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Maulian Dana is the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador.
At a conservative youth conference last week former U.S. senator and current CNN commentator Rick Santorum made the comment: “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
To begin, I would like to share a quote from the statement of the National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp who said, in part: “To correct the record, what European colonizers found in the Americas were thousands of complex, sophisticated, and sovereign Tribal Nations, each with millennia of distinct cultural, spiritual, and technological development.” She goes on to describe the contributions that Indigenous peoples have made to the Americas such as the cultivation of cotton and tobacco.
Santorum’s comments are offensive, inflammatory and troubling. They are also a symptom of a larger disease: The invisibility of Indigenous people as we continue to exist in our homelands. His language encourages the erasure of not just our modern-day populations (which, candidly, we are pretty used to) but also the deep roots and contributions of our ancestors.
Frequently Indigenous people are reduced to the stereotypical depictions and negative connotations developed by settler culture that are not just inaccurate but harmful. When we rely on these tropes, there is a tendency to place tribal people into a glass case of history, a mythical and lost people. This sets up a scenario in which, when real and living Indigenous people speak up for equality and respect, we are often treated as somehow less than deserving of equality and our rights are ignored and dismissed. The invisibility is not just symbolic.
At one time in our shared history it was common practice to hunt, kill and collect a bounty for the scalps of Wabanaki people. Our ancestors were apparently given blankets that were infected with smallpox, inflicting the recipients with a disease that would result in painful death and suffering of men, women and children.
There was a generation of Indigenous children where many were stolen by the federal government and placed into boarding schools or volatile foster homes to have the “Indian” killed in hopes that they would assimilate into white society.
There were once up to 20 distinct tribal nations in the land now called Maine. There are now four tribes in five reservation communities. The loss of life, land, resources and culture was and continues to be devastating.
However, we are still here. We are surviving and grounded in our identity as Indigenous people because of the strength and resilience in our very blood to keep our core values and sacred ways intact while enduring unthinkable acts. We didn’t do any of those unthinkable acts to ourselves. We didn’t target ourselves for genocide.
Santorum would do well to learn some of his own history. I am sure the backlash from his remarks is a great place for him to start if he is willing to do the hard work of reflection and reconciliation. It does my heart good to see the swift and powerful responses from so many tribal people and I am honored to add my words to the re-education process.
America has a problematic history of acknowledging sins and atrocities of others while shoving its own skeletons deeper and deeper in the closet of ignorance. If we cannot fully embrace the truth, we will not be able to walk forward together in a good way.
History isn’t good or bad, it just is. We do a disservice to our children when we ignore the parts that make us feel like the bad guys.
CNN, where Santorum is a commentator, has participated in erasure behavior as a network and needs to stop being silent about Indigenous peoples of this country. During the 2020 election, they developed a graphic showing voting results. The demographic categories were listed as “white, black, Latino, Asian American, and something else.” As we move about our homelands and as we cast our ballots, we are overlooked and othered.
We are still here, our culture is strong, we honor our ancestors with our continued work for sovereignty, health, equity and well-being.
We are not “nothing.”