A Native American and Civil Rights’ View

Against the Current, No. 102, January/February 2003

Hunter Gray

The blood-dimmed epochs of the hideous past are causal headwaters and obviously directly relevant.  But it’s the poisonous effects and the chilling, lethal impact of this still widely on-going tragedy—continuing and pervasive racism of many cunning varieties and broadening economic exploitation and all its cutting, draining thrusts—to which my great anger and that of multitudes is directed.  The victims in “this rich land” alone are virtually countless.

THESE ARE MY Native American thoughts on reparations.  Some involve our generally deplorable Native socio-economic situation—as well as that faced by others.  I’m also tendering some procedural suggestions for handling funds such as reparations—based on roughly analogous experiences some Indian tribes have had in land claims cases.

I’m writing this on a yellow tablet from a high-up point, flanked by pines and junipers and sage, and looking over at snow covered-mountain ranges.  But this essentially idyllic setting—Audubon’s “perfection of primitiveness”—could never block the cruel realities of which I and many, many others of all ethnicities are so vividly and brutally aware.

I strongly support reparations—and would like to see these flow effectively to the broadest possible coverage of contemporary victims within those groups which have been historically struck by the devastating and tragically enduring impact of racism, genocide, slavery and consequent economic exploitation and deprivation.

Lessons of Experience

I was born of a full-blooded Native father [Micmac, St. Francis Abenaki, and St. Regis Mohawk] and an Anglo mother from an old Western family—and raised in and around the vast Navajo Nation with my Native identity and status and commitment always to the fore.

For the whole of my life from young adulthood on, I’ve been privileged by History to play an active role as organizer on a number of key fronts: radical industrial unionism, Native rights, civil rights and civil liberties.

So far my Romany trail has carried me over much of the United States: the Southwest, Midwest, Deep South, Pacific Northwest, Chicago South and North Sides, Upstate New York, Navajo Nation, Northern Plains, and the Idaho Rockies.  I’ve worked with people of several racial backgrounds, a range of ethnicities, and numerous tribes.  All of them, and there have been a great many, have been “people of the fewest alternatives.”

The blood-dimmed epochs of the hideous past are causal headwaters and obviously directly relevant.  But it’s the poisonous effects and the chilling, lethal impact of this still widely on-going tragedy—continuing and pervasive racism of many cunning varieties and broadening economic exploitation and all its cutting, draining thrusts—to which my great anger and that of multitudes is directed.  The victims in “this rich land” alone are virtually countless.

Here are three of many social justice campaigns carved forever into my being:

I was actively involved in the Southern Movement from 1961-67 in some of the most repressive sections of the Deep South.  I saw the brutal effects of naked racism and rank economic poverty on Blacks in both rural and urban settings.  And I saw the things which eventually—after much blood and sacrifice—changed for the better.  And I’ve seen the many things then and since then that have not changed.

The Southern Movement broke some hard-lines of resistance, secured the right to organize and dissent, developed widespread local leadership, brought about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, achieved widespread desegregation and some integration, ended most open racist terrorism, laid a basis for interracial and democratic unionism, and produced broad Black political participation and activism.

But the really radical promise of the Southern Movement—the emergence of bona fide socialism—did not, of course, materialize.  Its social class dichotomies, joined by the integrationist/separatist debates—all of this in the context of these initial positive victories, much tokenism, and continuing racism and massive economic poverty—combined to fragment much of the solidarity which had initially characterized the Movement in its springtime.

Behind the scenes, the never-ending cunning maneuvering of capitalism and the always ongoing manipulations of stratospheric corporate liberalism and its more localized appendages, the War, the Machiavellian usage of the Economic Opportunity Act—and the FBI and its COINTELPRO poisoning and hatchet-jobbing—all had an extraordinarily destructive impact.

Much of this all was certainly going on nationally on a myriad of fronts.  And in the old battlefields of the Southern Movement, racism and its poisonous varieties continue, economic deprivation is multi-faceted and rampant, barriers to fundamental change very much to the fore.

Chicago Struggles

I saw the same basic situation with Blacks and Chicanos and Puerto Ricans on the always sanguinary South/Southwest Side of Chicago in the years that followed.  And there, too, some things changed with tremendous effort—but much indeed never did.

There, I directed a large-scale community organizing project in an immense piece of turf: from about 28th Street southward down to 63rd and from the Dan Ryan Expressway on the east all the way westward to South Ashland Avenue and eventually even farther west.

Much of this was changing racially as large numbers of white people moved out and very large numbers of non-whites moved in. Our program focus—the grassroots community organization of low-income people, and also related advocate services—involved primarily Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, some Native Americans, and some Anglos who stayed behind and worked with us.

In the face of rigid opposition from the Richard J. Daley machine—which sought to cut off many city services in areas that became predominately non-white and which quite rightly saw our work as a major threat on all fronts—we began to systematically organize multi-issue block clubs and single-issue action organizations.

White racist groups were prevalent on the frontiers.  Violence was endemic.  It was a cat-clawing struggle: very hard, tedious, and often highly dangerous work. All told, we helped a vast number of people overcome the most profound inter-personal alienation, fear, and apathetic futility to organize 300 multi-issue block clubs plus related groups in two large umbrella organizations.

We dealt with ever increasing effectiveness and success on a wide variety of problems: civic services, education, employment, housing, health, police/community relations, urban renewal—and race. We made enduring peace between a number of minority youth gangs—and we defeated a Daley alderman, installing a Black woman independent.

The solid work of all of this in that turbulent and bloody setting lives on to this day. But some things did not change for the better: Racism continues as an integral component of the Chicago System, the South Side schools continue in deplorable condition, minority unemployment and subemployment are climbing ever-higher, and young people of color are frequently in consistent crisis.

I was chair for many years of the all-Indian Native American Community Organizational Training Center on the North Side of Chicago—a program initially geared toward the 22,000 Indians from 100 tribes that lived in that part of the city.

Many had been dumped there via the federal government’s nefarious “urban relocation” program—whose agenda unsuccessfully sought the elimination of Native people through “assimilation.”

These new urban Natives were trying to cope, not only with the mysteries of big urban life but also with direct and institutionalized racism, very heavy unemployment and sub-employment, a myriad of health and welfare and housing problems, and deep alienation and despair and alcoholism.

Our program trained Indian people as community organizers and activists and, eventually, the Center’s purview reached well beyond Chicago.  We—and other Native programs in the city and environs—made a positive difference.

But again, some things—racism and economic deprivation and all their deadly fruits—did not change substantially.

Native American Realities

I was born, of course, right into the Native American situation.  The cruel realities affecting our people are not always widely known:

There are presently at least two and a half million Native people in what’s called the United States—in about 600 tribes, each with its own distinct culture, which are rightly perceived by their members, though not by most Anglos, as sovereign nations.

Whether reservation or urban, the Native American situation is characterized by severe economic marginality and frequently outright desperation.

Unemployment on the reservations, always high, is now—depending on the particular setting and circumstance—between 50% and 90%.  Urban Indian unemployment stands between 50% and 60%—with many additional people working only part-time at odd jobs and day labor.

The average life expectancy for an Indian person is, depending on whichever of the current estimates, six to ten years below that of other Americans—with the Native health situation marked by, among other things, the highest diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and suicide rates in the United States.

The death rate for Native people via alcoholism is seven times the national average.  Alcohol also figures into the extremely high Indian suicide rate which is almost 75% above that of all other races—and two to three times higher than the national average for Native males in the 15-34 age range.

Reparations, Democracy, Socialism

I see socialism—bona fide socialist democracy—as absolutely necessary for all of the peoples of the earth.  And I see reparations as an extremely important approach on behalf of the vast numbers of current victims into whose lives’ very bones the systemic impact of racism and economic deprivation still cuts, directly and indirectly, covertly and overtly.

Reparations can directly nourish the current population of victims, boosting their important momentum for more fundamentally radical thrusts.  The very positive impact of all of this will be considerable for their many generations of descendants to come—and for our human society as a whole.

Reparations will increasingly be a very fundamentally visionary and tangible organizing force—both as a key component in a basic goal package and very much so in its own right.

I do have some procedural thoughts.  Our Native American situation contains some uniquely exceptional dimensions which could provide helpful insights in the handling of reparations monies and certain collateral matters.

With the emergence of such funds, some sort of agency would be necessary in their initial marshalling and direction.  Clearly this should be a very special kind of overall non-governmental entity which is carefully developed and genuinely representative of the broad range of potential recipients.

Most Native tribes have formal treaties with the United States government—signed in the old days under duress and poor compensation for a continent lost along with many millions of lives.  These treaties, part of the “supreme law of the land” as per Article 6, Section 2 of the Constitution, have been violated again and again by capitalistic forces and their governmental allies seeking Native lands and resources.

This is the starkly infamous “trail of broken treaties.”  A major piece of the on-going Native American struggle for freedom is to force the government to adhere to the treaties, to protect land and resources and tribal culture, and to regain lost sovereignty.

Often in this “modern epoch,” tribal nations are pushing land claims cases through the courts—litigation based on blatant violations of the treaties—some of these extending back into the latter 1700s and the 1800s and often continuing to the present moment.  These cases can take many years to resolve—sometimes several decades—but ultimately there have been many relative victories.

And these have produced compensatory funds, known as “claims settlements.”  These are not reparations monies but are based on illegal Anglo violations of legal treaties.  And when all is said and done, there usually isn’t all that much money.  But, in its handling, there have been some very hard lessons.

Problems of Compensation

First, it’s now generally recognized that, when a tribe distributes land claims compensation to its members on an individual, per capita basis, the actual dollar amount will be minimal.  And given the frequent economic marginality of the people, it’s all very soon gone to non-Indian business forces surrounding the reservation.

So increasingly in this contemporary period, Indian tribal nations receiving claims compensation are taking those funds and, instead of per capita distribution, developing projects and programs of benefit to the entire tribe over the long pull. These include buying more land, pursuing tribal economic development of its own resources, and setting up tribally-owned business enterprises.

I strongly support the concept of reparations monies—however they’re ultimately used—being channeled through all sorts of bona fide grassroots peoples’ organizations.  And I very strongly feel the funds should be used for solidly beneficial community programs of all kinds.

And across this land, there is a great mountain—a massive myriad—of solid grassroots organizations, from the ancient and very vigorously vital tribal nations to associations of neighborhood block clubs and community-oriented church denominations to angry activist outfits.  And there are a thousand or two other variants—to say nothing of those that can be appropriately organized.

Although some organizations—e.g.  Native tribes, or churches—are automatically tax-exempt and not-for-profit in the eyes of Internal Revenue Service, this immediate legal recognition does not extend to many other grassroots entities.

I would argue that organizations receiving reparations monies should not have to be 501(c)(3)—those formally deemed tax-exempt and charitable by IRS—and thus relatively narrow and restricted in nature, scope and reach.  I would certainly hope they could be any legitimate peoples’ organization, large or small.

And then there’s another basic question: how are some individuals determined to be entitled to reparations—whether through organizational programs and services or via direct distribution of funds?

This isn’t a great problem for Native tribes which can determine through their generations of formal records most if not all of their members and, ultimately, related Natives.  Urban Indian organizations, almost always intertribal in composition, usually can determine who is an Indian.  But often questions arise there and they can get contentious and divisive—very fast indeed.

Identity Issues

And this can get swiftly into the very complex question of defining, “Who is a Native American?” I taught Federal Indian Law at the university level for thirteen years—and that thorny tangle was always good for several hours of discussion.  But ultimately, this Native question offers some insights to other groups—when they have to wrestle with definitions both fair and adequate.

The Federal government, interested in keeping the Native population limited in service-eligibility numbers, prefers a minimum of one-fourth “Indian blood” (e.g.  one full-blooded grandparent or one half-blood parent).  Tribes, however, often have their own formal criteria which can vary considerably—sometimes involving a lower blood degree.

A good basic definition for general usage that I’ve developed is especially appropriate to urban Native intertribal organizational situations: someone who (1) has Indian blood, (2) sees himself or herself as Native American, and (3) is perceived by other Native people as a Native American.

That definition, which involves both genetics and community, could be a useful one in the general reparations context.

Finally, as the great and good reparations drama takes on tangible flesh and bone and blood and feathers, there should always be some sort of appellate mechanism for any and all of the individual and organizational recipients.


ATC 102, January-February 2003