Perhaps only Washington, Lincoln, and FDR came into office with more people placing more of their hope in them than comes Barack Obama. Probably only Washington assumed the presidency with greater expectations of actual greatness from him. Among all the remarkable features of the Obama story, this is one – that a man of distinction who has nonetheless not yet in his career done great things has inspired so many to believe deeply that he will. His personal demeanor, his rhetoric and professed beliefs, his human interactions, the historical moment, and the always indefinable factor in the aura of an individual all converge to raise this hope in Americans.
Of course, it has been said enough that the range and complexity of the problems Obama faces are perhaps unprecedented, and given the many that seem so urgent – the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, energy and the environment – it would be easy enough to allow a host of long-neglected and seemingly less urgent issues continue to go unaddressed, especially when there is not vocal or powerful constituency in advocacy. It is a matter, then, of just how great Obama aspires to be, which is a function of how great he can be.
One of the more fun moments of today’s inauguration was the African-American civil rights icon, Reverend Joseph Lowry’s closing benediction, which ended with this Black ministerial rhyme rouser, the plea to “help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.” It got a smile from Obama, but what is worth noting beyond the word play is that in one instance the phrase is meaningless and in all the others but one quite arguably already so. The “but one” is the rhyme about the “red man.”
“Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, the first Americans,” Obama said. “That will change when I am president of the United States.”
And you know it will completely be forgotten by nearly everyone.
Will it be forgotten by Obama?
In all the rightful and powerfully moving acknowledgement and then celebration, all these months, and today, of the significance of Obama’s ascent, little attention, as usual, has been paid to an equal and even more original injustice, and it has always been so. Even at the nation’s founding, there were those, like Benjamin Franklin, who tried to prevent African slavery from forming a part of the new nation’s heritage. There were the greatly impassioned abolitionists before the Civil War. The civil rights movement of the fifties and Sixties captured the moral imaginations of millions of white Americans. However, there has never been mass support among the general populace for the cause of Native Americans. My consideration of the reasons, “Aboriginal Sin,” appeared in Tikkun last spring.
President Obama has made the right gestures. Last May, while running for the Democratic nomination, he made a rare appearance, among politicians, traveling to the Crow reservation in Montana, where he was adopted into the tribe. “Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, the first Americans,” Obama said. “That will change when I am president of the United States.” Obama appointed Ken Salazar, Democratic Senator from Colorado, as Secretary of the Interior, the department which supervises the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a move that has been greeted positively by many Native leaders. Addressing the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in the lead up to the inauguration, Salazar said, “We have to make sure that never again — like has happened in the last eight years — that the Native American community in the United States of America is left out of the tent.”
These are good things to say, but it needs to be said, too, that the original inhabitants of the continent were not the first Americans – they were the first people. That will, unfortunately, strike many as tiresome PC rhetoric, and that is part of the problem. But the Natives of the Western Hemisphere were here before it was called America, and they did not seek, but were compelled, to become part of the nation that the people who conquered them chose to call the United States of America. Since there is no other home to “go home” to, they are citizens of the U.S. by practical necessity. They were not granted citizenship until 1924, and many still had no voting rights until 1948. That is a history a little different from what the term “First Americans” suggests, however honorific and inclusive its intent. It is also the case, as all this indicates, that the issues requiring attention in the varied Native communities are far older and more profound than eight years, merely, of Bush administration neglect.
These hopeful signs suggest that practical matters such as Indian health care and resolution of trust fund disputes may be sincerely approached. However, the issues are profounder still, and it may be that any true correction of the past, and amelioration of the abiding conditions that are the consequence of that past, will require frank acknowledgment of the wrong committed. That was so for African-Americans. Why would it be any less so for Native Americans?
Even should it come to pass that, as the NCAI has requested, President Obama designates a mere $5.4 billion of the $775 billion economic stimulus package for stimulus on the reservations – a very unlikely event – the fundamental problem will remain. On the day after the November election, Adam Nagourney, a notable and thoughtful journalist, writing for the New York Times, stated the following: “Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive.” The “last racial barrier.” How invisible can a people be?
If not Obama, who? How many more years, decades, longer?
The conscience that over long struggle brought Barack Obama to his unique place in history needs to be summoned again, by an American citizenry committed to push him toward his greatness, willing, finally, to right the original and lasting wrong.