Native Americans and the Civil Rights movement

By Steven Charleston

One of the less well known chapters in the recent history of the Civil Rights Movement is that part of the movement that arose from within the Native American context. As we look back to the legacy we have inherited from Dr. King, we look back at many paths from many cultures that became the tide of change he initiated.

What was unique about the Native American civil rights experience was the crucial issue of treaties. Unlike other ethnic communities, Native Americans maintain a treaty relationship with the United States, just like foreign nations do. Much of the historic struggle of Native People was fought out in the courts over interpretations of these solemn treaties, or, in many cases, their enforcement. Never have so many treaties been broken so consistently and so blatantly as they have been between the United States and the sovereign indigenous peoples of the Americas. It is the story of civil rights embedded in legal precedent over generations. It is the moral foundation for all that was to follow through genocide, slavery and the importation of the poor into America as cheap labor. The destruction of Native American rights was the fertile soil on which American racism took root and grew. The effort of Native men and women to protect themselves against this evil cloaked as racial superiority is the true subtext of all American history.

The gift of Native Americans to the civil rights movement is the gift of a tiny minority fighting for its legal rights against overwhelming odds. Long before there were sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, there were Native activists fighting for justice in the Supreme Court. In fact, it was exactly one of these cases that President Andrew Jackson derided and ignored, contrary to the Constitution of the United States, when the Supreme Court told him he could not forcibly evict Native People from their land. Andrew Jackson herded my ancestors on a death march in total violation of that court decision. He abrogated the Constitution. He sent troops to quell opposition. Like George Wallace, he wanted a South that was segregated for eternity.

Many years later, as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, the great-great grandchildren of those who were sent on the Trail of Tears continued the struggle in places like Alcatraz and the second Wounded Knee. Names like Russell Means and Dennis Banks became common in the media. The American Indian Movement made America nervous as it began to tell the truth about people like Andrew Jackson. Icons of oppression and propaganda like Mount Rushmore became symbols that would challenge the American Dream.

Today, the struggle that began in 1492 continues. I hope that as we celebrate the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement that we never forget the first Americans to fight for justice: those who are proud to call this land their home, their birthright as free and sovereign people.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS’s Stepping Stones. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bishop Charleston is widely recognized as a leading proponent for justice issues and for spiritual renewal in the church. He has written many articles on both Native American concerns and spirituality.

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