Caucacity: Assumption of privilege and consent negatively impact Native American populations

Smoke Shop Raid2

Caucacity /kɔˈkæsətɪ/ (n.)

The audacity of New World Caucasians who feel entitled to assume privilege and consent when interacting with other cultures not their own.

It was a warm summer evening at the Mashpee Wampanoag powwow on Cape Cod, Mass. For the dancers and drummers, the excitement of joining friends in ceremony and performing in front of relatives at a powwow is one of the most personal and sacred undertakings an indigenous person can experience. Kat Simonds, Pokanoket, is an adult jingle dancer, and chooses to express ceremony through this unique Ojibwe healing practice to bring health to all of her people. In short, this is not to be taken lightly, and commands respect and humility from those who observe.

But not that day. Simonds, sweating and out of breath, walked to the edge of the arena after her dance to reconnect with her relatives, when an adult Caucasian woman walked over, placed her hands upon Kat’s hair ties, and began to stroke her sacred regalia. Kat recoiled in horror, expressed her disgust, and rather than be met with an apology, the offending woman attempted to take Kat’s photograph.

But Kat’s experiences with caucacity are neither isolated nor unique. Incidences happen all over Indian Country, and are most pronounced when placed in context with tribal sovereignty, which is (theoretically) the right to tribal self-governance as independent nations within the United States – despite the associated infrastructural difficulties – and how much intervention (or lack thereof) can be extended by Washington DC.

In 2003, the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island under Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas sought to open a smoke shop on tribal land. Following the success of similar operations on Seneca and Poospatuck land, and exercising the rights of sovereign governance in concert with Governor Don Carcieri, in July the Narragansett legally opened their smoke shop in the heart of their reservation. Two days later, 24 state troopers with police dogs under Carcieri’s direct orders violently raided the tribal smoke shop with the intent of ending sales. Why? The Narragansett, like all native peoples, are not obliged to charge tax on tribal land, but Carcieri’s government did not like – nor respect – that law. Instead, he seized tribal funds in the same year that Rhode Island raised income tax for upper echelon earners. Long and short, they couldn’t make the books balance, so the Indians paid for it once again.

Some call it a grey area, but the circumstances under which the federal government becomes involved in tribal affairs, and also when it does not, are interesting to note. Take as an example Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation, South Dakota, in November 2008, when a blizzard of unprecedented force cut through tribal land. More than 2,000 telegraph poles were destroyed, and 20-foot snowdrifts blocked many from roads and services. The Red Cross could do little for those stranded in the middle of the snowy wastelands and so opened a shelter in Rapid City, 80 miles away. Propane costs were set at a minimum of $100 per purchase. With temperatures plummeting to -35 degrees F, some residents were forced to burn furniture and possessions to keep warm. On those cold nights, when ice covered the insides of window panes, it seemed that the Federal Government was very far away.

But Washington isn’t always so difficult to reach. In 2017, residents of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota were told that an oil pipeline was going to be built adjacent to their land. Despite a near universal rejection of the proposal, the project commenced and a standoff ensued. Thousands of people from across Indian country, supported by activists from around the world, gathered in a water protectors camp at the edge of the reservation to advocate for tribal sovereignty and environmental conservancy. But that didn’t stop the pipeline from proceeding, and innumerable problems have been reported by residents ever since.

Even the right of the ballot isn’t sacred. In 2012, the governor of North Dakota announced that voter IDs must include residential addresses, despite prior knowledge that many of the state’s indigenous people live on reservations with neither street names nor residential addresses; most of them use central mailboxes. Native communities brought a suit to challenge the decision, and in April of this year, a district judge halted the requirement, citing “discriminatory and burdensome impact on Native Americans.” But a challenge was mounted, and in September the Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the April decision, with the Supreme Court declining to reinstate the ruling. Disenfranchisement ahead of the November elections, complete, but only to an extent. Despite the active suppression of indigenous voters, North Dakota elected a first-time Native American nominee, Ruth Anna Buffalo of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, to the 27th District House of Representatives on November 6.

With tribal sovereignty, it’s all good in eyes of the federal government until indigenous people strive for economic sustainability, and then it becomes all about convenience, money and gains in Washington’s favor. Some call it the rights of conquest, some call it progress, but indigenous people call it caucacity. For that is the price born by native people across the Americas, and it is a cost inflicted upon them by greed, ignorance and contempt; and all of it done on Native land by colonizers who came from elsewhere, let’s not forget.

Something to bear in mind the next time you celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, which is arguably the most caucacious act of them all.

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