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Trump Is Trying to Lift Up Colonial Myths. Native People Are Breaking Them Down.

In the face of anti-Indigenous policies, Native people are demanding sovereignty and cultural recognition.

Native activists sing during the Anti-Columbus Day tour on October 14, 2019, in New York City.

Crystal Echo Hawk says the order goes like this: In October, “controversy” erupts around Indigenous People’s Day versus Columbus Day. This is followed by Halloween, in which people dress up as Native Americans. November is turning out to be a double whammy. There’s Thanksgiving, of course, which continues to be mistaught in classrooms nationwide by erasing the genocide of Native Americans. For the first time this month, the United States is also celebrating “National American History and Founders Month.” Historically, November had been Native American Heritage Month, but President Trump has decided to rebrand and center colonizers. Rounding out the season is December, when football fanaticism hits its peak and ushers in the celebration of racist team mascots.

“It’s a tough time of year for Native people. It’s sort of an onslaught,” said Echo Hawk, the founder of IllumiNative, a nonprofit organization that works to increase the visibility of Native communities and challenge negative narratives about them. “This is a time of year in which Native people are erased from their own history or experience these romanticized false narratives in which we’re seen as something that existed in the past. But there is an opportunity here to shift the narrative, and we are successfully changing the conversation and breaking down these colonial myths. I see this as an exciting time for change.”

IllumiNative was launched in 2018 after the publication of “Reclaiming Native Truth,” the largest public opinion research initiative ever conducted about Native Americans, which found that pop culture, media, and K-12 education are the primary drivers of negative stereotypes and myths that have led to the erasure of Native peoples. Among the research’s most troubling findings, it was found that the majority of Americans know little to nothing about Native Americans, invisibility is one of the biggest barriers Native peoples face in advocating for tribal sovereignty, equity and social justice, and invisibility, erasure, stereotypes and false narratives continue to be at the crux of stories told about Native people in the 21st century.

But Echo Hawk, who “believes in the power of asset-based narratives,” saw an opportunity in these findings. As a citizen of the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma and a person who has worked in Indian country her whole life, Echo Hawk knows how harmful erasure is and how it impacts the young people she’s spent her life working with. Her organization developed a multi-pronged plan to address the problems identified by the research, including strategies for messaging, training and advocacy. She said she knows this work will take years and moving the needle on “the beast” that is K-12 education will require playing the long game, but IllumiNative has gained a lot of traction on the media and pop culture front.

“In this moment, Native people are saying, ‘I need you to see me as a contemporary Native person and as a multidimensional and complex person.’ We’re starting to see the echo chamber break down in the American public. Things are starting to shift,” Echo Hawk said.

For Nick Tilsen, that shift can’t come soon enough. Tilsen is an organizer, activist and social entrepreneur doing work in his home community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He is also the founder of NDN Collective, which seeks to create “radical transformation in Indigenous communities.” Similar to Echo Hawk, so much of Tilsen’s work is about shifting narratives.

“We’re used to people trying to erase us from the history books, but there is also this active erasure in the present that happens all the time — and this is absolutely a justice issue. We’re not having it anymore. We’re saying hell no,” Tilsen said. “We’re done with narratives being assigned to us. We have our own narrative and it’s that Indigenous people are part of the past, the present, and the future cultural and political fabric of this nation. This country would not be here without the sacrifices of Indigenous people, and quite frankly, this country will be better because Indigenous people are actively involved in shaping the future of this nation. That’s the narrative that we’re pushing and that we believe in.”

When news began to surface on social media that Trump signed a proclamation declaring November National American History and Founders Month, both Echo Hawk and Tilsen said they initially thought it was a hoax. When it was confirmed to be “the racist dog whistle that it was,” as Echo Hawk said, Native communities jumped into action. NDN Collective and IllumiNative released a joint statement, calling Trump’s proclamation an effort to “diminish both tribal sovereignty and growing social movements for justice, equity, and inclusion.” The group also launched a campaign for Native American Heritage Month, inviting Indian Country and its allies to remind the nation that “Native American history is American history.”

NDN Collective and and IllumiNative also took Trump’s action as an opportunity to highlight the unprecedented ways Native and Indigenous movements for justice and visibility are mobilizing, including in October when dozens of Indigenous Peoples’ Day declarations were made on local and state levels nationwide.

Tilsen said he wants to be clear: Indigenous communities have more than narratives to tackle. Native communities experience unprecedented levels of poverty, police brutality and sexual violence. There are also continued attacks on their land. During his first weeks in office, Trump resurrected the Keystone XL pipeline, expedited another pipeline in the Dakotas and signed a directive ordering an end to protracted environmental reviews.

“There is real damage being done to our people and to Mother Earth. As Native communities have done forever, we are making sacrifices, but not willingly. We are forced to keep fighting this deep colonization oppression,” Tilsen said. “I almost feel like we should just take back the whole damn month and call it the Month of Indigenous Resilience or something. It would be more accurate. We survived our history and we’re still here, fighting.”

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