Native Americans and the Activist 'Victim' Narrative

Well it's official -- after 87 years the Washington Redskins will be retiring their name and logo. Officially the organization is undergoing what will no doubt be a costly rebranding, one that's sure to alienate much of their fan base, in atonement for the offense they've given Native Americans over many decades.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have told the Natives. As Tim Carney explains,

The most thorough poll of Native American sentiment in the past decade found that 90% of Native Americans didn’t find the team name racist. Only 9% found it offensive. This poll was commissioned by the Washington Post, which has — before and since — been lobbying the Redskins and campaigning nonstop for the team to change its name. "The survey of 504 people across every state and the District reveals that the minds of Native Americans have remained unchanged since a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found the same result. Responses to The Post’s questions about the issue were broadly consistent regardless of age, income, education, political party or proximity to reservations." A more recent, less scientific poll... found that still a clear majority were not offended. The most common emotion elicited among Native Americans by the team’s name? “Pride.”

Now, despite enjoying the proposed replacement names floating around Twitter (The D.C. Swamp Creatures has been my favorite), I really don't care one fig what Washington's football team is called. However, this situation has bearing upon many others we've seen in recent years. Small (but loud) groups of activists claim to speak for the vulnerable, and shame governments and corporations into throwing their financial weight around. (As Carney points out, the movers here were not Native groups but corporations, including Nike, FedEx, and Bank of America). Executives and politicians, desperate to display their woke bona fides, do whatever the activists tell them to do.

Native Americans aren't the only victims of this play, but they are among the most common. The drama up in Canada surrounding the Coastal GasLink pipeline earlier this year is a good example -- protests erupted purportedly in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation who, we were told, were having their rights trampled on by the company building the pipeline. The Wet’suwet’en, however, were broadly in favor of the pipeline's construction, which was supplying them with jobs and brought the promise of development to their territory.

Activists and their friends in the media don't want us to hear that side of the story, It undercuts the Rousseauvian depiction of indigenous people that they want haunting our imaginations. They would prefer we think of Natives exclusively as victims, continually oppressed by the descendants of George Washington and John A. Macdonald, but still in a state of mystical harmony with nature, disinterested in all worldly concerns. But this is an embarrassing caricature of natives, both historically and in the present day.

Which is not to say that they don't care about nature or the land that they've lived on for generations. This story, for instance, about the Fort McKay First Nation's decision to develop an oil sands project on their land even in this apparently unfavorable market, makes it a point to emphasize that group's concern about all such development being responsible. It mentions that they are, concurrent with this project,

in negotiations with the province to finalize a land-preservation plan for the area around Moose Lake, the last relatively undisturbed wilderness in the territory where community members can practice their treaty rights including hunting and harvesting traditional food and medicines.

But as Mark Milke and Lennie Kaplan recently explained in Canada's Financial Post, natives, in both Canada and the US, often live "far from the economic opportunities that cities provide," leading to an elevated unemployment rate in indigenous communities. Resource development and extraction are among the best opportunities to combat this problem. This is something Fort McKay understands very well.

The First Nation is surrounded by eight mines and three in-situ operations, and the vast majority of its income is derived from its own business activities, including a dozen companies that service the oil industry. Those companies employed more than 1,400 people and generated $500-million in revenue in 2018.

Job numbers like that are nothing to sniff at, especially in the present economy. Back in February, Troy Young of the Wet’suwet’en Nation gave an interview about the Coastal GasLink pipeline in which he was clearly frustrated by the way the dispute was being portrayed in the media. The pipeline would provide hundreds of jobs for his people, not to mention revenue from the 10 percent ownership stake in the pipeline held by the First Nations groups living along its path. As Young put it, "typically if people are employed, drug use goes down, because people are happy when they're making money, they feel better about themselves. They feel more confident." He was also apprehensive about what it would mean if the protesters were really successful in killing the pipeline project, saying that if that happened "Nobody's ever going to invest here again."

As in the case of the Washington Redskins, activists and the media tend to use native groups as shadow puppets in their simplistic stories. These are meant to bolster a preexisting narrative, one which is more representative of the activists' interests than anyone else's. In the real world, indigenous people aren't so reflective of their caricature. So whenever you encounter loud, angry people speaking on behalf of natives, take a moment to consider whom they're really speaking for.