On Nov. 8, 2016. the United States of America decided that Donald Trump was the best person to lead this nation. This decision has made the diverse groups of this great country either rejoice in perceived benefit, or sink into despair at the prospect of their human dignities being taken away. As a queer, brown, middle-class woman living in the inner city of New York, the election made me fear for my marriage rights, for the continued and worsened mass incarceration of my people, for my right to choose. It has made the Muslim fear for her right to religious freedom. It has made the undocumented immigrant question his legitimacy in the land he calls home. It has made the refugee from a war torn country yet again question her safety. And it has undoubtedly affected a group that we don’t often discuss or hear enough about, a group whose oppression runs so deep that in the progressive age of 2016 they have to fight for basic right to clean water—Native Americans.
America seems to have a cloak over her eyes and a hushed tone about the brutality that its indigenous people have endured at the hands of imperialism. We celebrate a holiday commemorating the massacre of their people. We paint them time and time again with the tired depiction of the primitive face-painted savage. We have sports teams named after racial slurs, and on top of all of these things, in 2016, a multibillion-dollar industry has begun construction of a pipeline that will poison their life force.
In Standing Rock, ND, as most of the country has heard, there is an ongoing fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline that is being built through the waters of the Sioux tribe reservation. Thousands have come to the aid of the water protectors from all over the country and the world. This racist disregard for the livelihood of native peoples did not start with president-elect Trump. However, with the combination of his anti-environmentalist and damagingly capitalistic view on the energy crisis, along with a couple of million dollar investments into the constructing companies responsible for the pipeline, we can almost guarantee that it’s being built to completion. I had the remarkable opportunity to travel to Standing Rock and live for just a few days in the presence of the people brave enough to come together to save the water of the Sioux tribe. I had the chance to speak to some of these people who were giving up comfort—many of whom had come from far away, like myself, to stand in solidarity for what they believe is right. There was a surplus of hope and community, and the rest of the world could stand to emulate them.
This was pre-election. When Trump won, I remember—I’m sure I always will—the despair I felt in my liberal metropolis for the nation I lived in and loved. However, I cannot and would not understand the feeling of those directly in danger, those living in parts of the country less tolerable than my own, those who would have to change tangible parts of their lives for their own safety to adapt to the harrowing prospect of Trump’s America. I knew I was lucky to live where I do. I knew that the Muslim woman living in a red state would question wearing her sacred headdress, that the undocumented immigrant living near those who prayed and voted for a wall that would shut them out—that they would cry harder. I remember immediately thinking of the wonderful friends I’d made in Standing Rock, and I needed to know how they felt about this outcome. There in Standing Rock, they are fighting to have the most common, most useful, more human resource in the world. I needed to explore their perspective. I needed to hear from their mouths that they saw Trump rise, and that that meant they lost their right to live. The world needs to know their side of the story.
I spoke to a couple I thought embodied the values of the protest completely, Wilma and TJ Kiddar. Wilma is originally from the Shoshone-Bannock tribe of Idaho and her husband a native Sioux. These two had been there since the beginning of the protests in April of 2016. I hit the obvious points – how do you feel about the results, were you surprised by them, what do you think this means for the country? Their responses were telling, to say the least. I found that they weren’t as surprised as the rest of us. Given their people’s history and the series of broken treaties, they almost expect the worst. I found a unity and a willingness to stand in solidarity with other target groups of this administration. I found, yet again, that the indigenous mentality embodied the qualities that most idealistic humanitarians wanted for the rest of the world.
To the question of what the general consensus on the election was, I found a sentiment that has been repeated hundreds of times since he won. Wilma said that, much like during the Bush presidency, she felt that she “didn’t have a president for the next four years.” My mind brought me to the protests in my city where thousands of people chanted in the streets that this man was not their president. It’s a horrible and culturally painful point that marginalized groups felt so deeply ignored, so lacking in representation, so completely attacked by their government, that they felt leaderless. This idea that he was not the president of all Americans screamed of the honest pain of oppression in the face of an uncaring administration.
America is a country with a tattered past, a country that claims and self-professes its progressive and egalitarian ideology, a country that laces freedom into the thread of our flag and into our morning coffee, into our national pride and our military conquests. We look at ourselves in a mirror of admiration, with the idea that we are the leaders of the world. And in a lot of ways, of course, we are. However, this election has forced us to look at ourselves honestly. Check the fabric at the seams and realize that some of it hasn’t been updated, some of it is racist or sexist in ways that we progressives consider dangerously antiquated. This election has forced us to recognize that no matter how far we think we’ve come – there are millions of people who wanted a man that did not respect the basic human rights of all people. To hear from the mouths of the first Americans that in 2016, a time following the great hope and change that President Barack Obama brought, they felt like they could not follow this country on its path, spoke volumes to who we are becoming as a nation.
Wilma told me a story about an experience that she had with a man of Caucasian descent who, in a post office queue, rudely remarked that she should go back to where she came from. She recalled that she told him exactly where she came from (Idaho) and that perhaps he should return to wherever his ancestors were from if he felt so disgusted by her presence. She told this story with pride and said that it was a comfort to her when she thought of the atrocities against her people. This anecdote was comical, but showed in a deeper, more sinister, and more pressing issue.
Trump’s campaign has run and won on the idea of the construction of a wall that would shut out undocumented migrants, policies that would somehow locate and deport millions of these people, and either ban or register members of an entire religion. The idea that some should be allowed in this country and others not at all is fundamentally not American. America, as everyone knows, is a nation of immigrants. In fact, that man who spoke to Wilma was most likely if not definitely the descendant of an immigrant. These ideas are dangerous and divisive, and if put into legislation they will be terrifyingly perilous for millions that call this land home. But it seems with the great American century and the domestic issues becoming our focal point, with wars in far away lands, and the continuation of our self absorbed culture with social media – we seem to have forgotten our roots.
This is something the natives know well. The native peoples have always experienced a sort of otherization. Marginalized groups in general seem to live outside of the culture in the lack of representation in the media, the harmful and repeated stereotypes of their fashion, musical interest and intellectual ability. However, this for most groups has improved with the beginning decade of the 21st century. The group, however, who has seen no substantial improvement at all is the native population.
As a millennial who was born and raised in the digital age of constant cultural consumption, it would have been hard to miss anything that came up in regards to native recognition. The only things I could recall were racist, exotifying and othering of their humanity and always taking place in the pre-colonial era. And the wounds of this kind of cruel alienation are here today. When I asked the people I spoke to what they wanted Trump’s supporters and all of America to know, I was flooded with the same kinds of answers. They asked for respect, that their freedoms be protected, that their voices be heard. They wanted unity with their fellow citizen. They wanted kindness and solidarity for their struggles. They want clean water.
So as we move forward into the next four years of our lives as Americans under the reign of Trump, I hope that the wounds between us can be healed, that equality and justice can be found, and that we can become the America that our true founders wanted us to be.