his thumb out of his ass.

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