The following is from an interview with chief Bill Redwing Tayac of the Piscataway people, conducted by Phil Tajitsu Nash. In it, Chief Tayac stresses the unity of native peoples throughout the Americas and outlines some of thei rmany struggles, in particular the fight to maintain their land.
My name is Billy Redwing Tayac. I am the hereditary chief of the Piscataway people, who are indigenous to Maryland, Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. Our present ceremonial ground and spiritual and political center is located in what is called Port Tobacco, in Maryland. Over the years, I have worked for the reclamation of Indian people. We have so many people who have lost their way, who don't know anything about their traditions or religion. This work involves "de-Angloization," or bringing our people back to the earth, back to being Indian people. It is hard to be an Indian in any city because we are separated from the earth by concrete. We can'? feel the power of the earth, the wind, the trees.
All people, regardless of color, were at one time tied to the earth. Even the Europeans had tribes tied to the earth. The earth is everything to everybody.
My father, Chief Turkey Tayac, was a traditional chief, but I was much more interested in joining with other Indians in groups such as the American Indian Movement. Through AIM, I came to realize that to be an Indian today, one must transcend tribalism. We are a race of people. In the terminology of the movement, we are "Many Nations, One People." Whether we speak English, Spanish or Portuguese, Indians are all one people stretching from the tip of North America to the tip of South America.
The dominant society has divided us, cutting up our land into slices they call countries. But we are still a people. And not a small group of people. There are tens of millions of Indian people in the Western Hemisphere. With modem technology we can be in instant communication with our relatives in El Salvador, in the Brazilian rainforest.
Europeans Tried to Destroy Us
The Europeans invaded all our land, not just the United States, Panama, or Brazil. They invaded an entire hemisphere and tried their best to destroy a race of people and their cultures and religions. It is a holocaust that cannot be compared to anything else in the history of humanity. Even today, in the 20th Century, Indian people are not considered a part of mankind. An example of this is that in the United Nations, all other races of people - black, white and yellow - are represented. Red people have no voice. If atrocities occur against us, we as Indian people have to go to the oppressor government, whether Brazil, El Salvador or the United States, to voice our concerns. This parallel would be like a Jew going to Hitler to express his concerns about the horrible extermination policies directed towards his people in the 1940s.
One of the major areas where Indian people are fighting back is in the Black Hills area of South Dakota. The Lakota and other people consider this sacred ground. But it is also one of the richest 100 square miles on earth, with gold, uranium, and timber. Families like the Hearsts in California made a fortune by taking gold out of there, but the people still living there are among the poorest in the United States.
This is where the massacre of Indian people known as Wounded Knee took place 100 years ago, and where the American Indian Movement made a stand in 1973 that helped to spark the modern Indian movement for dignity and self-government.
This reminds me of an important lesson I have learned over the years about the use of terminology. When the Nazis occupied France during World War II, those who opposed them were called "freedom fighters." When Indian people have fought back against the taking of our land, we have been called "hostiles" or "communists." Likewise, when Sioux warriors defeated United States warriors at Little Big Horn in 1876, the popular press called it a "massacre." However, when the United States cavalry machine-gunned unarmed men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in 1890, it was called a "battle" by the popular press. It took over 70 years for the record to be set straight and for the events to be referred to by the names they deserve: the Battle of Little Big Horn and The Massacre at Wounded Knee.
There are Indian Wars continuing today - yes, today - in Guatemala and El Salvador. The slaughter of Indian people by a dominant European society continues. For example, Guatemala is a country with 85% Indian people, but the Indian people don't rule Guatemala. The standing army rules.
Mestizos are Really Indians
Governments don't like to classify these people as Indians. What some call mestizos, Hispanics, or Chicanos are really Indians. They are not classified that way because of paper genocide. They would prefer to kill them, as with the 38,000 killed in the 1930s in El Salvador. Everyone who looked a certain way or who wore certain clothing was shot and killed indiscriminately. Mexicans today with dark complexions and black hair will deny they are Indians. They will say, "I am a Mexican." They have been brainwashed, because the lowest people on the ladder are the Indians. Who wants to be part of that group?
The rise of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s helped to restore a sense of pride. People were no longer ashamed to be Indian. They demanded that treaties be upheld. They demanded to be treated as human beings. AIM brought back the traditions, customs and religions to thousands, maybe millions, of Indian people.
When someone committed a murder of an Indian person anywhere around the country, AIM people went there to ask why that murder resulted in only a manslaughter charge if the defendant was European American and the dead man was an Indian. When Indian people were tried by all-white juries, they were more often than not found guilty. Despite being only half of one percent of the United States population, we have the highest rate of imprisonment of any group.
I would like it if every American would take a history book and look at the picture of Chief Big Foot frozen in his grave at Wounded Knee. These people were only seeking food to exist, and the United States exerted military might against them. Today, this military might still exists on the Indian reservations. They use their "legal bullets," the FBI and BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) to come onto reservations and investigate and imprison the Indian people. We stood up and exposed the BIA's corruption in our occupation of BIA headquarters in 1972, and stood up and showed the world that Indian people were still alive in our stand at Wounded Knee in 1973.
I had the fortune in the early 1970s of meeting a survivor of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. It seemed so impossible that it could have occurred, until you think about the My Lai massacre and the other horrible incidents in Vietnam. Many Indians like AIM leader Bill Means served in Vietnam and recognized that as soldiers, they were oppressors. Then at Wounded Knee in 1973, he was being shot at by the same soldiers he had served with. The important lesson is that the Indians serving in Vietnam felt a kinship with the Vietnamese.
We Are a Sovereign Peoples
This feeling of being outside the American government has its roots in the fact that we are sovereign people who were here thousands of years before Columbus. However, despite referendums in 1920 and 1922 where we said we did not want to be made United States citizens, we were forced [to be citizens] by the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Then, compounding our problems was the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, which set up tribal corporations on Indian lands. Some sell-out Indian person would be made chairman of the local branch of this federal agency, and then he could sign away our rights to land or minerals. These tribal chairmen also tried to take power away from our traditional chiefs, using the lure of federal education or housing benefits. Fortunately, many of the Indian people did not fall for this trap.
There are other issues in Indian country. At Big Mountain in the Southwest, the Hopi and Navajo are being relocated because minerals were found under the land. Once people are relocated and given a small settlement, they have no skills for living in a town. Six months later, they are broke, homeless, and wanting to go home again.
In Western Minnesota, thousands of acres of land have been taken at the White Earth Reservation. Indian people who had legitimate claims were not told, and the government sold the lands to whites.
Indian Wars Continue
In Canada last summer, the Indian Wars continued. The Canadian government brought tanks to Indian reservations and held a siege at Oka. Less than 150 Mohawks protesting the proposed use of an ancestral burial ground for a golf course were surrounded by 5,000 federal troops.
These Indian Wars will never be over until the Indian people get their land back. Would the Jews accept money for the Wailing Wall? The Pope accept money for the Vatican? Would a Moslem accept money for the sale of Mecca? No, we can never accept the loss, the theft of ancestral lands. And because Indian people are all one people, we can never forget Wounded Knee, just like the Japanese American people can never forget the internment their people suffered [during World War III].
Even today in the United States, there are Native American political prisoners such as Leonard Peltier, who has served 15 years of two consecutive lifetime sentences for murders he did not commit.
We all need to band together today to save Mother Earth. We should be making food so that no one is hungry. Every person should have shelter and health care. There should be no dominant class based on color of skin or gender. There should be no dominant country because of the amount of money they have or the power they wield. All human beings should come together for the good of the earth.
The elders once told me that the Indian people were spared so that we can be the driving force to save Mother Earth. The ashes of our ancestors have been intermingled with the earth on this continent for millennia. In this 500th anniversary of the coming together with Europeans, it is a good time to remember this.
Native Nations — Vol. 3 No. 3 — Fall 1992