Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments last week before the United Nations addressed the hardships of indigenous peoples in Canada, stating that their experience was “one of humiliation, neglect and abuse.”
Trudeau described the plight of children "living on reservations in Canada who cannot safely drink, or bathe in, or even play in the water that comes out of their taps. There are indigenous parents who say goodnight to their children and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won't run away, or take their own lives in the night...”
This is a present reality of reservations in Canada, but it is also a reality in the United States. Poverty levels for Native Americans run twice as high as those for the rest of the country.
Questions of responsibility concerning poverty are controversial. Nevertheless, to understand our responsibility to these people and to our countries we must consider history.
Though I do not believe the guilt of previous generations is inherited by the next, the previous generation’s ideas and values always influence the next generation’s upbringing. We have the propagation of traditions, but also the stereotypes and prejudices around them, passed down from generation to generation. Though stereotypes are prominent and occasionally useful when there is a need to process a large amount of information, they must be edited or abolished when engaging with a community at a personal and individual level.
Trudeau’s comments at the United Nations sought to make Canada a model for the world and advocated the correction of past wrongs. Though this is an honorable endeavor, I doubt it is possible to obtain a just reconciliation capable of atoning for past wrongs. Justice would call for an honoring of the original agreements and treaties which would require land repatriation. Additionally, it would require significant effort to re-establish the identity that has been ripped away from indigenous peoples by coercion and deception.
There are others who disagree and call for the equal opportunity of all people in the United States. They mistakenly see this kind of reparation for Native Americans as unfair to other Americans and immigrants—despite whatever our ancestors have done, the past should have no bearing on the present, and present equality, not retrospective justice, must be gained. Nevertheless, these later groups have not had government treaties and promises betrayed for greed. They have not had their lands forcibly taken away or their children trained to forget their “savage” heritage and become civilized. I do not seek to lessen the struggle of other peoples in the United States, but the neglect of past agreements and reconfiguration of previous terms with Native Americans has greatly crippled an entire way of life. As they were crushed by the law and the greed of previous generations, so now they must be raised again by the law and the empathy of the present generation.
Currently there are a myriad of issues faced by Native Americans on reservations. Many suffer from poverty and the loss of their cultural identity. Alcoholism and low academic achievement are two of the most concerning issues. Nevertheless, we must engage at the communal and personal level to truly understand the issues unique to each tribe. History must also be consulted, but when describing the experiences of the oppressed or conquered it can be unreliable. To truly get a sense of how to help we need to personally connect with individuals and the community to enable a cultural restoration of the self. Though it may seem that the traditional ways of rehabilitation and western psychology possesses all the answers, the difference in worldview and cultural perspective may lead to rejection in both of these areas. It is more effective to offer a solution that supports Native American cultural legitimacy and moves away from seeking to supplant it. There is no more room for attempts to “civilize” the Native American or assimilate them to Western culture. Instead, it is time to enable those who still hold their history to teach and share it with those who have lost it.
Ideally, the government should honor their previous promises in full; unfortunately, this is not economically practical. As individuals living in the present, we must hold the government accountable to the agreements it makes moving forward and refuse to allow the muting or ignoring of any peoples. Personally, I wish I had more contact with Native Americans to better understand their history, traditions and current concerns. I am affected by the selective attention typical of our contemporary society and the cultural appropriation that feigns understanding but remains superficial. A shallow understanding that mutes the other and talks about them without giving them a voice is nothing but conjecture. I do not wish to speculate or assume I understand. But I want to hear the experience from those in the storm, give them a voice for others to hear.