One thing no one can argue with is that America is a nation of immigrants and has been since the 1500s. Native Americans were the sole proprietors of the Western Hemisphere for more than 12,000 years. We have heard from Latinos and others outraged by presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump's ongoing xenophobia and racism, but rarely from Native Americans, in particular young Native American women. We wanted to know what they were thinking specifically about this talk surrounding immigration and building walls.
About a month ago, Jacobi Berg, 26, member of the federally recognized Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, posted on Facebook about an experience with a racist male who confused her for being Mexican. When she told him that she wasn’t, he proceeded to call her Muslim.
“I just laughed in his face, which seemed to make him more angry,” Berg wrote. “Then I said, ‘You must be a Trump supporter. . . ” And he said ‘Hell yes, I am!’ And then I politely said, ‘Sir, just because you are Caucasian does not make you any better than me or anyone else. . . ' And then I told him not to judge anyone by the color of their skin or appearance. . . Because I'm A Proud Native American Dammit. And you, sir, are the only type of immigrant that is ruining our country!” Needless to say, her Facebook post went viral and garnered more than 200K likes.
“I do not consider myself an immigrant,” Berg told Vivala. “My people were born here. I can trace my history and I can say none of my people were born in another country.” Berg said that while her community is designated to this specific area of Mississippi and continues to keep their culture and traditions alive, a lot of her surrounding neighbors don’t even know that they exist.
“People I meet will say to me, ‘Wow, you’re the first Native American I’ve ever met,’” Berg sighs. “They’ll ask me if we still live in tepees.”
For Jasmine Bullard, 27, growing up as part of the Lumbee tribe, located near the border of North and South Carolina, was quite a different story. In her tight-knit community, the “majority were minorities.” She didn’t face culture shock until she left for college and moved to Chapel Hill.
That's where she met Meredith McCoy, 28, another young woman living among a handful of Native American people in the area. It wasn’t until McCoy immersed herself in various groups in college that she got more perspective about what it meant for her to be a Native American.
Both women say that the main issues affecting their community are education, health, poverty, and abuse against women. They also agreed that the only presidential candidate that actually addresses their concerns is Bernie Sanders. In fact, the majority of the Native women we spoke to, whom also vary in age, said they’d vote for Sanders.
“Bernie is the only candidate that has come out with a plan in his platform in support of Native sovereignty,” McCoy said. Some of the other candidates have made comments that are directly disruptive to Native sovereignty. Donald Trump, back in the '90s, was fighting very publicly against some of the tribes that were beginning to engage in gaming, which tribes have a legal and sovereign right to engage in.”
McCoy also likes that Sanders is against the Keystone Pipeline, which, if constructed, would do significant damage to Native land.
When it comes to the topic of immigration, Bullard referred me to a very old painting that depicts a Native American man holding a sign that says “Deport Illegal Immigrants.” Although Bullard recognizes that Native people are the only true non-immigrants in this country, she doesn’t believe anyone has the right to say who belongs here and who doesn’t.
The dialogue about building walls is one that doesn’t fall in line with the Native ideology, and Seattle councilmember Debora Juarez, who’s a member of the Blackfeet Nation tribe and the daughter to a first-generation Mexican-American father, says it's completely inconceivable to restructure our country in such a way.
“Immigrants have always been an invaluable part of our nation’s social fabric," Juarez said. “To deny this legacy is shortsighted and denigrating to immigrants such as my grandparents."
McCoy adds that because we live in a colonial state, extracting the families that have lived here for generations is just unrealistic. “This idea of national boundaries, that somehow you can construct a wall doesn’t fly for us.” She said the rigid policing of borders is deeply racialized and makes no sense for Native Americans.
“I feel like we’re all connected because of our histories,” Berg says in regards to how this election has pinned racial and socioeconomic groups against each other.
“Just because we went through what we did doesn’t make us better than what African-Americans did,” Berg said. “They went through hell.”
One of the biggest issues that Berg is concerned with is education and the preservation of Native culture and history. “Currently it’s like white people just want to wipe it out,” Berg says. “Like, ‘No, you cannot be Native, you cannot act Native American.'” She refers me to a haunting quote by army officer Richard Pratt in 1892, who founded a boarding school where Native kids were being sent to while the U.S. was still at war with them.
"A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," Pratt said in his speech. "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
So while self-preservation is crucial to the Native American women I spoke to, they are not exclusive about their communities whatsoever. Bullard is engaged to a Lebanese-Palestinian immigrant, who came to the United States with his family as a refugee. McCoy is married to an immigrant from Lima, Peru, who moved to the United States when he was four. They are more concerned with preserving their culture than having official native status.
These women understand and sympathize with the struggles of all immigrants because they, too, are a marginalized community. They've either been confused for being Latinas because of their dark skin or have been told that they do not look Native enough. Sound familiar?