Honoring the Original People

Last week the Seattle City Council took the courageous decision to celebrate October 13th as Indigenous People’s Day. This is a national event, for in making this decision, Seattle is showing all of us how to take steps toward renewing our nation and remaking it in a more just and less violent image.

Americans descend from many different indigenous and non-indigenous nations and it is often unclear just what defines us as a people. Let me put forth the idea that what many of us share is a history of violence, suffering, oppression and trauma.

Sometimes it is seen as impolite in this country to talk politics or religion in social gatherings. So instead we often turn to that most acceptable and completely American question, “So where is your family from? When did your family immigrate to the US?” And those of us with immigration histories quickly and proudly tell our stories, and once we even had a shared pride in being a nation of immigrants, as symbolized by the Statue of Liberty.

Taking a deeper look at our shared conversation about our origins, however, we will see a more disturbing truth. Well-known peace studies pioneer Johan Galtung argues that what we typically think of as violence (i.e., rape and murder) is only the tip of the iceberg. For that type of violence sits atop two other, much larger layers, of socio-economic violence, (what Galtung calls “structural violence”), and cultural violence.

Many of us know the truth of this claim from our families’ immigration stories. My Italian grandfather came to the US after experiencing the horrific direct violence of WWI: he watched his brother burn to death in a fire bombing raid and he almost died himself as a soldier in that “great” war. The parents of my Italian grandmother had arrived earlier, fleeing the oppressive structural violence of grinding poverty and hunger. So poor were they, that they only ate meat once a year, on Christmas. And the only orange my great-grandmother ever ate as a child was a gift from the mayor, an act of charity which he doled out, again, on Christmas.

But like many Americans I also have ancestors from another country, and from my Dutch side I heard the stories of cultural violence, mixed with direct violence. My great-grandparents left Holland after living through WWII and witnessing the vicious anti-Semitism of the Nazis who told a tale about how Jews were so much lesser than others that it was morally OK to cast them out and kill them. In summary, like so many other Americans, my ancestors came here due to a combination of direct, structural and cultural violence, no one kind worse than another.

And yet, our arrival to these shores brought with it the violence of disinheriting and wiping out Native American peoples, the original inhabitants of this land. And along with Europeans also came the horrific institution of slavery, and millions of involuntary immigrants in the form of Africans in chains. As a result, both Native Americans and African Americans have suffered levels of direct, structural and cultural violence beyond comprehension. Still today these two communities suffer the highest rates of direct violence and crippling poverty, and the deep cultural violence of racism which makes the direct violence and poverty go largely unnoticed by mainstream society.

With Seattle’s action we have taken one step toward lessening the cultural violence perpetrated on Native Americans. While this might seem like just a tiny step, it is only by transforming our cultural narrative that we will be able to move on to tackle the other forms of violence that affect us all. With Seattle’s action they have helped us all to begin to see how those of us who live elsewhere could take similar actions, relevant to our own contexts, to heal the wounds that were inadvertently caused by immigrants coming to these shores. It makes it possible to imagine an American narrative in which our shared story is not one of violence but one of shared redemption, of overcoming of injustice and pain.