US Founders Demonized Indigenous People While Coopting Their Political Practices

When spending your next $20 bill, take a good look at President Andrew Jackson’s face on the cover. Remember the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which was authorized by President Andrew Jackson, and the resulting brutal Trail of Tears experienced by Indigenous peoples — and the structural and ideological terror that results from efforts to preserve white “purity,” white “civilization” and white “superiority.” Keep in mind that Jackson was an enslaver of Black people and engaged in genocidal practices against Indigenous peoples, which isn’t to reject the genocidal implications of Black enslavement.

It is important that we never forget the deep existential, cultural, environmental and spiritual toll experienced by Indigenous peoples here in North America, and how their pain and suffering continue into the 21st century. They have had to fight against dehumanizing caricatures that depicted (and continue to depict) them as “savages,” as having no real culture, or as having no real relationship to the land upon which they lived, or having shared a sense of community and spiritual belonging.

To engage past and contemporary issues facing Indigenous peoples in North America, I spoke with Brian Burkhart of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, who is interim director of the Native Nations Center at Oklahoma University and an associate professor of philosophy and affiliated faculty in Native American Studies. He is the author of several important scholarly articles and chapters that engage questions of Indigenous conceptualizations of land as kinship, questions of normativity, identity and indigenous philosophy. He is the author of Indigenizing Philosophy Through the Land: A Trickster Methodology for Decolonizing Environmental Ethics and Indigenous Futures (Michigan State University Press, 2019).

In this interview, Burkhart helps us to understand what it means to be Indigenous and painfully precarious within the context of COVID-19. He explores the meaning of settler colonial ignorance, and of white settler appropriation of Indigenous ideas and land. And he helps us to appreciate the deep philosophical and spiritual implications of land as a site of particularity that grounds points of view that reject epistemological arrogance and refuse conceptions of universality that are hegemonic.

George Yancy: There are times when ignorance runs so deep that I feel as if it is not even worth responding to. I fear that responding to it gives it some measure of validity. Yet, remaining silent doesn’t feel like an option. For example, in May, while speaking at an event planned by Young America’s Foundation (which I’m assuming is predominantly white, though I could be wrong), politician and political commentator Rick Santorum said, “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.” As we know, he no longer works as a political commentator at CNN because of his comments. When I heard about this, I immediately thought of the racist “legal” doctrine known as terra nullius, which is Latin for “land belonging to no one.” It is part of the colonial-settler logic deployed here and in Australia. “There was nothing here”? The language denies Indigenous existence; it denies human life; and it assumes that it is whiteness that constitutes fullness and presence. “We birthed a nation from nothing?” This also has theological resonance. Theologically, only God creates ex nihilo. So, here we’ve got anti-Indigenous racism, deeply problematic and racist theological discourse, and the obfuscation of colonial-settler genocide. North America wasn’t birthed from nothing. It was given “life” through a process of violent and murderous dispossession of land and Indigenous blood and tears. As a Black man, I can tell you what it’s like to be called a “n*****.” As a Cherokee Nation citizen and an Indigenous philosopher, speak to what it is like to hear that your presence, the lived presence of your people, was nonexistent. Talk about the racism here.

Brian Burkhart: George, I am grateful for the opportunity to have this conversation with you and truly appreciate your work to include Indigenous perspectives on whiteness in America.

You are correct about the depth of ignorance and the struggle over responding to it. The colonial-settler ignorance is structural (as is all racist ignorance, I believe), but the function of colonial-settler ignorance is specifically targeted to the erasure or elimination of Indigenous people as people. The construction of the European as “civilized,” even human, against the American, African and Oceanic so-called “savage” is the foundational framework of what later becomes whiteness as a way of conceptualizing and even consolidating this human versus animal difference as the conceptual framework of whiteness. In the colonial context, if Indigenous people are savages or mere animals, then there are no people in the lands to be colonized: no people, no culture, no laws, nothing stands in the way of taking whatever is wanted from Indigenous lands and ultimately taking the land itself in a form of settler occupation. So, the racism that is constructed around Indigenous people operates through violent processes of elimination. The function is to eliminate Indigenous people through actual ongoing genocide, but also to eliminate us conceptually. The function of the racist view of Indigenous people that Santorum is working with is, in part, to eliminate Indigenous people from history, from the history of the land, from the history of American culture. This erasure is a removal of Indigenous people to replace them on the land with European people and to replace Indigenous people in American history with white fantasies. The classic form of the so-called “first Americans,” as seen in American literature and media — from The Last of the Mohicans to modern movies and television — is the white appropriation and deployment of the fantasy-driven Indian who must be replaced by “civilized” humans, who are necessarily white. This speaks to the struggle to simply exist as an Indigenous person in the United States. The genocide this racism incurs is not only physical but conceptual, as Santorum’s comments show. We are erased from American history and culture, and from the land that we belong to.

Yes. And following through on your point, part of the problem is that even when the existence of Indigenous people is acknowledged, they are deemed “savages” and “uncivilized.” Many may be unaware of this, and I am thankful to sociologist Joe Feagin for pointing this out to me, but even in the Declaration of Independence, one of the U.S.’s most “sacred” documents, Thomas Jefferson wrote about “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The contradiction here is that while it is stated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” Indigenous people are deemed outside of the community of those who constitute the “fully human” (read: white). Speak to some of the contemporary ways in which you understand Native American lives as not mattering within North America’s white hegemonic polity. I’m thinking here especially in terms of Native American communities being disproportionately hit hard by COVID-19 and the resulting existential and economic crisis.

This settler erasure of Indigenous people, of Indigenous humanity, from the white hegemonic polity is a structural feature of settler society. There is an existential estrangement and epistemological bad faith that goes along with this erasure on the part of mainstream white America as well. The level of maintenance and sublimation that it requires to invert the reality of American history and the reality of Indigenous humanity into the fantasy of white supremacy and the erasure of Indigenous presence, influence and humanity is beyond belief. One example in relation to the Declaration’s reference to “merciless Indian savages” will help. The same Thomas Jefferson (as well as Benjamin Franklin, among many others of the so-called founders) studied extensively and had great admiration for the political structure of the Indigenous confederacies that were quite common in areas of contact they had with Indigenous people. Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union in 1754 copies much of the Iroquois Confederacy’s governmental structure, and much of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Great Law is copied into the structure of the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. The founders are quite clear-eyed in their use of Native political philosophies, structures and institutions while at the same time calling those people, from which they are formulating the most sacred of American institutions, “savages.” Franklin, in his essay “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America,” describes the importance of adopting such Native views/practices.

The fantasy of erasure and dehumanization does create a significant negative impact on Native American communities, as you mentioned. COVID-19 has a glaringly negative impact, even showing up in the national media. The Navajo nation, where I have family and where I was born and raised, has been hit particularly hard, having some of the highest infection rates, serious illnesses, and even death rates higher than anywhere in the world. Part of the reason for this disproportionate impact is the chronic underfunding of health and infrastructure for tribal nations (something that the U.S. government is required to provide to Native nations by treaty), historical trauma and general health disparities as the result of centuries of displacement, forced relocation, stock reductions (in the 1930s, federal agents killed nearly 300,000 Navajo sheep, goats and horses because they decided they had too many) and other federal policies. In the Navajo nation, prevention of infection is made more difficult by the fact that 40 percent of Navajos are without electricity or running water and, of course, there is widespread food insecurity.

These historical and ongoing traumas are coming into mainstream conversations in the United States and Canada with the discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of Indian residential and boarding schools. Nearly 2,000 bodies have been uncovered just in Canada over the summer and in just a handful of schools that have been searched. It is clear that these so-called schools were nothing more than death camps. Even in photographic records, there is evidence of purposeful exposure to smallpox, for example. In 1907, Peter Bryce did a study of Indian residential schools in Canada and discovered a 69 percent mortality rate among the students. Would you send your child to a “school” with a 69 percent mortality rate?

I certainly would not, and I am sure that white people would not. As you know, Terra nullius and manifest destiny are concepts consistent with colonial power and the ownership, as in domination, of the Earth. If you combine these concepts with Western technological control of the Earth, which embodies a metaphysical framework that conceptualizes the Earth as infinitely exploitable, and the proliferation of ecological harms done to the Earth, I would argue that there is a sense in which human beings are perceived as “natural” oppressors of the Earth (the oppressed). And there is also a sense of estrangement vis-à-vis the Earth. It is similar to the estrangement installed between the colonizer and the colonized. This says to me that coloniality is not just a superficial ideology, but something more akin to an enduring metaphysics. The Earth is conceptualized as an “object” over which we must gain epistemological control for the sake of global capitalist greed. So, it’s important, it seems to me, that we understand that this is not the only way to conceptualize the Earth, to relate to the Earth. Dominating the Earth embodies an ontology and epistemology of ecological death and disaster. As an Indigenous philosopher, speak to Indigenous ways of relating to the Earth and how the Earth is conceptualized outside of a Western worldview.

Part of the estrangement that happens in the settler psyche of white supremacy and Indigenous erasure arises from a homelessness in the land. The notion of true humanness as something floating free from the land that even requires domination of the land in order to be human, as you say, is not only not the only way to conceptualize or relate to the Earth, but requires a fantasy of displacement from the Earth that I argue is a key structural component of the fantasy of whiteness and white supremacy. Rather than land as an object to be dominated, claimed, owned, bought or sold, Indigenous ways of relating to the Earth view land as kinship or even the relational ground of kinship. Obscuring the land discerned through a spatial point of view creates the context of homelessness in the land where humans float free from the land. The spatial point of view sees times, history and human beings as functions of relationality with the land. Obscuring the fundamental relationality of our being with land distorts how we perceive time, history and human beings apart from grounded spatiality in the land. This conceptualization of time, history and humanness are then given as a pretense of universality across all land. In contrast, Indigenous people, within the context of seeing land from the spatial point of view, hold our land with the highest possible regard and center our sense of meaning around this point. Colonial domination, in contrast, views people, time and history apart from land in order to conceive of their colonizing movements across the globe as a form of meaningful progress. The very essence of whiteness as a form of identity requires a de-spatialization and false abstraction of humanness, time and history as universals that float free from the land.

Yes. Whiteness aspires to a universal and an ahistorical status. When we think about our relationship to land, most of us think about our homes. Of course, if one is experiencing homelessness, then this conception of land is inconsequential. Yet, even as I think about land and identity, I think about things that I own. And while the things that I own don’t exhaust who I am, I have been seduced by conceptions of ownership — material goods that include land. And while I would like to think of Africa as beckoning a radically different relationship that I could have with land and how I think about “ownership,” there is still the rift created by the transatlantic slave trade that troubles that desired relationship. You, however, are still here, though the cruel history of dispossession should never be forgotten. Talk about the importance of how land is understood in relationship to how you understand who you are and how place can function (or does function) as a site of freedom for you.

Land, as the relational ground of kinship, provides a true freedom, one that cannot be found in the supposed freedom of movement and global domination that is constructed around land as object and humans that float free from the land. Seeing oneself in relation to land through the spatial point of view allows for a perspective of particularity of identity in the kinship matrix of identity that, at the same time, is inclusive of other sites of identity through other lands. Seeing oneself and others through the spatial point of view of land presents a connectivity through the land itself, which we all stand and walk upon, while maintaining the necessity of non-homogenous pockets of identity in relation to land as particular relational sites of kinship and identity.

It is exactly this structure of diversity and inclusion through the land as kinship that notions of universal truth, planetary humanness and monotheistic religion (as an evolutionary progression from primitive superstitions to universal moral laws, from a multiplicity of gods in nature to a single God existing beyond nature, time and space) are meant to obscure. This movement happens not through a progression of a revelation of ultimate reality but through an obscuring of the spatial point of view, of the connectivity and particularity of land as the kinship matrix of identity. Rather than mistaking a particular local situation for a universal truth over all land and all time, the spatial point of view grounds itself directly in the world around us. There is freedom in this point of view because one is not trapped in the abstract space (that floats free from the land) of universal truth. One can respond and adjust to the natural surroundings, and revelation is nothing more than this continuous process of adjustment within particular kinship sites of land. These kinship sites of land then become sacred because they provide a framework for moral reflection and responsibility. These sites are permanently sacred because the sacredness exists in the land itself and is not something universal that floats free from the land or merely in human or divine action which is exercised upon the land as an object.

I know that Black lives don’t matter in ways that white lives matter. It makes me furious. At other times, that sense of furiousness is drained to a point of what feels like dreaded hopelessness. It’s hard to know that you were never meant to be human in North America. And it’s exhausting to explain that feeling, that truth, to some who are white. Without conflating our individual experiences of being the objects of racism, or conflating the collective histories of our people, speak to what makes you strong, what gives you endurance in the face of so much colonial violence and continued exclusionary dehumanization. Also, how does being a Cherokee Nation citizen speak critically to the U.S. as “we” move forward through this fragile democratic experiment? And I ask this knowing that we don’t owe white America a damn thing given its brutal historical and contemporary treatment of people who look like me and you.

This is an important question, George, and I am grateful to you for generating the space and opportunity to speak on it. I feel the fury you reflect in even thinking about how Black and Native lives were never meant to matter in North America and the exasperation in trying to speak and explain that feeling to many white folks. Part of what makes me strong in the face of these facts and the ongoing colonial violence and dehumanization is quite literally the land itself (as I have written about in “Be as Strong as the Land that Made You: An Indigenous Philosophy of Well-Being through the Land”). The groundedness that comes from seeing one’s identity and responsibility coming from particular sites of land as kinship gives one a kind of strength that is capable of tethering oneself against the worst of the wind of racism, dehumanization and violence. There is a social fabric of kinship with the land itself that provides something of a protective home even in the face of land removal and genocidal forced marches, such as the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Navajo Long Walk, and the genocidal act of the wholesale removal of Native children to boarding and residential schools. Article II of the 1948 Genocide Convention defines “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” as an act of genocide.

Speaking of North America’s fragile democratic experiment, it seems to me that it was an experiment that was meant to fail or was never really meant to be anything but obscuring the white supremacy and settler colonial power structure of the U.S. political system. As a Cherokee Nation citizen, I can critically challenge the notion of U.S. democracies through the assertion of tribal sovereignty and the rights of treaties made with the United States and with countries before the founding of the U.S. settler state. Part of the power of this challenge is that it presents the flaw in the fragile democratic experiment: both the way that the claims to democracy hide the racial hierarchy beneath the surface, as well as the way that the notion of the community of democracy arises from a notion of land as an object and people floating free from the land. This last revelation can be seen through the structure of the settler states and their claim to ownership of Indigenous nations, like the Cherokee Nation, through the Supreme Court doctrines of plenary power and Indian land title, which holds that through the Doctrine of Discovery, the federal government is the true title holder of Indian land and the legal guardian of Indigenous nations within the settler-state territory. A conversation about the political and legal structure of the U.S. settler-state opens a space for conversation about the nature of kinship beyond white supremacy and settler-state domination, both in broader political and individual terms. Rather than trying to hold on to the fragile democratic experiment within these contexts of white supremacy and settler-state domination, we can rethink the very nature of diversity and inclusion through the land, the ways that we can be connected and be distinct within a framework of relationality and moral responsibility that arises from seeing ourselves from the spatial point of view.

This article has been lightly edited for clarity and length.