I was intrigued by, and excited to see, the movie “Killers of the Flower Moon” when it was released in October. The story of Native Americans who struggled to maintain their hold on their oil rich Oklahoma land was one with which I had some connection. 

I’m Potawatomi. Over 850 of our people, including weak elders and children, were forcibly marched 660 miles from our ancestral home near Twin Lakes in Indiana to a small reservation in Kansas. Over 40 people died on this Trail of Death as it became known. Some of us, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, were later relocated to Oklahoma to what was considered barren and useless land. Oklahoma’s oil discoveries resulted in us losing most of that land and scattering to wherever we could make a living. Similar situations happened with other tribes wherein many Natives still live in big cities. New York City now has the highest number of Native American residents in the US.

The troubles aren’t over for many of America’s indigenous peoples. For instance, NPR featured a story this year in Minnesota where many more Native American children are put into foster care relative to being only a small percentage of the population. Social workers doing family welfare checks don’t understand the dynamics and culture of some native families as they’re different from the area’s white middle class. This is very traumatic for Natives who were constantly told growing up about the generations who were taken away to boarding schools. Those children were forced to speak English only and adopt the “civilized” ways of the dominant culture. Later generations were warned to prevent their children being taken away at all costs. Now current generations share in that pain and trauma.

The erasure of Native people has resulted in almost 100% of Native youth feeling invisible in their classrooms, a factor directly linked to the devastating rate in which we are losing Native youth to death by suicide. (Redbud Resource Group)

Recently I attended a workshop by this nonprofit, Redbud Resource Group (Redbud). Entitled “Going Beyond Land Acknowledgements,” these California natives recounted the history of some of their tribes. When gold was discovered in their lands there were attempts to totally exterminate them so as to have unfettered access to the riches of their land. Although they tried to hide in the caves of their hills, 90 percent of them were killed. Now a regional nonprofit is helping Native peoples to increase tribal visibility, sovereignty, economic outlook, and to find new ways to preserve and strengthen cultural ties.

Redbud showed an old photo of what their land looked like when managed by their ancestors, an interim picture filled with pine trees, and what the charred remains look like now having been swept by wildfires. Their ancestors had known to remove the pines which so easily caught fire in the dry California landscape.

Yet there’s bright spots too. Redbud shared a case study of a state park in the Sonoma Valley where the staff has developed a working relationship with the Wappo community. Now the park staff grants unlimited free passes to these original inhabitants, allows them to gather traditional plants on the land for their medicinal needs, includes Wappo language and perspectives in their educational materials, and incorporates their knowledge in sustainably maintaining the land. They plan to share the stewardship of the land with the Wappo people.

There are other examples of government entities sharing forestry fire fighting work with local natives, and philanthropic endeavors that are helping local tribes to buy back and sustainably preserve their lands and culture. However many more Natives have struggles of which we’re often unaware.

Despite living in Virginia for 30 years, I only recently connected with a regional nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing tribal cultural knowledge and advocating for fair and equal conditions for indigenous people. Eastern Woodlands Revitalization alerted me to one of their fights –  to maintain the purity of Virginia’s waterways upon which local tribes have depended for centuries. Apparently there is a plan to dump waste products into their river from a nearby water processing plant. Why have I never heard of this? Why aren’t more people involved with helping them in this fight to preserve the life blood of our world?

Although Natives are all around us, most are invisible to us. Few are in positions of power. Their stories, their needs, and their ability to help in our mutual goals of preserving Turtle Island are unknown to many.

As Third Actors, we advocate for racial justice and preserving the environment. We should go beyond land acknowledgements. It’s incumbent on us to seek out and find the Indians around us, to form relationships wherein we can work together on creating a just and sustainable future. We need to humbly ask them, “How can we help?”

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Pam Murphy/Bemashneankwat (She Flies in the Clouds)

For over 30 years, Pam has been in leadership positions with or in nonprofits. For 20 of those years, she started and managed health agencies to bring charity health services to low-income families including medical, dental, pharmaceutical, psychiatric and counseling services. Previously she used her public relations background to serve multiple clients in a marketing firm and in her employment as a director at a YMCA in Los Angeles. Pam loves animals and is keen to help preserve wildlife everywhere, and to protect the beauty surrounding her home base in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.