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Reclaiming identity after genocide: How one woman works to restore Native rights (#102)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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Dina Gilio-Whitaker answers what would be lost if Indigenous people were completely assimilated into White society and if they would even be accepted?

Jean interviews Dina Gilio-Whitaker. a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos and an independent educator in American Indian environmental policy and other issues. She is author of two books, and herself a Native American, and an outspoken [initiator of change]. What does racial or environmental justice mean in the context of Native Americans forcibly displaced from their homelands?

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Jean 1:42

Tell us about yourself.

Dina 2:43

Sure. I'll start by introducing myself formally in a cultural way that I usually do. And, I do that by saying [not translatable] Dina Gilio-Whitaker. In our language, that’s how I greet an audience in my tribal community.

The language is Nselxcin, the language of the Sinixt people, a band and tribal group that I'm affiliated with through my tribal affiliation of the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington State.

I grew up in Southern California, separated from my tribal culture. This was as a direct result of federal policy known as termination. So, the federal government in the 1950s was actively – like it had been for centuries – trying to eliminate our existence.

They wanted to solve their “Indian problem.” Our existence was actually a problem for them.

In the mid to late 20th century, it was about eliminating our political existence as tribal nations and communities, and then finally assimilating us. So even if it’s not physical extermination, it's been about forced assimilation.

Jean 5:51

The boarding schools have been in the news.

Dina 6:06

My grandmother was a boarding school survivor. The system had deep and profound impacts on the families, generations later.

it was just another push to separate Native people from their lands. Then they would no longer be legally classified as Indians and the federal government would end its responsibility to them, because the relationship between the federal government and tribal nations has always been a political relationship based on treaties. And those treaties made promises.

Generational trauma

Jean 7:27

Is there something you could say to help us understand that trauma? And then we can go to the treaties.

Dina 7:54

The official government policy was to separate families in order to get the land. It's not hard to imagine the kind of trauma that that produced in families that then gets passed down through the generations.

By the mid-20th century something else starts to happen with the federal push to separate families. It's about adoption.

By 1978, there had been some studies showing that Native families had been having their children systematically removed at a rate of 25%-35%, and 90% of the time, those kids were being placed in White adoption and foster care.

And so, this is part of this breakup of Native families, with its multi-generational trajectory and impact.

Jean 10:48

25% removed from families? How could that even happen?

Dina 11:01

There were all kinds of ways, in regional court systems. My mother had a child taken from her. I recently reconnected with three siblings that she had had: one was taken from her, the other two were placements. It's all part of that trauma that I was raised with.

Jean 12:37

I’m thinking about the heartbreak of your mother, who basically lost half of her children.

Dina 13:07

The problem was so entrenched that it led to the creation of a law in 1978, called the Indian Child Welfare Act. Congress created this law to protect tribal communities, so that children would be able to remain in their tribal communities, if they truly needed to be, if they really were endangered, and in situations where they needed to be protected.

It affirmed tribal sovereignty, it affirmed that tribes had power to keep children within their cultures.

Senator Abourezk from South Dakota was a real champion for Native people. This law is widely considered one of the most important laws in the field of federal Indian law because of its power to affirm tribal sovereignty.

I came to realize that who I was as an adult was by design of the federal policy to be taken out of my cultural background and to forget who I was. I was in my 30s by the time I had figured all of this out.

My mother didn't have the language for this; talking about the boarding school history was something that wasn't even done, my grandmother never talked about it. That's part of that trauma.

I had to learn about that from going back to the reservation, reconnecting with family there. It was life changing for me. I decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life re-educating myself so that I could educate others about this history. And finally, start being honest about the real foundation of this country.

And so, that's what sets me off on this journey. I went into Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, and then went to grad school. And by the time I got on this educational journey, I was really focused on environmental issues.

Native American? American Indian?

Jean 18:41

I've noticed that you're using the term Native American. And I've heard that some prefer the term American Indian. Do you have any preference?

Dina 19:01

I actually prefer American Indian.

Jean 19:33


Dina 19:39

That’s what they called us. It became an umbrella term that Europeans used to distinguish themselves from the people that they found when they came here. Until Europeans got here, there was no term Indian. We were just the people.

Native American is a term that really doesn't come into vogue until like the 1990s. I don't like it because it centers the term American. We didn't start out as Americans. We're Native, we're Indigenous. I'm Colville. I'm Sinixt. But that's a term that I can't lead with because it's too confusing.

Jean 22:13

Indigenizing and decolonizing.

Dina 22:18

Yes. It's the opposite of colonizing. A huge part of the world has been colonized for the last 500 years; all of Africa was colonized, all of Asia was colonized, the South Pacific was colonized, and arguably, other places, because of Europeans going out and plundering and looting in all these places that they did. Now we have this the reverse of colonizing, which is about people reclaiming their lands, reclaiming their cultures.

But it's different in the US because you can't kick out the colonizers. In Asia and Africa, the Indigenous people remained in the majority.

Settler colonialism means it's the land that they want; it's about settlement. But settlement is a benign term for the genocidal process that it ultimately becomes.

Jean 26:44

How can you reclaim what was rightfully yours when the settlers came to stay? And what does “reclaiming” mean in that context?

Dina 27:01

For one thing, it's about reclaiming our identities as Native people. It’s the connection to those lands that form the identities of Native people everywhere. Then reclaiming the things that were taken: language, culture, religion, family, everything that being Indigenous encompasses, and land.

The struggle for environmental justice: Land, children, slavery

Jean 29:19

For your particular tribal nation: do you have property rights to any piece of land that can be the homeland?

Dina 29:40

We have one of the largest reservations in Washington State. The Colville Indian reservation is 1.2 million acres.

Colville was a name given to us. Our reservation was established as the Colville Reservation because of an English explorer who set up a fort in the early 1800s.

Jean 30:42

Colville stumbled across the land, he has no other ties to it?

Dina 31:14

There was a move to replace the name recognizing that it's a colonized name, but the membership rejected it. And I don't even know why.

Jean 31:48

Yeah. Those kinds of things are very complex, when it comes to naming, it's very complex.

Dina 31:14

So the term environmental justice, as opposed to justice for the environment, implies the human element about how different populations of humans are differentially impacted by the processes of pollution and things that expose them to greater risk and harm and things. Environmental justice always refers to human populations.

Justice for the environment is a different conversation, getting into a really esoteric realm of law. That is exemplified by something, for example, called the rights of nature.

Jean 33:03

Indigenous Environmental Justice, what is that?

Dina 33:11

Think about the origins in the Black south, the [race conscious] meaning of how Black communities are fighting against this environmental racism that they're being exposed to. It lays a foundation for and gives birth to this language of environmental injustice and environmental justice.

But my argument is that it means something different. It's similar, but it has a different meaning for Indigenous people, because Indigenous people have a different relationship to land, and their histories are different.

This concept of environmental racism focuses on the racializing of people, that these injustices happen to people who are already constructed as racial others. But for Native people, the injustices that we've experienced are about occupying the land.

What Europeans wanted was the land, it didn't matter what color we were, or what ethnicity we were. It happens because we are obstacles to taking of land. In fact, religion is a huge piece of this, it's not just because they're racially or ethnically different, it's because they're not Christian.

So environmental justice for Native people has to encompass and take into account how those processes of dispossession happened, and then shape our existence from there. It's not just about environmental racism, it's about the taking of land and the constructing of an entire legal structure that keeps us separated from our lands.

Jean 38:53

I thought about the African experience in this country. Originally, there was no distinction. There was no race. Race became convenient when there was a profit motive.

Dina 39:58

Native people were also enslaved. In fact, the way that slavery affected Indigenous populations was that they were shipped off the continent, in general. The first incidence of slavery that we know of is during King Philip's War in Spain in the 1670s, in 1675. There's documentation of the Native people who are the prisoners of war from that, and they get shipped off to the Caribbean.

That's documented by the work of Andres Resendez, in a text called “The Other Slavery.” He looks at this 400-year experience of Native slavery, which has a very, very different look to it because it's illegal. That looks very different from the legalized kind of chattel slavery that happens up until 1865 with African populations.

It wasn't called slavery for Native people. When the state of California was formed in 1850, they created a system of “apprenticeship,” separating Native families or taking Native children, putting them into systems of indentured servitude, and placed in service to White families.

And something really similar happens in the boarding school era as well, because these were not schools designed to educate children in academics, it was systems to teach children how to be of service to White people. And it was all with no compensation.

Jean 44:39

Chattel slavery means I have no rights whatsoever. I’m the equivalent of chattel, I'm property. That's with Africans.

American Indians had rights but were still obliged to serve against their will.

Dina 45:41

Native people are racialized. And that is the problem, that is precisely the problem that Native people are racialized, understood in this racialized way.

Jean 46:21

On the one hand, we want recognition for tribal sovereignty, we want customs and all of that. This is the same dilemma with the whole issue in the Black community, and White community, of colorblindness.

We're trying to explain to people, no, we don't want you to be colorblind. But we don't want to be negatively racialized, stereotyped, oppressed, and discriminated against. I'm asking you explain that same dilemma, and what you want in opposition to the negative racializing.

Dina 47:12

The political distinction hinges on tribal sovereignty. It's not based on their racialization.

For all other ethnic communities in the US, this racialized identity is subsumed by their citizenship, their Americanness.

With Native people, you have those distinctions as well, but it's based on their political relationship to the state. And that's the crux of it. That's what this difference hinges on. if we go back to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, the law was passed to stop the hemorrhaging of children from their families.

It makes it more difficult for non-Native people to adopt Native children. And the adoption industry – which is by and large run by religious conservatives – don't like those kinds of obstacles. And so, they have been fighting to undermine and/or completely overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act.

They base their logic on the argument that due to the racial categorization of Natives, it's a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Their argument is that Native people, as a racial group, are given preference, and that's unconstitutional.

Unraveling of laws protecting Native sovereignty

Dina 50:18

So, it's a real convoluting of that logic of equal protection that they're using against Native people in order to undermine their political existence.

They've been trying to drive cases to the Supreme Court, where they succeeded in 2013. With the baby Veronica case. They didn't overturn the law, but it delivered a blow.

There's a case called the Brackeen case now making its way through the lower courts. This is a very organized, very coordinated attack based by states like Texas, Louisiana, and I think Oklahoma.

Very well-trained legal minds see this as an opportunity to unravel the foundation of tribal sovereignty. Why? Because tribes still control 5% of the land in the United States. And most of that land contains really valuable resources that also contain legal obstacles to getting at those resources.

So this conversation of environmental justice, and why environmental justice is different for Native people, is because we're still trying to protect the 5% of the land base that we still control in our reservations.

The Supreme Court is arguing the Brackeen case this fall. Knowing what we know about the Supreme Court, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to illustrate the profound danger that we're in.

Jean 54:31

We have to figure out how to restore the court, and how to have good old-fashioned citizenship, where people know the issues and vote.

Dina 55:38

The Supreme Court we have right now is because of the Trump years, but it wasn't because people didn't get out and vote for Hillary. It was not the popular vote that failed. It was the electoral college.

Jean 56:00

People who are listening to this and who are motivated to do something, what can they do?

Dina 56:12

We adhere to and celebrate multiculturalism, and that's great. But for Native people, it's a problem, because of all the things that we were just talking about, about the subsuming of Native people into that multicultural pot and reducing them to just a culture, that's assimilation for us.

People need to be adept at and versed in, "Oh, the United States is really a multinational country" that contains hundreds of tribal nations.

Native people have very different views of land and environment. In the US, land is just a commodity. It's something that is bought and sold, it's traded. It has monetary value. It's not valued for the life that it gives.

For Native people that's the difference, Native people understand themselves as emerging from these very particular ecosystems. And because of this kinship, it creates a different set of values about reciprocity, about respect, about responsibility.

And, those are not the kinds of values that dominant society places on land and in environment because of this commodification of the natural world.

Jean 1:01:05

Given that reality, what are the implications?

Dina 1:01:09

That this framework of thinking is what created sustainable societies on this continent for thousands of years. And it's looking to that, to the difference in values that hold the keys for sustainability, human sustainability in the future.

That's the argument that I am making, and other scholars too, not just in the US, but this is Indigenous knowledge.

What can we do?

Jean 1:01:56

What can people listening to this do?

Dina 1:02:01

This is not an instant answer kind of thing. It's a way of changing your thinking.

Jean 1:02:16

Okay, I got it, change your thinking. Your call is for people to change their thinking, to recognize and fight against using economic measures, property measures, ownership as the true measure of what we should be in the world and what we should be on this land.

Dina 1:03:01

Clearly, the system that we're stuck in is what's compromising our ability to survive into the future. It's adapt and change or perish. That's where we're at and Indigenous knowledge holds the key to a different way of thinking and viewing the world.

Jean 1:03:26

But you know, I keep finding pockets of hope like you. How can people reach you?

Dina 1:03:56

I'm on social media. I'm on Twitter, I have a Facebook page, I am on Instagram. And I have a website, www.dgwconsulting.org. I'm easy to find, Google my name and lots of stuff comes up.

Jean 1:04:22

Okay. It's been perplexing at times, confusing at times, and enlightening most of the time. I am so delighted you were willing to give up your time. Do you have a copy of your book handy?

Thank you kindly. It's been a delight.

Jean 1:04:55 (closing remarks)

I had not really heard that before. What she's asking us to do is to recognize these distinctions and to honor them as tribal nations.

My closing comment to you is please take your citizenship seriously this fall. I was talking with a relative recently who said she didn't get much into politics, so she wasn't keeping up with what was happening. I explained to her I was raised and taught about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, which includes voting, keeping up with issues, and understanding the policy issues that would inform my voting. Hoping you're doing the same.

As you know, we have a big election coming up in 2022. We've already seen the effects of what happens if enough people don't vote. Hope you will. Thanks for listening.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker headshot

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Dina (Colville Confederated Tribes descendant) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and an independent educator in American Indian environmental policy and other issues.

At CSUSM she teaches courses on environmentalism and American Indians, traditional ecological knowledge, religion and philosophy, Native women’s activism, American Indians and sports, and decolonization. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of indigeneity and the sport of surfing.

As a public intellectual, Dina brings her scholarship into focus as an award-winning journalist, with her work appearing at Indian Country Today, the Los Angeles Times, High Country News, Time.com, Slate, History.com, Bioneers, Truthout, the Pacifica Network, Grist, CSPAN Booktalk, The Boston Globe, and many more.

Dina is the author of two books; the most recent award-winning As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock. She is currently under contract with Beacon Press for a new book under the working title Illegitimate Nation: Privilege, Race, and Belonging in the U.S. Settler State, and is also a co-editor of a new collection from Cambridge University Press’s Elements Series on Indigenous Environmental Research.

Connect with Dina:

  • Instagram: dinagiliowhitaker

  • Twitter: @DinaGWhit

  • Website: www.dgwconsulting.org

  • Facebook: Dina Gilio-Whitaker


    The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

    Questions to ask yourself

    1. What did you learn about the political treatment of American Indians that you didn’t know before? How will that inform your engagement going forward?
    2. What parts of this interview, if any, give you hope?

    Conscious Change skills
    covered in this blog

    • Bridge differences
      • Address underlying systemic biases
      • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
      • As a dominant group member, provide support to nondominant group members
    • Conscious use of self
      • Accept responsibility for own contribution
      • See to understand others’ perspectives
      • Recognize your power and use it responsibly
    • Initiate change
      • Emphasize changing systems
      • Cultivate patience through the time lag of change

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