Monday, December 21, 2015

A Native Perspective on the Renaming of Denali

Denali Mt McKinleyOn Monday, September 1, during a trip to Alaska, President Obama announced that the highest peak in North America would be officially restored to the Koyukon Athabascan name of Denali which means “the tall one.” This is the name the Athabascan people have used for the mountain for centuries. In 1896, a prospector emerged from exploring the mountains of central Alaska and received news that William McKinley had been nominated as a candidate for President of the United States. In a show of support, the prospector declared the tallest peak of the Alaska Range as “Mt. McKinley”—and the name stuck.

McKinley became our 25th President, and was tragically assassinated just six months into his second term. But he never set foot in Alaska—and for centuries, the mountain that rises some 20,000 feet above sea level, had been known by another name—Denali.  Generally believed to be central to the Athabascan creation story, Denali is a site of significant cultural importance to many Alaska Natives.  (White House Fact Sheet)

Many articles have been written about the significance restoring the name Denali has had for the Athabascan people. But in this piece I would like to acknowledge that this name change has been a passionate issue for the natives of Alaska for a long time and therefore reflect on the significance their efforts have had for the rest of the country.

"They'll leave"

Those were the words of a Native elder when asked for his thoughts regarding the millions of European immigrants who had flooded Turtle Island to establish a new nation.

"Eventually, after they have used up all the resources and the land is no longer profitable for them, they'll leave. They'll move on to someplace different. And then we, the indigenous people, will nurse our land back to health."

That is an incredible perspective from a very observant man who has seen the lands of his ancestors senselessly exploited by generations of foreigners.

I have long said that the United States of America is a nation that desperately needs to be adopted. It is a country of over 300 million undocumented immigrants. People from all over the world who have left their lands, their homes and their families, everything they knew and loved. And they have flocked to this "new world" largely in pursuit of a financial dream of prosperity. But they never asked for, nor have they been given permission to be here. They have no clue why the mountains lie where they lie, or why the rivers flow where they flow. And as a result they feel lost, and live here like one lives in a hotel room.

But for the indigenous peoples of this continent, our creation stories take place in this land. They tell us why that mountain sets where it does, and why those rivers flow where they do. These stories connect us to this land. They ground us. And they motivate us to live here sustainably.

Our uninvited guests desperately want to feel connected to this land as well, but they have no stories, no understanding. So instead they carve their faces into sacred landmarks, and they name mountains that are eons old, after mere men who have never even seen them.

My Athabascan relatives in Alaska have given the United States of America an incredible gift. They have fought to share the name of their sacred mountain, and are giving this nation of immigrants permission to use it. This is an amazing gesture of both hospitality and mercy. And it is possibly a sign of hope. Hope that instead of waiting for their uninvited guests to leave, they might instead be willing to welcome them in, share their stories with them, and train them how to live well within this land.

- Mark Charles (Navajo)

*An edited version of this article was originally written for, and published by Sojourners

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

10 Reasons Why I'm Switching from using the term 'Racial Reconciliation' to using the term 'Racial Conciliation.'

The term Racial Reconciliation has been used in Christian, religious and social justice circles for a very long time. However, as I have learned, experienced and understood more about the racial injustices of the United States and the American church, I have begun to realize the inappropriateness of this term.  So below are 10 reasons why I'm switching from using the term 'Racial Reconciliation' to instead using the term 'Racial Conciliation.'

1. 'Reconciliation' is defined as "the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement.

2. 'Conciliation' is defined as "to overcome distrust or hostility; to mediate between two disputing people or groups."

3. Reconciliation assumes a previously friendly or amicable relationship.

4. Conciliation makes no such assumption.*

5. Reconciliation assumes the end result will be a good, even harmonious, relationship.

6. Conciliation makes no such assumption.*

7. Reconciliation is the process needed to restore a broken marriage or heal a wounded friendship.

8. Conciliation is the process needed in a nation that was founded on land stolen from Natives and built on the backs of enslaved African people.

9. Racial Reconciliation perpetuates a false historical narrative regarding race relations in the United States.

10. Racial Conciliation is a far more accurate term (given the historic and present day reality of race relations in the US).

- Mark Charles

*Conciliation may not assume that a relationship started, or will end, harmoniously. But it does not preclude it either.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Myth of Thanksgiving and Racial Conciliation

Being Native American and living in the United States I am frequently asked about appropriate ways to celebrate Thanksgiving.  I have celebrated Thanksgiving all of my life. Growing up, I have memories of my mother waking up at 5 AM to prepare the turkey to the music of Handel's Messiah. In college, I remember traveling home or visiting the homes of my friends to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal and spend time together. I remember cooking my first Thanksgiving turkey and the countless calls home, asking questions throughout the entire process. And I remember many Thanksgiving feasts celebrated on the Navajo Reservation with friends, family and neighbors over the past decade.

What I don’t remember is the myth.

Throughout the years, there were few, if any, references to the mythological potluck celebrated by Native Americans and Pilgrims back in the "Good ole Days."  When your Thanksgiving table is shared with survivors of Indian Boarding Schools. When nearby canyons, peaks and streets are named after Army officers like Kit Carson, who committed genocidal acts of war so the United States of America could achieve its "Manifest Destiny" of ruling this land from "sea to shining sea." When you are aware that the founding documents of the United States dehumanizes your people as "savages", the myth of Thanksgiving is exposed for the lie that it is.

As a Native man, I love the idea of setting aside a day for giving thanks. I love the time off work to spend with family and friends.  I love pumpkin pie, turkey and mashed potatoes. I love a good football game. And I love the days of turkey sandwiches, soups and casseroles made from the leftovers.

But I hate the myth. And I don't like the idea of a perfectly good holiday being co-opted to appease white guilt. Which, when it comes right down to it, is exactly what the myth of Thanksgiving is about: appeasing white guilt.

The myth of Thanksgiving fabricates a memory of the good ole' days when Natives and European Colonists harmoniously got along.

The myth of Thanksgiving forgets the words of Christopher Columbus who announced back in 1492 that "by the Grace of God and in the Name of Her Majesty Queen Isabella, I am taking possession of these lands."

The myth of Thanksgiving helps a nation of immigrants forget that the "American Dream" is predicated upon an "empty" continent and "free" labor.

The myth of Thanksgiving helps a colonial nation forget that the very land titles for the houses they live in are based on the legal fiction a church doctrine and the racist colonial concept of discovery that assumes the dehumanization of native peoples.

The myth of Thanksgiving helps a nation that stakes its reputation on freedom and equality for "All" to forget that the founding fathers actually had an extremely narrow definition of who was and who was not human.

The myth of Thanksgiving is why we call it "racial reconciliation" when in actuality the healing our country needs would better be termed as "racial conciliation." For when you understand this history you realize that we are not restoring, or rebuilding a previously harmonious relationship. We are settling disputes, dealing with injustices, and just maybe paving the way for the initial building of healthy relationships.

We can have Thanksgiving without the myth. We can give thanks without fabricating a memory. We can make time to sincerely say "Thank you."  But it won't be easy, because giving thanks requires being honest and vulnerable, and that is difficult to do for a nation living in deep denial of its own unjust history. So I would like to suggest a starting point. An analogy that debunks the myth of Thanksgiving and instead initiates a conversation, hopefully moving our country towards "Racial Conciliation."

Being Native American and living in the United States, it feels like our Native communities are an old grandmother who has a very large and very beautiful house. Years ago some people came into our house and locked us upstairs in the bedroom. Today our house is full of people. They’re sitting on our furniture, they're eating our food, they're having a party in our house. They've since come upstairs and unlocked the door to our bedroom but it's much later; we're tired, we're old, we're weak and we're sick, so we can't or we don't come out. But the thing that hurts us the most, the thing that causes us the most pain is that virtually nobody from this party ever comes upstairs, seeks out the grandmother in the bedroom, sits down next to her on the bed, takes her hand and simply says thank you. Thank you for letting us be in your house.

~Mark Charles

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Hypocrisy of a Politically Correct Columbus Day

Flags of the United States of America waved high above the ceremony. On the second Monday of October, 2015 at 11 AM, the National Christopher Columbus Association, in coordination with the National Park Service, celebrated "522 Years of Discovery" by honoring Christopher Columbus at Columbus Plaza in front of Union Station in Washington DC.

In his welcome address, Jamie Keller (Supervisory Park Ranger, National Park Service) said he honored Christopher Columbus because "he went for it." Other speakers from the diplomatic corps of Italy, Spain and the Bahamas, followed and reiterated in some form that Columbus obviously did not "discover America, but…" 

Another speaker attempted to walk this same politically correct line by again mentioning the troubled past, but he then quoted Pope Francis, who just last month excused the United States for 500 years of genocidal history when he told a joint session of Congress "…it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present."

Even President Obama, whose official proclamation was read at this ceremony, got into the act of politically correct acrobatics. He noted how Columbus was "doubted by many of his potential patrons... [but] seized the moment and pursued what he knew to be possible. "

He referenced the troubled history the United States has with indigenous peoples, but went on to say:
"In the years since Columbus's time, the legacy of early explorers has carried on in the wide eyes of aspiring young dreamers and doers, eager to make their own journeys and to continue reaching for the unknown and unlocking new potential."
Such rhetoric made me wonder if the politically correct rules for 2015 prohibited the use of the word discovery in regards to Columbus Day.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Discovery is what this holiday is all about. Discovery is what explains the existence of this "nation of immigrants." Discovery is what justifies the dehumanization and genocide of indigenous peoples. Discovery is even what is referenced as the foundation for land titles by the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

In 1823, two men of European descent were in litigation over a single piece of land. One bought it from a Native tribe and the other bought it from the government. They wanted to know who legally owned it. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which stated:
"As they [European colonizing nations] were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle, which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession."
US Supreme Court - Johnson Vs. M'Intosh (1823)
The court went on to state that essentially, native peoples only had the right of occupancy to the land, while Europeans had the right of discovery, and therefore true title to the land.  This ruling, along with a few others, established a case precedent for land titles. A precedent that was referenced by SCOTUS as recently as 2005 (City of Sherrill vs. Oneida Indian Nation of NY).

The challenge the United States is facing today is that because it believes the myth of its own exceptionalism, all it can do is celebrate. There is no public space for admitting its wrongs and mourning its actions. But that is probably what needs to happen.

October 12, 1492 marks a day when the nations of Europe and the early settlers to America got it completely wrong. And instead of desperately searching for something else to celebrate, let’s just call a spade a spade.

The "discovery of America" is a racist colonial concept that assumes the dehumanization of native peoples.

This nation needs to make a choice. Does it continue to honor a man whose claim of “discovery” opened the door for centuries of injustice?  Or does it openly teach that history, mourn those atrocities and commit itself to ensuring that it does not happen again?

At the end of his proclamation President Obama directed "that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of our diverse history and all who have contributed to shaping this Nation."

In light of this dehumanizing history and in honor of the millions of native peoples who lost lands, cultures, languages and countless lives to the ensuing European onslaught, I think a more appropriate proclamation would be that the second Monday of October be a national day of mourning and a directive given that the flag of the United States of America be flown at half-mast.

Mark Charles

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Why America Needs to Remember Columbus Day

There is a movement across the country to re-appropriate Columbus Day as a Native American Heritage Day or Indigenous Peoples Day. Cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and others have begun this trend, and I am sure other municipalities will soon follow suit.  However, as a native man, I am wary of such actions. Please don't get me wrong. I am all for honoring the native peoples and Indigenous hosts of Turtle Island, but I am hesitant to do so on October 12.

You CANNOT discover lands that are already inhabited. But that is exactly what Christopher Columbus, the nations of Europe, early American colonists, and the United States of America purported to do! 

I am often invited to speak on this topic, and, to demonstrate my point, I ask members of the audience to put their wallets, money clips, smart phones, or purses out in front of them, so that I may walk by and "discover" these items.

The idea that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America is a racist colonial concept that assumes the dehumanization of native peoples. 

Some Americans are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating Columbus Day. However, when you are a citizen of a nation that believes in its own exceptionalism, you can only celebrate. There is no room for mourning and admitting the fact that you, and your founding fathers, were wrong.  But that is exactly what the United States needs to do.

Schools in Germany are required to teach the holocaust, so that they will never repeat it. If America does not keep its unjust history in front of itself, it will never learn, never grow, and never mature. If America merely replaces the celebration of its racist roots of discovery, with another celebration, it is destined to repeat its failures.

So I propose that we keep October 12 as Columbus Day but turn it into a day of honest education, deep reflection, and national mourning. A day to remind ourselves that October 12, 1492 was the first day of 500 years of dehumanization, theft, war, genocide and even extinction for countless tribes, languages, cultures, and for millions and millions of people.  This was a day when the nations of Europe, colonists, and the United States of America got it wrong.

Mark Charles

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Disappointment...Deep Disappointment

I had been anticipating Pope Francis' speech to a joint session of Congress ever since I learned it was planned. From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has established himself as a fearless advocate for the least, and an unapologetic prophet to both the church and the nations. A leader who shunned the glitter of the Apostolic Palace for the simplicity of a small guesthouse. A peoples Pope who rebuked the rich and ate with the poor, who scolded the extravagance of the industrialized world as he drove through it in a humble and fuel efficient Fiat. Someone who visited with prisoners, prayed with families and walked with indigenous children.

What would he say?  What words would he have for the Congress of the most financially wealthy, militarily powerful, commercially industrialized, colonial nation in the history of the world? The possibilities seemed endless.

We recently moved from the Rez to DC where one of the benefits is that many historic events take place literally in your back yard. So I went down to the Mall and joined thousands of others who congregated there in order to watch the speech on the jumbo-tron displays that were setup.

The atmosphere was electric. The west lawn of the US Capitol was at capacity and the grass on the mall was also quickly filling. Cheers could be heard when the speech started and soon everyone was attentively listening to the words of Pope Francis as he addressed a joint session of the 114th Congress of the United States of America.

My anticipation began changing to nervousness early in the speech, when the work of Congress was compared to the work of the Biblical leader Moses. Immediately I recalled another speech, just a few months ago, by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, in front of a joint session of this same Congress. He was here to speak about his fear of the impending nuclear deal the United States was negotiating with Iran. His fear was so great, that in his speech he offered to share the covenant God established with Israel (in the Old Testament) with the United States. He did this by proclaiming that the "United States and Israel share a common destiny, the destiny of promised lands…"

"Promised lands" are troubling for the indigenous peoples who inhabit them. One does not need to read far into the Biblical book of Joshua to learn that Promised lands for one nation literally means God ordained genocide for another. So by implication, in sharing Israel's covenant of "Promised Lands" with the US, Prime Minister Netanyahu was granting a divine pardon to the United States of America for the genocide which this country perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of these lands.

But Pope Francis wouldn't do that. Would he?

His comparison to Moses was primarily regarding the establishment of laws and not in direct reference to "Promised lands." But still I was nervous.

Next Pope Francis invoked "three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams."  Again, I got nervous, not as much by the names he invoked, but by his use of the word "dreams."  You see, America is built on dreams.  It is a nation of promise. But why? Why is there an "American dream" and not a French Dream, a UK Dream, or a Belgium Dream?  That is because those countries do not sit on lands that were "discovered.” Every year the United States celebrates that in 1492 Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. But how can you discover lands that were already inhabited? You can't, unless you first dehumanize those who were here prior.

The discovery of America is a racist colonial concept that requires the dehumanization of indigenous peoples.

And discovery and slavery are why America is the land of "opportunity." The American dream is predicated upon an empty continent and free labor. And Pope Francis was building on the theme of America's dreams.

My nervousness grew.

About half way through his speech, Pope Francis mentioned the indigenous peoples of this land. My heart jumped. I was nervous, but eager. This was it. Here was the section. What would he say? What sin would he address? The Catholic Church's Doctrine of Discovery? The colonialism of Europe? The stolen lands and broken treaties of the United States?

Congress, the nation, even the world was listening.

Speak Pope Francis! Lift up the voices of the oppressed! Use your global pulpit to speak truth to the nations!

I waited in anticipation…
"Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present."
What??? Did I hear him right???

"…it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present."

My heart sank. My body went numb. I could not believe my ears. Pope Francis was standing on the world stage dismissing the Catholic Church's devastating Doctrine of Discovery.

The people's Pope was standing before a joint session of the 114th Congress of the United States of America excusing them for their genocidal history against the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.

"…it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present."

Those words are still ringing in my ears.

"…it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present."

Disappointment. Deep disappointment.

Mark Charles

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Immigration Reform and the Birthright of American Citizenship

On Monday August 18, Donald Trump released his Immigration Reform proposal. One of the more interesting components of his suggested policy is to end our country's practice of birthright citizenship, which is the granting of citizenship to anyone who is born within our borders. As has been the pattern throughout his entire campaign, the elevated rhetoric of his proposal drew a line in the sand and served as a lightning rod in the broader national dialogue. Other GOP candidates who are also known for their controversial statements, like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, have aligned themselves with Mr. Trump and echoed his call to end birthright citizenship. While on the other end of the political spectrum, candidates and immigration reform advocates have pounced on this proposal, decrying it as racist, and specifically targeting immigrants of color from our southern borders. Some voices have gone even deeper and discussed the historical roots of birthright citizenship noting that it was adopted from a common practice in English law and affirmed in our Constitution through the 14th Amendment. The same amendment that served as a reversal of the Dred Scott ruling, which intended to keep blacks from attaining US citizenship.

However, there is another component of the birthright citizenship discussion that is sorely missing from both sides of this debate.

“Under what authority is the birthright of US citizenship rooted?”

Statue in Grant Park in Chicago, IL
"To Christopher Columbus Discoverer of America:
'By the grace of God and in the Name of her majesty
Queen Isabella, I am taking possession of this land.'
October 2, 1492"
Beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, the lands of North and South America were “discovered” and colonized by the nations of Europe who were armed with a doctrine of the Catholic Church. Essentially, this “doctrine of discovery” stated that European nations had the right to discover, exploit and gain profit from any lands (and people) not ruled by Christian rulers.

Common sense tells us that you can only discover lands which are uninhabited. Otherwise your actions would more correctly be classified as stealing. So claiming the right of discovery over lands that are inhabited requires dehumanizing the people who are already there.

 In 1823, as a very young United States of America was struggling to create a legal framework that justified its existence in lands it had stolen and committed genocide to inhabit, the Doctrine of Discovery was used as the legal grounds for land titles.
"As they [European colonizing nations] were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle, which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession."
(1823 United States Supreme Court - Johnson v. M'Intosh)
In plain English, what the Supreme Court said is that any European foreigner who was here before any other European foreigner, could discover land, claim title to it, and take possession of it for their respective nations. By using the language of discovery instead of the language of theft, the dehumanization of Native peoples through the discovery of our lands was established by the Supreme Court as the legal precedent for land titles. And initially in this country, the right to vote, a fundamental right of any US citizen, was based on land ownership.

The birthright of American citizenship is rooted in the racist concept of discovery.

As a Native man, I am definitely not opposed to the idea of reexamining this dehumanizing legal construct. However, I am quite certain that is not the conversation Mr. Trump had in mind when he articulated his immigration policy.  But if our nation was honest, on both sides of the political aisle, the mere mention of birthright citizenship in reference to immigration reform should generate some very awkward dialogue regarding the foundations of our nation, and who is and who is not properly documented.

Statue near US Capitol in Washington, DC
"To the memory of Christopher Columbus
Whose high faith and indomitable courage
gave to mankind a New World."
Immigration reform is an incredibly complex issue for a colonial nation of immigrants to address.  And the highly partisan and politically charged environment of a Presidential primary campaign is definitely not the proper place for such a conversation. This dialogue will require collective wisdom, broad participation, incredible humility, and an abundance of raw and honest reflection.

It is my firm belief that any attempt to comprehensively and justly reform our nation’s immigration law must include the voices of the indigenous peoples of this land. Without Natives at the table, all we have is one generation of undocumented immigrants trying to decide what to do with another generation of undocumented immigrants, and there is no integrity in the conversation.

This past year the Black Lives Matter movement has worked to expose some of the hidden racial bias of our nation. And the racially charged rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is literally forcing our country to make a decision - do we keep racism as our national implicit bias, or do we allow him to champion it as our explicit bias?

I would like to offer a third alternative.

Let’s deal honestly and directly with our nation’s unjust racial bias.

Georges Erasmus, an aboriginal leader from Canada said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created."

I think this quote gets to the heart of our problems regarding race in the United States. As a nation we do not have a common memory. We have a dominant culture that remembers a history of discovery, expansion, opportunity, and manifest destiny. While many of our minority communities have a lived experience of genocide, slavery, broken treaties, stolen lands, relocation, Jim crow laws, boarding schools, segregation, internment camps, mass incarceration, empty apologizes, and unprecedented institutional violence.

The original injustice of the United States of America is the Doctrine of Discovery. It was this doctrine that allowed the nations of Europe to colonize Africa and enslave African people. And it was this same doctrine that allowed Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “new world” inhabited by millions, and claim to have discovered it.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a systemically racist doctrine that assumes the dehumanization of natives and blacks. And we have embedded this thinking deep into the foundations of our nation. Our Declaration of Independence perpetuates it. Our Constitution is influenced by it. Our Supreme Court references it. And the memory of our dominant culture is blinded by it.

It is the Doctrine of Discovery that keeps our nation from forming a common memory and, therefore, from experiencing true community. As individuals, and as a nation, we need to acknowledge it. Study it. Teach it. Renounce it. And ultimately, turn from it.

Until we do, we have little hope of ever becoming the just and freedom-loving nation we publicly proclaim to be.

Other Resources:
  1. On September 4, 2015 a documentary on the Doctrine of Discovery, produced by Sheldon Wolfchild and co-directed by Steven Newcomb (author: Pagans in the Promised Land) is scheduled to be publicly released. Visit 38 Plus 2 Productions to learn more about this film.
  2. In a blog article “The Doctrine of Discovery- A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair” I educate about the Doctrine of Discovery and propose the idea for a “Truth Commission,” a series of national conferences beginning in Washington DC in December of 2016. These conferences would attempt to create a common memory through educating people on the Doctrine of Discovery and teaching an accurate history of the United States of America. It would also provide a platform for survivors of Indian boarding schools and other historical injustices to share their stories. For more information you can visit my website (, follow on TwitterFacebookYouTube or Instagram (user name wirelesshogan) or subscribe to the “Truth Commission” email list.