Walking on Common Ground – Approaching Native American Civil Rights

By Alexandra Bourdillon

Martin Grelle, "Scouts on the Buffalo Fork"

Martin Grelle, “Scouts on the Buffalo Fork”

Native Americans have had the longest history of oppression found on the North American continent. Their need for political freedom is as dire as that of any marginalized community. It is impossible to generalize and make of distinct tribal cultures – as they are abundant in number and variety – one community. What brings them together however is the shared struggle or refusal to assimilate. While certain human rights are associated with preserving a cultural identity, they also require a political sphere in order to have any meaning. Basic human freedom, as described by 20th century political theorist Hannah Arendt, is “being able to do what one ought to will” in the public sphere (“What is Freedom?”, 159). But what happens when your culture and history are so distinct from the political culture of the United States? In this paper, I will analyze the particular difficulties associated with Native American civil rights.

In her essay “What is Freedom,” Arendt claims that freedom manifests itself in the political realm through its presence in the public sphere. She considers freedom not as the philosophical, inward trait often confused with free will, but as the worldly ability to make substantial decisions. The political realm is “where freedom is a worldly reality, tangible in words which can be heard, in deeds which can be seen, and in events which are talked about, remembered, and turned into stories before they are finally incorporated into the great storybook of human history” (“What is Freedom?”, 153). It is the capacity for worldly action that defines our human freedom. Without this ability, we are powerless, if not useless. Political freedom, thus, requires presence in the public sphere to be heard, seen, and talked about. Freedom “develops fully only when action has created its own worldly space where it can come out of hiding, as it were, and make its appearance” (“What is Freedom?”, 167). Action requires courage and also, uniquely to Arendt, requires a link to an audience that is the public, for example, a stage or medium of communication.

Kant’s understanding of the essence of political freedom is similar. He considers an enlightened community as one that is able to “make public use of… reasons and to lay publicly before the world… thoughts about a better formulation of” policy (Kant, 63). Change arises from dialogue performed under the scrutiny of debate, grounded in reason. The principle medium of discussing politics is through “scholarly” discourse. This discourse, when unhindered by opposition or environmental factors, gives man “an unrestricted freedom to employ his own reason and to speak his own person” (Kant, 61). Again, freedom is dependent on being heard and making oneself heard.

The particularly momentous movement for black civil rights took full use of the public sphere to obtain political freedom. At the forefront of this movement was Martin Luther King, Jr., who established a significant presence in the public sphere through eloquent speech and leadership. His efforts inspired over 200,000 Americans, black and white, to join the March on Washington in 1963. Media corporations had little choice but to cover such a grand event. This is how the civil rights issue was thrown into the public sphere. Throughout the movement, King often “incorporated the presence of the cameras within the organization’s protesting strategy” (Acham, 28). Media was a huge asset because “by 1960, ninety percent of American homes had television” (The Civil Rights Movement and Television). Media helped make the black civil rights issue a national issue. Media was so important that King “was known to call off marches if it became known that cameras would not show up for the event” (Acham, 28). King realized that a public audience was a necessary component to effective protest. He rallied the black American community and brought civil rights to the center-stage, giving African Americans a voice after a century of oppression even after the abolition of slavery.


Fitch, Bob. “King’s Address to a First Baptist Church in Eutaw, Alabama.” Eutaw, Alabama, 1965.

King’s success was, in part, due to his ability to captivate a national audience. His powerful presence is captured in Bob Fitch’s photograph of King’s Address to a First Baptist Church in Eutaw, Alabama. King was, after all, a preacher, and he made good political use of his experience and skill in this domain.

His connection to Judeo-Christian culture was another key to the public sphere. It was the New Testament from which King derived his understanding of equality. In the fight for civil rights, he worked towards a day in which black and white would “be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together… to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day” (King). Religious language helped bridge the gap between the white and black audiences. He called the Americans, of white, black or any other color: “all of God’s children” and often used “Lord” or “Father” (King). Shared religious tradition offered common ground not only as a method of communication, but also as a foundation for ethical principles. This tactic proved to be an effective tool for persuasion.

The Native American population has not had a similar experience in the American public sphere. Their struggle between assimilating into Western culture and retaining cultural heritage is especially demanding. In light of Arendt’s definition of political freedom as action in the public sphere, it seems paradoxical that the very way to preserve their cultural rights and heritage requires leaving the tribal community and sacrificing their traditional experience. On the other hand, retaining full heritage by enjoying reclusive reservation life or refraining from Western assimilation, the Native American actually surrenders her true political voice, thereby jeopardizing the preservation of her heritage.

History and philosophy justify the problematic situation of Native Americans in various ways. Early settlers bargained by exchanging political rights for land; when the settlers neglected their promises, unsurprisingly, Native Americans became wary of Western manipulation. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Indians “feared that citizenship and suffrage would accelerate the death of Indian culture” (Nevada Law Journal, 129). Western concepts and terminology often inherently violate traditional Native understanding – for example, the conversion of land into a commodity. This cultural imperialism consisted of “converting the indigenous people to competitive individualism” (Green, 27). Minority groups naturally form alternative communities to shelter themselves and retain heritage. Although many are at least partially integrated into the mainstream, “largely because of the genocide inflicted on them, Native Americans have been far less attracted to the dominant society” (194).

This culture clash has obvious political consequences. In Arendt’s Reflections on Literature and Culture, she explores “the conflict between culture and politics… in the public sphere” (Culture and Politics, 199). Each plays a unique, yet interdependent, role in our world. Arendt considers politics as the “interactions between people, manifested in the world in deeds, words, and events” (Culture and Politics, 188). There is an element of the now in the performance of politics. Culture, by contrast, strives for permanence through the recording of these happenings. In this way, culture has an existential impact on our human identity, because “the greatness of man… is taken to consist in the human ability to do things and to speak words that are deserving of immortality – that is, worthy of eternal remembrance – despite the fact that human beings are mortal” (Culture and Politics, 188). Our values and knowledge are derived from the recordings of these products. The permanence of culture, through lasting works of poetry or art, varies drastically from the dynamic and active realm of politics. This clash or “conflict between the political and the cultural can arise only because the activities (acting and producing) and the product of each (the deeds and the works of people) all have their place in public space” (Culture and Politics, 187). The challenge is to balance these aspects of society. Art loses meaning when it is simplified to a “functional activity” which serves a temporary purpose, and thus is short-lived or neglects the spirit of permanence. Likewise, the realm of politics, when reduced to static principles, risks a totalitarian overtake in which fixed guidelines inhibit the individual freedom and ruin the collective harmony. Each, however, relies on the other to exist.

The conflict between culture and politics is especially present for Native Americans, for whom finding balance is more difficult given the gap between a Westernized public sphere and traditional tribal culture. The tragedy of this disparity already has consequences for their political freedom and now we see its effect on culture. Because heritage coexists with time, the lack of political access today defines the heritage and culture of future generations as they “look back.” Preserving culture means nothing if it doesn’t preserve a space for words and deeds. The question for Native Americans is what degree of assimilation is required to sustain such a space in the American public sphere.

Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” offers a grim view of complete assimilation. The story is told from the perspective of an ape that escapes captivity by emulating human behavior so well that he fits into human society. The initial condition that impelled him to take such drastic measures was a cage, which bound him so tightly that he “had to squat with [his] knees bent and trembling all the time” (Kafka, 176). To escape physical confinement, he pursues another life by mimicking human behavior. Although his new life is physically favorable, the ape is not content. His adaptation was not an act of freedom. The cage was so unbearable that the ape “imitated [humans] because [he needed] a way out, and for no other reason” (Kafka, 182). Because his survival depended on assimilation, his behavior was not stimulated by choice. Arendt claims, “no one can be free who is being forced by life, whose activities are dictated by the necessities of life” (Culture and Politics, 187). Despite enjoying social acclaim and political rights as a human, the ape will always be restricted by the necessity of having to behave in a specific way. Assimilation, then, is not liberating, but simply another form of slavery. Although he is no longer confined to the bars of a physical cage, he continues to be barred by his reality.

Native Americans are similarly entrapped. However, the ‘cage’ is now the desolate, landlocked reservation and the social barrier is the struggle against Western society. In his chapter of Heterologies, “The Politics of Silence: The Long March of the Indians,” de Certeau examines the inherent differences in organizing community. The Native American system offers “an associative interweaving of sociopolitical micro-units, each of which is characterized by community self-management of resources (essentially land)” (Michel de Certeau”). According to de Certeau, this horizontal approach to community organization diverges from “the idea and effectiveness of Western democracy” which everywhere undermines “the expansion of cultural and economic technocracy” (Green, 195). The cultural and political gap leads to inequality. How can one compete in a system that recognizes completely different values and unfamiliar ways to understand the world? De Certeau summarizes “three major [Native American] alternatives to the world of the modern West: the creation of autonomous, relatively egalitarian and non-authoritarian communities; respect for the environment; and a tolerance of cultural pluralism” (Green, 195). Treaties can help conceive the first condition through, for example, the “right to self-determination” (as defined by the Charter of the United Nations) and continued through the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by which Native Americans can preserve their culture and way of life. Policy alone, however, cannot fully address the inclination for cultural pluralism.

The UN Declaration is extensive in formulating relations that promote the wellbeing of indigenous peoples. One key point is Article 8.1: “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” Forced assimilation transforms ‘political freedom’ to enslavement by unwanted conformity as experienced by Kafka’s ape. Article 5 offers another view: “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.” As long as tribes share land with or are bordered by another state, there is a need to relate with this other state. This interdependence is not only demanded by modern globalization but is also a shared value in most cultures around the world.

The Native American tradition applies interdependence through understanding of nature. Within Indigenism, bioregionalism is a view in which “the earth consists of many unified wholes, which have arisen through historical processes” (Green, 29). This pantheist philosophy demands a pluralistic approach that recognizes the dynamic associations among the elements that make up the world – namely, plants, animals and people, but inanimate matter as well. The idea that “each whole consists of intra-dependent and reciprocally related parts, and each whole is specifically different from every other whole” (Green, 29) is consistent with Christian theology and St. Paul’s message of the body politic: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body” (1 Cor 12:12). This foundation for solidarity is the first step towards identifying further common ground. In other to understand Native American culture, we need to extend that concept of the body-politic to include the grass and the trees, the earth and the animals. This notion is perhaps a closer reading of Genesis’ Garden of Eden, in which God grew “every tree that was delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden” (Genesis 2: 9). Eden helps us gratify and realize the life that Earth sustains.

As de Certeau mentioned, “respect for the environment” is a recurring Native American value. Their spirituality revolves around an intrinsic union with the natural world. In one of his prayers, Charley Elkhair said, “we thank our mother, the Earth, whom we claim as mother because the Earth carries us and everything we need” (Robert P. Harrison). The traditional respect for the land extends to respect for animals, which share the same resources. In his 1854 speech, Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe, extended the connection between nature and human life: “the very dust upon which you now stand… is rich with the blood of our ancestors”. Nature is intertwined with human existence, and every aspect of nature is respected as part of our existence. Care for the Earth is bridged to Christian theology through Eden and examination of plurality. After all, Genesis holds man responsible to “till the Earth”, to grow and sustain such life (Genesis 2:5). This shared concern for the environment is one way for the West and the tribal tradition to find common ground.

"Three Horses" by Edward S. Curtis

Edward S. Curtis, “Three Horses”

By reconciling these environmentally-conscious theologies, we can evolve more fruitful approaches to nature. Regardless of other features, most cultures share “a deeply common sense… that nature (however defined or invented) is beyond any comprehensive conceptual grasp yet wholly within the domain of our social, political, and moral responsibility” (Paul Harrison, 448). Both Westerners and Native Americans recognize a responsibility to preserve nature. Ecological stewardship can bring together otherwise estranged cultures. This concept extends beyond our physical need for a sustained Earth, but underlines our very human relationship with the Earth. For the Native Americans it was a spiritual connection rooted in a high regard for ancestry and gratitude. For the West, it consists of an existential understanding that says, “we live not in nature but in our relation to nature” and “our relation to nature is the correlate of our relation to ourselves” (Robert P. Harrison, 436).

Western and Native American cultures can merge their own theories to address the pressing environmental concerns of this time period. This is a promising opportunity to establish dialogue in the public sphere. For example, one can perform Kant’s version of “scholarly discourse,” through any form of writing, speaking or publishing, and thus exercise their political freedom. Native Americans can enhance their presence through academic commentary. The structure in which they establish such work can be specialized toward the Native American experience. This modern approach will help balance the need for a political voice with an enduring commitment to preserving tradition. Becoming familiar with Western culture cannot be completely avoided, but the public sphere does not require one to be physically integrated into society. At least this approach will help Native Americans and Westerners to meet halfway.

Works Cited:

1 CorinthiansNew American Bible, Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2001. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Web. <http://www.usccb.org/bible/&gt;.

Acham, Christine. “Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Arendt, Hannah. “Culture and Politics.” Chap. 24 in Reflections on Literature and Culture. Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Arendt, Hannah. “What is Freedom?” Chap. 4 in Between past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin, 1978.

Fitch, Bob. “A Young boy pays rapt attention as Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a packed civil rights rally in a church.” Eutaw, Alabama, 1965.

GenesisNew American Bible, Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2001. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Web. <http://www.usccb.org/bible/&gt;.

Green, Michael K, ed. “Issues in Native American Cultural Identity.” New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 1995.

Harrison, Paul. “North American Indians: The Spirituality of Nature.”World Pantheism. Time Magazine, 12 Dec. 1996. Web <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.pantheism.net%2Fpaul%2 Fhistory%2Fnative-americans.htm>.

Harrison, Robert P. “Toward a Philosophy of Nature.” In Cronon, Uncommon Ground, 425-446. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996.

Kafka, Franz. “ A Report to an Academy.” In The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, 173-183. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1948.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Chap. 1 in What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions, 58-64. ed. Scmidt, James. University of California Press, 1996.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Speech, Washington, DC, August 28,1963.
 American Rhetoric. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ mlkihaveadream.htm.

“March on Washington Fast Facts.” CNN Library. 15 Aug 2014. Web. http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/15/us/march-on-washington-fast-facts/

“Michel de Certeau – Heterologies: Discourses on the Other.” Strong Reading (blog). Blogspot. Jan 12, 2012. http://strongreading.blogspot.com/2012/01/michel-de- certeau-heterologies.html

“The Civil Rights Movement and Television.” The Paley Center for Media. Web. http://www.paleycenter.org/the-civil-rights-movement-and-television

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