Native Americans are reshaping U.S. politics 400 years after the Mayflower

November 26, 2020, 1:15 AM UTC

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, an opportunity for reflection that has been swallowed up by the pandemic and division. But for the Native Americans who discovered the pilgrims standing on their shores, the pain remains the same. In other news: the Pope is an NBA stan, and be grateful you’re not Ron Howard this year.

But first, here’s your holiday of colonial oppression week in review, in Haiku.

“Enjoy your day of
colonial oppression!”
She laughed as she walked

away. It was the
day before Thanksgiving, and
I was on the Rez.

She took the meeting 
wearing an Aerosmith tee, 
and sunglasses she

never removed. She 
helped girls to save themselves by
teaching them to rock:

“’Open your mouth! MAKE
SOME NOISE!’” I tell them. ‘Take up 
space! Shout your power!’”

Take every chance you can to take good care of your power. We are so very grateful for all of you.

Ellen McGirt

In Brief

Nearly lost in the drama of the 2020 election was promising news from down ballot races. Thirteen Native Americans from eight states were running for 11 House seats, and six won. This means a record level of Indigenous representation in Congress. Native Hawaiian Kaiali’i “Kai” Kahele’s win makes her only the second Native Hawaiian in Congress since statehood.

Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District will be returning to Congress as a frontrunner for the Secretary of the Interior. It would be a thing, alright: She'd be the first woman of color to serve in that role and the second Native American to serve in a cabinet position. (Everyone seems to forget Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation born in the Kansas Territory, who served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president.)

This representation is both hard won and long overdue.

Native voters turned out in force this cycle, battling horrific conditions during a pandemic to ensure their voices were heard. Katrina Phillips, an assistant professor of history at Macalester College (and Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe) breaks down the effort in a must-read opinion piece:

In a now-viral tweet posted on Friday, Len Necefer noted that 76,000 citizens of the Navajo Nation had cast a ballot in the 2020 election — an 89 percent voter turnout. This vote may well have played an outsized role in Biden’s narrow victory in crucial states like Wisconsin and Arizona. In Wisconsin, which seems to have had a larger Native voter turnout in 2020 than in 2016, the Red Cliff and Bad River Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Menomini Tribe and the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mahicans were among those who helped turn Wisconsin blue. Even in states like Montana and South Dakota, which both went red, counties that overlapped reservation lands saw significant Native voter turnout.

But she notes, that the long, brutal and systematic erasure of Native voices in civic life must now come to an end.

It’s also crucial to eliminate the obstacles continuing to plague Native and Indigenous voters. In an election where Navajo activist Allie Young called on her fellow Navajo voters to ride their horses to the polls — and when Natives across the country still face countless obstacles when it comes to casting their vote — Native voters are transforming American politics.

On Point

COVID data is about to get janky While we’re engaged in a long and bizarre conversation about masks, rights, and safety, misinterpretations about basic data continue to muddy the waters. It’s about to get worse, warns Erin Kissane of the Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project. “[B]y Thanksgiving Day and perhaps as early as Wednesday, all three metrics [testing, case, and death numbers] will flatten out or drop, probably for several days,” she notes. Then following the holidays, numbers will spike as normal testing resumes. But the news will likely be worse. “[T]he data we see early next week will reflect not only actual increases in cases, test, and deaths, but also the potentially very large backlog from the holiday.” Sigh.
COVID Tracking Project

NBA player meet with Pope Francis on social justice In a simpler time, I would have labored to make a “cool pope has game” quip of some sort to introduce this story, but the truth is, it just feels a bit too soon. Suffice to say, that while I found it odd, the dialog was earnest and welcome. Truth be told, Kyle Korver of the Milwaukee Bucks thought the invite was a joke at first. “I thought it was a fraud email that I got,” he told the New York Times.  “I called Michele [the executive director of the NBA] right away. I was like, ‘Is this for real?’ She said, ‘Yes, it is and would you like to come in like two days?’ This came together really quick.” The five players jumped at the chance to spread awareness of their mission, and offered the pope a book of their social justice work, team swag, and a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. The players were Kyle Korver, Sterling Brown, Anthony Tolliver, Marco Belinelli and Jonathan Isaac, who have all played outsized roles in team protests; Isaac is an ordained minister.
New York Times

On background

There are 573 federally recognized American Indian Tribes in the U.S., but only one who greeted the “pilgrims” on what has become the foundation myth of the country’s founding. The Wampanoag are still here and still mourning what followed after the Mayflower docked in 1620. Many had hoped that the 400th anniversary of the arrival would have been a long overlooked opportunity to reset the historical record, but the pandemic would have other plans. It is a déjà vu all over again, Wampanoag leaders tell Time, decimated by a mysterious infection before the pilgrims arrived, and facing a fight for their land afterward, their lives in 2020 are eerily similar to their lives in 1620. The earlier infection killed so many people that they were easily outmatched by the colonizers. “It’s somewhat ironic that on the 400th anniversary of acknowledging this point in history, we are forced to stay home and stay separate and feel that fear and uncertainty and some of the things that my ancestors were dealing with in a much more severe fashion,” says, Aquinnah Wampanoag Councilman Jonathan James-Perry.

The Harvard Indigenous Design Collective's stated mission is to support the the work of “Indigenous architects, planners, designers, scholars, allies, and alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Design.” They are getting the job done with a Twitter stream honoring extraordinary individuals. Here’s just one, and I can’t wait to interview her: Tamara “Tammy” Eagle Bull, Oglala Lakota and the first Native American woman to be licensed as an architect. Check her out her work here, more on HIDC below.

Appalachia is back in the news, thanks to the poorly received Netflix’d version of, J.D. Vance’s 2016 Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. People really hate it. According to the Atlantic’s David Sims, “Hillbilly Elegy is one of the worst movies of the year.” But don’t blame stars Glenn Close or Amy Adams. Blame director Ron Howard’s “steadfast loyalty to the source material's utter contempt for the working poor.” Tough break, Ron!

Funny, if it weren't such a big problem.The truly wonderful Appodlachia podcast has an entire content section devoted to debunking, explaining, and otherwise emotionally processing Elegy, and all that I’ve listened to has been eye-opening. (Start with episode one, Hillbilly Elegy: The Farce Awakens, in which the amiable hosts “dissect the book equivalent of a raging dumpster fire, Hillbilly Elegy, in part 1 of their series on the damage it is doing to Appalachia.”)

Electric Lit offers a helpful list of books about “Affrilachia,” or Black Appalachia, and decries the erasure of a big part of the region’s cultural heritage. “[T]he presence of African people in the Appalachian mountains was documented as early as the 1500s,” notes writer Crystal Wilkinson. “Many Black people are still settled in hollers, former coal camps and thriving urban Appalachian towns and cities throughout the region. Our ancestors were among the earliest settlers. My own family has lived in the hills of Kentucky, where I grew up, for four generations.”

To round things out, here are some helpful pieces from the Boston Review:

The mythical whiteness of Trump country, adapted from from What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte, Belt Press, 2018.

Queer in rural America - A reminder that "'rural America’ is neither a monolith nor an apparition.” Further, rural spaces aren't only white, conservative, cisgender and they have a role to play in the future of a vibrant country. 

Mass incarceration in Appalachia - “Addressing white poverty by incarcerating people of color exacerbates tensions between marginalized communities while curtailing the potential for multiracial solidarity.”

raceAhead is edited by Aric Jenkins.

Today's mood board

Effortless cool. Immense talent. Denzel Washington was named the greatest actor of the 21st century (so far) by the New York Times.

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