U.S. Native Prisoners of War

One of the ways I came to be interested in issues around race, was that my father identified as Native American and with the struggles of native peoples, yet for the most part passed as white (what a friend of mine refers to as a “chera-honkey”). My dad also frequently expressed overtly racist and antisemitic views about black and Jewish people, while he spoke with admiration about our Mexican American neighbors in South Texas. That, my friends, will set you on a lifetime of trying to figure out race and racism.

I mention this personal history because there was something really flawed – and telling – in my father’s logic of “comparing” the plight of Native Americans with what he referred to as the “whining” of blacks about racism. In his view, Native Americans had it “much worse” than black Americans and still do. I think that my father’s “reasoning” here is not isolated but rather a common misunderstanding about the politics of race in the U.S., and a view I’ve seen on the RacismReview.com blog in the comments.

Rather than trying to rank order oppression and which group “had it worse,” it’s important that we see these as connected. At RacismReview.com, for example, we’ve talked a lot about the book “The New Jim Crow”, and the system of mass incarceration of black and brown people. Of course, this system isn’t all that new, really. In fact, it’s directly connected to the legacy of colonization, forced migration, and oppression faced by Native Americans.

This photo essay and talk (h/t @TheAngryIndian) by Aaron Huey of the native Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, based on five years of work there, is a compelling example of visual sociology. The talk is on the long side (16:00), but worthwhile (even if he needs to learn to not back out of his own spotlight). It was recorded at TEDDxDU, Denver.

One of the things I appreciate about Huey’s talk is that he clearly situates the health conditions among the Lakota as a direct consequence of forced migration and the loss of native lands, rather than on the pusillanimous “health behaviors” that so pervades the language in public health. Huey’s talk is a powerful reminder of the deep roots of institutional racism in the U.S.

Jessie Daniels

Jessie Daniels is Associate Professor of Urban Public Health at Hunter College.  She holds an MA and PhD in Sociology from the University of Texas at Austin. Following that, she was a Charles Phelps Taft Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Cincinatti.

Republished with permission from Racism Review.


  1. Roots Man says

    I have a lot of Native in me. I would really like to know what it’s like to be free. It deeply saddens me to know that I was born conquered. It’s quite obvious that things are not good on this planet for us Native Americans. We’re seen by a lot of people in this society as people who don’t even exist anymore, like we’re in the past. Even though I wasn’t born on a reservation, I suffer a lot of discrimination and brutality. We need our freedom. All the races of the Earth had their own land that was equal in mass. Now we have a situation, where one race, the white race, rules more than their fair share of land mass on the Earth. Just because some white people long ago, were programmed to think that they were superior, which enabled them to conquer indigenous people of this land & enslave Africans, to build a country which we all live in now, doesn’t mean that America should last forever & present day white folks get to keep land that some of their ancestors stole. It’s not fair to us & It’s not fair to white folks, or future white folks to put on the yolk of guilt, for all those innocent indigenous killed & in the name of who or what? This is our home, not white people’s home, or anyone else’s. That doesn’t mean that we should force anyone back to their ancestral homes, but it does mean that as Native Americans, we have the right to shape the dominant culture of this land, the way it’s healthiest for ALL of humanity, ALL of the creatures and to the Earth. It’s obvious that we have to rise up and not let them hold us down any longer. Don’t eat their poisoned pesticide food. Don’t drink their alcohol. Don’t be a slave to THEIR jobs. Let’s create a way for us all to be healthy. Grow gardens and do what we like, and don’t obey anything our conquerers order us to do. This is our home. Not theirs! These are our bodies! Not theirs! Stop going to war for them. Stop being police officers for them. Stop being a slave of THEIR society. Grow our own Peyote, Mushrooms, Marijuana and defend it with our rights. Have more vision quests and see the future more clearly so that we can be more relaxed and happy, knowing that Planet Nibiru and it’s inhabitants, the Annunaki are coming to save all of humanity from the bondage the Fallen Ones( meaning the Devil & his demon fools )have ruled humanity with for far too long. More people need to hear from the Hopi and the Prophecy of The Blue Star Kachina and from real Mayans about the Mayan Calendar. We’re all living in an amazing time, no matter what race we are, or if we’re oppressed or the oppressor. We’ll all unite quite soon. It will truly be Peace On Earth.
    We need to be seen & heard. We need to be on TV & in the movies more & we need to be thinking BIG, and show more of our way of life for the world to see. We don’t need to be told what to do, or that we can’t have a say in shaping our future on this planet. We don’t need to live on only reservations. We can live wherever we please, without asking & without paying for any land at all. Stop obeying our conquerors, but let’s instead urge them to free us all from their oppression of us, so what we can all live in harmony. We have so much history that we can teach our lost conqueror brothers & sisters and the rest of humanity. Imagine the culture we can create, mixing the old ways with green modern technology, like solar, wind, power & whatever else we can create. I see the future, & it’s Techno Villages, interconnected across the land by monorail, mountain bike paths, hiking paths, & we’ll share floating vehicles like the Land Speeder in Star Wars, along with small personal spaceships. We don’t need roads or cars & no more oil products. The skies will be blue & the stars will be seen brightly shining because there will be no mass concentration of lights that destroys our view of the universe at night, and of course no chemtrails. All food will be organic & if you want to eat meat, you have to go on a vision quest, get a vision of you killing a certain animal & then go actually hunt that animal in exactly the same manner as you were shown in your vision. That way, it’s not murder. People on this land will get much healthier, happier & more at peace with themselves & everyone around them. Food will be free. Land will be free. There will be no work. Sure, there’s always things we humans have to do, but we don’t have to call it work. We don’t need money either. Money is a tool, used by a few to control the masses & become insanely rich. We can all, come together regardless of skin color & create something new. We don’t need governments. We just need each other & we need love. Peace & Unity!!!!!!!

    • Sherree ruston says

      I know it has been several years since you wrote this, but I just found it because so much is bothering me with all this racist stuff abounding. I am a “white” female…who had no control over being born white as anyone else has control over how they are born;, however, I have always been bothered by racism..especially how our founders treated the Indians. I am also equally appalled by slavery, but you know what, I DIDNT DO IT, and I hate that any of us still treat each other like that. To me, if any nationality has the right to be mad and rise up is the American Indian!!! We can not go back and undo whst has happened and there is NO NEED to pretend it didn’t happen. We just need to move forward and love and accept each other. I always wished I could have been born an Indian before the white people came. I am so sorry that you and all of the Indians, have had to suffer because of past events.

  2. Catherine Altman says

    I have been called every name in the book. I have been called cracker, honky, white girl, wigger, white trash and many other terms that were undeserved. I had a teacher ask me my opinion of race. I replied that he didn’t want to hear my opinion. Another student in the class said, “Why because you don’t like black people?” (He was black) This was my reply, “On the contrary. I love black people, brown people, yellow people, peach and purple people and red people. But when I look at you I don’t see black. I see milk chocolate. When I look at her, I see caramel. Why do we put so much on the color of the skin? If you look at me closely I am not white. This page in my book is white. I happen to be a light tan color with a hue of pink and lots of light brown dots called freckles. Racism and slavery has been around since the dawn of man. Spartans killed slaves as a right of passage. People who we call Arabs, were slaves who built things for kings. Native Americans were bartered and sold and taken from there lives and lands by trickery and torture. We have united Negro College fund, We have Mount Rushmore, we have founders day and presidents day. Do we have Native American Day? Do we have reservations still? Did you come from slaves? Did the Africans gain their freedoms? Not in this society. Everyone has racists views. What I find sad and what makes me angry is that my ancestors died for freedoms. My ancestors never had slaves. No, I don’t hate black people. I don’t hate anyone for the color of their skin. I think that if I did, I would have to hate myself because I have so many races in me. I may look like a white person, but I am not. I am a mixture of German, Irish, Navajo and African. Such a sad reality we live in today. You want my opinion, really?……I am your friend, your neighbor, your sister in life on this planet. I have the same color of blood, the same beat of the heart, the same toes and fingers as you. I dream like you, love like you, pray like you and sleep like you. I am you, just in a different form.” I got up from my seat and walked out.

  3. Annette says

    You’re completely correct, it’s not useful to rank discrimination against different groups, but evaluating and comparing the patterns and methods used to oppress various groups is very insightful. I’d like to see a good analysis of the parallels between racism and homophobia, both in the manner of oppression and the terroristic effects on the target population.

    Unfortunately, many African-Americans don’t agree that there even are parallels, and even justify discrimination against gays because they believe the Bible and/or God condemns them. Oddly enough, the same book and belief system was used to justify racism in America (eg: God made blacks inferior to whites).

    Meanwhile, gays and lesbians have been targets of violence for millennia. Throughout history churches and governments have terrorized the public by torturing and killing various “outsiders,” most often gays and lesbians. Historical documents barely expose the savagery that came from the most eminently civilized Catholic Church in their violent attempts to subdue and control populations, especially their own followers. Surpassing the slaughter of the Crusades, the Catholic witch trials resulted in more than 20 million deaths, which far out-rivals even the Nazi Holocaust.

    Even in contemporary times, thousands of gays and lesbians have been tortured and killed around the world, especially in theocratic countries that have a strong religious control over the populations and government. What has been done to African Americans in this country is atrocious, but in sheer numbers alone, the gays have had it much worse throughout history.

    But in the end, the amount of oppression is a less useful measure than the reasons and methods for oppressing all of the various minority groups, and the effect and impact that oppression has on the population.

    • Annette says

      I’ve read it; it’s a great book. But you apparently missed my point.

      Re-read my post please. No matter what people have done in the past, we cannot stop contemporary racism by blaming everyone who’s skin happens to be the same color as the skin of people who’ve done harm to others. Native Americans killed each other for thousands of years. With no written records, we’ll never even know how many Native American men, women and children were killed by other tribes. But no one goes around saying that the red skinned people are bad for having ancestors that murdered other Native Americans. After all, whoever is alive today are descendents of the winners in tribal warfare. However, with Caucasians, you don’t even have to have ancestors who did wrong. Just by having white skin, you’re considered the “bad guy,”

      In reality, theocracies and abysmal class disparities are responsible for more human suffering throughout history than interracial conflicts.

  4. Alejandro Fierro Vidal says

    What I don´t understand is, why the white caucasian american does not recognize or at least, admit they invaded this land and polluted it, filled it with diseases and not only committed genocide but enclosed in concentration camps thousands of native peoples?
    Justice should always begin at home.

    • Annette says

      Because there is no “white caucasian american” who “invaded this land and polluted it, filled it with diseases and not only committed genocide but enclosed in concentration camps thousands of native peoples.” The people who came here hundreds of years ago are dead. Most of white people in this country are not even descendants of those settlers. What use is it to blame everyone who’s skin color matches that of the early settlers? How can we solve and eliminate contemporary racism when people are being critical of Caucasians simply because other white people did harm? That’s like saying native Americans are bad because if they’re alive today, then their ancestors wiped out some other tribes in the 10,000 years they lived here before white people came. In fact, researchers believe there were Caucasians in North American before the red-skinned native Americans migrated here and killed them (c.f. Kennewick Man). So who’s the bad guy in the red vs white racial conflict? More importantly, is there any point in blaming white skinned people for anything besides today’s racism, and only if they benefit from or partake in that racism?

      The same goes for blaming all whites for slavery. If your ancestors lived in the north and fought in the civil war to end slavery in this country, why are you still one of the “bad people?” What about mixed race people? Part bad? In Hawaii, white people are considered the bad guys as well. There were five white men who coordinated the overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy, yet no one goes after the rich descendants of those guys. Instead, all white people are blamed, even though some of them may have just immigrated from Switzerland or somewhere. Really, it’s just silly to say whites are innately bad.

      People throughout history have always supported and defended their own group, clan, tribe, community or country at the expense of other groups. It’s human nature, and it’s about survival of the fittest, which includes protecting those who are similar to you because they’re likely related to you. The question we face now is how to overcome our innate in-group biases so we can survive in the modern world.

      Just for a little perspective, throughout history there has been much more violence between people of similar skin colors than the there has been conflict between races. There were tens of thousands of years of violence between light skinned groups in Europe or Asia, and an even longer time of conflict between dark skinned people in Africa. The amount of conflict in the past few hundred years when people traveled the world and met vastly different ethnic groups is minor compared to those thousands of years prior to “civilized” times.

      Finally, it’s pretty hypocritical to say white people are responsible for polluting this land. Do you ever ride in a car, train or an airplane? Do you heat your home in the winter or cool it in the summer? Do you eat meat grown with modern-day methods? Or vegetables grown with pesticides? Do you wear clothes made elsewhere and shipped here? Do you ever drink water pumped from a well using electricity? Do you use a phone or any other electronic device? Do you post to blogs?

      If you can’t answer No to all of those questions and more, then you are responsible for polluting the world. Blaming other groups is just one way we avoid taking responsibility for what we individually and collectively do wrong in the world.

  5. Don Duitz says

    Racism thrives on ignorance. Why else would the “elete” (rich right wingers) refuse resources to educate and boost the folks that vote with them?

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