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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

After 1491, What do we do for American Indians?


So what can we do for American Indians? I often hear that question. Most recently, it came up during a book club consideration of Charles Mann’s 1491, which was published in 2005. Mann gave readers an eye-popping look at indigenous peoples in the Americas before the Europeans started streaming in. He reported on archaeological and historical records that portrayed a hemisphere teeming with people of diverse cultures. Some, like the Aztecs, were highly-structured societies, with classes, hierarchies and enormous wealth. Others, for instance in the New England area, were more “democratic,” with decision-making spread among all levels. Read More 
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Getting Healthy, the Native Way


Mark Bittman, in his column in the New York Times, recently remarked that few Americans know the name of our current Surgeon-General. Her name is Regina Benjamin, and she is, in a sense, “the nation’s doctor.” But Bittman contends that she is not doing much to keep us healthy. Benjamin is especially weak in addressing the role of “big food” in making us one of the unhealthiest industrialized nations in the world. American Indians have some of the worst health outcomes in the U.S. But can we learn anything about getting healthy the Native way?

American Indian healing is centuries old. And as far as Indians are concerned, it works! In a survey taken at an Indian Health Service Clinic in Milwaukee, 38 percent of patients said  Read More 
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Bones Make a Difference

The people of Pecos and Jemez Pueblo accompany the remains of their ancestors―behind them in the white semi-truck―to their final rest. Photo by Cary Herz.

Bones! American Indians must have felt the pain of remembrance when the remains of Richard III were displayed, and the world responded with a “frenzy of forensic romance,” according to Newsweek. The monarch’s bones had rested serenely under the asphalt of a parking lot in England until researchers found them and confirmed his identity. He met a gruesome end at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485, and his body, which showed signs of two lethal blows to the head as well as “humiliation” wounds after death, was simply stuffed into a grave. Richard violent death ended a  Read More 
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State of the American Indians Nations, A Speech

The staff of the National Congress of American Indians gather at the organization’s new headquarters, the Embassy of Tribal Nations, in the heart of the diplomatic enclave in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Congress of American Indians.

Since 2003, every year, the president of the National Congress of American Indians presents the State of Indian Nations. The message is timed precisely - just a few days after the State of the Union address from the president of the United States - and it reaffirms the sovereign status of nearly 600 tribes and nations.

In the State of the Union message, the president reports on the condition of the country and sets out his vision and agenda for dealing with issues and problems. The U.S. Constitution mandates a regular report from the president to Congress, and since 1790, since George Washington produced the first such report, an American President has delivered a State of the Union either in writing or in a talk. The message is not simply a  Read More 
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Dissing American Indians, Part III: Send the cops away


What happens when American Indians call the federal cops to investigate a rape or a murder? Too often, nobody answers. On reservations, when the feds drop the ball, understaffed tribal police departments are unable to cope with the resulting mayhem.

Step back about a 150 years. At that time, white America was mopping up. Settlers, developers, mining and timber interests, and railroad companies were chewing up much of Indian country not just stealing land but also slaughtering bison and destroying other sources of Native sustenance. To stop Indians’ understandable resistance to this wholesale grab, the U.S. government sent the cavalry and finally entered into treaties to end the Indian wars. Indians laid down their arms and gave up much of their lands and resources. In exchange, the federal government set aside some lands for reservations in exchange for food, education, health, and policing for reservations.  Read More 
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American Indians, Part II: Victoria’s Dirty Indian Secret

Karlie Kloss struts onto Victoria Secret’s runway with ceremonial war bonnet and layers of American Indian jewelry. No Indian woman would be caught dead with such a getup. Credit: http://www.change.org/petitions/victoria-s-secret-apologize-for-using-a-native-american-headdress-in-their-2012-fashion-show

Victoria’s Secret has a dirty Indian secret―”pow wow porn.” During its annual show at the end of 2012, the lingerie company sent one of its favorite scantily clad models out on the runway wearing a long American Indian war bonnet and draped in turquoise and silver jewelry. Within 24 hours, reaction to this offensive display of corporate ignorance found its way onto social networks and then into the national media, including the Huffington Post. (Victoria’s Secret is an equal opportunity offender. Earlier in the year, the company also released an Asian-themed line of lingerie that a writer in Jezebel Magazine "traded in sexualized, generic pan-Asian ethnic stereotypes.")

Victoria’s Secret’s outrage was one of the more extreme instance of whites appropriating Native beliefs or items in order to hype some product or activity. In 2009, several people died when an  Read More 
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Dissing American Indians, Part I: A Month a Year


November is Native American Heritage Month. It’s a good opportunity to acknowledge our oldest inhabitants, but a month a year just doesn’t do the job of revealing the rich Native heritage and more importantly the lives of contemporary Indians and their communities. White Americans’ continual disregard for and ignorance about Americans is the most basic form of disrespect.

Perhaps we were luckier than most Americans in our access to American Indians. Living for many years in Albuquerque, NM, a place with a significant percentage of Indians, we had many opportunities to meet Native people. Just thirty minutes away was San Felipe Pueblo, where friends welcomed us for family and holiday celebrations. About 30,000 of New Mexico’s Pueblos live in  Read More 
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Indians and Thanksgiving


Americans can easily recite the story of the first Thanksgiving. In 1621, a group of 53 colonists at Plymouth, MA, after enduring a harsh winter, sat with nearby American Indians - Wampanoag - for a harvest feast. Chief Massasoit himself and some of his men hunted for some deer that they brought to the feast.

What followed the arrival of the Europeans in North America, though, was not quite so festive. As many as 90 percent of the thousands of Wampanoags in Massachusetts and the offshore islands had already succumbed to disease, at first thought to be small pox but subsequently determined to be some other fever condition. By 1621, although they were as weakened as the colonists, they continued to welcome the outsiders. Then in the 1670s, their resistance to conquest led to the near obliteration of the tribes. The English confiscated their lands and enslaved the survivors.  Read More 
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Blood and American Indians: Part 2


Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, finds herself caught in the dilemma of “blood quantum.” Most white Americans don’t know what this term means, but it is the hottest issue in Indian country, because it raised the question, “Who is Indian?” Warren just doesn’t have the “paper,” the “proof” of her Cherokee/Osage ancestry.

Whites imposed “blood quantum” on Indian identity in the nineteenth century, and through Elizabeth Warren, other Americans know more about it. As Native resistance to American conquest unleashed brutal battles across the West, the federal government  Read More 
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Spain the Global Power

Cabrillo exploration

We think of globalization as a new phenomenon, but 500 years ago, great powers competed for resources across the Americas, in what we call the United States today. In the New World, European nations sought minerals (especially gold), furs, access to trade routes, sea lanes, and land.

Spain had a head start, with its colony in Mexico. In the 1530s, she launched a campaign designed to counter the Russians moving down the from the Pacific Northwest coast, the French from the North (Canada) and the English from the East. Three well-equipped Spanish expeditions headed into what is today the United States. At the eastern end of the continent, Hernando de Soto sailed from Cuba, landing at present-day Tampa in 1539. During the next three years, he used the Panhandle as a base to survey the area from the Carolinas to Texas. Native peoples resisted, and  Read More 
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