California Native American Day is no Holiday for Thousands of California Indians. Today, September 25th, is California Native American Day.
Native American Day was established to recognize the many contributions that California Indians have made for the benefit of the State and the Country. Today, as in Native American Days past, there will be events and celebrations throughout the State honoring and showcasing the rich history, culture, and heritage of California ’s original inhabitants.
However, for thousands of California Indians, today is no holiday. Today we will be reminded of the crimes committed against us in the taking and denial of our Tribal identity. While others celebrate, many California Indians will contemplate their “Indianness” as a result of being disenrolled, banished, and/or denied membership in their tribe. Many more will wonder why our basic rights, as citizens of our tribe, the State, and the federal government, are not protected and preserved on par with other citizens.
In 1968, the same year in which Governor Reagan established American Indian Day, the United States Congress enacted the Indian Civil Rights Act (“ICRA”). The ICRA was introduced in response to the growing number of basic rights violations occurring in Indian Country and was intended to curtail the growing number of abuses inflicted on individual Indians by tribal governments.
Just as with other civil rights legislation, the ICRA was passed to protect the basic rights of all Indians from the arbitrary and capricious acts of tribal governments and officials. The ICRA did not establish new rights for Indian people. The ICRA actually listed actions of which Tribal governments and officials were prohibited from engaging in. Unfortunately, the ICRA failed to provide an adequate and effective means by which to enforce the law against tribal governments who engaged in the prohibited acts. As a result, the group of people it intended to protect is once again being subjected to the very acts the ICRA outlawed.
So what does this have to do with California Native American Day?
Quite simply, California is “ground zero” for the growing number of human and civil rights abuses that have infected Indian Country. In cases ranging from denial of due process and equal protection of laws to the stripping of personal property and voting rights, thousands of California Indians have been victimized by the very people charged with protecting their rights.
Unlike our ancestors, those responsible for the crimes carried out against us are not a foreign government, the State, or even the federal government. We have not fallen victim to conquistadors, slave traders, miners, or land barons. No, today tribal governments are responsible for the killing-off of thousands of California Indians in what one Indian scholar has referred to as the “paper genocide”. Over 20 California tribes have acted in violation of the ICRA and other tribal, state, and federal laws in disenfranchising its tribal citizens.
These human and civil rights abuses are not solely internal problems or issues for the tribes to sort out. These abuses are much larger social and moral issues that should be the concern of Indian and non-Indian alike.
As tribal officials carry out these crimes in the name of sovereignty and escape prosecution by invoking immunity, a growing number of California Indians- those of whom today should have special meaning for- find themselves without a “nation” and lacking the basic freedoms and protections others take for granted.
The desire and willingness to strip and/or deny California Indians of the protections provided for under the ICRA is not exclusive to Indian Country. The Native American Caucus of the California Democratic Party has declined to support a resolution currently pending in the California Assembly in which the States acknowledges its desire to enforce the ICRA. It may come as a shock to some that a group within the Democratic Party, the party of the “Big Tent”, would so blatantly discriminate against a group it is supposed to represent on an issue - civil rights - the Party has championed for decades. However, the leadership within the Native American Caucus consists of tribal representatives from some of the most egregious rights violators in Indian Country. They have a vested interest in ensuring that the ICRA is not enforced in the State or California Indian Country.
So, while thousands will attend and participate in Native American Day festivities throughout the State in memory of our ancestors, don’t forget the California Indians living in the here and now.
Like their ancestors, today’s California Indians face threats on our way of life that, if left unchecked, could also threaten our very existence.
Please take the time to learn more about the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the growing number of civil rights abuses in California Indian Country by visiting the following sites:
Let us work towards a resolution to the ever growing problem of rights abuses in California Indian Country, so that one day, all California Indians can proudly participate in the Native American Day festivities to come.
Thank you for your time, and Happy Native American Day!
John Gomez Jr.