“Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.” – Felix S. Cohen, 1953
There is little question that what the white man found when he washed up on our shores was a free and fearless people. But rather than learn our ways and study how a people could live without kings, queens, courts and prisons or slavery, discrimination and class warfare, the church – the very thing that created many of these institutions and practices – was relied upon to spread all of it to a free world.
The Doctrine of Christian Discovery, which has plenty of foundation in the Bible, got its first shot as a stand-alone church doctrine with Portugal’s invasion of West Africa in the mid-15th century. A pope’s decree that a Christian nation could claim the lands and possessions of a pagan people and reduce them to “perpetual servitude” would begin four centuries of the African slave trade. In 1493, another pope would lay the foundation for all “Christian nations” to begin the rape of our own Turtle Island and secure the racist Doctrine of Christian Discovery as the law of the white man. In fact, it would be called the “White Man’s Burden.”
Certainly, bits and pieces of our cultures, philosophies and traditions were borrowed when the need to shift colonial powers and authority would arise. But what was woven into the American fabric was only done so in rhetoric and not in practice. Laws of Nature, all created equal, governance by consent of the governed, inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; these not only sounded good, they were good. These along with the concept that individuals would be placed in the service of their people rather than as lords over them were, in fact, the way of our people, a way that allowed our people to thrive for thousands of years.
“The most consistent theme in the descriptions penned about the New World was amazement at the Indians’ personal liberty, in particular their freedom from rulers and from social classes based on ownership of property. For the first time the French and the British became aware of the possibility of living in social harmony and prosperity without the rule of a king.” – Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Changed the World, 1988.
As the fake American history crumbles with more access to truth and our abilities to tell our own truths, many have begun to learn about the atrocities of the 500 years of the American Holocaust. And while acknowledgement of the wrongs and perhaps some attempts to right them is a good place to start, what’s missed in all this is Felix Cohen’s warning.
Cohen’s analogy of us to the miner’s canary was not about saving the canary. It was about saving the miners. It is the white man with his “burden” and all that Cohen was warning. It is more than just an analogy to suggest that the atrocities committed against our people paved the way for the poison gases of Auschwitz and those now affecting climate change. Raping our children and our women are crimes against humanity but raping our Mother Earth is a crime against Creation. And it’s not just all of man that will be affected but all of creation. But let’s be honest, most of Creation will not care less about toppled buildings, crumbled roads and flooded homes. Only man – with his attempt to defy nature – is in real trouble when nature strikes back.
Cohen realized that in our people – the treatment of and relationships with us – lay a barometer for mankind. The fall in the white man’s “democratic faith” was based on an ignorant majority that could see its way to unspeakable crimes against the people closest to Creation and never realize that what kills the canary also kills the miner.
But, in reality, we are still free. It is the white man that fell to Christendom, with emphasis on the “dom” or domination. We have lost an inconceivable number of our people over five centuries to extermination, removal, assimilation and termination. We are still losing loved ones to poverty, alcohol, drugs and suicide. And we continue to lose many to assimilation, including those finding comfort in the colonial systems that continue to oppress our people. But we are not all lost.
There are many among us that continue to say the Ohenton Karihwatehkwen. We acknowledge our relationship to Creation and bow to no man. We know we are free because our minds are free. We are not the caged canaries of the white man. We are a free people. And while many bound within the colonial systems poke those of our people, who were willing or succumbed to be their canaries, with their sticks, and begin to question their own fate, more and more will look to the free and the brave and desire to be among us. They’ll pray that we are not those “merciless savages” Thomas Jefferson wrote about and that we still hold certain truths to be self-evident – even if they could not.