“We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, therewas nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
— Rick Santorum’s address at the Young America’s Foundation summit
One week the media reports that Indigenous people are “nothing,” and another week we’re flagrantly dismissed as “something else.” Which is it? “Nothing?” Or “something else?” Make up your minds. We’re accustomed to our sociodemographic being minimized as “other,” it’s old hat, this uninspired erasure.
“Something else” refers to the CNN election coverage back in November, when a poll broke down voters by ethnicity; per usual Native Americans weren’t included among Latinx, Black or Asian, but instead of the customary “other,” Native Americans were lumped in as “something else.”
Sure, this isn’t the first time Rick Santorum has sh** the bed, and I’m sure it won’t be his last. He’s famous for his outrageously offensive statements. He’s a human version of a train wreck. This is a man who opined opposition about gay marriage by saying it wasn’t “man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.” Really, Rick? You’re sure about that?
Santorum’s statement about “birthing a nation” hits a little too close to the bone. Ever hear of a film called “Birth of a Nation?” It is considered to be the most controversial and racist U.S. film ever made. The film made heroes out of the KKK, while portraying African Americans — played mostly by white actors in blackface — in the worst most possible ways. So, when Santorum makes speeches that include veiled references to the most incendiary film of its day, it suggests that he is signaling to white supremacist factions. Duh.
Several Native journalists have pointed out that Santorum’s comments indicate how poor a job the U.S. has done in including accurate school curriculum with regards to our nation’s relationship with Native Americans. That is an understatement, and of course, it’s true. However, I’m not going to give Santorum a pass that easily. His comments are not mere ignorance, or a lack of historical literacy, but rather, they represent his anti-Indigenous views, and moreover, I believe, were intended as such.
It’s beyond an affront to state that nothing existed in the continent at the time of first contact, and the decades and centuries following. And to espouse such a thoroughly reprehensible idea is to deny cultural genocide of Indigenous people. Holocaust deniers aren’t exclusive to the European and Jewish Holocaust. There are currently 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States. And it is estimated that number was far higher at first contact, when the Indigenous population of the Americas is estimated to have been as high as 118 million. The influence and contributions made by Indigenous cultures to the world is limitless.
The very foundation of the United States has its origins tied in with the original peoples. Democracy, and the formation of the United States of America, along with the U.S. Constitution were inspired by the ancient Iroquois “Great League of Peace.” The Iroquois Confederacy is the oldest living democracy on earth, and was acknowledged as such in 1988 by the U.S. Senate: ”The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”
To state that there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture is like stating the Earth is flat, or bears don’t go to the bathroom in the woods. Indigenous contributions are seen the world over. In agriculture, food systems, architecture, military, arts, music, literature and entertainment, sports, science, space exploration, not to mention millions of tracts of land, of waterways and of natural resources.
Indigenous groups such as the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Journalist Association, and many other organizations and Indigenous thought leaders have urged CNN to dismiss Santorum’s position as a senior political commentator. As of this writing, CNN has yet to make a statement.
Midge is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and was raised by wolves in the Pacific Northwest. Her book of essays Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s was a finalist for a Washington State Book Award. She enjoys composting and frisky walks through dewy meadows. Midge lives in Moscow.