I had ideas for umpteen blogs. Here is where they all somehow converge and I attempt to do something productive with my sprawling web presence.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Peter Yarrow explains the significance of returning First Nation people's lands
The Unity Concert of the Black Hills Initiative brought thousands earlier this month to gather around one cause. The event would unify many First Nations people, activists, politicians, musicians, artists, and supporters to generate energy enough to create momentum towards re-establishing the stewardship of the Black Hills back to the Great Sioux Nation. The event would also move to heal past wounds historically dealt by all peoples in order to move forward and to focus on healing lands the whole globe over.
This gathering was in response to a 2008 statement from President Barack Obama. In the statement, Obama promised that he would have an open discussion with The Great Sioux Nation if they had come up with a “unified plan for the Black Hills.”
“A more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings may never be found in our history,” stated Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in the 1980 ruling in favor of the Great Sioux Nation. At that time, the U.S. Supreme Court had awarded the tribes 105 million dollars instead of the land which was owned by the government. It had in fact been ‘owned’ by the government since 1877. The ownership, or seizing of the lands, had occurred after the Black Hills Gold Rush had reached its peak in about 1876. The outright theft of the land had occurred shortly after it had been promised to the Sioux via the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.
The 105 million has since become more than 1.4 billion dollars.The tribes did not accept those funds. “The Black Hills are not for sale,” they said and the money still sits in the bank.
Many have asked how it is that the poorest people in America today refused such a large sum of money. Aside from the viewpoint that the land was outright stolen from its people, the Sioux think of the Black Hills as sacred. The land is so sacred to them that it is not set apart from the respect, honor, connection, and adoration one would feel for their mother. It is not right to sell your mother. Further, the Sioux believe that land cannot be owned. They can only ever be caretakers of the land. “They don’t want it back to win it,” stated Peter Yarrow in an exclusive interview with Examiner.com. “They want it back to be the custodians of it because in their culture, you don’t own the land. That’s Mother Earth.”
As it stands, much of the land in question is just laying there, latent, not being cared for or used, even though it is owned by our government. It is “a spectacular symbol of and literalization of this cruelty,” stated Yarrow.
Peter Yarrow (of the 1960s folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary) has been consistently active in the world of social, political and environmental activisms since the 60s. He sat down for an exclusive interview to talk about his involvement with The Unity Concert and to speak to its significance. He is considered a champion among those who work with him and he considers this his life work. He is no stranger to social action and is constantly involved in movements that aim to make change for social and restorative justice, environmental causes, and more.
Q: This event seems groundbreaking and pivotal. What are your thoughts on that?
To me, it harks back to the kind of events that were of signal importance in terms of the movements of the ‘60s, of which I was a part. It’s like the Civil Rights movement, where those of us who performed or presented at the March on Washington in 1963... It set us on a very important course in our lives that [we] really never veered away from.
In the case of the first great legacy of inconceivable shame, there was no apology for a totally genocidal perspective on a way of which we addressed the existence of our First Nations, of our aboriginal peoples. It not only was genocidal but then it was illegal. You could go to jail for practicing your Native American rituals or culture.
Q: Can you speak to the reasoning behind President Obama’s request to come up with a unified plan for the Black Hills?
President Obama, when he was campaigning promised that he would give a sympathetic hearing to the First Nations if they were to come to him with a united plan. The problem is the legacy of this intergenerational drama has caused enormous suspicion, competition, and fragmentation of the perspectives within the Native American community itself. And it’s very fraught with this history, which is part of the post-dramatic reality of what exists there.
Loretta Afraid of Bear Cook has been working with Theresa Two Bulls and Milo Yellow Hair and others for a long time to build up the momentum to agree upon a unified plan. For [example], here are the undeveloped portions of the Black Hills, and how you are going to handle it, how is it going to be distributed and what’s the governance?
Q: How will the Unity Concert move towards the goal in mind?
It’s been very very difficult [and next to] impossible. The idea was a Unity Concert with that in mind of saying the people of European extraction like myself would come in -- and this was a suggestion that I’d made because I had made this particular gesture and seen the effect when I was at the Hanoi Opera House. I spent almost a full decade devoted to stopping the Vietnamese war. I had organized in 1969 with Cora Weiss, my colleague and friend, a march in Washington for half a million people. It had an extraordinary effect.
Q: So, you are working to bring many people together to show that there is support and energy behind this cause, which is a very beautiful thing.
I believe that the spirit of healing can come out of a gathering of this sort and can allow an advancing of the efforts to unify those First Nations and we are in the service of them. We are, who are participating, who are not Native American are here to help and all the decisions as to what happens in this concert which is all framed by ceremony so that it is not only talking the talk about the respect for the indigenous ways but also it becomes an example of that respect.
The hope is that with the energy that is generated by this, in a like manner in which events in the marches in which I participated and the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam war [rallies], women’s rights, anti-apartheid, certainly the climate movement which is all associated with this.
[We hope to] bring public knowledge to this. This is the work. Participation is really important because spreading awareness [brings about] a sympathetic point of view [to these causes].
Q: How long do you think it will take for the objective to be reached?
It’s an objective that I fully do not expect to be realized in its entirety just as the Civil Rights movement. It’s only brought us so far. We have virulent violation of rights of African Americans in the criminal justice system. . . . Ferguson is just one tiny example. We have a huge industry of warehousing and young black men effectively destroying their capacity to enter society with anything near an equal basis with caucasian young men and the numbers are extraordinary.
I don’t expect in any way that in my lifetime I will see a full resolution on this.
Q: So these are some of the first steps in the direction of the goal or cause. Please further explain your role in these efforts.
What we would like to do is help these First Nations, leaders and people to bring their case to Obama who really could be the best chance of real movement in this direction for a long long time because it’s quite likely that a Republican would not listen to this litany of history and request for change with sympathetic ears. [Maybe you get somebody like] Hillary. You know she’s not going to throw away political capital in terms of this politically-divided nation along partisan lines [but she has to] take her picks but it could be a legacy issue for Obama. There’s a great and extraordinary chance if the movement can be crystallized.
Q: So, now is the time, it seems. How do you know for sure?
Other people who watch [might say something like] “You’re crazy. You don’t know what you’re doing.” People who haven’t lived through the reality of the movement would look upon this with at least skepticism if not ridicule. [They might call it a ] Don Quixote pipedream...but it’s not.
I’ve seen these things happen. I saw the entire culture surrounding the place of women in society alter. It’s just reality. I've seen what these movements have done. And I know that an event of this kind is the beginning.
The Black Hills in a certain way is like Washington DC. At least to the Great Sioux Nation. And it’s not only about the protection of these sacred sites there in the Black Hills but all sacred sites. And we have people coming from all over the world that have heard about it and checked in.
Q: So you are a major factor in bringing many people to the cause who would not have known of its importance. Who are some of the key players who are doing this kind of work as well?
I got an email from Suzanne Hunt who is the one who came up with the idea of this. She is one of the essential people along with Bethany to work with Jyoti...it’s a big group now. They have people coming in from Australia, from Hawaii, from Maine, from New York, from California, from North Carolina, Colombia, London. It’s amazing! It seems as if it’s captured the imagination of folks who have this in their heart but have not seen a vehicle for moving in this direction until this concert and that’s what it takes.
Q: So this is not just of limited scope, not only focused on the situation in the Black Hills. It seems that the connections you and those you are working with are finding the universal links that are really drawing people together. What are some of the other main ingredients that are drawing people to the cause?
This is worldwide implication in terms of the respect for sacred sites and indigenous people and restorative justice so that there is a truth and healing and reconciliation that can come. And music is a very powerful manifestation of people’s thoughts, not their intellect,
necessarily. You can hear somebody sing [and even if] you don’t understand a word, you can be really moved. When people together feel that together, they can then participate together, just as they did when people sang with Peter, Paul and Mary. [For example] “If I Had a Hammer” was a big hit. People knew the song [there was a link between all of us by way of the music. When this happens, this link,] then the extraordinary can occur.
In conjunction, of course, with the extraordinary, [for example the] “I have a dream” speech, the music and the speeches; We’re talking about something that can have extraordinary repercussions and we are all feeling that people are saying that this is the moment. This is the moment in the world. This is the moment when we are facing the destruction of the planet if we do not change course, we are doing this in the face of irreversible catastrophic climate change. That is the path we are on and we need to change it. And in order for us to address this, one of the things we must do is restore our hearts and in order to do that, we need to have restorative justice where truth and forgiveness and reconciliation around the issues of America’s original, upon its (so-called being discovered) by Columbus, original massive destruction of a culture with an avowed policy of genocide.
Q: Are there going to be politicians and people from DC there? Congress, Policy makers, etc.?
It’s a possibility. Bethany [Yarrow] was working with Faith & Politics on a non-partisan basis. They have this biennial Faith & Politics pilgrimage that retraces the steps or the path of the Selma to Montgomery March. They had 200 people flying in on a plane that’s donated from Washington DC and there are 15-20 members of Congress on it and they provide a safe dialog space for members of congress to talk frankly without -- with kind of an understanding -- they have weekly meetings, that this is a safe place to express yourself, and not get hammered for it later.
There has been outreach to Senator Bill Bradley, who introduced a bill for the return of the Black Hills and we’re not sure whether that will be. There were others, another member of the Senate who has really been a champion of this issue but I don’t know if there’s been a confirmation of that. They’ve been working on it. We don’t know to what degree political people will come. We didn’t have at the marches generally office holders but historically it’s really an important identity in grassroots. The heart and soul of this really is the grassroots coming together. That’s the identity.
Q: How long have the talks been happening specifically for the unity concert?
My memory is that they started a year ago at the waterfall house that my daughter has been a part of. It may be that it was six months. It’s been constant. It takes a long time and a huge amount of work to build the kind of momentum that this has developed and it’s not just about having the concert. There’s a very clear recognition that after that that’s when the work begins because then you have to harness that new energy and then you have to develop a plan or concept that can be developed that can then be presented to the president.
Q: How are you going to get this proof of unification in front of the president?
My sense is that we are looking at a real possibility as a legacy issue that President Obama can say “I moved the ball down the court...or across the court.” In this direction, providing the momentum in later games. That would be extraordinary. That’s the hope.
We’ve got people in Washington that are strategizing how to approach the president, with whom to approach the president [and] what kind of ways to executive privilege that changes can be made to come not just for the plan of unification but a plan in terms of the actualization of the request.
*originally published on the now defunct Examiner.com