Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geography, First Peoples, and Social Justice

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geography, First Peoples, and Social Justice

Article excerpt

The geography of native or indigenous groups in the United States and other former British colonies is evolving as a result of both internal and external forces. Native groups in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Africa are experiencing opportunities for self-expression and for establishing native-voiced priorities that are very much part of the postcolonial present. In the United States two related situations, gaming and probable cuts in the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), twist the administrative tasks of tribal governments into pretzel-like contortions. On one hand, the decline of BIA funds means less revenue from federal sources; on the other, in isolated cases activities like gaming are producing revenue that greatly increases tribal autonomy. In other regions of the postcolonial world, native groups face diminishing governmental funds and lack the ability to create capital, even as they express the confident rhetoric and hope of self-governance - especially in looking toward control of land and natural resources. These conditions are part of a historical process, one that not only affects the present condition of native groups but also sets the agenda for native issues in the next century.

The ability and desire of native groups to define their own landscapes by modifying natural environments, establishing settlement patterns, and formally acknowledging the symbolic importance of specific sites is part of a wider global system which unites hundreds of culture groups that have experienced British imperialism since the sixteenth century. Though culturally unique, the groups were systematically faced with a centrally organized state power that attempted to create a homogeneous relationship with all of them, as if they were one. The primary objectives of the British were to dominate other European powers in global trade and to acquire land and resources. But British colonial imperialism, in which American federal Indian policy had its roots, is ending; and native, aboriginal, or Indian groups are more able than ever to participate in determining cultural landscapes and economic survival.

The pace of native survival is much like an Apache women's circle dance: small steps to a slow and constant rhythm, swaying shawls leaving a trail in the dust of the powwow ground. The progress is slow, sometimes the drumming is faint, sometimes the drumming is louder, but the circle is not broken. The same pattern is evident in the history of native adjustments to British colonial systems: A constant circle of native life has withstood considerable disruption. Adjustments to imperialism required natives to reestablish individual and group identity that had to satisfy two contradictory worldviews. These contradictions have created a sense of ambiguity and sometimes hopelessness that can be found in almost all native communities today. The task now for those communities is to escape the reproduction of contradictions and hopelessness by returning to a production of native-defined worlds in the present.

David I. Wishart, a geographer at the University of Nebraska, reminds us of a major source of Indian hopelessness in An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians. The title of his book comes from a phrase that an Omaha Indian used in 1912 to describe his sense of loss. Quoted by Wishart, White Horse says, "Now the face of all the land is changed and sad. The living creatures are gone. I see the land desolate, and I suffer unspeakable sadness. Sometimes I wake in the night and feel as though I should suffocate from the pressure of this awful feeling of loneliness" (Wishart 1994, v). This despair follows the Nebraska into the modern era, according to Wishart.

Having defined the pervasive turmoil of the Nebraska, Wishart goes on to construct an impressive and convincing argument about the process of land losses of the Nebraska as "a means of determining the justness, or lack of justness, of the United States" in its treatment of the Nebraska (p. …

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