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Why Visibility of Indigenous Populations is so Important

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

I am excited about Deb Haaland‘s recent appointment to Secretary of the Interior as a significant step towards visibility of Native people. Rep Haaland along with Sharice Davids are the first Indigenous women to have been elected to the US Congress—ever and Rep Davids is the first LGBTQI Native to serve!

On a personal note I find it kind of crazy that, after living in Australia for a little over three years, I know more about their Indigenous population than I do about the Native population in my own country—the US. Mind you, Australian colonialism followed a similar playbook as the US: trying to eradicate the indigenous population and acquire their lands. As a result of a legacy of limited access to resources, Native American populations are also threatened by COVID; having the highest death rate of any race or ethnicity in the US. Considering First Nations make up only 2% of the American population, adds to the significance COVID has on their communities.

Australia’s colonization happened more recently than the US so the effects of similar atrocities such as genocide, stealing children and structural racism are fresh on people’s minds. As a result, there are practices the country is doing to ensure visibility and a better understanding of the indigenous population, from which America could learn. Some of these practices are discussed below.

Do you know what Indigenous land you are on?

Most major public and private events in Australia start with an acknowledgment of country, where you specifically call out the name of the original inhabitants of the land and honor their elders past, present and emerging. When an Aboriginal person does this practice it’s called a Welcome to Country. There is an app called Native Land that has mapped Indigenous territories across North and South America, Australia and parts of Europe and Asia and there are guidelines on indigenous land acknowledgement. I recently came across local efforts advocating The Shuumi Land Tax, a voluntary annual contribution that non-Indigenous people living on traditional Lisjan Ohlone territory (East Bay California) can make to support the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. Shuumi means gift in the Ohlone language Chochenyo. The land trust was started by Indigenous women in 2012 and directly supports rematriation: returning Indigenous land to Indigenous people, along with other reparations, so that current and future generations of Indigenous people can thrive in the Bay Area.

It’s also interesting to look at how race, which is a social construct, has been used to allocate resources such as land. In the US, Native people have to take a blood test to prove they have a right to the land. While in Australia It is up to the person and the community they claim to belong to—not the government—to identify a person’s race. There’s no need to consider what percentage of Aboriginal blood a person has. In fact it’s considered derogatory to call an Aboriginal person in Australia mixed race.

Have you ever had cultural awareness training that focused on Native people?

As an expat volunteer working with Aboriginal families, I was required to take Cultural Awareness training. My spouse’s company offered this as well. Ideally these should benefit and be led by indigenous people. What I like about the training is that you leave with a better understanding of another culture, the norms and how to interact. I have found cultural awareness resources but I am not aware of training specific to Native culture here in the US. British Columbia, Canada offers Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.—interactive courses designed to help you be more confident and competent working with Indigenous people. Unlike training I’ve taken in Australia that was specific to a regional group or ‘Mob’, these training sessions provide information on North American indigenous people in general.

Can you speak any of the languages of the local tribe? How much Native history and days of significance are you aware of?

In Western Australia free native language courses are offered at one of the local Universities and libraries provide ways to research Indigenous history. The National Reconciliation Week is intended to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and foster reconciliation discussion and activities. National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee or NAIDOC Week recognizes First Nations’ 65,000+ year history as inhabitants of Australia pre-colonialism. In contrast, 2020 is the first year I’ve become aware that November is Native American Heritage month in the US. California and South Dakota observe Native American Day as the second Monday of October, and some states are observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an alternative to Columbus Day. I recall learning minimal Native American history in school and that was mainly in the context of colonizers. I also couldn’t tell you any of the symbols representing local tribes in the US but I know what the Aboriginal flag looks like in Australia!

Are there any programs at your work that are specific to Indigenous people?

Companies in Australia have a structured approach using what’s called Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP). The RAP Program contributes to advancing five dimensions of reconciliation by supporting organizations, in developing respectful relationships and creating meaningful opportunities with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I am just starting to see diversity and inclusion efforts in the US that include Indigenous people. Haven’t heard of plans specific to Natives, and I think it’s a brilliant idea that companies here should explore. Americans also need to take a look at our bias and stereotypes about Native people. Follow on social media for examples of U.S. Indigenous people serving in the military, who are Dr.s, actors and yes even politicians!

One key aspect of practices used outside the US, is an effort to learn and respect the indigenous culture vs. requiring assimilation to the normative majority. You meet people wherever they are, and get a better understanding through relationships. I also think there is great potential in learning from practices of our own Native people. For example, did you know that our sacred US Constitution is based on the Iroquois Constitution? How about dealing with the effects of climate change? First Nations have a spiritually and physically dependent, grateful, and protective tie to the land. The nature of this tie is not so much one of ownership - but one of stewardship.

More importantly, consulting with Natives to develop practices like those used in Australia has the potential to bring visibility to Indigenous culture. It could be a major step toward reversing the tenants of white supremacy and colonialism in our country that continues to drive the invisible eradication of Indigenous people to acquire their lands.

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